Pro-Bibi Until Proven Otherwise: The Perils of Being Israeli in America

Israeli expats have been forced to defend Netanyahu’s speech in Congress even if they think it is the worst idea in the history of the world.

Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
Netanyahu addressing AIPAC on Monday. He makes us conflicted about Israel.
Netanyahu addressing AIPAC on Monday. He makes us conflicted about Israel.Credit: AP
Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter

It is a ritual well known to Israeli expats: You sit there, minding your own business, and suddenly the topic of Israel comes up. Now you, an Israeli living abroad, are asked to respond: Why does Israel do this? Why don’t you do this? Don’t you understand peace is preferable to war? How can you live with yourself?

Let me tell you, it can sure ruin a nice dinner, or a chance encounter. Even a newly struck-up acquaintance can suddenly become strained.

For the past six months I have been living in New York City. I believe I am not alone in saying this wasn’t an wasn’t an easy time to be Israeli abroad. To be Israeli abroad is to burdened with the weight of all the sins of your homeland. To be charged, tried and convicted by strangers who don’t know you chose not to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. Children are killed in Gaza, and you are the closest representative of their executioner.

It’s a part of being Israeli: It doesn’t matter if you’re left wing, doesn’t matter If you were a conscientious objector, if you are the owner of an Israeli passport – you’re bound to get a talking-to. If you want to be left alone, just say you’re from Greece. And it’s annoying, yes, but understandable. And to get strange looks in a New York restaurant is infinitely better than to be a child in Jabalya or the West Bank.

But to defend, or even explain Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech in Congress? How does one even begin to explain that?

Obviously Netanyahu’s visit to the U.S. is hugely divisive among American Jews as well. In response to Netanyahu’s claim that he will address Congress as “the representative of the entire Jewish people,” J-Street launched a campaign against his speech, under the hashtag #BibiDoesntSpeakForMe. Even Dianne Feinstein, the Jewish Democratic senator from California, joined the fray and said Netanyahu doesn’t speak for her.

Netanyahu doesn’t speak for me, either. But as it happens, occasionally – as an Israeli Jew living in New York – I am expected to speak for him.

Sometimes, I meet a person who regards me, with suspicion, as a Netanyahu accomplice until proven otherwise. And I never even voted for the man.

I wonder sometimes if this is part of the reason Israelis abroad gradually become more right wing. And because the conversation about Israel is too often tainted by cliches, mistruths and outright deceit, and since many of these questions are usually hurled with such vehemence that they feel like personal attacks, it is easy to get defensive. To be forced into the position of an ambassador to a country whose conduct you don’t agree with.

Not everyone does this to the same degree – some of us abroad criticize Israel in much harsher tones than we would if we were there – but I’d wager we’ve probably all been forced into the position of Israel-advocate on at least one occasion. Expats have even been forced to defend Netanyahu’s speech in Congress when they don’t agree with it. Even if they think it is the worst idea in the history of the world.

Take, for instance, a friend of mine, an Israeli who recently visited the U.S. “The Jews in this country live in fear,” he said, referring to the U.S., uttering the words in disgust. “Fear, I tell you. They won’t dare say what’s on their mind. I once got dragged to a Jewish political convention. The people present, all of them Jewish intellectuals, were debating whether to support Israel on some issue and go against the administration. I asked: ‘Why are you so afraid to speak up? It’s wrong. We have a country now. Speak up!’”

The person responsible for that quote is not a supporter of Bibi Netanyahu. We’re talking about an ardent Netanyahu opponent, a long-time Labor supporter who is lost and bewildered by the enduring popularity of Israel’s prime minister. Yet when it came to Netanyahu’s speech in Congress, my friend was adamant: Jews (even Netanyahu) should be able to speak their minds.

He, of course, doesn’t have to live with the day-to-day embarrassment of having to constantly talk to people who feel his prime minister offended their most sacred institution.

It’s not like we left-wing Israelis living abroad needed any more help from Netanyahu when it came to feeling awkward or conflicted about our homeland.

But Netanyahu’s latest stunt enhances the discomfort level to new personal extremes. To go into the complexities of the situation in the West Bank or Israel’s security concerns is one thing. But this is a different story entirely.

It’s not about the politics. It’s not about the fine details of Iran’s nuclear capabilities, or Israel-U.S. relations. It’s that moment of awkwardness, that mere millisecond of recognition, when you’re identified these days as a native of “that country.” You know the one, who's all over the news, with “that prime minister.” Within that millisecond, an entire universe of inferiority and shame resides.

And with that shame, come the questions. Am I now about to be cast as a Netanyahu accomplice? Am I now about to be forced to explain his recent moves? Will I now be, as an Israeli living in America, constantly suspected of not knowing my boundaries, mocked for not being aware of when I’m not wanted?

Screw that. I don’t want to speak for Netanyahu. As of tomorrow, I am telling everyone I’m from Greece.

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