One of my first – and, as it turned out, very rare – claims to glory came in 1989, when Thomas Friedman quoted me in his bestseller "From Beirut to Jerusalem." The report he cited was written for the Jerusalem Post about the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir’s appearance a year earlier at the Washington Hilton, before 3,000 members of the young leadership of the United Jewish Appeal. It was a difficult visit for Shamir, at the height of the first intifada, when U.S. public opinion, including American Jews, was said to be increasingly critical of Israeli policies.
The prime minister’s aides were worried that the Jewish displeasure would be evident at the UJA, especially as disapproval of Israel’s attitude toward the Palestinians was supposed to be most prevalent among younger Jewish Americans. Their apprehension, however, was misplaced: Shamir was received with loud cheers, thunderous applause and repeated standing ovations, even when he blasted the media’s “bias” or said he was “astounded” by the very demand that Israel give back territories. The scene, I wrote, was like a “long-anticipated rock concert.”
A few days later, the Post published a reader’s letter that disputed my account. It’s not that the UJA crowd actually supported Shamir’s handling of the intifada, Gabrielle Rabin Tsabag wrote from Los Angeles. Rather, Shamir’s audience wanted to show “a united front” that would show the world “that we will not abandon Israel in times of crisis.”
Watching Benjamin Netanyahu’s appearance at the General Assembly of Jewish Federations in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, the cliché “the more things change, the more they stay the same” inevitably came to mind. The majority of American Jews oppose Netanyahu’s peace policies, fume at his “suspension,” as he put it, of the Western Wall deal with the Reform and Conservative movements and abhor his ongoing love affair with Donald Trump. Nonetheless, they lapped up his sweet talk, applauded when appropriate and sent him home with nary a word of reproof.
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It was a far cry from “We Need To Talk,” the stern slogan adopted by the GA’s organizers, the Jewish Federations of North America, as the overriding motto of the annual conference. Outgoing JFNA chairman of the board Richard Sandler, ostensibly Netanyahu’s interlocutor in what was billed as “a conversation,” soft-pedaled one or two hard questions but sandwiched them between his expressions of fawning admiration for the prime minister, which were then echoed by Netanyahu himself. A stranger walking into the auditorium would be hard pressed to reconcile the mutual admiration society on the stage with the increasing alienation of large chunks of American Jewry from Israel, in general, and from Netanyahu, in particular.
One should hardly have expected fire and brimstone, of course. The Jewish Federations traditionally shy way from partisan politics; in previous years, they intentionally neutered the agendas of the annual General Assemblies in order to avert any hint of internal disputes in their communities or external censure of Israel. The delegates who care enough about Israel to pay their way to a GA in Tel Aviv are certainly not representative of increasingly resentful American Jews who distance themselves publicly today from Netanyahu and/or Israel. Old habits die hard, anyway: Decades of uncritical adulation of Israeli prime ministers cannot be erased in one fell swoop.
Given the severity of the current crisis, however, it was a spectacularly missed opportunity nonetheless. The JFNA could have chosen an interlocutor who would respectfully pose harder questions and politely press Netanyahu to clarify his intentionally obfuscating answers. Such an interviewer might have challenged Netanyahu's distorted description of the Western Wall deal, which included first steps toward government recognition of Reform and Conservative Jews, which have now been canned. He could have questioned how Netanyahu’s demand for total Israeli security control of the West Bank differs from military annexation. He might have asked Netanyahu about the nation-state law, his government’s relentless wave of anti-democratic legislation or his rosy description of Israeli pluralism, all issues that have recently exacerbated the ties between the world’s two largest Jewish communities.
He or she might have disputed Netanyahu’s assertion that his major concern was “Jewish identity" or inquired whether his government conduct wasn’t a major factor in distancing American Jews from their alternate homeland, thus jeopardizing their “Jewish identity.”
Sandler, unfortunately, wasn’t up to the task.
It’s unclear whether Netanyahu made his address conditional on a suitably fawning and meek interviewer or whether the GA decided on its own to consign the task to Sandler, possibly as a farewell gesture before he ends his term in office. One way or another, the Jewish Federations, that epitome of the Jewish establishment, blinked first. Rather than wash the dirty laundry in public, the organizers of the General Assembly preferred to show “a united front” and to dispel notions that American Jews are “abandoning Israel,” just as they did three decades ago, when Shamir came to Washington.
There is a crucial difference, however, between the two events. In 1988, the Young Leadership of the UJA swept their reservations under the rug in order to shield Israel from U.S. and international condemnation. In 2018, the organizers and attendees of the General Assembly buried their differences in order to protect Netanyahu from their own grievances.
They allowed him to spin his fantasies without interruption. Worse, they provided Netanyahu with supposed proof that the tensions between Israel and American Jewry are an exaggeration and even a fabrication, concocted by his political enemies and the hostile media. They undermined their own demand for a new kind of conversation between Israel and American Jews. They pretended that everything was almost hunky dory and were rewarded with the same kind of paternalistic and condescending Israeli attitude that precipitated the current crisis in the first place.
In the final analysis, the General Assembly gave Netanyahu valid grounds to assume that nothing has changed and, therefore, that he has no reason to mend his ways. Instead of “We Need To Talk”, the Jewish delegates preferred to subscribe to the maxim “The show must go on.”
Thus, the organizers of the GA failed to represent their own constituencies. By giving Netanyahu a free pass, they metaphorically stabbed themselves in the back.