Opinion |

Israel's Solidarity With Diaspora Jews Died Well Before Pittsburgh

Many U.S. Jews were shocked by Netanyahu’s ludicrously sycophantic praise for Trump the racist inciter after Pittsburgh. Their shock was misplaced. Israel will always choose national interests over Jewish solidarity

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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US President Donald Trump (L) shakes hands with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on May 23, 2017
US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem on May 23, 2017Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The old Israeli spy chief Rafi Eitan could hardly be accused of having much sympathy for Nazis - or even Germans in general.

Back in 1946, as a 19 year-old Palmach fighter, he had been part of a secret operation to violently dissuade the Nazi-supporting German Templars in forced exile from returning to Palestine after the war. Eitan murdered two Templar farmers, in front of their families, and is unapologetic about it to this day. More famously, Eitan was the commander of the Mossad team that captured Adolf Eichmann in Argentina in 1960.

So it came as a surprise earlier this year when Eitan was revealed as the most prominent Jewish supporter of the German far-right party, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

I asked Eitan a few weeks ago why he had gone as far as to record a video congratulating the AfD on its recent election victories, and commending them for their support of Judaism and opposition to the "Islamization of Europe." He was emphatic.

"As the Muslim minorities of European countries like Germany, Austria and Holland grow, sooner or later they will influence politics there and those countries relationships with Israel. To prevent that, we need to connect with the parties in those countries that understand the danger."

Some have sought to portray the 91 year-old Eitan as just a senile old codger whose words shouldn’t be taken seriously any longer. Israel’s ambassador in Germany, Jeremy Issacharoff, condemned them back in February, when Eitan first expressed his support for AfD. For now at least, official Israeli policy is to stay away from such parties in Western Europe.

In Germany it’s relatively easy, as the AfD is not in government and unlikely to be in the near future. In Austria however, the like-minded Freedom Party (FPÖ) is part of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s coalition, and while the policy remains not to engage with FPÖ ministers, ties with Kurz and his government are strong.

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But what to do when the most powerful government on earth and Israel’s most important strategic ally is governed by a far-right xenophobe who repeatedly encourages his white supremacist and anti-Semitic supporters?

Donald Trump is of the same ilk in his racist views to AfD’s leaders Alexander Gauland and Austrian Vice Chancellor and FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache. The only difference is that he’s president of the United States.

A protester against the new Austrian government which included a far-right party with Nazi roots. Vienna, Austria. December 18, 2017Credit: Joe Klamar / AFP

Many American Jews were shocked by Benjamin Netanyahu’s ludicrously sycophantic praise for Trump's condolences after the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, and by Netanyahu’s right-hand man and ambassador to the U.S., Ron Dermer who declared: "I am not aware of a single non-Israeli leader that has made such a strong statement in condemning anti-Semitism."

And by Israel’s Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett, who not only praised Trump as well but tried to contradict the ADL’s reports on a surge in anti-Semitic incidents since he launched his toxic presidential campaign three years ago.

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They needn’t have been shocked. Israel’s leaders have a different set of priorities to theirs. For Israel, maintaining healthy relations with the administration will always take precedence over the welfare of American Jews and when there is a contradiction between the two, their duty is to Israel’s national interest, as they perceive it.

Netanyahu, who shares many of Trump’s nativist beliefs, is easy to criticize. But what about his liberal rivals in Israeli politics? What about Avi Gabbay and Tzipi Livni and Yair Lapid? They all made impassioned statements of solidarity with American Jews. But not one of them criticized Trump or his administration, not even in an oblique way.

And this is while they are in opposition, and have less responsibility. Imagine they were in power in 2018. They would be hardly be less supportive of Trump than Netanyahu, Bennett and Dermer. Perhaps they would have they would have been a bit more mindful of Jewish sensitivities and been a bit less overt about it, but essentially they would have done the same.

And anyway, while Netanyahu and Dermer may be more blatant, they didn’t invent anything. The first Israeli prime minister to lobby for U.S. Jews to vote for a president with racist and anti-Semitic tendencies was actually Yitzhak Rabin, who as ambassador to the U.S. in 1972, performed a similar role for Richard Nixon.

Farewell AmericaCredit: AP

The truth is that while everyone pays lip-service to Jewish solidarity, the interests of Israel and the Jewish Diaspora are always a Venn diagram with some overlap, but also wide areas of divergence. And it doesn’t matter where you are on the Israeli political spectrum, there is always some divergence.

David Ben-Gurion believed that establishing a Jewish state was the most important priority and said quite clearly, both before and after the Holocaust, that all available resources should be devoted to this purpose, even if it came at the expense of Jewish refugees who had no intention of arriving in Israel. (Only during the Holocaust itself, did he recognize that the first priority was saving Jewish lives).

In the early 1950s, the socialist-Zionists of Mapam, who believed that Israel’s interests laid in Moscow, turned a blind eye when Jews, including their own HaShomer Hatzair members were being arrested, tortured and put on trial in the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia.

