Why Ne­tanyahu Aban­doned Amer­i­can Jews

Why Ne­tanyahu Has Aban­doned the Amer­i­can Jews

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Sam Freed­man

Sev­eral days af­ter the First Zion­ist Congress con­cluded in 1897, Theodor Herzl, the found­ing fa­ther of Zion­ism, as­sessed its ef­fect in his di­ary. “At Basel, I founded the Jewish State,” he wrote, re­fer­ring to the Swiss site of the meet­ing. “If I said this out loud today, I would be an­swered by univer­sal laugh­ter. Per­haps in five years, cer­tainly in 50, ev­ery­one will rec­og­nize it.” Herzl’s cal­cu­lus was un­canny. Ex­actly 50 years af­ter that in­au­gu­ral Zion­ist Congress, the United Na­tions voted to par­ti­tion Pales­tine, giv­ing in­ter­na­tional recog­ni­tion to the es­tab­lish­ment of the Jewish state. Herzl’s 50 may have been a lucky guess, or noth­ing more than a round es­ti­mate for the long term. But he also could have been ap­ply­ing the clas­sic Zion­ist tech­nique of ap­pro­pri­at­ing the lan­guage and im­agery of bi­b­li­cal Ju­daism for the earthly pur­poses of Jewish

na­tion­al­ism. As the Bi­ble tells us, the 50th year is the Ju­bilee, a year that con­se­crates le­gal and agri­cul­tural free­doms as lit­er­ally holy. Fit­tingly for Herzl’s en­ter­prise, the Ju­bilee un­der­scored the im­por­tance of Jewish sovereignty. Rab­binic teach­ing had long held that the laws of the Ju­bilee could be fol­lowed only when Jews lived as a free peo­ple in the Land of Is­rael. And, true to the so­cial­ist lean­ings of the early Zion­ist move­ment, the Ju­bilee also spoke to eth­i­cal pre­cepts — the pro­claim­ing of lib­erty, the dis­so­lu­tion of en­slave­ment, the lev­el­ing of what we would now call in­come in­equal­ity. The Ju­bilee was about not only the Land, but also what one did with it and in it.

Now, in 2017, we Jews are in the midst of an­other Ju­bilee. This one marks the 50th an­niver­sary of Is­rael’s mirac­u­lous tri­umph in the Six Day War. It also marks the re­cov­ery of an­cient Jerusalem, and the pro­tec­tive ex­pan­sion of borders with Syria, Egypt and Jor­dan.

But ju­bi­lant we Amer­i­can Jews are not. For a great many of us, this Ju­bilee has been the oc­ca­sion for, at best, muted cel­e­bra­tion with deep un­der­cur­rents of dis­quiet, and at worst, com­plete alien­ation from the State of Is­rael. This 50th year has strained the bond be­tween those of us who are lib­eral or mod­er­ate in both our praxis and our pol­i­tics (up­ward of 70% of Amer­i­can Jewry) and the Jewish state we have wanted to love and support.

Dur­ing this sum­mer of com­mem­o­ra­tion, forces and events that might have seemed dis­parate — the col­lapse of the peace process, the half-cen­tury mark of the Oc­cu­pa­tion, the po­lit­i­cal al­liance be­tween Pres­i­dent Trump and Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu, the Is­raeli govern­ment’s re­treat on a plan for egal­i­tar­ian wor­ship at the Western Wall — have in­stead co­a­lesced into a kind of uni­fied field of es­trange­ment from Is­rael that Amer­i­can Jewry has never be­fore known.

We have never been fur­ther from Is­rael than we are at this point. And we find our­selves at that dis­tance be­cause, af­ter all the in­vo­ca­tions of Jewish peo­ple­hood, af­ter all the salutes to us as a “strate­gic as­set,” we Amer­i­can Jews have never been made to feel less nec­es­sary to Is­rael’s suc­cess or sur­vival than we are today.

On the sul­try afternoon of June 8, 1967, the fourth day of the Six Day War, tens of thou­sands of Amer­i­can Jews ral­lied in a park just across Penn­syl­va­nia Av­enue from the White House. Is­raeli troops had re­cap­tured the Old City the pre­vi­ous day, and in many news­pa­per ac­counts of the rally, the ar­ti­cle ran along­side the iconic photo of para­troop­ers at the Western Wall.

