Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned speech before Congress – organized behind President Obama’s back – has uncharacteristically split the Jewish communal establishment. Yet the controversy over the speech exposes a tension that has been brewing below the surface for years. The fact is that when it comes to politics, values and the key issues that will decide Israel’s future, Netanyahu and the majority of American Jews fundamentally disagree. The time has come for American Jewish institutions to accept and address that important tension.
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The speech, and Netanyahu’s intransigent refusal to back down from it, have created a firestorm of criticism, coming from such mainstream Jewish leaders as Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League and Rabbi Rick Jacobs of the Union for Reform Judaism.
In a column published last week in Haaretz, Peter Beinart noted that Netanyahu’s speech had alienated his old “broad” base of support. Historically and today, organizations like AIPAC and the AJC rely on the premise that Americans can support both the president of the United States and the prime minister of Israel without any major conflict. By throwing Obama under the bus, Netanyahu shattered that perception.
But the disagreement between the Israeli prime minister and American Jews runs far deeper than this speech and the Netanyahu-Obama relationship.
American Jews overwhelmingly reject settlements; Netanyahu’s government aggressively promotes settlement expansion. Even during the last round of talks with the Palestinian Authority, Netanyahu refused to halt or curtail settlement expansion, consistently humiliating American mediators.
American Jews are serious about giving diplomacy with Iran a chance; Netanyahu has consistently denigrated the Iran talks and seems determined to prevent and undermine any deal that Iran might accept.
Most crucially, American Jews overwhelmingly favor a two-state solution; Netanyahu has made it clear that he is unwilling to make the necessary compromises to bring it about. While he has paid lip service to the two-state solution in the past, he has also rejected the 1967 lines as basis for negotiation, and repeatedly refused to halt settlement construction on land that would ostensibly be part of a future Palestinian state.
American Jews overwhelmingly vote Democrat and support Obama; Netanyahu has consistently demonstrated a preference for Republican candidates. In fact, Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson is also a patron and close political ally of Netanyahu. The prime minister infuriated many Democrats when he made former Republican political operative Ron Dermer his ambassador to the U.S., and unabashedly supported Mitt Romney (for whom just 30 percent American Jews voted) in the last U.S. presidential election.
So why don’t American Jewish institutions speak out about the differences between the communities they serve and the Netanyahu government?
For a long time, our leaders have taken the path of least resistance. Fearing criticism from the very loud and very active right-wing minority of American Jews, they have decided that the safest and simplest course of action is to silently follow the lead of the Israeli government, only occasionally muttering a few words of quiet protest. They have mostly ignored the right-wing drift in Israeli politics over the last decade, in the hope that it would just go away. Instead, as Netanyahu’s intransigence over the speech has demonstrated, the problem has only intensified.
Now, American Jewish organizations have an opportunity. The outrage over the speech has empowered Jewish organizations – and members of congress – to speak out when an Israeli prime minister’s policies and actions run counter to the shared interests and principles that form the basis of the alliance. But they should not wait until the next crisis to make their next move.
Clarifying our differences is the only way we can resolve them; pretending they don’t exist only makes the eventual blow-ups more dramatic. As it stands, these tensions boil over into vicious public fights between American and Israeli officials, with the American Jewish community constantly caught in between. Let’s take responsibility: We need ongoing and serious debate about the ongoing and serious discrepancy between American Jews and Netanyahu’s policies.
If we want the relationship between Israelis and Americans and between our two governments to be healthy and mutually beneficial, we have to acknowledge and explore this tension. Netanyahu does not speak for us – but how can he know that if we don’t speak up for ourselves?
Benjy Cannon is the National Student Board President of J Street U. He studies politics and philosophy at the University of Maryland, where he sits on the Hillel Board. Follow him on Twitter @benjycannon, or send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org