Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer, took off whatever remained of his mask this week. He ignored protests by civil rights watchdogs, Jewish and non-Jewish, and came to New York to be honored by one of America’s most prominent Islamophobes, Frank Gaffney.
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Along with Morton Klein of the right wing Zionist Organization of America, Dermer accepted the “Freedom Flame” award from Gaffney’s group, the Center for Security Policy. He lauded Gaffney, a world-class conspiracy theorist, as a freedom fighter who “stood up for all of us.” But he lambasted the Southern Poverty Law Center, an icon of the Civil Rights Movement, which had criticized Gaffney and protested against Dermer’s willingness to accept his award. The SPLC and their kind, he said, were nothing less than “defamers and blacklisters” who stifle “erudite scholars and courageous reformers” by depicting them as racists and bigots.
Even for an ambassador who has mainly served as Benjamin Netanyahu’s personal emissary to the American right and who has steadfastly boycotted groups such as J Street, Dermer was crossing a new red line. Despite the low expectations that the liberal establishment has of him, at a time when reality is stranger than fiction all around, Dermer managed to shock many American Jews. Dermer knows that opposition to his participation in the ceremony didn’t only come from the SPLC but from the Reform Movement, the Anti-Defamation League and smaller Jewish groups as well.
He’s smart enough to realize what kind of message he is sending by giving his blessing, on behalf of the State of Israel, to the rabidly anti-Muslim Gaffney and his Center for Security Policy, who have claimed that Barack Obama is Muslim, that he wasn’t born in America, that he is introducing Sharia Law, that the Muslim Brotherhood is infiltrating the administration and that Huma Abedin, Hillary Clinton’s close aide, is working for them. In December, Gaffney wrote that Obama’s “anti-Israel troika of female advisers” - Susan Rice, Samantha Power and Hillary Clinton - had pushed the “Gaddafi Precedent” in order to justify - are you ready for this? - an American military invasion of Israel.
Perhaps Dermer and his superiors in Jerusalem took a shine to Gaffney when they found out that he was the source of a bogus poll that concluded that 25 percent of American Muslims support violent jihad. They probably fell in love in Gaffney when they read that he might have been the inspiration for Trump’s plan to ban the entry of Muslims to America, which was immediately rejected by senior Republicans who, like Menachem Begin and the Likud, represent the fading wing of the GOP that still believes in democracy and moral governance. But it was this statement that turned Trump into a hero for Islamophobes everywhere, from Middle America to the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. Dermer’s acceptance of Gaffney’s award, therefore, was a symbolic changing of the guard.
In the months leading up to the elections, when everyone was convinced Clinton would win the elections and Democrats would retake the Senate, Netanyahu had been gearing himself to mend fences with the large parts of the Democratic Party that he had alienated in his infamous March 2015 speech to Congress against the Iran nuclear deal, in particular, and his tense relations with President Obama, in general. Now he’s breathing a huge sigh of relief: not only will Netanyahu not have to curry favor with the kind of knee-jerk leftists he detests, not only will he finally be serving opposite a Republican administration, but the emerging White House and presidential cabinet seem to collectively reflect the sweet dreams Netanyahu’s been having since time immemorial.
One part of Trump’s team is comprised of fabulously rich, older, white, conservative businessmen of the same type that Netanyahu has been cultivating for over thirty years, ever since he was Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. Alongside them in the cabinet, but more importantly in the White House, are proponents of the “clash of civilizations” between “Judeo-Christian values” and militant Islam, which may cure itself one day, as Dermer told Gaffney’s guests, in what his spokesman portrayed as a brave message to his CSP audience.
It’s true that the designated Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has emerged as a sort of unknown quantity, a fly in the ointment, not only because of his extensive dealings with Arab leaders as Chairman of Exxon Mobil but also because he comes highly recommended by the realpolitik wing of his fellow Texan Bush family. Tillerson’s candidacy was suggested to Trump by three former top officials affiliated with Bush, including former National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and former Secretary of State James Baker. It was Baker who banned then Deputy Foreign Minister Netanyahu from the State Department after he had described U.S. policy in 1990 as “based on lies and distortions,” proving that the more things change the more they stay the same and that Netanyahu didn’t get along too well with Republican administrations either.
In a preemptive move, therefore, Netanyahu was the first foreign leader - outside of Vladimir Putin, of course - to publicly laud Trump in his interview with Lesley Stahl of 60 Minutes this week. He is hoping to finally find an American interlocutor who appreciates his experience and wisdom rather than delivering self-righteous lectures that he’s had to suffer since Bill Clinton was in office in the 1990s about the peace process, settlement expansion, removal of roadblocks, human rights and all the leftist word salad that was so important to Obama and his officials. Netanyahu, after all, is on the same wavelength with the Trump administration, and not only in their joint suspicion of Islam, hostility towards Iran and admiration for Putin’s muscled arms. Netanyahu, like Dermer, is not only an Israeli right winger but an American conservative at heart: he already cited Trump as a role model this week, expressing envy at the U.S. president’s authority to fire and hire 4,000 top officials for his administration.
Like Trump, Netanyahu has an aversion to diplomacy, international organizations, the UN and Europe. He too believes in showing force and in the manifest destiny of white America. Both of them are supported by Evangelicals, are wary of minorities, deride sacrosanct liberal values such as freedom of speech, detest courts that put themselves above the popular will, feel exposed to the media and wage war on it every chance they get, can’t tolerate personal criticism and tend to view it as a sinister conspiracy. Both of them can’t stomach civil rights campaigns and liberation movements and all other leftist mumbo jumbo that is espoused by their political rivals, especially Jews. They are both viewed suspiciously by American Jews, who voted against Trump en masse and who are growing steadily distant from Netanyahu and they are both revered as agents of change by Gaffney and other dedicated anti-Islamists, some of whom, like Trump and Netanyahu themselves, are funded by Sheldon Adelson.
In all of these, they are almost a mirror image of Obama. Obama dedicated his eight years in office to instilling and trying to implement the kind of liberal values that Netanyahu and Trump detest and American Jews cherish. Obama naturally identifies with minorities. He sees America as a multi-faceted, multicultural amalgam with a complex identity, an America that is steadily evolving from the white-dominated country it used to be to a colorful, egalitarian nation that is slowly forgetting its past.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates recounts in his long and wonderful report in the Atlantic, "My President is Black," Obama seems naive, as many Israelis have been claiming all along and as one could restate this week in the shadows of the harrowing scenes of massacre in Aleppo, Syria. Perhaps because he grew up in a mixed and loving family, Coates theorizes, Obama seems to believe that most white Americans have put their racist days behind them. Apparently it’s one of the reasons he could not accept the fact that one of the reasons for Trump’s victory was the counteraction of white America against his black presidency.
Obama held his last Hanukkah candle lighting ceremony at the White House this week. The outgoing president, who made point of lighting the candles and holding a Passover Seder each and every year, recounted, in a play on the Hanukkah legend of the miraculous cruse of oil, that after his first ceremony critics claimed “it would last for only a year, but it lasted for eight years.” Then he uttered, in Hebrew, the mandatory Hanukkah slogan of Nes Gadol Haya Po, a great miracle occurred here. His audience, Jewish officials, machers and fans from all around, laughed, but with more than a tinge of melancholy. Unlike the image created in far away Israel, his American Jewish admirers know there never was and perhaps never will be a president who knew Jews like Obama, who enjoyed their company, their culture and their humor, who steeped himself in Yiddishkeit, who viewed the Jewish community as his partner in promoting liberty and equality.
In a month, Obama will vacate the White House and make way for a totally different regime. His love of Jews will be replaced by hostility towards Muslims, which Netanyahu and Dermer apparently prefer. He will take with him the grace, restraint and personal integrity, the eloquence and the moderation, his unabashed love for his wife and his wholesome family, his knowledge and intellect, his openness and his coolness, all of which have made him increasingly popular in the waning days of his tenure. In his stead America will get an easily-irritated and vindictive commander in chief who is largely ignorant about the issues and can’t formulate an eloquent sentence if his life depended on it, a president who will be accompanied by scandal from his first day in office till his last. If God or fate will be kind to us, Trump will turn out to have positive traits that he has kept well hidden till now.
Netanyahu, Dermer and others of their ilk will rejoice at the changing of the guards, but many others, including most American Jews, as well as Israeli moderates and leftists, will feel dejected and abandoned. Tell me which group you belong to, Trump celebrants or Obama mourners, and I’ll tell you who you are.