American Jews weren’t surprised by the attack of Tzipi Hotovely, the deputy foreign minister who is the de facto foreign minister. Her crude insults were even quoted by leading neo-Nazi website Daily Stormer, but this has long been part of the pattern of the fraught relations between Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and U.S. Jews. Jewish leaders won’t say so publicly, but privately they say far harsher things.
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Israel regularly humiliates them, spits in their faces and treat them as second-class Jews or even non-Jews, but amazingly American Jews still love and treasure Israel. They avoid “washing our dirty laundry in public,” as a prominent figure there told me. But make no mistake: The damage is great, the rift ever wider.
In the eyes of Hotovely and her ilk, American Jews are guilty of an unpardonable sin: They aren’t right-wingers. They have always tended to vote Democrat, and did so in the past three presidential elections. They voted for Barack Obama and then for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, both anathema to the Israeli right.
Most U.S. Jews are liberal, moderate and tolerant. As a minority that has known discrimination and anti-Semitism, they abhor racism and religious extremism. They greatly influence the wider battles against these ills.
Despite accounting for just 2 percent of the population, it’s impossible to imagine the U.S. civil rights movement, culture and the arts, politics, the economy or the country’s overall spirit without the Jews. It is a splendid community. But instead of being a source of pride to the Israeli government, this community is a bone in its throat, simply because most American Jews are not Orthodox and some are critical of Israeli policy in the territories or on religious issues.
Still, American Jews’ liberalism is nothing new, so what has changed over the past few years? Israel has changed. As right-wing extremism has grown, Israel has increasingly turned its back on and demonstrated contempt and arrogance toward a community that proves that a different kind of Judaism is possible. This community refutes the thesis that Judaism necessarily involves nationalism. It sees tikkun olam, the injunction to “repair the world,” as a guiding principle, not an empty slogan.
Israel, in contrast, acts as if it had the copyright on Judaism, which it has reduced to a fetish for the West Bank lands of Samaria and Hebron. Netanyahu is not truly the prime minister of the Jewish people, as he likes to style himself, because he has abandoned American Jews. Even the agreement he signed on prayer arrangements at the Western Wall, which is so important to them, he threw into the garbage because of pressure from the ultra-Orthodox. It sometimes seems as if parts of his government prefer evangelical Christians, or even U.S. right-wing extremists in, to U.S. Jews.
What do we Israelis risk when our government foments such a schism with the world’s largest Jewish community? A loss of donations? A weakening of the Jewish lobby? These are important, but they really aren’t the main issue.
What we risk is severe damage to our identity and our values. The flourishing American Jewish community could be a source of exceptional wealth to us — not in money, in donations to party primaries — spiritual wealth.
This is the essence of modern Zionism: building a deep cultural and spiritual connection between Jewish communities that no longer need Israel as a refuge and a state that no longer needs Diaspora Jews’ money. This connection has enormous potential, on the condition that we can learn to respect and accept each other.
But the right has forgotten what it means to be Zionist. Netanyahu doesn’t want creative, opinionated Jews, but rather an obedient flock, a reservoir of blind support and a disciplined lobby for all the government’s idiocies. Oh yes, and money, of course. That, even Hotovely is happy to accept from American Jews. And by the way, it’s easy for Netanyahu to jump on her, but what she shouted from the rooftops, he and his people also say in private.