Those Jews in Wash­ing­ton, joined by gen­tile al­lies from Congress and the Civil Rights Move­ment were demon­strat­ing to en­sure that Is­rael’s mil­i­tary vic­tory would be pre­served by United States’ support. Such back­ing was hardly a given; 11 years ear­lier, Pres­i­dent Eisen­hower had pres­sured Is­rael into with­draw­ing from Si­nai af­ter seiz­ing it as part of a joint oper­a­tion against Egypt with Bri­tain and France. This time around, as B’nai B’rith In­ter­na­tional’s pres­i­dent, Wil­liam A. Wexler, told the crowd, “Is­rael’s hard-won achieve­ments must not again be be­trayed by patch­work diplo­macy. Jerusalem — the city of the Tem­ple of Solomon — must re­main Jewish. Is­rael’s borders must be ad­justed to safe­guard se­cu­rity and peace.”

It was a wa­ter­shed mo­ment for Amer­i­can Jews. The will­ing­ness to pub­licly ag­i­tate in the na­tion’s cap­i­tal for a Jewish cause brought Amer­i­can Jews out from be­neath a shadow that had been haunt­ing them: their own re­luc­tance to de­mand Amer­i­can at­tacks on the Nazi death camps dur­ing World War II. Be­yond the pub­lic na­ture of their ag­i­ta­tion, the vis­ceral af­fil­i­a­tion of Amer­i­can Jews with Is­rael on dis­play that day op­po­site the White House in­stantly al­tered a sta­tus quo in which Is­rael had only pock­ets of avid support, mostly in Con­ser­va­tive and sec­u­lar quar­ters, and am­biva­lence or re­jec­tion among the Re­form and the ma­jor­ity of the Ortho­dox. “The re­sponse of Amer­i­can Jewry to the Six-Day War sur­prised even those most san­guine about the depth of Amer­i­can Jewish iden­tity,” Ed­ward S. Shapiro wrote in his book “A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jewry Since World War II.” Soon af­ter the war, the rabbi and his­to­rian Arthur Hertzberg no­body’s idea of a starry-eyed ro­man­tic, wrote that the war had made Is­rael “a strong fo­cus of world­wide Jewish emo­tional loy­alty” and “a preser­va­tive of a sense of Jewish iden­tity.” Some 7,500 Amer­i­can Jews vol­un­teered in Is­rael dur­ing June 1967, and im­mi­gra­tion spiked be­tween then and 1973. An­nual fund drives by Amer­i­can Jews, which raised $136 mil­lion in 1966, soared to $317 mil­lion in 1967.

How un­der­stand­ably tempt­ing it was to imag­ine that the love af­fair would never end.

On Fe­bru­ary 15 of this year, Ne­tanyahu paid his first of­fi­cial visit to Trump at the White House. Af­ter all the pal­pa­ble ten­sion dur­ing eight years of Barak Obama’s pres­i­dency, the bon­homie could hardly have been more ap­par­ent. To Trump, Ne­tanyahu was “Bibi,” “my friend.” In re­turn, Ne­tanyahu said, “I deeply value your friend­ship.” Ne­tanyahu pro­claimed his con­fi­dence that un­der Trump’s “lead­er­ship” the Amer­i­can-Is­raeli al­liance would grow even stronger.

These words were more than diplo­matic niceties. In the in­fa­mously capri­cious cul­ture of Trump’s White House, the al­liance with Is­rael has re­mained a con­stant.

Yes, some of Trump’s prom­ises have failed to ma­te­ri­al­ize; the Amer­i­can Em­bassy isn’t be­ing moved to Jerusalem, the two-state so­lu­tion hasn’t ex­actly been shelved in fa­vor of one state, and the Iran deal isn’t be­ing re­voked. But in the six months since the meet­ing, the Trump-Ne­tanyahu part­ner­ship has eas­ily weath­ered the pre­dictably im­petu­ous changes of pres­i­den­tial po­si­tion. The over­ar­ch­ing world­view the two lead­ers share — that the West is in a fight for its life against “rad­i­cal Is­lamic ter­ror,” and that Iran must be con­fronted

We have never been fur­ther from Is­rael than we are at this point.

rather than en­gaged — has man­aged to tran­scend any other mi­nor quib­bles.

