Opinion

Benjamin Netanyahu, Serial Abuser of Diaspora Jews

Israeli governments traditionally engage with Diaspora Jews by requesting they donate money, give unquestioning support and shut up. Netanyahu has gone way further

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the media in Airport City near Tel Aviv, Israel December 27, 2019
AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

Millions of Jews throughout the world have felt an intangible sense of loneliness and abandonment over the past two weeks, and they don’t know why. The sad reason? Israel no longer has a Diaspora Minister.

Here is the sorry and short story of how this crucial post was left empty.

Invented 20 years ago by Prime Minister Ehud Barak as an ennobling title for Rabbi Michael Melchior, the Diaspora Minister has almost always been denied any real power or useful budget (the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora has always been, quite rightly, the responsibility of the professional diplomats of the Foreign Ministry).

Every occupant of the position has issued grand proclamations upon assuming it, only to escape at the first opportunity when a better job opens up. Like many ministerial titles, it has no justification. But abolishing it would have revealed the obvious truth that the government of Israel really doesn’t care for the Diaspora. They should donate money, give us their unquestioning support and shut up.

The Diaspora Ministry has over the years been a glorified travel-agency for its minister and done crucial work on things like sending Rosh Hashana greeting-cards. And of course preparing grandiose "strategic plans" for the day when it would finally receive a proper spending budget.

In various evolutions, the role has been inflated with other meaningless titles such "Diaspora and Public Diplomacy" or "Diaspora and Jerusalem Affairs," and since 2015, when there was no minister lowly enough to carry the title, it was tacked on to then Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s bulging portfolio. Last June, when Bennett was temporarily fired (he has since then made a dazzling comeback as defense minister), the empty ministry reverted to the prime minister.

Six weeks ago, Benjamin Netanyahu was notified that he is to be indicted for bribery and fraud. By law, he is now obliged to divest himself from all ministerial positions he holds (besides that of prime minister), including the lucrative Diaspora brief. He took his time, teasing eager Likud MKs who feverishly awaited their call-up notices; two weeks ago he decided to bestow the job upon the ultra-loyal deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely

Hotovely gushingly thanked Netanyahu, promising to "strengthen the ties between Israel and all our brothers and sisters in the Diaspora," but before she could go about doing that, there were a couple of obstacles to overcome.

First, since for the last seven years there hasn’t been a dedicated Diaspora Minister, there isn’t even an office for her. And before the civil servants could work out office space, the High Court ruled that since Netanyahu’s is an interim government, ministerial appointments may have to be approved first by the Knesset, which currently is not in session due to the upcoming election. So Hotovely’s promotion was put on hold.

But for a week at least, she believed that she was about to come a minister and perhaps, if the technicalities are somehow ironed out before the election, she may yet become for a few weeks the most pointless member of the Israeli government. And as candidates for ministerial jobs go, she is absolutely the least qualified for this useless role. Because in Israeli history, there was never a politician who did more to insult the largest community in the Diaspora, with the exception perhaps of her boss Netanyahu.

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely near the Israeli settlement of Ariel November 03, 2015
MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP

Two years ago, in a television interview, Hotovely swatted away the criticism of the Netanyahu government’s policies by American Jews saying they can’t understand what Israelis are going through because they live "convenient lives" and "never send their children to fight for their country, most of the Jews don’t have children serving as soldiers, going to the Marines, going to Afghanistan, going to Iraq."

Besides the fact that it’s not true and, according to the data, the percentage of U.S. Jews who serve is similar to that of the general population, Hotovely was basically using the ancient anti-Semitic "disloyal Jews" trope against them. And despite the uproar that her comments caused, forcing even Netanyahu to put out a vague condemnation, she refused to apologize, except for the weaselly "if anyone was hurt I’m sorry" line she belatedly threw out

So Hotovely is Netanyahu’s choice for Israel’s face to the Jews of the world. And this time, there wasn’t even a murmur from the main American Jewish organizations.

A senior executive in one of them told me that as far as they’re concerned, there’s no use anymore in responding when Netanyahu disrespects Diaspora Jews. They’ve become so used to it and now they just can’t wait for him to leave. Whether it’s his praising Donald Trump for "fighting anti-Semitism," when under his presidency Jews are being attacked and murdered like never in their U.S. history, or supporting far-right governments in Hungary which engage in anti-Semitic campaigns against George Soros and Holocaust revisionism in Poland, nothing can surprise them anymore.

A stoplight in front of a Netanyahu campaign poster, showing him with Trump, Jerusalem, September 14, 2019.
AFP

Hotovely’s appointment wasn’t even the only one which was sure to humiliate Diaspora Jews in this latest reshuffle. Netanyahu didn’t even think twice before promoting deputy health minister Yaakov Litzman to full ministerial status. Policy have recommended indicting Litzman for his suspected attempt to pressure a psychiatrist to rule that Malka Leifer, is mentally unfit to be extradited and stand trail in Australia for dozens of allegations of sexual molestation. Leifer was a principle of an ultra-Orthodox girls high school in Melbourne who was spirited away to Israel before she could be arrested.

Three years ago, Netanyahu flew all the way to Australia, where he soaked up the adulation of rapturous Jewish audiences there. He's been told numerous times by Jewish community leaders there how important the Leifer case is to them, and how crucial it is that she face justice down under. But he couldn’t care less about them when their interests conflicted with promoting one of his closest political allies.

Time and again, Netanyahu claims to be "speaking for all Jews."  In 2015 he went to Washington to personally and publicly challenge the foreign policy of Barack Obama, the candidate who got the most Jewish votes in history, far more than Netanyahu himself ever did.

Netanyahu has serially betrayed the Jews of the world. But by now they’re used to it. So what if he just tried to appoint a politician who used a classic anti-Semitic slur against American Jews as the minister in charge of relations with them? It’s only to be expected.

The best thing the next prime minister of Israel can do for relations with the Diaspora is to abolish the stupid post of Diaspora Minister and instead just show Jews outside of Israel the minimum of respect.