The Talmudic principle of kol yisrael arevim ze ba’ze - literally, all Jews are responsible for each other, is a truly beautiful concept, especially in the way the Midrash tries to explain it: We are all in the same boat, and if one of us starts drilling a hole in the hold, they can’t just say it’s their private cabin and no-one else’s business.

But how does that principle work where diverse Jewish communities feel they have contradictory interests?

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban greets Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prior to the the Visegrad Group meeting in Budapest, Hungary. July 19, 2017Credit: Balazs Mohai,AP

Until the late 19th century, Jews rarely had enough political power to intercede on behalf of other Jewish communities. What little influence Jews had was devoted to trying to guarantee the survival of their local community and, like Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye, trying to bargain down how many windows would be smashed in the next pogrom.

For a short period there was a tiny handful of immensely wealthy Jews like Moses Montefiore and some of the Rothschilds who had the connections to help Jews in other countries, but it wasn’t until the last 100 years or so when Jews in the West, and then Israel, had the freedom and soft-power, or even hard power, necessary to help Jews abroad.

And initially they were wary of using any such influence. Jews in American and Britain love to celebrate venerable organizations like HIAS, or commemorate the Kindertransport. The less-told story is how for decades their old German and Portuguese Jewish elites were not that eager to welcome an influx of uncouth Ostjuden fleeing the Pale of Settlement. That was partly out of upper-class snobbishness, and partly as well due to very real fears that too many foreign Jews could trigger anti-Semitism, and jeopardize the tenuous gains they had only recently made through emancipation.

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That was also the reason many Jewish leaders opposed early Zionism. Not because of any consideration for the Arabs of Palestine or out of Socialism or Communism. Zionism was originally envisaged as a way of building a refuge for east European Jews suffering from Czarist pogroms. But Jews in the West (including Germany of course) believed that, for them, pogroms were a thing of the past and were worried that Jewish sovereignty would give the governments in their countries an excuse to backtrack on equality for Jewish citizens.

It wasn’t all bad. Eventually Jews in the West did open their hearts to the Ostjuden, lobby furiously for the Jewish state and donate billions to it – and Israel would carry out airlifts for Jews from Yemen and Ethiopia, nearly bankrupt itself in the early 1950s to absorb over a million Jewish refugees from the DP camps in Europe and Arab countries and then do so again in the early 1990s for Jews leaving the crumbling Soviet Union.

But there are limits to Israel acting in the name of Jewish solidarity when it means jeopardizing its political interests.

U.S. President Donald Trump talks with Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer and Tree of Life Synagogue Rabbi Jeffrey Myers.Credit: \ KEVIN LAMARQUE/ REUTERS

Personally, I disagree deeply with the Eitans, Netanyahus and Dermers of this world. I don’t think that Trump’s "pro-Israel" policies are helpful for Israel in the long-term, some are downright destructive. And I don’t share the fear of the rise of Islamism in Europe, and certainly don’t think an alliance with thinly-veiled neo-Nazis will help anyone, if it such a threat does exist.

But I’m not a politician or a diplomat and my views currently represent a minority of Israelis. And even if Israelis like me have a greater degree of commonality of values with many non-Israeli Jews, I still can’t pretend that the future Israel I’d like to see would have identical interests as the Diaspora. How could it?

It has nothing to do with the occupation, immigration policy and the attitude towards progressive streams of Judaism in Israel. These are just issues exacerbating the relationship.

As much as Jewish communities have in common, they face different challenges and circumstances and the priorities of a Jewish nation-state will always to some degree contradict those of Jewish minorities in their chosen homelands.

The conduct of Israel’s current leadership in the wake of the Pittsburgh murders was particularly shameful, but it is hard to see how a different Israeli leadership could have ever fully delivered the sort of response that many American Jews would love to hear from them.

Two women take a picture of a poster welcoming and supporting US President Donald Trump in downtown Jerusalem, on May 19, 2017Credit: THOMAS COEX/AFP

According to the exit-polls in last week's mid-term elections, 79 percent of American Jews voted Democrat. It doesn’t get much clearer than that. But don’t expect the majority of Israelis who are convinced that Trump is good for them to change their minds as a result.

Around 85 percent of Jews today live in two massive Jewish communities - the largest and most successful in history. One community is a sovereign Jewish state with a formidable military and successful economy. The other community is a well-integrated and prosperous minority, with an influence well beyond its numerical proportion and thankfully, despite Pittsburgh, more physically secure than Jews have ever been anywhere. And that alone makes this the best period in 2000 years of Jewish history.

But clinging to the myth of Jewish solidarity and believing there will always be a political alignment between the two communities is a self-defeating exercise.

For the last decade of right-wing government in Israel, we have had eight years in which American Jews overwhelmingly supported an administration that a majority of Israelis were convinced did not have Israel’s best interests apart and now we have Trump. Likewise, European Jews’ repulsion at Netanyahu’s embrace of Orban and other far right nationalists. Don’t expect things to change any time soon.

The expectations of Israelis that American Jews will vote for a president based on their perception of Israel’s interests is just as unfounded as the expectation of American Jews in the wake of Pittsburgh that Israelis will stop embracing the president they believe is on their side.



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