The ca­su­alty of the bro­mance be­tween Trump and Ne­tanyahu, how­ever, has been the ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­can Jews. At least 75% of them voted against Trump, thanks to cam­paign prom­ises that have now be­come White House poli­cies: the Mus­lim ban; the Mex­i­can wall; the call for im­mi­gra­tion re­stric­tion; the out­law­ing of abor­tion rights; the ef­fort to ban trans peo­ple from the mil­i­tary; the quest to take away health care from mil­lions;, the fel­low-trav­el­ing with anti-Semites, and white na­tion­al­ists in the Trump base

Therein lies the para­dox. When Ne­tanyahu at­tached him­self to Trump, he also tac­itly linked Is­rael to a plat­form that vi­o­lates the deep­est do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal be­liefs of Amer­i­can Jewry. In other words, those nox­ious po­si­tions have be­come the price-tag for Is­rael hav­ing a “no day­light” ally in the Oval Of­fice. Trump is now part of the Is­rael brand. And ev­ery one of his di­vi­sive poli­cies, ev­ery ef­fu­sion of his hate­ful rhetoric, drives at least lib­eral and mod­er­ate Amer­i­can Jews away from Is­rael.

For his part, Ne­tanyahu has shown him­self to be all too will­ing to make the sac­ri­fice. In­deed, while Trump’s elec­tion surely took the na­tion and the world by sur­prise, Ne­tanyahu’s strate­gic shift to­ward the Repub­li­can Party has been a decade-long un­der­tak­ing. Even as he ut­tered the ex­pected bro­mides about bi­par­ti­san­ship dur­ing the Obama years, he acted in con­cert with just one party, and he will­ingly took the risk of hav­ing a client state med­dle in the pol­i­tics of its su­per­power pa­tron.

Four years be­fore Trump emerged as the Repub­li­can front-run­ner, Ne­tanyahu in­vited the Repub­li­can can­di­date for pres­i­dent, Mitt Rom­ney, to Jerusalem. Even be­fore the visit, dur­ing his ac­cep­tance speech at the Repub­li­can Na­tional Con­ven­tion, Rom­ney had in­toned a fa­vorite right-wing talk­ing point, claim­ing that Obama had “thrown al­lies like Is­rael un­der the bus.” His re­ward from Ne­tanyahu was an all-but-of­fi­cial en­dorse­ment in the 2012 race — photo ops, com­radely words, a speech with an au­di­ence in­cluded the su­per­donor Shel­don Adel­son. It was an un­prece­dented in­tru­sion by an Is­raeli leader into an Amer­i­can elec­tion.

But it turned out to be a bet on a los­ing horse. In win­ning re-elec­tion that fall, Obama took 70% of the Jewish vote. Some­one con­cerned about re­la­tions with the Di­as­pora might have kept that statis­tic in mind.

In­stead, three years later Ne­tanyahu ac­cepted the in­vi­ta­tion from then-House Speaker John Boehner to ad­dress a joint ses­sion of Congress in or­der to in­veigh against Obama’s deal with Iran. Even though the agree­ment re­quired Iran to curb its nu­clear pro­gram and sub­mit to in­spec­tions in ex­change for eco­nomic re­lief, Ne­tanyahu and his Repub­li­can en­ablers por­trayed the pact as en­sur­ing, in­deed ac­cel­er­at­ing, Iran’s path to a bomb.

As with Rom­ney, Ne­tanyahu bet wrong. The Iran deal went into ef­fect, and Amer­i­can Jews sup­ported it by a 20% mar­gin. Again, some­one con­cerned about re­la­tions with the Di­as­pora might have kept that statis­tic in mind.

The of­fi­cial diplo­matic face of Is­rael in Amer­ica — once worn by the likes of Abba Eban and Alon Pinkas — is now the face of an Is­raeli right that con­nects only to an Amer­i­can right. The am­bas­sador, Ron Der­mer, is an Amer­i­can im­mi­grant who cut his po­lit­i­cal teeth work­ing on Newt Gin­grich’s hard-right leg­isla­tive pro­gram, the Con­tract With Amer­ica.The U.N. am­bas­sador and the con­sul gen­eral in New York — Danny Danon and Dani Dayan, re­spec­tively — both hail from the set­tle­ment move­ment. This con­tin­gent meshes with only two mi­nor­ity fac­tions within Amer­i­can Jewry: ul­tra-Ortho­dox and Repub­li­cans. For the rest of us, these diplo­mats are emis­saries with­out em­pa­thy.

