Analysis

Jewish Critics of Trump Can Finally Appreciate Israeli Opponents of Netanyahu

Speaking out against Netanyahu and the occupation is just as legitimate as attacking Trump and his divisive policies

Protesters gather near Trump Tower to protest .S. President Donald Trump's arrival to New York, August 14, 2017.
EDUARDO MUNOZ ALVAREZ/AFP

For many years, American Jews had a hard time dealing with Israelis who were critical of their government. American Jews were taught to support Israel through thick and thin, no matter what. The sight and sound of Israelis slagging off their own elected representatives, especially when they were abroad, seemed disloyal. Israel is under siege, they reasoned, and regular rules don’t apply. If Israelis can’t support their government, they should at least stay silent and let American Jews defend their country for them.

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American Jews felt even less comfortable with those Israelis who attacked not only their current government but also the overall direction of their country and the attitudes of their fellow citizens. Pundits who claimed Israel was not doing its utmost to achieve peace. Activists who said the 50-year occupation was cruel and unusual. Intellectuals who described a steady descent down a slippery slope toward bigotry, intolerance and authoritarianism. Commentators who asserted that something was fundamentally flawed. Ordinary Israelis who said they no longer believe their country is honest or fair or just.

Hearing their favorite not-so-foreign foreign country maligned, many American Jews identified with efforts by the Israeli government and its allies in the Jewish establishment to delegitimize critics and stifle dissent. They bought the line that the fault-finders were blowing things out of proportion, that things really weren’t that bad, that life isn’t perfect, that our enemies are worse, that, all in all, everything was hunky dory. They preferred to sleep comfortably with the thought that Israel was coping well with a 50-year occupation over another people, as its government claimed, even though, in their heart of hearts, they knew this wasn’t possible.

The presidency of Donald Trump should change things forever. It should demolish the smug view that American Jews have the right to lecture Israelis about how terrible things are in their own country, or how awful they might be in the future. Armed with their own feelings toward Trump and their own apprehensions about American’s future, Jews should grow more skeptical of efforts to undermine the legitimacy of Israeli dissent. Trump’s triumph should increase mutual empathy, understanding and support between those Israelis and those American Jews who are still committed to democracy, equality and human decency but fear their countries are going another way.  

American Jews can now imagine how they would feel if people told them they were exaggerating. That Trump isn’t really that bad. That badmouthing him was wrong. That the United States has many enemies around the world, who are all too eager to exploit attacks on Trump. That even if they criticize Trump in their living rooms, they should stand up for him when they are abroad. That saying that neo-Nazis are no better or worse than their leftist opponents is reasonable, just like warning against Arab hordes or media conspiracies is acceptable. That Trump’s opponents are unpatriotic, disloyal, borderline treasonous and collaborating with foreign powers against their own country – which is how Netanyahu routinely describes his opponents on the left.

Most American Jews now regard Trump and the country that elected him president in the same way many Israelis have regarded Netanyahu and his voters for years. Just as American Jews are ashamed of their president and feel that he does not represent their values, many Israelis detest their prime minister, believe he is perpetuating the occupation and feel he is leading Israel in an immoral direction. In the eyes of their respective critics in Israel and the United States, both leaders are pandering to dangerous right-wing elements. Both are sowing division, promoting hate and inciting against the media, minorities and political opponents. Both are pitting their own countrymen one against the other. Both seem stained by corruption and both seem to think their country’s coffers are actually their own.

American liberals may have despised George W. Bush and right wingers certainly despised Barack Obama, but only Donald Trump creates the same kind of existential angst that many Israelis have been feeling for years. And contrary to Americans, who have suffered Trump for slightly more than six months, Israelis have lived with Netanyahu for close to twelve years. They know who and what they’re dealing with.

Ever since the November elections, Americans have been inundated with explanations about estrangement and deprivation and unemployment and white rage and fear of immigration and globalization and the omnipotence of social media. But in their hearts of hearts, Trump’s critics realize that all of these factors, even when taken together, offer no relief and provide no excuse. Israelis may not have been so bewildered at first by Netanyahu’s election, which was fueled by the same kind of stirred-up rage at elites and the media and liberal values, but after his fourth triumph in the polls, the justifications seem flimsier than ever. In the end one must come to terms with the possibility that a majority of the voters, of your own countrymen and women, favor intolerance, division and authoritarianism over equality and liberty for all. For disaffected Americans and Israelis alike, love for their country is tainted by disgust for its choices and fears of where these will lead. And they feel both the urge and the justification to say so.

So the next time American Jews hear Jewish right wingers attack Israelis who criticize Netanyahu or the occupation or the decline of Israeli democracy, all they have to do is ask themselves how they would feel if someone challenged their own right to lambaste Trump or to portray his destructive influence on American morals and mores. And the next time anyone claims that critics of Israel or of the occupation or of Israeli society are unpatriotic or disloyal or stabbing their country in the back, American Jews should be ready, willing and able to reply that, no, actually, it’s the other way round. Those who are willing to condone hate and incitement are the true traitors. But those who urge their country to change course, who speak out against intolerance and injustice, who refuse to go quietly into the night – they are the true patriots. Israeli or American, refusing to support leaders and policies you feel are wrong and unjust is the only right thing to do.