Diaspora Jews Await a post-Netanyahu Era, but Then What?

Many Diaspora Jews feel it would be easier to defend Israel without Netanyahu – but he has served as a distraction from real differences between them and Israeli Jews

Anshel Pfeffer
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing the AIPAC conference in March 2018
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressing the AIPAC conference in March 2018Credit: חיים צח / לע"מ
Anshel Pfeffer

The Jews of the Diaspora, if they had a vote in the upcoming election on April 9, would be choosing Stav Shaffir from Rothschild Boulevard over Benjamin Netanyahu from Balfour Street. They prefer Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. They know very little about the indifferent general, Benny Gantz, but if he can replace Bibi, then they are willing to project every aspiration and hope they have for the Jewish state on his tall blank canvas. As a certain American freshman congresswoman said, it’s all about the Benjamins.

No, not all the Jews. Netanyahu still has his supporters, particularly among the Orthodox communities, but from dozens of conversations in recent weeks during visits to the U.S. and Britain and with Diaspora groups visiting Israel, you get a clear sense that the virtual Likud constituency among non-Israeli Jews is shrinking. And this impression comes across especially when talking with “professional Jews,” those who are more committed to strengthening the ties with Israel, including many who are instinctively right-of-center, because they are the ones called upon to protect Israel in public.

Since most of these conversations were off the record, I can’t name any of the organizations they work for, but the overall sentiment from many veteran employees in pro-Israel groups was how they can’t wait for Netanyahu to leave. Not necessarily because they massively object to things he’s recently done or said, per se, but as one of them bluntly put it, “it would make our lives so much easier.”

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So many Jews, who do not live in Israel and do not have to suffer the consequences of the actions of its leaders, feel their lives would be much easier if Netanyahu was no longer prime minister. It’s not just those who work in various advocacy organizations, who in their line of work take fire for his latest racist dog-whistle statement or any of the extreme antics of his ministers and party members.

For them, a post-Netanyahu Israel would be so much easier to defend, even before it changes any of its policies. Even under a different right-wing leader. It’s also true for so many ordinary Jews for whom Israel is an integral part of their identity. It transcends mere politics and has become almost visceral, how some non-Israeli Jews would simply prefer to think about themselves as Jews without Netanyahu.

For those concerned with the widening rift between Israel and the Diaspora, there is a silver lining of sorts here. If Netanyahu is clouding the very notion of Israel in the minds of many Jews, then this is a passing problem. Because, one day, may be even next month, but one day for certain, Netanyahu will be gone. And then they can resume identifying with Israel. But just like Netanyahu has sucked the oxygen out of Israeli public discourse, with his personal fate dominating this election, above and beyond any actual issue of policy or ideology – so has his towering image done the same to the Israel-Diaspora relationship.

But even if the (rather unlikely) outcome of this election will be a Gantz government, complete with an Education Minister Shaffir, all will not be well with the Jews. Netanyahu, in his blatant disregard of the Diaspora and his abuse of what he has called his position as “a representative of the entire Jewish people,” has become a convenient distraction.

It distracts us from the long overdue realization that the overwhelming majority of Israelis define their Jewishness by nationalism and religion, while most in the Diaspora build their Jewish identities around social values and culture. It won’t change when Netanyahu leaves. And when that happens, will anyone remember how American Jews launched and financed Netanyahu’s political career, long before he became a star in Israel?

For years, even as it became abundantly clear how distant his views were from those of three quarters of American Jews, they continued to enable him, providing him with an adoring echo chamber on every visit. As they will next week once again at AIPAC. Will anyone be asking Gantz, or whoever else may come next, the difficult questions they failed to ask Bibi?

Netanyahu may have been more obvious in his contempt for the sensitivities of Jews abroad than any previous Israeli prime minister, but he simply highlighted how limited their influence has always been. It’s hardly a coincidence that the only truly influential American Jews in Israel are the hardly representative Jared Kushner and Sheldon Adelson. That’s not just because of Netanyahu.

And the interest in the indictments against him for fraud and bribery shouldn’t obscure the fact that Diaspora money has had a deeply corrupting influence on Israel’s politicians – going back at least 50 years, to the days when Ambassador to the U.S. Yitzhak Rabin accepted speaking fees for appearances at Jewish functions and squirreled the money away in his tax-evading foreign bank account.

The celebrations in the Diaspora over Netanyahu’s departure, when it happens, shouldn’t obscure the need to address all these issues. And since he may not be leaving for a while, a reckoning should start now.