Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday that the most serious challenge to Jews in the Diaspora was a loss of Jewish identity amongst Jewish youth, and that great efforts must be made to ensure the survival of the Jewish people outside of Israel.
Speaking at the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, Netanyahu also implicitly blamed the Reform and Conservative movements for disputes over religious concerns in Israel, including prayer rights at the Western Wall and Jewish conversion, due to their legal petitions to the High Court of Justice
Netanyahu also repeated his commitment to the idea of Palestinian self-government in the West Bank, provided that Israel preserve total security control of all territory west of the Jordan river.
The prime minister made his comments in a conversation on the stage of the General Assemly conference with outgoing JFNA chairman of the board Richard Sandler.
Netanyahu said that the most serious challenge to Jews in the Diaspora was a loss of Jewish identity amongst Jewish youth, and that great efforts must be made to ensure the survival of the Jewish people outside of Israel.
He argued that Jewish destiny in the State of Israel was in the hands of the Jewish people but that “What I am concerned with when it comes to the Jewish people is one thing, and that is the loss of identity.”
Said Netanyahu “It’s not the question of the [Western] Wall or conversion, that we can overcome, it’s the loss of identity.”
Citing an article by Reform Rabbi Ammiel Hirsch calling for concern over the continuity of the Jewish people, Netanyahu said that Jews in the Diaspora must be concerned with Jewish survival.
“Jewish survival is guaranteed in the Jewish state if we defend out state. But we have to also work at the continuity of Jewish communities in the world by developing Jewish education, the study of Hebrew, having young Jews come to Israel,” he said.
“We need to do an approach in the internet age to young Jewish men and women and young Jewish children around the world so that they understand that their own future as Jews depends on continuous identity, and it’s protecting Jewish identity and developing Jewish consciousness that is the most important thing, it touches on the foundations of history.”
Speaking earlier in the conversation about disagreements between the government and the Jewish leadership in North America over the Western Wall, conversion and other concerns, Netanyahu repeated comments he has made in the past that matters of religion and state in Israel evolve over time through a series of compromises to the status quo on such concerns.
The prime minister said that “a series of evolving understandings and compromises” had developed since the inception of the state, but that “challenges on a series of issues in the courts primarily from the Reform movement but also from the Conservatives” had disrupted the status quo on the Western Wall, conversion and other religious issues.
Netanyahu pointed to compromises he has sought over these concerns and said that such understandings with incremental progress were the way forward on religious matters.
Specifically regarding the Western Wall, he claimed that the main focus of the 2016 government resolution on the matter was physical improvements to the site alone, and not formal recognition of the egalitarian section as a place for progressive prayer with representation for the progressive Jewish denominations on the management committee of the site as was stipulated in the decision itself.
Leaders of the Reform and Conservative movement disagreed adamantly with the prime minister’s narrative regarding this controversy, and the religion and state status quo in general.
Rabbi Steve Wernick, CEO of United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, accused Netanyahu of “bait and switch” tactics, and said that if the main concern regarding the Western Wall had been physical upgrades there would never have been a necessity to negotiate about it for almost four years.
“The issue was about equality. We negotiated a compromise, that was the whole point, he initiated the negotiation, we worked with him for four years, he accepted, it, his cabinet accepted it, and then the political reality changed and he killed it,” said Wernick.
“This is all in the hands of the prime minister, whether there will be courageous leadership or maintenance of the status quo, and this prime minister is the prime minister of the status quo on multiple levels.”
Wernick also said that the status quo was being challenged in court because it was “no longer relevant,” and pointed out that the legal petitions were coming from the local Conservative and Reform movements.
President of the Union of Reform Judaism Rabbi Rick Jacobs said that the protection afforded minorities by the High Court of Justice was a component of democracy, and described the intervention of the court on various issues, including religious ones, as “a story of strength and Israel’s democratic institutions acting affectively.”
Jacobs said that he agreed with Netanyahu that loss of identity among Jews was a problem, but said that it was “not a Diaspora challenge but a challenge for the entire Jewish people.”
“He’s a leader I have worked closely with and admired, but Jewish identity and the unity of the Jewish people is at risk from the lack of freedom of for different expressions of Judaism, so lets strengthen our unity together and do so concretely every day.”
Asked about his perspective on dealing with the conflict with the Palestinians, Netanyahu said that he believed in a solution where the “Palestinians have all the powers to govern themselves and none of the powers to threaten us.”
He related discussions he had with former US Vice President Joe Biden where he said that he was not interested in “labels” such as the two-state solution, but in the substantive issue of Israeli security and insisted that Israel maintain security control in “the tiny area West of the Jordan.”
Netanyahu asserted that the only reason the West Bank had not become a Hamas-controlled fiefdom firing missiles at Israeli cities as has happened in Gaza was because of ongoing Israeli military presence in the territory.
He said that if Israel were to lose security control in the territory then the same situation that has arisen in Gaza would transpire in the West Bank, and that Hamas would overthrow the Palestinian Authority “in a minute” if Israel’s military withdrew.
The prime minister also stated that Israel had thwarted an assassination attempt against PA President Mahmoud Abbas.