Netanyahu Is Abandoning American Jews — Because He Can
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, Netanyahu paid his first official visit to Trump at the White House. After all the palpable tension during eight years of Barack 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,” that Iran must be confronted 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 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 superpowered 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 that included the super-donor 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 liberal American Jews, 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 millenialist 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 either not Orthodox, not Republicans or not Orthodox Republicans.
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 these works share 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 anti-Zionist 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.
Samuel G. Freedman is a contributing editor to the Forward.