Rosh Hashanah - The Jewish People's Job This Year: Cleaning Up Netanyahu's Mess

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Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in Congress, March 3, 2015.
Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in Congress, March 3, 2015.Credit: AP

On this Rosh Hashanah, a terrible and all-too-familiar shadow refuses to leave the corner of our eye. We know in our own blood the terror felt by refugees. In the stories of our close relatives – those who lived, and those who were hunted down and slaughtered – we dread what it must be like to live in a new 1938, on the brink of a human catastrophe.

At a time like this, it's only natural for Jews to look to their leader to sound a call, to explain how to help refugees in dire need. And what better leader to look to than Benjamin Netanyahu - himself the son of a Polish-born immigrant who spent World War II in the United States. The prime minister's father was among the first to warn of the growing horrors of the Holocaust, as refugees were trapped in Europe by isolationist U.S. anti-immigration legislation and intentionally crippling American red tape. 

On Sunday, as the world bore witness to the plight of millions of refugees fleeing unspeakable brutality, Netanyahu, the phrase "a light unto the nations" never far from view, told his country what it urgently needed to do in response:

Build a wall. Keep them out.

"Israel is not indifferent to the human tragedy of the refugees from Syria and Africa," the prime minister said, alluding to medical treatment given hundreds of wounded Syrians, and possible aid to affected countries.

Then he dropped the bomb.

"Nevertheless, Israel is a small country, a very small country," he said. "It has no demographic depth, and no geographic depth. Therefore, we must control our borders, both against work-seeking illegal infiltrators and insidious terrorists."

Netanyahu then boarded a helicopter, camera crews included, to formally launch work on the border barrier. Stressing again that Israel is a "tiny country, small in area, small in population," his Hebrew took a turn for the liturgical in a last reference to the new fence:

"This matter is vital, if we are to be Hefzei Haim [people who value life]."

Only later did we learn that there is at present no budget for the barrier. But the prime minister assured us that the funds would be found.

Which brings us to the first of a series of moral teachings Benjamin Netanyahu has given us during this Hebrew month of Elul, meant to be a period of introspection and repentance, the run-up to the High Holydays:

Israel has no resources for taking in refugees, but is confident that it can come up with the more than three-quarters of a billion dollars needed to fence them out.

Netanyahu's moral teachings for the coming year can be seen to have begun on the first of September, as he welcomed Israeli first graders to his geopolitical worldview.

"We educate our children toward peace. A few kilometers from here, Hamas teaches its children the opposite of peace. From time to time, it tries to shoot at us – at you. My policy is clear: Zero restraint! Zero let-up! Zero tolerance for terrorism!"

"We want peace," Netanyahu concluded, "but first of all, to safeguard our land, to safeguard our children, to safeguard you."

The take-home message was as clear to the adults in the room as to the kids: Be afraid. Be very afraid. Let your fears dictate your actions. We are the good guys, no matter what.

And, most importantly, whatever your question about the future, the answer is No.

Beginning long ago, the prime minister has taken pains to assure us of the responsibility he feels for the Jewish people, everywhere in the world.

What we could not have suspected then, was that the opposite would be true: It's all of us Jews, in Israel and abroad alike, who are stuck with the fallout for what Benjamin Netanyahu says and does.

He will stop at nothing, wreak any havoc, to get 25 percent of Israeli voters to keep him in office. Meanwhile, the rest of us are left to clean up the mess.

It has taken years of passionate effort for him to erode Israel's ties with its closest Western allies, beginning with the White House and nearly any non-Republican in Congress.

He has spared no opportunity to destroy Israel's image as a democracy, whether through McCarthyite legislation, or stonewalling inquiries into the large numbers of civilian casualties in a Gaza war he could well have avoided.

He has systematically demolished any chance of peace with the Palestinians, inadvertently – or not – strengthening Hamas while undermining the Palestinian Authority with settlements and a host of punitive measures against Palestinians.

He has shown a definite genius, inadvertently – or not - in playing so efficiently into the hands of the Boycott, Sanctions, and Divestment movement, as BDS leader Omar Barghouti has explicitly declared.

Can Netanyahu's mess be cleaned up? Maybe the best way to begin to do that, is to challenge the basis of his moral teachings to the rest of us Jews. And Rosh Hashanah is as good a time as any to start.

Maybe it's time to work on helping the asylum seekers Israel already has. Maybe, instead of persecuting and jailing them without a shred of cause, and demonizing them for race-baiting political profit – maybe we should help them work, raise families, and live a normal life.

Maybe it's time to stress that the lessons of the Holocaust go beyond assumptions, stated or not, that "It's 1938 and Iran is Germany," and or "The Muslims are the Nazis and our survival means we can afford no compromise."

Maybe it's time to divert a sliver of the billions earmarked for Israel's wealthiest 20 families, along with the mysterious millions funneled to settlements, corrupt bureaucracy – not to mention the some $3 billion a year we spend on Netanyahu's beloved planned military offensive on Iran – to provide Christian, Druze and Circassian Israelis with needed educational budgets, and to support the needs of Israelis of Ethiopian background.   

Netanyahu knows that the hard core of his voters crave his stance of smirking, know-it-all machismo, and, in particular, the relish he takes in saying the word No, the consequences be damned. No to compromise, no to negotiations, no to social welfare, no, even, to Israel's allies.

And the mess he leaves behind? It's not his problem. It's ours.

It's a new year. Rosh Hashanah implies making a choice. Ours should be starting to clean up his mess. The Jews, as a people, don't have the luxury Netanyahu enjoys. On Rosh Hashanah, a simple 'no' is not an answer.

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