Netanyahu Stokes Holocaust Guilt to Pit American Jews Against Obama and Iran Deal

75 years ago it was his father who rallied Republicans and railed against kowtowing Jewish leaders.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Obama and Netanyahu at the White House, 2011.
Obama and Netanyahu at the White House, 2011.Credit: AP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Prime Minister Netanyahu didn’t mention Munich or Neville Chamberlain in his address on Tuesday to American Jews and he touched on the Holocaust only ever so-lightly. “It wasn’t long ago, certainly not that long ago, that the Jewish people were either incapable or unwilling to speak out in the face of mortal threats, and this had devastating consequences,” Netanyahu said. He didn’t wag any fingers, but then he didn’t need to: most of his listeners understood well what point he was making.

This is a recurring theme with the prime minister. He made use of it in November, 2013, in a controversial address to the Jewish Federations’ General Assembly in Jerusalem, in which he called on American Jews to speak out against the impending interim nuclear deal with Iran then being negotiated in Geneva, which turned out to be less terrible in retrospect than it was in his advance predictions. Now it is the final deal with Iran signed in Vienna that is extracting apocalyptic visions from Netanyahu, and with good reason: how else can he justify his total war against President Obama or his unprecedented public call for American Jews to join him in battle.

But invoking the memory of the Holocaust isn’t just a rhetorical device for Netanyahu: he is also speaking in the name of his father. Benzion Netanyahu was in New York during the war years, fighting off the Jewish establishment’s attacks on his Revisionist faction and trying to rally American Jews against another Democratic president, Franklin Roosevelt, whom the elder Netanyahu accused of abandoning the Jews of Europe. Netanyahu is said to have been one of the pioneers of the revolutionary recruitment of Republicans in Congress against Roosevelt and on behalf of the persecuted Jews. For the rest of his life he despised what he described as the lily-livered response of the liberal Jewish leadership, especially Reform Rabbi Stephen Wise, who kowtowed to Roosevelt to preserve his privileged position and thus, according to Benzion, aided and abetted the destruction of European Jewry.

Many younger Americans, Jews and non-Jews, have come to view these incessant historical associations as manipulative and anachronistic, but they hit a raw nerve nonetheless among older Jewish leaders and activists: many of them grew up in homes and began their careers in organizations that were consumed with the pangs of conscience that swept organized American Jewry after the full extent and horror of the Holocaust became known. The urge to atone for their silence, which fueled the widespread enthusiasm of American Jewry in the campaign for Soviet Jewry 40 years ago, is still potent today. Most American Jews are no more enamored with Netanyahu or his conservative, hawkish GOP allies than they were before the Iran deal was concluded, but they cannot withstand the Iran=Nazis equation or forget their childhood vows of “Never Again."

It is this factor, no less than any automatic acceptance of Netanyahu’s objections, that has caused Jewish support for the Iran deal to drop well below that given to Obama’s other policies."

The ensuing clash between supporters and opponents of the Iran deal and the angst felt by many Jews, especially liberals and independents, is probably viewed by GOP activists, perhaps by Netanyahu himself, as a fringe benefit of the campaign against the administration. Jewish critics of the deal find themselves standing shoulder to shoulder with GOP conservatives they abhor, while supporters of the deal are described as appeasers bowing their heads, like Wise in his day, before the power and prestige of the president. This internecine warfare came to millions of television screens this week, as anti- and pro-deal commercials by AIPAC and J Street clashed head to head across America.

Netanyahu is encouraged by the perceived shift in public opinion against the deal, but the overall political prognosis of the battle’s ultimate outcome hasn’t changed: he may win a moral victory if Congress disapproves of the deal but will end up losing the war if it then fails to override a presidential veto. Even the preliminary win is far from assured: opponents of the deal need to recruit six Democratic defectors in the Senate, at the very least, in order to ensure a filibuster-proof majority of 60.

Netanyahu claims that his fight against Obama’s policy isn’t personal, but even he probably finds that assertion hard to believe. He enraged the White House on Tuesday by wildly accusing supporters of the deal of trying to stifle the debate by making “outrageous” accusations of “warmongering." Netanyahu’s disavowal of a personal vendetta against Obama is perceived as disingenuous: it does not mitigate the accumulative effect of his absolute opposition to the deal, his continued partisan support for the GOP and what one Democratic activist described to me on Tuesday as “inciting American Jews to fight their elected president."

Netanyahu is pulling out all the stops, deploying all his troops and firing all his ammunition – including the Holocaust card - in his war to stop the Iran deal.

The question is whether he’ll have anything left in his arsenal to deal with the day after. Win or lose, there will be damage, if not destruction, to contend with: to Jerusalem’s relations with Washington, to Israel’s image in the United States and to the cohesion and unity of an American Jewish community that is being stretched to the limit and shaken to its core.