American Jews Don't Care That Israel's Democracy Is Falling Apart

There’s a disconcerting, and indefensible, ‘no comment’ from every major U.S. Jewish group, politician and public intellectual on Netanyahu’s palace coup. The coronavirus crisis isn’t the only reason

Charles Dunst
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Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech regarding the new measures that will be taken to fight the Corona virus in Israel, at his Jerusalem office, March 14, 2020.
Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech regarding the new measures to fight the coronavirus in Israel, at his Jerusalem office, March 14, 2020Credit: AFP
Charles Dunst

Benjamin Netanyahu is opportunistically seizing the coronavirus crisis, as he would any other crisis, to cement his grip on power. 

In recent days, Netanyahu and his right-wing allies – despite being defeated in the March 2 elections – have shut down Israel’s court system ahead of the prime minister’s corruption trial, began tracking citizens using counterterrorism methods without any parliamentary oversight, and blocked the Knesset from even convening.

His opponent Benny Gantz has the numbers needed to form a government; Netanyahu, while evidently little more than a caretaker premier, has pushed forward, without a mandate, illiberal, and undeterred, with what is essentially a palace coup.

This is the first time in Israeli history that an outgoing minority government has blocked their replacements from implementing the will of the voters. And yet, due to the acute coronavirus crisis at home and a long-running unwillingness to too harshly criticize Israeli leadership, the American and broader diasporic Jewish community has been disconcertingly quiet in response, failing to condemn Netanyahu’s obvious Orbánization of Israel

Israeli police officers scuffle with a man during a pro-democracy protest that defied coronavirus restrictions on large gatherings outside the Knesset Jerusalem. March 19, 2020
Israeli police officers scuffle with a man during a pro-democracy protest that defied coronavirus restrictions on large gatherings outside the Knesset Jerusalem. March 19, 2020.Credit: Eyal Warshavsky,AP

This continued willingness to give Israeli leaders like Netanyahu the benefit of the doubt is a mistake. Our influential diaspora must learn to walk and chew gum at the same time and, in this case, address the coronavirus in our various homes while refusing to any longer stand by as Netanyahu takes every opportunity to erode Israel’s democratic norms. 

Popular media has for years predicted an American Jewish split from an increasingly-right-wing Israel. Left-wing American Jews and Israeli Likudniks are generally portrayed as incompatible factions waging a war from seemingly opposite sides. 

But American Jews remain overwhelmingly pro-Israel, despite the Jewish State’s rightward turn. As of early 2020, some 80 percent consider themselves "pro-Israel," while nearly 70 percent are emotionally “attached” or “very attached” to the Jewish State. Almost 60 percent consider themselves "pro-Israel but critical of Israeli policy." 

Indeed, there is a political chasm between Israel’s long-governing right-wing and the American Jewish community: U.S. Jews cite Netanyahu’s support for President Trump, increasing religious right-wing influence, and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians as their main reasons for criticizing the same Jewish State of which they still consider themselves supporters.

American Jews, who are overwhelmingly politically liberal, would not support a Netanyahu-like government in Washington; why would they support one in Jerusalem?

But Netanyahu’s evangelism of fear, his securing of Israel’s Jewish identity by vilifying everywhere else as dangerous, plays well in Israel. He has for years galvanized support by pushing an "us-versus-them" security narrative, raising the Holocaust and the threat of a nuclear Iran to tap into Jewish Israelis’ security concerns. Once in office, his government has pursued bigoted measures that amount to segregation.

A closed primary school is seen in Ramat Gan, Israel, Sunday, March 15, 2020
A closed primary school is seen in Ramat Gan, Israel, Sunday, March 15, 2020Credit: Oded Balilty,AP

He has also paid significant attention to projecting strength abroad –something for which Israelis yearn – courting autocrats in every corner of the world, including those in Hungary, Russia, Chad, and Azerbaijan, to demonstrate Israel’s global success.

Given all of this, it seems that American Jewish and, indeed, Zionist leaders would be quick to distance themselves from Netanyahu. And yet, despite our professed liberalism, American Jews have kept normalizing this illiberal prime minister, repeatedly inviting him to speak, albeit if by videoconference, at mainstream events like AIPAC.

It was, therefore, unsurprising that Netanyahu’s coronavirus maneuvering was met mostly with silence.

Neither the American Jewish Committee nor American Jewish Congress criticized Israel’s prime minister. Instead, the latter’s most recent public statement "praises Israel for staying true to its values and showcasing its humanitarian convictions." Even the politically liberal Union for Reform Judaism has so far stayed silent. (The Israel Policy Forum and Rabbi Jill Jacobs of T’ruah are notable exceptions here.)

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks at the 2019 AIPAC conference, Washington D.C., March 25, 2019.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer speaks at the 2019 AIPAC conference, Washington D.C., March 25, 2019.Credit: Jose Luis Magana,AP

American Jewish Zionist politicians and public intellectuals have been just as disappointing. There has been nothing from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Eliot Engel or from mainstream Jewish media torchbearers like The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg and The New York Times’s Bari Weiss.

This silence, while perhaps a result of more general concern over the coronavirus, is stark, and evidence of the diaspora’s continued unwillingness to truly condemn Netanyahu, lest that criticism be construed as anti-Zionist or otherwise delegitimizing of Israel.

Netanyahu’s sermons of fear seem to have left a mark on a Jewish diaspora comprising families who each have their own tragic histories of anti-Semitism: He’s helped instill within our community the false belief that too vociferous criticism of his leadership or any Israeli leader will in some way undermine the Jewish State’s existence; the diaspora fears doing precisely that, lest anti-Semitism abroad get so bad abroad that we ever need our Israeli safe haven.

But Israelis themselves know that castigating Netanyahu, or any leader for that matter, does not undermine Israel’s existence.

Israel’s preeminent and usually reluctant-to-comment-on-politics historian Yuval Noah Harari recently declared that Netanyahu "under pretext of fighting corona, he has closed the Israeli parliament, ordered people to stay in their homes, and is issuing whatever emergency decrees he wishes. This is called a dictatorship."

Meanwhile, Israeli protesters, violating Health Ministry orders against gatherings of more than 10 people, turned out in Jerusalem to demand that the Knesset be allowed to meet. 600,000 Israelis joined an online protest to signal their opposition to Netanyahu's actions.

The time for respectability politics – epitomized by years of liberal Zionists expressing "concern" with Netanyahu without taking meaningful action – is over. American and diaspora Jews more broadly would be wise to follow these Israelis’ lead and more vocally denounce Netanyahu’s illiberalism before it’s too late. Perhaps it already is. 

Charles Dunst is an associate at LSE IDEAS, the London School of Economics’ foreign policy think tank, and a journalist who has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and Foreign Policy, among other publications. Twitter: @CharlesDunst

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