Skip To Content
Back to Opinion

Netanyahu Just Saved Liberal Zionism

Last Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did the unthinkable and welcomed Jewish terrorists into his ruling coalition. Facing possible indictment for a series of corruption charges and a plausible threat to his premiership during a rapidly progressing election cycle, Netanyahu pressured the far right party Bayit Yehudi to join forces with Otzma Yehudit, the “Jewish Power” party, hoping this would give him enough votes to stay in power.

Jewish Power’s platform calls for annexing the West Bank and Gaza, “expelling our enemies from within us,” and explicitly privileging Jews in employment, housing and jobs. Its members are followers of the Jewish supremacist Meir Kahane, who was assassinated in 1990 and whose party was banned from the Knesset for its racism after a supporter, Baruch Goldstein, murdered 29 Palestinians at prayer.

That was 25 years ago today, so there’s a horrifying irony to the timing of Netanyahu’s move; one of the members of Otzma, Itamar Ben Gvir, acknowledged having a picture of Goldstein hanging in his home.

And yet, in welcoming this basket of deplorables into the Knesset, Netanyahu has also given American Jews a gift: a much-needed reminder of who we are and what we stand for.

For almost as shocking as Israel’s Prime Minister joining hands with avowed racists was the reaction from the American Jewish community. It was nothing short of wall-to-wall condemnation. The Jewish left was swift to condemn it, with liberal groups like J Street, T’ruah and the Reform movement issuing scathing statements.

They were soon joined by groups like the Anti-Defamation League, and its former leader Abe Foxman, who weighed in on Twitter.

Even more surprising was the criticism from those that make it a habit not to criticize Israel or its leaders. The American Jewish Committee, whose leader initially deflected when asked about Jewish Power, changed course, weighing in and calling Otzma Yehudit “reprehensible.”

And by Friday, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee broke its silence, as well as its well-known practice of not criticizing Israel publicly.

And as of this morning, Malcolm Hoenlein, the head of the Conference of Presidents, spoke up, calling the move “very disturbing.”

It was an astounding display of American Jewish unity from a community not known to agree on things, especially when it comes to Israel. As far as I can tell, as of this writing, all the major American Jewish organizations have spoken out apart from the Zionist Organization of America, which is funded in large part by Netanyahu supporter Sheldon Adelson (ZOA chose instead to call out the other organizations).

Partnering with avowed racists, it turns out, was a step too far, even for American Jewish organizations devoted to hawkish Israel policy. It’s not just American Jews, either. After years of an increasing divide, American Jews were joined by our Israeli counterparts, many of whom spoke up vociferously against Netanyahu.

Many on the left felt that AIPAC and AJC’s statements didn’t go far enough. Neither mentioned Netanyahu by name, and AIPAC’s displeasure was followed swiftly by a tweet confirming that he will be speaking at their policy conference next month.

Others argued that the partnership with Jewish Power wasn’t revolutionary at all, but rather, proof of who Netanyahu has been all along. If Kahane wanted to revoke Arab-Israeli citizenship, Netanyahu complained that “Arabs are coming out in droves to vote” in 2015. If Kahane wanted to ban relations between Jews and Arabs, Netanyahu has repeatedly stated that there will be no Palestinian state, committing to an indefinite occupation of another people. How different are those views really?

Still others took things even further, arguing that Netanyahu’s move revealed the truth about Israel, and even Zionism: that both are steeped in racism and violence. Anti-Zionists saw in Bibi’s invitation to avowed racists nothing short of proof that the Soviet propaganda which painted Zionism as racist was correct all along.

But what this ugly episode in Jewish history actually revealed was something different. It revealed that while Netanyahu no longer knows the difference between Zionism and racism, American Jews do. And when Netanyahu exposed himself by partnering with Jewish Power, American Jews finally saw him for who he truly is.

In making the job of defending Israel that much harder, Netanyahu paradoxically helped American Jews clarify what the Jewish State means to them, and what their own Zionism means to them. And the answer was quite simple: Not that.

In the American Jewish imagination, Zionism is the promise that Jewish safety can coexist with Jewish values like justice, welcoming the stranger, and equality. And if the State of Israel hasn’t been able to completely live up to that perhaps dialectical standard, for American Jews, this was not because of something inherent in its character, as the anti-Zionists would have it, but rather due to tragic circumstances, circumstances that surely will end soon enough.

That is the liberal Zionist dream. And in betraying it so severely and so explicitly, Netanyahu just revitalized it. By destroying the illusion that his Israel could be their Israel, Netanyahu reminded American Jews of what their Israel is supposed to be — and what it’s not and never will be under his leadership.

It’s not just that organizations like AIPAC, committed to bipartisanship, need a product they can sell to Democrats (though that’s certainly a part of it). It goes much deeper than that.

American Jews themselves, 80% of whom voted for Democrats in the last elections, need an Israel that doesn’t conflict with their liberal values. They need a Jewish State that brings them pride, not one led by shameful racists and racist-enablers.

And in depriving them of an Israel that embodies Jewish values, Netanyahu reminded American Jews of the reason they always defended Israel in the first place, reinvigorating a demoralized community with a dream of what can be, by making so very clear what isn’t.

These events will force a reckoning in the American Jewish community about how our own inaction and willful blindness led us to enable Netanyahu’s ugliest traits. But that blindness was partially an effect of Netanyahu’s own gift for obfuscating his intentions, something that over the past two years, under the auspices of President Trump, he’s no longer bothered with.

The partnership with the Jewish Power Party, like the partnership with Trump, will leave an indelible mark on the memories of American Jews who, after years of fighting for Israel, can no longer see Netanyahu as separate from the Jewish Power’s Kahanists — because he doesn’t see his project as inherently separate from them.

And since Netanyahu can no longer be bothered to deny the dystopia he wants Israel to be, American Jews can no longer forgive him for it.

By partnering with racists, Netanyahu gave the American Jewish community back its liberal Zionist dream. As for whether it can become a reality, that’s up to Israeli voters.

Batya Ungar-Sargon is the opinion editor of the Forward. Her email is [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @bungarsargon.

I hope you appreciated this article. Before you go, I’d like to ask you to please support the Forward’s award-winning, nonprofit journalism during this critical time.

Now more than ever, American Jews need independent news they can trust, with reporting driven by truth, not ideology. We serve you, not any ideological agenda.

At a time when other newsrooms are closing or cutting back, the Forward has removed its paywall and invested additional resources to report on the ground from Israel and around the U.S. on the impact of the war, rising antisemitism and the protests on college campuses.

Readers like you make it all possible. Support our work by becoming a Forward Member and connect with our journalism and your community.

Make a gift of any size and become a Forward member today. You’ll support our mission to tell the American Jewish story fully and fairly. 

— Rachel Fishman Feddersen, Publisher and CEO

Join our mission to tell the Jewish story fully and fairly.

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.