The Lost Liberalism of Netanyahu’s Israel

Under Prime Minister Netanyahu, Israel continues to become more and more intolerant both in its treatment of Palestinians and its attitude toward more liberal tendencies in Judaism, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

In recent weeks, the Israeli government has taken measures that have exacerbated tensions within world Jewry. Each measure has reflected the political power of ultra-Orthodox parties within the ruling coalition of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

President Trump meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel on May 22, 2017. (Screenshot from

One of the government’s moves was to suspend a plan to provide space for non-Orthodox men and women to pray together at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Currently the main prayer plaza at this holy site is run in accordance with Orthodox practice and has separate men’s and women’s sections.

The other development was Netanyahu’s endorsement of a bill that gives the ultra-Orthodox religious establishment a monopoly in determining what conversions to Judaism should be recognized in Israel.

Most critical commentary in the United States about these developments has focused on them as an affront to Jews in the United States. American Jews, a large proportion of whom belong to Reform or Conservative branches of the faith, constitute one of the two largest concentrations, along with the population of Israel, of Jews worldwide.

A theme of the commentary has been that the Israeli government’s moves might weaken support for Israel among American Jews, and that such weakening could lead in turn to a lessening of the large, automatic, material and diplomatic support that the United States provides to Israel. A further theme is an assumption that such lessening would be bad.

Non-Jews who do not live in Israel have no direct stake in the religious dimension of such controversies, and have little or nothing useful to say about that dimension. To try to say something about it would make as little sense as non-Muslims lecturing Muslims about whether violence and extremism conform with Islam — although such lecturing often is attempted. But the moves in question do involve important dimensions for anyone concerned about U.S. foreign policy.

Stigmatizing Dissent

Set aside for the moment how commentary that speaks of the political clout of American Jews in determining U.S. policy strays into especially sensitive territory — where, if a non-Jew enters that territory, one is apt to hear accusations of anti-Semitism. There are, indeed, genuinely anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Jews supposedly controlling all sorts of U.S. policies. In any event, the politics of U.S. backing for Israel is not just a function of American Jews, even insofar as religious motivations are involved. Evangelical Christians can be at least as conspicuous in offering zealous and unqualified support for Israel.

Controversial maps showing the shrinking territory available to the Palestinians. Hardline Israelis insist that there are no Palestinian people, that all the land belongs to Israel and that it therefore inaccurate to show any “Palestinian lands.”

That still leaves two other dimensions of foreign policy concern. One involves the Israeli government’s persistent efforts to conflate its own objectives with the interests of Jews worldwide. Netanyahu’s presumption to speak and act on behalf of Jews everywhere serves at least a couple of politically useful purposes. It encourages the kind of support from the Jewish Diaspora that, although not the whole picture as far as support from the United States or other countries is concerned, is indeed a major part of such backing. The presumption also enables Netanyahu or others to play the anti-Semitism card in response to criticism of Israeli government policies.

The conflation is false. Israeli policies are the policies of a government, not the expression of a religious faith or an ethnic group or a global community with an identity forged by history. To categorize any criticism of those policies as a manifestation of anti-Jewish prejudice is to say that such policies should never be subject to criticism; that would be neither good for Israel nor good for the policies of other countries toward Israel.

To find fault with policies of Iran or Saudi Arabia — states that also define themselves in terms of a specific religion — is not necessarily anti-Islamic. To find fault with policies of Israel is not necessarily anti-Jewish.

The controversies about conversions and about prayer at the Western Wall place in stark relief the separation between the Israeli government’s policies and the interests of Jews worldwide. Not only are the two not equivalent; the specific policies of the Israeli government have made the two contradictory in some respects. And this is true not only about the ability of non-Israeli Jews to pray at a holy site in accordance with their own customs or to be recognized as a Jew when in Israel.

Criticizing Soros

Netanyahu’s posture toward attacks by the right-wing government of Hungary against the Jewish, Hungarian-born, American financier George Soros provides another illustration of Netanyahu’s priorities. Netanyahu overturned an earlier Israeli foreign ministry statement that had condemned the attacks as contributing to anti-Semitism in Hungary, preferring instead to reaffirm his own government’s attacks on Soros because of the financier’s support for organizations critical of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and of its government’s discrimination against non-Jewish citizens.

Billionaire currency speculator George Soros. (Photo credit:

The implications of this divide include not only the one for Jews that their interests are not to be equated with the policies of Israel, but also the one for non-Jews that respect for Jews and Judaism does not require deference to those policies.

The other major dimension highlighted by the recent religious controversies in Israel concerns the basis and rationale for U.S. policy toward Israel. Much has been said through the past seven decades about shared values between the United States and Israel. The emphasis on values in constructing rationales for the unqualified U.S. support for Israel has become all the more necessary to the extent that non-value-laden ways of looking at U.S. interests involved — in terms of U.S. standing in the Muslim world, factors affecting instability in the Middle East, and motivations for anti-U.S. terrorism — make the unqualified support less defensible.

There were in fact some common values associated with the creation of the State of Israel. The commonality has lessened over time, especially with regard to fundamental values involving political and human rights, and especially in the half-century of occupation of Palestinian territory, which now constitutes more than two-thirds of Israel’s history.

