After so many years in power, it’s sometimes hard to forget a simple fact: Benjamin Netanyahu is not Israel. That's despite his tendency to annoint himself king of the Jewish people, and Diaspora Jewry’s acceptance, whether resigned or adulatory, of that rhetoric.
U.S. Jews were given a stark reminder of this Sunday, when Netanyahu’s government voted to freeze a compromise deal, hammered out with Diaspora Jewish cooperation, to ensure religious freedom in the Western Wall for Jews of all types, and not just those supporting his continued hold on power.
"Support for Israel doesn't necessarily mean support for the Israeli government," the new chair of the Jewish Agency’s board, Michael Siegal, said. Conservative movement head Rabbi Julie Schoenfeld declared Diaspora Jewry had undergone a "decoupling" between the government and politicians of Israel and the people of Israel. Strong words, indeed, rare, if not unprecedented, from American Jewish establishment leaders.
On his first day in the job, the head of the storied Jewish Agency, which under David Ben-Gurion’s stewardship announced the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 as a democratic national homeland for the Jewish people, had to declare Netanyahu’s decision has the "potential to divide the Jewish people and to undermine the Zionist vision."
While many on the Israeli Zionist left have long said that dividing the Jewish people and undermining the Zionist dream are Netanyahu’s bread and butter, such words are rarely heard from mainstream U.S. Jewish leaders, let alone the Jewish Agency.
U.S. Jews have long repressed a simple fact: The head of the Israeli government is not one and the same as the State of Israel itself. And just as simple: you can support the State, and oppose the government.
And who can blame them? After so many years it’s hard to remember where Bibi ends and Israel starts. Netanyahu himself has proactively blurred these lines, cultivating his dual status as the prime minister of Israel and his (self-declared role as) the prime minister of the entire Jewish people.
From his annual address at AIPAC, to his infamous 2015 address to Congress against the threat the Iranian nuclear program, Netanyahu has long claimed to speak for Jews everywhere. He’s also repeatedly linked threats to Israel to those who’ve exterminated the Jewish people in the past, such as Nazis, even, or Muftigate, equating the Palestinians with this same terminology.
Netanyahu plays the same game at home, regularly equating criticism of his government’s policies with criticism of Israel, demonizing anti-occupation groups like Breaking the Silence or critical journalists. Just a few months ago he refused to meet the visiting German foreign minister because of the latter’s insistence on meeting with "critics of the Israeli government." For Netanyahu, l’etat c’est moi.
Netanyahu has never been an ally of civil liberties in Israel. This week it was the religious freedom of non-Orthodox Jews, but many key rights and liberties are increasingly being trampled on in Netanyahu’s Israel, from a new ethical code expected to rein in ‘political’ professors, to blatant attempts to control artistic content and expression.
In recent months, even the right to protest has faced some challenges, as government lawyers attempted to bar or restrict weekly protests convening outside the house of Israel’s attorney general. And that’s without mentioning his hate-mongering against Israeli Arabs or his patron Sheldon Adelson’s devastating interference with the Israeli media market on Netanyahu's behalf.
But all these topics were, in practice, taboo for U.S. Jews not openly affiliated with the progressive left. There was a pervasive fear that offering opinions on these issues would be abused by pro-BDS voices to tarnish Israel. There was also a deep complacency to this tightening of civil discourse as long as they could be seen to only affect those considered too alien, or too hostile to to US Jews’ experience (be they Palestinians, Israeli Arabs or far-left Israelis).
From the time of Ben-Gurion, Israel’s deal with U.S. Jews has been based on an assumption of a shared fate. U.S. Jews would defend Israel abroad and it would forever remain open to them should the Jewish diaspora face peril again. But Netanyahu has broken that bond, again and again. "American Jewry stands up to protect [Israel] on campuses and against the BDS boycott movement," MK Rachel Azaria stated, and "this decision harms them."
It also harms us in Israel: Negating the distinction between the state and its leader is one of the central tenets of fascism, and treating Israel only as a state in need of a strong army and unwavering support for its very survival only feeds what the head of the Israeli opposition Isaac Herzog dubbed over the weekend as “the fascistization of Israeli politics.”
Thanks to his warm embrace of Trump, and his unwillingness to seriously advance peace with the Palestinians, many in the liberal Jewish left in the U.S. have understood that Netanyahu poses a threat to the idea of a democratic and Zionist Israel in meta-terms, even if they’ve not delved into the domestic day-to-day threats to Israeli civil society. Mainstream and right-wing U.S. Jewry would be wise to follow suit. Now it is clear that he is just as willing to throw the religious liberties of the majority of U.S. Jews under the bus as he is willing to throw those of Israeli Arabs or left-wing Jews. Even if Diaspora Jews failed to speak out before when others were targeted, now they can’t escape the evidence staring them in the face.
As the divide between the state and the political macher heading it grow clearer, American Jews of all political affiliations should act on this realization: Netanyahu is not synonymous with Israel or the Jewish people. He betrayed you, and challenging him is not betraying Zionism or your connection to the Jewish state.
It’s not just OK, but desirable and necessary, to vocally and tangibly oppose Israeli government policies you disagree with and that harm you. You’re not threatening the foundations of the Jewish state by doing so, you’re saving it.
Omer Benjakob is a news editor at Haaretz. Born in New York and raised in Tel Aviv, he holds a B.A. in political science and philosophy and is pursuing an M.A. in philosophy of science. Twitter: @omerbenj
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