Opinion

It's Not anti-Semitism That Makes Defending Israel in America So Hard. It's Netanyahu

For non-Orthodox U.S. Jews, Netanyahu's victory is unfortunate, even tragic. He's shown us only contempt, and his commitment to endless occupation destroys our efforts to sustain broad U.S. support for the Jewish state

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech at the launch of Likud party election campaign in Ramat Gan, Israel March 4, 2019
\ AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS

And so it’s Bibi. God help us.

American Jews, it should be said, admire Israel’s democracy, respect the will of Israel’s voters, and don’t believe that Israel is on the threshold of fascism or authoritarianism, despite the irregularities and excesses of this election. 

But make no mistake. They are dismayed by the outcome and deeply concerned about Israel’s future.

Most American Jews saw Bibi as a disaster and wanted him gone, for two reasons. 

First, no prime minister in Israel’s history has been as contemptuous as Netanyahu of American Jewish concerns on religion and state. American Jews know that Bibi doesn’t much like them or care about them, and he certainly doesn’t take them into account when calculating his political options on religious issues.

It’s not that American Jews don’t understand Israeli coalition politics. They do. They are realistic about how far any prime minister can go on issues of religious freedom. 

Nonetheless, proudly proclaiming their Zionist identity, they used to think that when Netanyahu talked about Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, he actually meant it. 

American Jews know that they do not decide, but they always felt that they had a right to be heard. They saw themselves as part of the prime minister’s constituency, even if they couldn’t vote. And until the Netanyahu era, every single Israeli prime minister had listened, reached out, and offered if not concessions, then at least gestures of sympathy and understanding for Diaspora Jews.  

But not Bibi. Supposedly the most American of Israeli prime ministers, he could find no common language with non-Orthodox American Jews.  And since the beginning of his current term, he has stopped making the effort

As a result, the American Jewish mainstream - the 90% of American Jews who are not Orthodox - feels that what is coming is disastrous. The prime minister who has lied for years about what he will do at the Western Wall is likely to turn the Kotel into a Haredi site. Procedures for awarding citizenship to Reform and Conservative converts will be tightened, despite Supreme Court precedents. Recognition and funding of any sort for Reform and Conservative institutions will be denied. 

American and Israeli Reform rabbis pray adjacent to the Western Wall, the holiest site where Jews can pray in Jerusalem's old city. Feb. 25, 2016
Sebastian Scheiner,AP

And Shas, United Torah Judaism, and the Union of Right-wing Parties can be counted on to pour out their non-stop abuse of non-Orthodox Diaspora Jews. And Bibi will smile, perhaps cluck-cluck in mock disapproval, and then turn away. 

But it is not only the status of their own movements that concern American Jews.

Budgets for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students, already at sky-high levels, will be increased further. The percentage of Haredi men going to work will continue to drop, with disastrous consequences for Israel’s economy.  (Don’t believe those who claim that the number of working Haredim is increasing; in the last two years, as reported by Shahar Ilan, that number went down, not up.) 

The law requiring students in Haredi schools to study the core curriculum - meaning subjects such as English and basic arithmetic - will continue to be ignored, condemning these students to lives of poverty. And for low-income Israelis who don’t own cars, there will be no public transportation on Shabbat, making it impossible to visit their loved ones.

If this is to be Israel’s way, how is Israel to bring about a moral and spiritual renaissance of the Jewish people? How will the State of Israel ever succeed in reviving Yiddishkeit? How will Torah be kept alive for Jews everywhere? With Bibi in charge and religious fanaticism unleashed, none of these things will happen. And that is why American Jews wanted him gone.

One can fairly ask if Benny Gantz would have been better. Not much, but a little. 

He too would have brought the Haredim into his government, but he would have opened a dialogue, searched for compromise, and made some modest adjustments around the edges. At the very least, he would have changed the atmosphere and offered Diaspora Jews an embrace rather than a slap, recognizing that when it comes to Israel’s spiritual essence, politics isn’t everything.

Benny Gantz, one of the leaders of the Kahol Lavan political alliance, addresses members of his party during the election campaign. Tel Aviv, March 27, 2019
AFP

The second reason that Americans hoped for a Gantz victory is that defending Israel in public forums and on campus has become far more difficult than it was, and the reason is not anti-Semitism. It is Netanyahu.

To be sure, anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism exist, and are a growing and ominous threat. Anti-Semitism has appeared in the U.S. Congress, on both the left and the right. Left-wingers and neo-Nazis have joined in anti-Israel crusades, and Zionism has become a dirty word in certain intellectual circles. 

But American Jews are experienced and adept at taking on the anti-Semites and anti-Zionists, who are usually one and the same. And this includes taking on the Jewish Israel-haters, who somehow manage to see the rights of every group except their own.