The subjugation of an entire nationality denied meaningful political rights, by a dominant population defined in terms of religion and ethnicity, is vastly at odds with American values. The United States has its own checkered history with such matters, of course, with the slavery of African-Americans and dispossession of Native Americans being among the biggest departures from what most Americans today would consider their political and social values.

But even taking the least favorable view of the American story — and saying that it wasn’t until the civil rights advances of the 1960s, the same decade in which the Israeli occupation of the West Bank began, that those American values began to be realized — there is no comparison between modern American values and the Israel of today.

Religion and American ‘Values’

The recent issues about conversions and prayer space underscore that there is a wide difference in values regarding religion as well. There always was going to be a substantial difference, with the American values from the beginning of the republic being based on the absence of an established religion and on law that would, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, “comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahomedan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.”

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister

The gulf between this concept and idea of a Jewish state was not especially salient during Israel’s early years, given the largely secular and Western orientation of some of Israel’s founders and the political tone they set. But as with political values, this, too, has changed over time.

Israel’s principal founding father, David Ben-Gurion, who described himself as irreligious, created the system in which ultra-Orthodox were exempted from military service and could devote themselves to full-time study of the Torah — a measure taken to obtain ultra-Orthodox support for creation of the state apparatus and justified to save a tradition of religious study that the Holocaust had almost wiped out. Ben-Gurion probably did not foresee how, thanks largely to differential birth rates, the ultra-Orthodox would acquire the greater political power they have today, with wide influence on life within Israel and even beyond.

The status of Israel as a post-Holocaust haven for Jews does not erase the significance of the gulf in values. Being a haven does not require being a theocracy, much less one with an increasingly narrow view of those worthy of receiving protection in the haven.

Part of the background to the increasing ambivalence about Israel among American Jews (not to mention European ones) that commentators lament is that, notwithstanding undeniable anti-Semitism, most of them feel relatively safe as well as integrated where they are right now. Net migration into Israel has been dropping over the past decade and was close to zero by 2015.

The Trump administration has indicated at times that it does not intend to be guided much by values in constructing its foreign policy. And yet the President, in his speech in Warsaw, talked about Western values. Applying this concept to the religious situation in Israel, a fair observation is that this situation exhibits Middle Eastern values at least as much as Western values.

The segregation of the sexes that is at the center of the controversy over prayer at the Western Wall resembles not what one sees in the overwhelming majority of houses of worship in the West but rather what prevails in those parts of the Middle East dominated by fundamentalist versions of Islam.

The Netanyahu government’s recent measures on religious matters are part of narrowing limits of acceptability and increasing intolerance in Israel. The Chief Rabbinate’s blacklist of overseas rabbis whose authority it refuses to recognize in certifying as Jewish someone who wants to marry in Israel includes even many Orthodox rabbis in the United States. This sort of thing is strong food for thought not only for Jews but also for other Americans whose government has married itself to the Israeli theocracy.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

16 comments for “The Lost Liberalism of Netanyahu’s Israel

  1. Mulga Mumblebrain
    July 23, 2017 at 03:15

    One of the ever increasingly fewer ways in which Israel differed from Nazi Germany is that they maintained a pretense of democracy, and did not oppress the Jewish Herrenvolk, politically, although Israel is a radically unequal society, even among the Jews. But now Nutty-yahoo is increasingly declaring war on the decent, non-Likudnik, non fundamentalist Judaic, members of the Israeli Jewish community, and in the Diaspora. The confluence of the fascist Likudnik tendency, with the clerico-fascism of the Talmudic supremacists of the orthodox and ultra-orthodox, with their hatred of and contempt for ALL goyim, presages a final descent of Israel into internecine conflict, a scenario that Nutty-yahoo seems determined to camouflage behind yet more diabolical aggression against Syria and Iran, and Holy genocides of their people.

  2. anarchyst
    July 20, 2017 at 14:39

    “God” is not a real state agent…

  3. Hank
    July 19, 2017 at 11:12
  4. Hawaii guy
    July 18, 2017 at 20:00

    If the world goyim is lucky they’ll eat themselves from within. Then we won’t have to deal with there level of deception, lies, and genocide. Last but not least, we won’t be used as fodder to fight wars for Jews around the world.

    • Virginia
      July 19, 2017 at 18:48

      But you are, …we are! All our Middle East fighting is for Israel — to compartmentalize those countries, rob them of their cohesiveness and identities and resources, so Israel can dominate.

  5. Zachary Smith
    July 18, 2017 at 11:54

    This sort of thing is strong food for thought not only for Jews but also for other Americans whose government has married itself to the Israeli theocracy.

    I liked the use of the term “theocracy” – it is an accurate description of the way modern Israel is going. And the chosen god for the governance is Yahweh of the right-wing goons of the Jewish religion. That explains for me the drift in Israel towards fanatical fundamentalism in the murderous and thieving little nation-state. Using search keywords of ‘women spit on in Israel’ turned up these list-leading results:

    Thousands of ultra-Orthodox jeered, spit and threw rocks at the 400 ‘Women of the Wall’ who prayed at the Western Wall today, according to the Jerusalem …

    Israeli ultra-Orthodox Jews Line-Up to Spit on 8 y/o Blond Girl Over Her Dress

    And of course another result of the search was this – “Being spat at remains part of life for Christians in Jerusalem”

    The ultra-holy jackasses have been known throw rocks at buses carrying women to worship at the fake Temple Mount place, and to also slash the tires of those buses.

    As the author notes, the ultra-Orthrodox have been breeding like flies and as a result are taking control of the levers of power in Israel. Yet we continue to obsess about the comparatively sane leaders of North Korea!

    Religious nuts with nukes is about as scary as it gets for me.

    • mike k
      July 18, 2017 at 12:47

      Good points Zachary. Like all human institutions, when religion goes sour it really stinks. The self-righteousness these fanatics demonstrate is truly disgusting.

    • Paranam Kid
      July 19, 2017 at 12:13

      israel is not just a theocracy, it is an ethno-theocracy.

  6. Joe Tedesky
    July 18, 2017 at 10:28

    This disputed land should observe the rights of every individual who has roots to it. The Palestinian should be integrated into a democratic system, where all people’s rights are honored, and respected. No more referencing a Jewish only history, to a history that doesn’t have any other historical foundations, other than what the Torah states should not be. In fact just the name Israel should be ban from ever being used to reference this illegally acquired territory.

    I’m somewhat amazed, and I guess glad, that Mr Pillar cleared up the guilt trip we Americans have over the brutal treatment of Native Americans, and Black descendants of the slaves, wow that’s a relief. So I guess we’re all okay now. Sorry, I can’t get on board this train. Native Americans should be reimbursed for the broken treaties, and Blacks still have not been given any reparations that I know of, so when do we European Whites pay up?

    We Americans can be critical of Israel, but we should do everything in our power to satisfy the needs of the people our forefathers so well squashed the life out of. I know to many that my recommendations are naive, and undo able, but before we go critiquing others we Americans would do well to clean our own house.

    • Herman
      July 18, 2017 at 16:04

      JoeTedesky, I agree with you since the only way to go since the only other option is mass transport of Arabs out of the land between the sea and Jordan. Even our own Congress might object, although I wouldn’t bet on it. The other thing about integration of Arabs and Jews, which will happen, that it will be the Jews who finally conclude it is the only way to go, and the sooner the better.

  7. mike k
    July 18, 2017 at 09:58

    The whole idea of some group of humans being special due to their relationship to a supposed God, is toxic bullshit that needs to be totally rejected. How many lives have been lost or ruined by this nonsense? These chosen people of whatever stripe get no respect from me whatever. Hitler built his whole short-lived empire on this garbage of a master race. White skinned Europeans committed genocide and enslaved millions with the idea that they had a right to do so because they were so f—ing special. Jews are special? Yeah, specially stupid if they think that.

  8. July 18, 2017 at 06:08

    A good article about a very screwed-up society that is intolerant about criticism of its practices. Wasn’t it Ben-Gurion who, in the days of Israel’s creation, asked by associates what to do about the Palestinians, waved his hand and said, “Expel them!”? After which soon came “The Naqba”, the “Catastrophe” for the Palestinians, and their diaspora began as they became refugees.

    • Peter P
      July 19, 2017 at 04:36

      No, that quote is a well known fabrication. Congratulations for proving EXACTLY why Israelis are intolerant of “criticism”, because most of the time it’s just lies and propaganda.

      • Paranam Kid
        July 19, 2017 at 12:11

        The only propaganda around is Hasbara, and that is propaganda of the worst sort, cynically exploiting the Holocaust & the suffering of millions of Jews for zionist = racist = nazi objectives. israel has become a nazi-onist apartheid state which has implemented & refined policies from Nazi Germany & apartheid South Africa. Nazi israel has absolutely no legitimacy, and in its current form should be dismantled & rebuilt from the ground up with EQUAL rights for ALL ethnic groups living inside the country. The Stolen Territories need to be returned to their rightful owners, i.e. the Palestinians, and the Syrians.

      • Zachary Smith
        July 19, 2017 at 12:15


        When even the neocon-NYT doesn’t dispute the quote, I suspect Mr. P is a Zionist Propagandist whose job is simply to say “NO”.

        Some readers may find it hard, as I did, to read Shapira’s brief treatment of the moment in 1948 when the commanders Yigal Allon and Yitzhak Rabin came to Ben-Gurion asking whether to carry out “a large-scale population evacuation.” Rabin reported that Ben-Gurion responded with a wave of the hand, saying “Expel them.” Shapira explains here that while he forbade the evacuation of some areas, like Nazareth, “like most of his ministers, he saw the Arabs’ exodus as a great miracle, one of the most important in that year of miracles, since the presence of a hostile population constituting some 40 percent of the new state’s total populace did not augur well for the future.”

        And in light of what has happened since the establishment of the Shithole State of Israel, Ben Gurion saying anything else would be an anomaly.

        Israel has done nothing except steal and murder since the Brits started the ball rolling back in 1917.

Comments are closed.