Per­haps, though, the rea­son Ne­tanyahu ig­nores us is sim­ply that he no longer needs us.

Dur­ing a Cab­i­net meet­ing June 25,Ne­tanyahu an­nounced that he was halt­ing a plan to en­sure egal­i­tar­ian wor­ship at the Western Wall. Fac­ing a mutiny by Haredi par­ties in his gov­ern­ing coali­tion, he re­neged on an agree­ment reached in early 2016 that rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Re­form and Con­ser­va­tive move­ments would have for­mal over­sight of the mixed-gen­der wor­ship area at Robin­son’s Arch.

As any­one who has prayed in that set­ting al­ready knows, Robin­son’s Arch is around the cor­ner from the Ko­tel. Plu­ral­is­tic Jews com­pro­mised by even ac­cept­ing the site for their use. Robin­son’s Arch is the back of the bus. But at least it is on the bus.

Ne­tanyahu’s re­ver­sal shat­tered the frag­ile accord that had been bro­kered by fig­ures such as Natan Sha­ran­sky of the Jewish Agency. And the prime min­is­ter im­me­di­ately reaped a whirl­wind. Both the Jewish Agency and the Re­form move­ment can­celed din­ners with Ne­tanyahu. Isaac Fisher a real es­tate mogul from Florida who has been a main­stay of the Amer­i­can Is­rael Pub­lic Af­fairs Com­mit­tee, an­nounced that he was sus­pend­ing all fu­ture do­na­tions to Is­rael be­cause a blow to the pock­et­book would be the only “lan­guage they un­der­stand.” Daniel Gordis, an Amer­i­can-born rabbi and au­thor who has fre­quently as­sailed lib­eral Amer­i­can Jews on po­lit­i­cal grounds, now urged them on this re­li­gious is­sue to stop giv­ing or spend­ing money on

govern­ment en­ti­ties, from hos­pi­tals to the air­lines El Al.

As Amer­i­can Jews, we were tut-tut­ted, in­formed even by many sec­u­lar Is­raelis that the Western Wall is not a re­li­gious sym­bol for them but a na­tional one. We were con­de­scend­ingly re­minded that it was sec­u­lar, so­cial­is­tic David Ben-Gu­rion who granted the Ortho­dox rab­binate of­fi­cial con­trol over re­li­gious sites, as well as over con­ver­sion, mar­riage, di­vorce and burial.

The fury of the back­lash was widely in­ter­preted as proof that Ne­tanyahu had mis­cal­cu­lated, or that his tem­po­ral need to hold to­gether his coali­tion over­whelmed all other con­cerns. In fact, there is an­other en­tirely log­i­cal ex­pla­na­tion.

Ne­tanyahu could af­ford to alien­ate lib­eral and mod­er­ate Amer­i­can Jews be­cause he had al­ready writ­ten them off. The tac­tic of cav­a­lierly blow­ing up the agree­ment on egal­i­tar­ian wor­ship fit neatly into the strat­egy of re­align­ing Is­rael not only po­lit­i­cally but also re­li­giously with the right. In the Ne­tanyahu cal­cu­lus, the ma­jor­ity of Amer­i­can Jews who lean Demo­cratic al­ready can be read­ily re­placed — by none other than white evan­gel­i­cal Chris­tians.

Fully 81% of white evan­gel­i­cals; the largest per­cent­age for any re­li­gious com­mu­nity, cast their bal­lots for Trump. For rea­sons of both mil­len­ni­al­ist the­ol­ogy and anti-Mus­lim ide­ol­ogy, evan­gel­i­cals avidly support the set­tle­ment en­ter­prise. And even though the pro­por­tion of white evan­gel­i­cals in the United States is de­clin­ing, the to­tal num­ber still comes to about 90 mil­lion — which more than makes up for the pal­try 4.5 mil­lion or so Amer­i­can Jews who are nei­ther Ortho­dox, Repub­li­can, or both. So, if you are Ne­tanyahu, why make a con­tro­ver­sial re­li­gious dis­pen­sa­tion with fel­low Jews whom you con­sider un­re­li­able al­lies if not out­right en­e­mies?

