Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s last few days of campaigning impressed Israeli Jews and American Jews alike, but in quite different ways. According to most accounts, Netanyahu’s pledge of no Palestinian state under his watch, coupled with his call to Israeli Jews to run to the ballot boxes to counteract the drove of Arab Israeli voters that cannot be trusted, gave his faltering campaign a much needed boost of appeal and helps account for his surprisingly convincing electoral victory.
American Jews, on the other hand, have been shocked less by Netanyahu’s success than by these midnight-hour campaign tactics. Most American Jews remain sympathetic to the idea of a two-state solution and oppose settlement expansion for various reasons, including the fact that they are deeply uncomfortable with Israel ruling over another people and worry that the occupation will put an end to Israeli democracy.
Ever since his 2009 speech declaring his support for a Palestinian state, many American Jews have thought that while Netanyahu might be a hawk, he was still negotiating with the Palestinians in good faith. However, his very public promise to fight against the establishment of a Palestinian state ended such hopes — and rekindled fears that Israel was on the verge of becoming an Apartheid state.
In addition, Netanyahu’s insinuation that the Arab minority is a fifth column that have a dual loyalty and are likely to act in the interests of the Palestinian people and not the Jewish state touched several sensitive nerves in American Jews. American Jews, like all Jewish minorities in the diaspora, are quite used to such accusations. Throughout history they have been routinely accused of having a dual loyalty and caring more for the Jewish people than their fellow citizens. And, Jews also know that such words can do more than hurt; they also can incite violence. Liberal values, the rule of law, and democracy are the best insulation against such hatreds and prejudices. These features of the American political culture are not just good for Jewish survival, they also are part of the American Jewish identity.
Much of the American Jewish reaction has focused on Netanyahu the person and the politician. In doing so, they have made it seem as if Netanyahu is somehow distinct from the Israeli political culture or body politic. For instance, the recent editorial in The Forward framed the challenge for American Jewry as how to be critical of Netanyahu while remaining supportive of Israel’s values. Framing the challenge in this way makes it sound as if Netanyahu is a rogue politician. He isn’t.
His tactics worked. Even assuming that Netanyahu might have done anything to stay in power, the fact that he calculated, and calculated correctly, that he needed to turn right should tell us something about Israeli political culture at this moment. The people spoke. The Israeli people, in short, got the Prime Minister they deserve.
If considered in this way, the challenge confronting American Jews is much deeper and painful than how to exist with Prime Minister Netanyahu for the foreseeable future. Rather, it is coming to terms that the divide between the values of American Jews and Israel’s values are possibly becoming wider than ever before — possibly forcing American Jews to make a choice between their values and their attachment to Israel. There is the problem of the occupation and the inevitable moment in the not too distant future when there are more non-Jews between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea than there are Jews.
For many American Jews, the answer to this dilemma is for Israel to withdraw from the territories and allow for the creation of an independent Palestinian state. For many Israeli Jews, though, there are other things that are more important than democracy, including a vision of total security and religious ideology.
Yet even if Israel did withdraw from the territories, Netanyahu’s campaign rhetoric exposed another gap between the values of American Jews and the Israeli political culture. American Jews are committed to civic nationalism, equality under the law, and basic human rights. As a Jewish state that is supposed to be by the Jews and for the Jews, it has more in common with ethnic nationalism, legal discrimination, and rights conditioned by religion.
This is not a new development. It was built into the the very character of the state at birth. And Netanyahu was hardly the first Israeli politician to try and win a campaign by playing the Jewish card. It might be comforting for some American Jews, especially those on the political left and who identify with the cherished American values of liberty, freedom, and equality, to think that Netanyahu is the enemy, but if they look deeper, they will find themselves confronting something much bigger and much more troubling than a politician that is willing to do or say anything to get elected.
Michael Barnett is University Professor of International Affairs and Political Science at the George Washington University and is the author of the forthcoming “The Star and Stripes: The Foreign Policies of American Jews” (Princeton University Press, 2015).