American Jews should brace themselves. Next Wednesday is not going to be pleasant. Benjamin Netanyahu is coming to Donald Trump’s White House and in all likelihood it’s going to be a love fest. The two leaders could be all over each other with hugs and kisses and songs of praise. Many American Jews, probably most, will feel a bit queasy. They’ll do their best to avert their eyes and look the other way.
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Mind you, if you only listen to Netanyahu and other Israeli politicians these days, you might reach the conclusion that America’s new president is Henry Kissinger, Otto von Bismarck and Winston Churchill all rolled into one. Finally, you might assume, the world is being led by a courageous leader who knows how to look reality straight in the eye and is not afraid to act. He’s put Iran on notice, told Palestinians where to get off, sent Europeans running for cover, warned the United Nations to clean up its act and, most heartwarming of all, he loves Israel to death. Who could ask for more?
Some American Jews feel the same way, of course, but they are in the minority, arguably one that’s smaller today than the 25 percent that gave Trump their vote in the November elections. The rest, at least those that follow such things, have had to watch and hear Israeli leaders, from Netanyahu on down, fawning over Trump and portraying him as God’s answer to the Jewish people. Many of them will be asking themselves, excuse the vulgarity: "WTF?"
This is what the Jewish state has to say about our foul-mouthed ignoramus of a president? About the women-hating, abortion-denying, immigrant-baiting, judge-demeaning Donald J. Trump? About a president who has inspired anti-Semites all over America to come slithering out from under their rocks? About a chief executive who hasn’t said a word about the recurring bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers? About an American president who has done more for Holocaust denial than anyone since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? This is the president that Israel is going gaga over?
How is it, these bewildered Jews might wonder, that this brave, courageous, patriotic Israeli government, defender of the faith and protector of Jews everywhere – along with most Israelis, in fact – has shamefully refrained from saying a word about the anti-Semitism that has metastasized under Trump’s wings? Has steadfastly refused to criticize Trump’s intentional omission of Jews from the White House's Holocaust Day statement? Has yawned as Trump turns discrimination against Muslims into America’s new state religion? Has ignored Trump’s hostility toward the rule of law and the danger that he poses for democracy? Has laughed as Trump poisons America’s relations with some of its best friends, as if it’s all one big joke?
One narrative that’s already been widely explored is the growing divergence between right-wing Jews, for whom Israel is the paramount – if not only – concern, and left-wing Jews, for whom universal values, freedom and democracy are just as important, if not more. Up until now, Netanyahu and his right-wing partners in the Israeli coalition have tolerated American Jewish liberals, at best, because they had no choice. They needed their support, in Congress, at AIPAC, in American Jewish organizations throughout the land. But now there is a Republican president, a Republican Congress, Christian Evangelicals and Sheldon Adelson, all of whom share Netanyahu’s worldview – as well as his disdain for Jewish leftists – so there’s really no more reason to keep on catering to liberal Jews or pretending to foster bipartisanship. And Israelis, let’s face it, were never all that interested in the first place.
But there is another way of looking at it. Liberal American Jews are finally getting a taste of their own medicine. Now, when it is the U.S. and not Israel which is descending down a slippery slope toward curtailment of freedoms, religious discrimination and authoritarianism; When it is the U.S. and not Israel where the government undermines the independence of the judiciary and the media, like any tin pot dictatorship in the making; When it is the U.S. and not Israel that is branding Muslims a priori as potential terrorists before they even open their mouths.
Now, when the U.S. and Israel truly have “shared values” – though not necessarily in a good way – American Jews can finally understand how if feels when your brothers, sisters and cousins prefer to look the other way. When they ignore your complaints and tell you you’re exaggerating. When your dire predictions of where your country is headed are met with derision, if not hostility. When you feel that your own family is stabbing you in the back.
For so many years, with a few notable exceptions, American Jews of all persuasions have turned a blind eye to the fears and anxieties of Israelis who actually share their core values. When Israeli leftists demonstrated against the occupation, against abuses of human rights, against institutionalized discrimination, most American Jews preferred to accept the official government line that these are just self-hating, if not traitorous, Israelis out to damage their country. When Israelis described tarnished democracy, a repressive atmosphere, fear of speaking out, most – though not all – American Jews said they were exaggerating. Or lying. Or working for the other side.
When Israeli commentators and politicians complained about Netanyahu’s incitement against political enemies and the Arab minority, American Jews were otherwise engaged. When they explained how Netanyahu and his government have endeavored to weaken the media and to undermine the Supreme Court, American Jews preferred to believe Israel's Sean Spicers and Kellyanne Conways, who swore it was all a lie. American commentators and pundits, both left and right, who are now rightfully alarmed at Trump’s sabotage of custom, convention and common courtesy laughed their heads off when their Israeli counterparts warned against the exact same thing in the Holy Land. It’s only leftist whining, they comforted themselves. They’re only a minority, after all. Who cares what they say?
It was so convenient to stick to the party line. It is not the role of American Jews to intervene in Israel’s internal affairs. We don’t vote in the Israeli elections. We don’t send our boys to the Israeli army. We have to work with the duly elected government. And it was the safer course, in any case. Who wants to find himself badmouthed by Netanyahu, like J Street or the New Israel Fund or Breaking the Silence? Who would want to be placed on the enemies’ list of the growing number of rabid right-wing Jewish organizations and activists who will pounce on you and make your life miserable if you dare to criticize Israel? What is the difference between them and the legions of right-wing trolls who pounce on every Jew who has something bad to say about Trump?
American Jewish organizations snap to attention whenever an Israeli politician recites one of the four fabled code words "Iran," "BDS," "Palestinians" or "terror," along with "anti-Semitism," so long as it isn’t Trump’s. Some of them also get worked up about pluralism, because that’s their own thing. But democracy? Freedom of speech? Racial discrimination? Equality? Women’s rights? Religious coercion? Fifty years of disenfranchisement of millions of Palestinians? Fuggedaboutit. That’s not our thing. We don’t want to know. Let’s not invite speakers who insist on talking about it. Let’s filter them out for Jewish delegations visiting Israel. Let Israelis figure things out all by themselves. Meanwhile, Netanyahu gives such great speeches, doesn’t he? Did you hear him at the UN? He really let the Jew-haters have it! Such naches.
So now the shoe is on the other foot. American Jews are apprehensive. Some fear for their families, some for their future, some for the safety and prosperity of the Jewish community as a whole. Many are looking at their fellow Americans differently than they did only a year ago, many are concerned about the direction taken by the great country that allowed them to flourish and prosper. They wonder how this will all end. Of course, these are the exact same feelings that many liberal Israelis have been having for years. Nah, don’t exaggerate, they were told by American Jews. It’s not that bad. We had a UJA mission, and they came back raving. So leave us alone.
Don’t get me wrong: This is not Schadenfreude. The indifference of so many Israelis to Trump’s arrogance and immorality is appalling. The apathy toward anti-Semitism and the distress of American Jews is shameful. In fact, perhaps there’s even a silver lining in the dark clouds gathering above. Maybe recent events will serve as wake-up call for like-minded Jews everywhere. Perhaps some of them will learn a lesson from right-wingers, who have been supporting each other for years.
Perhaps it will finally dawn on liberal Jews in both countries that you can’t give our support automatically, like robots, no matter who’s in charge, because by doing so we are undermining ourselves.
Let the reactionary right-wingers go nuts for each other while they can, but Jews who support liberty, equality and fraternity must finally find each other, before it’s too late – even if it already is. “We must all hang together,” as Benjamin Franklin said, “or most assuredly we shall all hang separately.”