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Whatever rationalizations are concocted to justify the fact that the son of the Prime Minister of Israeli disseminated anti-Jewish imagery, the embarrassment was undeniable. Anti-Semites like David Duke may be kvelling, but those who care for Israel turned their heads away in shame. The ongoing self-degradation and auto-humiliation of the Jewish state has become too painful for them to watch.
This is a new element in the historic relationship between Israel and the largest Jewish Diaspora: Contempt is now mutual. It flows both ways. Israelis have traditionally viewed American Jews as spoiled nafs but American Jews worshipped Israel, first as Jewish miracle, then as military wonder and then as resilient Start-up Nation. It is only now, under the shadows of Donald Trump and under the influence of Netanyahu’s shock decision to renege on the Kotel deal, that mainstream American Jews have stopped denying what they’ve been sensing for the past few years:
That Israel has gone off the rails; that it no longer reflects values that American Jews can identify with; that most of its leaders and lawmakers are uncouth and often ignorant oafs; that it sometimes seems to be run by fundamentalist fanatics who are just as zealous than those in Riyadh and Tehran; and that it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between Israel and other anti-liberal right-wing governments and movements, from the alt-right to Eastern Europe, where the younger Netanyahu’s cartoon featuring George Soros, lizard beings, freemasons and Jews mesmerized by money could surely win first prize in a contest of anti-Semitic cartoons.
Contempt is what many American Jews felt when it took Netanyahu more than 48-hours to react to the neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville. Not everyone noticed Netanyahu’s reticence, of course, but those who did were first incensed and then resigned. The Israeli government’s flaccid response to anti-Semitism that emanates from its right-wing friends contrasts almost ridiculously with its ferocious reaction to Jew-hatred that comes from Muslims or the left. An American Jewish community reeling from the nativist and white supremacist forces unleashed by Trump’s election and presidency would have appreciated firmer support from the so-called leader of the Jewish people, but they’ve learned to no longer expect it. They know whom they’re dealing with.
The disdain for Netanyahu and his policies, once suppressed, emerges not only in conversations with anti-occupation American liberals but with moderates and some right-wingers as well. Many of these people may have felt uncomfortable with Israel in the past, but their criticism was specific and local and mostly kept to themselves. Now, their disdain is vocal and general. For someone who has been listening to American Jews for over four decades, the change is palpable. Contempt, once understated, is now clear and unequivocal.
The most recent catalyzer was undoubtedly Netanyahu’s decision to succumb to the ultra-Orthodox demand to cancel the Kotel deal, which took years to achieve and involved painful compromise on the American side as well. Although American Jewish leaders are well acquainted with Israel’s political system and with the Haredi parties’ immense powers of extortion, they did not anticipate Netanyahu’s swift and utter surrender. Bibi holds us in such low regard, one American Jewish leader told me this week, he didn’t even bother pretending that he was fighting for the deal he had brokered himself.
The decision to unilaterally revoke the Kotel deal was a tipping point. A dam of pent up frustration broke. The fact that Israel allows political leaders and official rabbis to defame and besmirch non-Orthodox American Jews in primitive and abhorrent terms – the latest was the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, Shlomo Amar, who described Reform Jews as worse than Holocaust deniers - without anyone taking them to task is no longer considered an aberration.
The all-out attacks against the Supreme Court and the rule of law, the campaign to delegitimize the media, the laws restricting entry to Israel based on political opinions, the increasingly foul tone of Israel’s political discourse and its crazy infatuation with Donald Trump are all part of a depressing pattern that many American Jews are recognizing publicly for the first time.
Not all American Jews detest Trump, of course. Some, especially among the ultra-Orthodox, would willingly vote for him again. But for many American Jews, Trump is the stuff of which their worst nightmares are made. Not only is he dangerous, he is an embarrassment. His behavior, morals and decency are deplorable, but he is the President with which Israel and its elected leaders identify and support. Not Barack Obama, who they denigrated no end, but Donald Trump, who they greeted as the messiah. The fact that Trump is more popular in Israel than in any other country in the world is another, major-league shonda for the goyim as far as American Jews are concerned.
And all this, without a word about the occupation, land confiscations, price tag operations and the increasingly clear signals sent by Netanyahu that he has no intention of even trying to reach a peace deal with the Palestinians. American Jews may realize that some if not most of the troubling phenomena that they object to in Israel stem from the occupation and they are bewildered by Israel’s passivity in peacemaking, but the occupation does not seem to be foremost on their minds, as it isn’t on the minds of most Israelis. The problem isn’t with the occupation, stupid, it’s with Israel itself.
American Jews have traditionally deferred to Israelis. They are tough and battle-hardened, they told themselves, and they know better than us what can and should be done. They are the ones facing existential dangers, not us. That’s not going to change. Most American Jews, perhaps less than before but a sizeable majority nonetheless, will rally to Israel’s defense whenever it seems threatened.
But the days of American Jews feeling inferior are over. For the first time, many of then believe their pluralistic and humanistic values are, in fact, superior. They will no longer defer to Israel on matters of democracy and decency. They won’t be going down the path in which Israel is now heading.
Many American Jews may not be following the Yair Netanyahu cartoon controversy, but those who are realize there’s something fatally flawed in a country in which the prime minister’s son posts cartoons that David Duke admires, and hardly anyone on the right speaks out in protest. They understand that the cartoon is not an isolated incident but a direct extension of his father’s attitudes and policies, which buttress nationalistic leaders and incite against leftists and liberals like themselves. If it weren’t Netanyahu, American Jews would describe many of his attacks as anti-Semitic in and of themselves. American Jewish leaders would organize protests. They would write their Congress members to protest.
An Israeli leader and his son adopting the anti-liberal, anti-globalist and anti-Jewish worldview of right-wing nationalists is one more symptom of an Israel that has become, in some respects, a darkness unto the nations. American Jews, some of whom have devoted their lives to the wellbeing of the Jewish state, will look at you with sad eyes and shrug. So it’s come to this, they say.