To Rally American Jews, Netanyahu Places Israel on a Permanent 'Gevalt’ Footing

Lessons he learned from his father’s years in New York during the Holocaust may have inspired the prime minister’s Munich-1938 Iran analogies and his anti-boycott battle cries.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has placed the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement on the same timeline as historic anti-Semitism. “The most disgraceful thing is to have people on the soil of Europe talking about the boycott of Jews,” he told the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations this week. “In the past, anti-Semites boycotted Jewish businesses and today they call for the boycott of the Jewish state.”

Netanyahu’s objectives are clear: to delegitimize the BDS movement, to deter potential supporters with the stench of anti-Semitism and to rally American Jewry to take part in the battle. It is an effective if virtually anti-Zionist message: Israel’s predicament today is a direct extension of the persecuted, defenseless and ultimately perished Jewish communities of Europe. The establishment of the state, in this regard, has made no difference.

The essence of this view has become a permanent feature of the dialogue between Netanyahu and the Israeli right with public opinion, Jewish or otherwise. By creating symmetry between criticism of the Jewish State and classic anti-Semitism, the government absolves itself of any responsibility for Israel’s isolation and uses the taboo against anti-Semitic statements as a weapon of mass deterrence, as Secretary of State John Kerry recently learned.

Netanyahu has used the same historical analogy to rally the American Jewish community against the Obama Administration’s policy on Iran. Speaking to the General Assembly of Jewish Federations last November, Netanyahu said: “When the Jewish people were silent on matters relating to our survival, you know what happened ... All of us have to stand up now and be counted.”

Some Jewish leaders criticized Netanyahu’s open call to U.S. Jews to lobby against their government, but they were answered with various versions of the famous saying ascribed to Greek doctor-philosopher Hippocrates: Extreme situations call for extreme measures. If Iran is the Nazi beast incarnate, if the year is 1938, if Geneva is Munich and the Jews are facing another Holocaust − this is no time for diplomatic niceties and concerns about “what the goyim will say.”

Younger American Jews may find it difficult to identify the iconic Jewish boy raising his hands in front of a Nazi soldier at Warsaw Ghetto in the lively, modern, start-up Israel that rules over two million Palestinians − and this dissonance may alienate them further − but for their parents and grandparents, especially those involved with Jewish organizations, the correlation is clear, as are the accompanying pangs of conscience.

These have been stirred, often deliberately, by the robust and sometimes bitter debate about President Franklin Roosevelt’s attitude toward the annihilation of European Jews in World War II. The underlying political message is clear: Like his Democratic successor today, Roosevelt was widely admired by American Jews even though he cared very little for them or their brethren in Europe. And his liberal Jewish supporters, even though they were well aware of the atrocities across the Atlantic, kept their silence for fear of the president and public opinion.

Netanyahu is well acquainted with this debate: He grew up with it at home. His father, Benzion, spent the war years in New York, working with his Revisionist colleagues to fight the British “White Paper” in Palestine and to urge the Roosevelt Administration to do more for European Jews. He became a harsh critic of Roosevelt and his “cowardly” Jewish fans.

“In their contacts with President Roosevelt, Jewish leaders thought of themselves as weak or helpless,” the elder Netanyahu told historian Raphael Medoff in an interview published posthumously in the Jerusalem Post. “FDR used the Jews, but there was no room in his heart for the plight of the Jewish people.”

What could American Jewish leaders have done? Netanyahu was asked, and his answer shed a strong light on his son’s political tactics and the 2012 presidential election campaign. “Roosevelt understood the language of political power. Jewish leaders could have done what my colleagues and I did − we went to the Republicans. And then Roosevelt got the message.”

It was with this “language of political power” in mind that the pro-Israel lobby hooked up with the Republicans and stormed the Senate a few weeks after Netanyahu urged them to “stand up and be counted” against the Iran nuclear accord and in favor of additional sanctions. But the zeal for historic redemption may have eclipsed the lobby’s usual prudence and caution: In the head-to-head confrontation with the administration, the lobby was defeated, at least for now.

When Netanyahu addresses the AIPAC conference in Washington in 10 days, he will try to lift morale and rally the troops and may very well succeed. Perhaps someone should ask, nonetheless, whether it is appropriate for a regional and reportedly nuclear regional superpower like Israel to see itself as a helpless victim in the ghetto, and whether it should be managing its affairs on a permanent “gevalt” basis.

Netanyahu delivers a speech at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, February 17, 2014 in Jerusalem.Credit: AFP

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