“I went to Paris not just as the prime minister of Israel but as a representative of the entire Jewish people.”
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This bald statement by Benjamin Netanyahu, at a gathering of French-speaking Likud supporters in Jerusalem on Sunday, should be astonishing. He was saying that when he insisted on taking part in last month’s solidarity march of world leaders in Paris, against the wishes of French President Francois Hollande, he was acting on behalf of French Jews. He is now planning to do the same in Washington: “Just as I went to Paris, so I will go anyplace I’m invited to convey the Israeli position against those who want to kill us.”
It should be astonishing, because for the first time an Israeli prime minister is not only saying that Israel has a responsibility for Jews in jeopardy around the world, that it works to rescue those living under despotic rule and is also the homeland of Jews who choose to live elsewhere; Netanyahu is going a step further, claiming to be the true spokesman and leader of those Jews — even when that puts him at cross-purposes with their democratically elected leaders, and even when Jewish members of Congress implore him not to openly defy their president by addressing the chamber next month.
It should be astonishing, but it isn’t. No one who has followed Netanyahu in recent years could have reached a different conclusion. He believes he represents the interests of Jews in the Diaspora better than they do themselves. It is implicit in the story he often tells of his late father, Benzion Netanyahu, who as a young acolyte of Zeev Jabotinsky in the 1930s tried to warn the leaders of American Jewry of the impending tragedy in Europe, but failed to shake their complacency.
The father did not have the power to make them listen and to begin evacuating Jews from the gathering storm. The son has that power and he will use it no matter what: As he said on Sunday, there are “those who want to kill us” and “I will not hesitate to say what’s needed to warn against this danger, and prevent it.”
This is the task thrust upon Benjamin Netanyahu by history. Who are you, Jews of America and France, to tell him it is not his burden to take up?
They are right of course, all the French Jews who told me last week in Paris — and not only from the left — that they were deeply insulted by Netanyahu’s high-handed manner. Many deeply Zionist Jews told me they felt he was making a mockery of centuries of effort and sacrifice to integrate into the Republic, that he had no right to come to Paris and lecture them on the futility of their endeavor. Just as the U.S. Jewish leaders who are finally speaking out and saying that Netanyahu does not speak for them are simply stating the obvious: They didn’t vote for him, and he has no right to defy their president on their behalf. He is the prime minister of Israel, and if he thinks safeguarding Israel’s interests justifies a confrontation with its allies then that is his duty. But leave the Diaspora out of it.
They are right, but their reactions were a case of too little and much too late.
If the Jews living outside of Israel didn’t want Netanyahu speaking and acting on their behalf, they should have called him out years ago, privately and if necessary also in public. Save for a few commentators and fringe organizations, they were silent. At the same time, they feted Netanyahu at every opportunity and acquiesced to hiring like-minded figures, who rarely if ever criticized him in public, to head major national and international Jewish organizations.
Diaspora Jews do not vote in Israel but in their silence they are complicit in the conflation of Netanyahu, Israel and all Jews.
Netanyahu has one major advantage over all other Jewish leaders. He is the elected representative of the largest number of Jews collectively voting in one election. No other elected Jewish leader represents a major Jewish community. The only other democratically elected politician who can conceivably claim to be speaking for a larger number of Jews is the president of the United States. Who has the better claim?
Barack Obama isn’t Jewish, and in any event Jews are only a small proportion of his electorate. Nothing in the U.S. Constitution obliges him to assume responsibility for the fate of the Jewish people. But considering that by some measures there are more Jews in the United States than in Israel, and that whereas fewer than one-quarter of Israelis voted for Netanyahu’s Likud party, over 70 percent of American Jews twice voted for Obama as president, Obama could realistically claim to represent three times as many Jews as Netanyahu.
For obvious reasons, he won’t make that claim. It would be madness for Obama to even contemplate getting involved in what should remain an internal Jewish debate, even though Netanyahu’s frequent interference in U.S. domestic politics arguably gives him the right to do so. But Obama won’t, and it’s up to the Jews to take a stand.
Since every Jew in the world has the option to immigrate and become an Israeli citizen, by default those who have not done so are making a clear choice to be represented by their own prime ministers and presidents. Netanyahu is denying their right to make that choice. Since it’s too late to stop him, the only possible conclusion is that the old, self-imposed limits on Diaspora Jews involving themselves in Israel’s domestic have well and truly disappeared. Netanyahu’s supporters have long stopped respecting those barriers, with Sheldon Adelson, a non-Israeli, brazenly using his money to make himself the most influential man in Israel.
If you are a non-Israeli Jew who doesn’t like the way Netanyahu involves himself in the politics of your country — and does so in your name — then you must retaliate in kind. The time for niceties, the old excuses such as “our children don’t serve in the Israel Defense Forces so we don’t have the right to tell Israelis how to run their country,” is over. If you don’t want our prime minister speaking for you, then speak up and urge Israelis to replace him.