Netanyahu bears no responsibility for the anti-Jewish and anti-Israel bigots. Those who hate Jews and Israel will always hate Jews and Israel. But when it comes to the naïve, the confused, the apathetic, and the ignorant, particularly on campus but elsewhere as well, the policies of Israel make a great deal of difference. And what many Israelis fail to understand is that this group is, by far, the largest segment of both the campus and the general population.

Members of this group do not understand the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and they don’t have the time or the patience for a lot of detail.  Still, you can convince them of the miracle of Israel’s founding and the justice of her struggle against murderous rejectionism.

Reuters

You can convince them of the compelling case for a Jewish and democratic state, alongside a democratic Palestinian state. You can convince them that a Palestinian state must wait until Palestinian leaders are prepared to set aside terror and negotiate in good faith. And you can convince them that it makes demographic and political sense for Israel to trade settlements near Jerusalem in return for land elsewhere in Israel.

But you absolutely cannot convince them that it makes sense for Israel to permanently occupy the West Bank without granting full political and civil rights to its inhabitants. You cannot convince them that, in Bibi’s words, "extending Israeli sovereignty" to parts or all of the West Bank is anything other than an occupation.

You cannot convince them that there is any rationale other than occupation for Israel to increase the already large settler population in the heart of the West Bank where a Palestinian state must come into being.

And yet, after a ten-year stint as prime minister, which has just been extended, Bibi is attempting to do just that. Yes, he has danced around a bit, very occasionally talking of support for two states, but mostly saying the opposite and doing the opposite. And in the recent campaign, he and Likud, the party he leads, made the language of occupation their explicit goal. 

The result? The one-staters - those who call for a single, bi-national state in Israel and the West Bank, with equal rights for all - are winning. And the advocates of BDS, Jewish Voice for Peace, and IfNotNow, many of whom are simply Israel haters and anti-Semites, are convincing others - who are not Israel haters or anti-Semites - that a single state is the only option. And since Zionism is about a Jewish and democratic state in the Land of Israel, a single state would mean the end of Zionism.

A Likud election campaign billboard shows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and US President Donald Trump in Tel Aviv, Israel. Feb. 6, 2019
Ariel Schalit,AP

Netanyahu, of course, thinks that he will be saved by Trump, who will champion an endless occupation if it is dressed up in carefully-phrased euphemisms. But once again, Bibi misunderstands America. Trump is unreliable, unpredictable, and more than a bit crazy. And furthermore, his base, including the Evangelicals, is motivated far more by domestic issues and social values than by foreign affairs. 

More important is that over the long term, what is discussed at elite universities determines America’s thinking on foreign policy. If Israel loses the universities, it will lose America. And thanks to Bibi’s one-statism, the universities are slipping away.

Over 10 years, while gradually abandoning the bi-partisan U.S. consensus on a two-state solution, Bibi has already done incalculable harm to Israel’s case. And there is no validity to the suggestion that Bibi and Gantz had identical positions on territories.

Gantz emphasized that Israel would not rule over another people and talked of the need to separate Israelis and Palestinians. His language was careful but clear. And if he won the premiership, American Jews could begin to reverse the damage that Bibi’s long tenure has done to Israel’s cause.

But Gantz will not be prime minister. Bibi will continue to serve, and American Jews will continue to advocate on campus and throughout America for a Jewish and democratic Israel. But their task will be far, far harder than it would be if the election had gone the other way. Because, ironically, Bibi - a strong leader and a man of many accomplishments - is not exactly a Zionist.

A Zionist believes in a Jewish and democratic state. Bibi does not. A Zionist, seeing Israel as the state of the Jewish people, welcomes Diaspora thinking and considers it carefully and with respect. Bibi does not. A Zionist approaches the Jewish state with reverence and honors its institutions and symbols - the judiciary, the press, and the Declaration of Independence. Bibi, as we have seen in the recent election, is erratic at best. 

But we are stuck with Bibi, and he is stuck with us. And while the results of the election were unfortunate, even tragic, we in the Diaspora are not giving up. After all, our commitment to Israel is unconditional, though not uncritical. 

And we have a vision of Israel that involves a democratic state, a secure Jewish majority, an engaged Diaspora, religious freedom for all, a strong army, and ironclad security for the state and her citizens. 

This may not be the Israel of Netanyahu, but it is the Israel of Herzl and Jabotinsky, and of Ben-Gurion, Begin, and Rabin. And as American Jewish lovers of the Jewish state, it is our Israel as well. And looking back on the election, with all its disappointments, this vision both consoles and inspires us. 

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie