American Jews, Bibi Won. Get Over It

Israel's left has long lacked a charismatic, strong leader to challenge the right. But all hope is not lost.

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Confetti falls in front of a poster of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during early celebrations, after the announcement of exit polls in Israel's parliamentary elections, March 17, 2015, Tel Aviv.Credit: AFP

American Jews who identify with Israel’s center-left are in shock. How, they ask, could this happen? How could Bibi-the-terrible be reelected? Surely, Israel is lost.

My response: Get over it. It’s not that complicated, and it’s not that surprising. Isaac Herzog is an estimable man—smart, politically skillful, moderate, reasonable. But’s he also physically small, with a high-pitched voice, and without combat military experience. And he projects the image of a nerd. Indeed, he is not the charismatic general that Israelis seek in a leader. Israel is a small country in a dangerous neighborhood, surrounded by enemies, and, at the moment, by more extremism, civil war, and fanaticism than usual in the Arab countries on her borders. I am simply not shocked that despite their abhorrence for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – yes, abhorrence doesn’t seem like too harsh a word – Israelis still see him, and not Herzog, as the tough guy they need to steer the ship of the Jewish state.

And no, Israel is not lost. Bibi, not a man of strong principle – or perhaps of any principle whatsoever – will adjust and reset his political compass and his image. He will reframe his comments on a Palestinian state. He will speak soothing, conciliatory words to the Israeli electorate. He will reach out to the American administration, promising cooperation and perhaps even “a new era.”

When my American friends wonder how Israel’s political system could possibly be so dysfunctional, I remind them to look at the American political system, which at the moment is not functioning at all. We should not be surprised, I remind them, that Israel’s leaders are every bit as incompetent as our own. Democracies are imperfect instruments of governance, and we Americans are hardly in a position to be preaching to others on such matters.

Yet none of this is to say that, as an American Jew devoted to Israel, I am happy with the results. I am not. While this election result will not bring about an immediate crisis, either with the American administration or with American Jewry, I am worried about the future. I am worried about the possibility of gradually deteriorating relations that, in the next few years, will undermine ties with long-time political friends, with Democrats and some Republicans, and with the mainstream of the Jewish community, which remains assertively progressive in its outlook.

That being said, what do I, as an American Jew, hope to hear and see from Mr. Netanyahu in the days ahead?

First: A statement that Israel is committed to democracy. I don’t need to hear another call for negotiations, or even a peace plan, but I do need a clear and plain proclamation from Israel’s elected leader that Israel will not budge from the democratic values that have always been the foundation of Zionism. Israel will be a Jewish and democratic state, Mr. Netanyahu must say, and he must give us his solemn assurance that even if the details of how to accomplish this are not clear now, the principle remains central to his political outlook. No equivocation, please. No dancing around. Just say what Zionists have always said, and American Jews – and all Americans – will be reassured. Surely that is not too much to ask.

Second: An apology to Israeli Arabs for his comments about Arabs "voting in droves." Americans are immersed right now in remembering and celebrating the great achievements of the civil rights era. The events in Selma are very much on our minds, a source of pride for right and left alike. Mr. Netanyahu’s slur of Arab Israelis was, in many ways, more shocking than his statement dismissing a Palestinian state. Racism – and that’s what it was – is grating for all Americans and particularly shocking for Jewish Americans, who stood at the very core of American civil rights work. There is only one way for Mr. Netanyahu to deal with his repugnant words, and that is to repudiate them with a profound and sincere apology. Again, no dancing around. "Say you were wrong and that you are sorry, and that Israel fully embraces her Arab citizens. And then demonstrate that you are sincere by opposing legislation that discriminates against Arab Israelis by promoting Israel's Jewish character at the expense of her democratic character.

Third: Don’t give away the store on matters of religious freedom. All Israelis, and Mr. Netanyahu in particular, tend to forget just how important religious pluralism is to the American Jewish community. It may not seem important now, but if in six months' time triumphalist ultra-Orthodox parties lash out at liberal Jews and rescind what few rights they have in the Jewish state, the American Jewish response will be anger and bitterness. Here I do not expect public statements from Mr. Netanyahu. What he needs to do is work quietly, behind the scenes, to make clear to the ultra-Orthodox parties that will soon be in his coalition that there are limits to what they can demand.

All is not lost. Liberal expectations, in Israel and America, were unrealistic. Israel is resilient and strong, and it will survive a flawed leader as it has many times before. But there are things that Mr. Netanyahu can do to strengthen his position with America and American Jews, and my fervent hope is that he will be wise enough to do them.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey.

Comments