Even as the largest por­tion of Amer­i­can Jewry has been ex­iled from a po­lit­i­cal or re­li­gious role in Is­rael, they have found their prophetic voice in art. In this Ju­bilee year alone, that voice has been ren­dered in the pages of “King­dom of Olives and Ash,” the an­thol­ogy about the Oc­cu­pa­tion, edited by the wife-and-hus­band leftie Jewish nov­el­ists Ayelet Wald­man and Michael Chabon, It’s also been ren­dered in the film “Nor­man” and in the plays “Oslo,” “If I For­get,” and “To the End of the Land.” Their con­gru­ent ar­rival on screens and stages can hardly be as­cribed to any par­tic­u­lar artis­tic plan or mar­ket­ing scheme. Yet ev­ery one of these works shares a com­mon aes­thetic: a pro­found melan­choly, an arch­ing re­gret, at the peace­mak­ing chances missed.

That mo­ment comes at the end of Joseph Cedar’s “Nor­man” when, in a kind of dreamy, fan­ta­sized se­quence, the char­ac­ter of a politi­cian clearly based on Ehud Olmert strikes a peace deal with the Pales­tini­ans and is awarded what seems to be a No­bel Prize. In Steven Leven­son’s “If I For­get,” an Amer­i­can Jewish fam­ily in the early 2000s ar­gues out Mid­dle East pol­i­tics in the de­pressed hang­over from the fail­ure of the peace process. Leven­son dares to make a sym­pa­thetic char­ac­ter — not un­com­pli­cated, but sym­pa­thetic — out of an an­tiZion­ist pro­fes­sor seem­ingly based on Nor­man Finkel­stein.

J.T. Rogers’s “Oslo,” which won the Tony Award for best drama this year, de­picts the back­stage story of those peace talks from the view­point of the Nor­we­gian cou­ple who helped start them. At the play’s end, hav­ing seen the break­through be­tween the ne­go­tia­tors, Uri Savir and Ahmed Qurei, mov­ingly en­acted, the au­di­ence is then sub­jected to a sort of news­cast recita­tion of ev­ery blow: the Rabin as­sas­si­na­tion, Baruch Gold­stein’s mas­sacre, the Pales­tinian ter­ror war of the sec­ond in­tifada. Af­ter that, in the show’s fi­nal speech, one of the Nor­we­gians speaks to the au­di­ence with a hope so hope­less, an im­pos­si­ble yearn­ing for what has been for­ever lost, that it sucks the air from the room:

“My friends, do not look at where we are; look be­hind you. See how far we have come! If we have come this far, through blood, through fear — ha­tred — how much fur­ther can we yet go? There! On the hori­zon. The pos­si­bil­ity. Do you see it? Do you?”

The the­atri­cal adap­ta­tion of David Gross­man’s novel comes to a crescendo half­way through its sec­ond act. The char­ac­ter of Ora has been hik­ing through the Galilee to avoid hear­ing what she fears: that her son has been killed in com­bat dur­ing the sec­ond in­tifada, much as Gross­man’s son was in Le­banon in 2006. Af­ter Ora’s son, in a flash­back scene, tells her of his wish that he had stopped a sui­cide bomber, even at the cost of his own life, she cracks. Voice ris­ing and then crack­ing, she calls out a litany of politi­cians and ter­ror­ists, not only Arab and Ira­nian, but also Is­raeli, punc­tu­at­ing the ros­ter with these words:

“What about them? Don’t they have blood on their hands? Did they re­ally do all in their power to give me five min­utes of peace in this place? All those who ru­ined my life, and ex­pro­pri­ated my chil­dren and time for the na­tion’s good?”

The Bi­ble tells us that the Ju­bilee year will be her­alded with the sho­far. On the night I at­tended “To the End of the Land,” Ora’s speech was met with spon­ta­neous ap­plause. Fit­tingly for Amer­i­can Jewry’s com­mu­nal life in 2017, this was the ap­plause of ab­ject de­spair.

BIBI’S BE­TRAYAL: Pro­test­ers gather out­side Ne­tanyahu’s res­i­dence in Jerusalem to demon­strate against a govern­ment de­ci­sion to aban­don a deal to al­low women and men to pray to­gether at the Western Wall.

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