Netanyahu, Pick Up the Phone and Call American Jews

Noa Landau
Noa Landau
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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks on a video from Israel to the 2019 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference.
Noa Landau
Noa Landau

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tensely awaits a phone call from Washington, he could take the trouble to pick up the red phone himself. Not to dial the Oval Office, but liberal American Jews whom he has offended and neglected for years, widening the rift between them and Israel to an unprecedented extent. 

Much has been said about the damage done by Netanyahu’s head-on confrontation with the Obama administration – followed by his too-warm embrace of the Trump administration – to bipartisan U.S. support for Israel. But bilateral relations have always had another unique component beyond the usual diplomatic interests: the American Jewish community.

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While similar in size to the Jewish community in Israel, sociologically, the two are marching down two completely different paths. The Jewish majority in Israel has become more right-wing and more conservative, while most American Jews are tending to be more liberal. Most Israelis see their Judaism as either secular or Orthodox, while most Jews in the United States are Reform or Conservative. There are many more differences, but these are the better known, major ones.  

Having developed a dependency on representatives of the ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionist communities, Netanyahu has always chosen to surrender to their dictates regarding religion and state, rather than to try to bridge the fundamental differences with those for whom Israel purports to be a national home. Instead of reaching out to American Jews, he preferred to reach out to the evangelicals. The Western Wall, conversion, marriage, the rabbinate’s monopoly, budgeting of congregations, kashrut, even combating antisemitism – those are just some of the issues where Netanyahu has clearly chosen sides: against American Jewry.  

And so, while much continues to be said about what kind of relations Netanyahu will have with Joe Biden, and how to repair the damage done to relations with the Democratic Party, Israel continues to ignore its best potential ambassadors to the new administration. For four years, there has been practically no communication between the Reform movement and Netanyahu’s office, Reform leaders say. On Friday, Women of the Wall reported that they were attacked by a man who poured hot coffee on them at the Western Wall.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said in response: “This is not just one bad apple. It’s the result of ongoing demonization.” And indeed, the entry into politics (on the Labor Party slate) of Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the Reform movement’s representative in Israel, has sparked a demonization campaign by people affiliated with Likud. 

The Jewish National Fund’s decision this week to officially work to expand settlements and continue planting forests as part of a policy of seizing land in the West Bank is yet another milestone in the growing gap between the two communities. While Netanyahu’s governments have actively advanced this approach, along with the settlement enterprise and the occupation as a whole, Diaspora Jewry long ago distanced itself from the legendary blue JNF collection boxes. 

While currently investing a good deal of effort in a groveling effort to woo Arab voters, Netanyahu could also have put a little more thought into rebuilding relations with American Jewry. But given his past, one probably should not expect too much from him. At the same time, the “Anyone but Bibi” camp should not be released of responsibility either. Part of this camp opposes a coalition with the ultra-Orthodox, but also puts virtually zero effort into reaching out to potential partners in the Diaspora as a counter-response to Netanyahu’s conservative axis. 

It’s time for someone to pick up the phone and call Rick Jacobs too.