Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now truly melech Yisrael, the King of Israel.
Even though his apparent victory was narrow in Tuesday’s election, and his tenure uncertain because of the corruption charges he faces, Netanyahu’s unprecedented fifth term in office solidifies his stature as the leader of 21st century Israel. He has expanded economic growth for many (though not for all,) enhanced Israel’s diplomatic standing (though largely with autocratic regimes) and found in President Trump an ally willing to do his bidding, even if that means counteracting international law and American foreign policy.
But the King of Israel is not King of the Jews.
Netanyahu’s success at ensuring the survival of Israel as a Jewish state, at least for now, comes at the expense of its relationship with most American Jews. He doesn’t need us anymore. Now we have to figure out whether and how we relate to him.
I’ve been saying for some time that we need to recalibrate the relationship between Israel and what is known as the Diaspora — a term I increasingly dislike. The very language of Israel and Diaspora, hub and spoke, center and periphery, homeland and exile no longer speaks to the lived reality of the majority of Jews who reside outside Zion, and likely always will.
The consolidation of politically right wing, religiously conservative power in Israel accelerates the process. It is not my place to tell Israelis how to vote; nor is it their place to shape my political values and behaviors as an American. For many decades, I didn’t have to choose, because those values and behaviors were generally compatible. Increasingly now, it seems, they are moving in opposite directions.
Responsibility for this growing divide lies with American Jews as much as with Israeli politicians. In the short term, I don’t see how it can be reversed.
Netanyahu’s re-election, while not surprising, is revealing. It tells us that many Israeli Jews see the world as he does: so hostile externally that allies can be forged with anyone, regardless of their autocratic and fascist tendencies; so hostile domestically that democratic norms can be disparaged and destroyed; so devoid of Palestinians that their suffering can be ignored.
Even a coalition of centrist former military men in macho black leather jackets couldn’t galvanize enough of the voting public to deny Netanyahu another term.
As American Jews, we have to respect that democratic choice — while decrying the attempts to suppress Arab voters — and seek to understand it. But it should not change who we are.
The task now is to figure out how to engage in Israel and the Israel we believe in without supporting this government. Separating a particular set of elected leaders from the nation as a whole is not a new challenge. Liberal, secular Israelis have faced it for a decade. Liberal American Jews face it now, under the Trump administration.
Some will try to use the considerable levers of American power to prompt a different course — as two Democratic members of Congress, Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and Gerald E. Connolly of Virginia, wrote in this stunning opinion piece in today’s Washington Post.
Others will become frustrated and align themselves with those whose ultimate aim is not to preserve a democratic, Jewish Israel but to eliminate it altogether. This will be — indeed, already is — tragic.
Still others, especially the young, will shrug and turn away.
I’m not sure that these American trends would be much different had the Blue and White coalition won enough votes to form the next government, as their policies were roughly similar to Netanyahu’s, even if their rhetoric was notably more civil and inclusive.
The prime minister has embodied Israel’s rightward lurch, encouraged and enabled it, but like all political trends, it is driven by a combination of sociological and demographic factors along with his leadership. Similarly, the trends among American Jews are propelled by a variety of factors, and some — including rapid assimilation and intermarriage — don’t necessarily bode well for our sustainability, either.
And yet a distinctively American Jewish vernacular has begun to flourish in the last few years, and while it references Israel, it is not always rooted there. I predict that we will see more money, effort, creativity and intention focused on nourishing the Judaism here, while — I fervently hope — maintaining an engagement with Israel that transcends politics.
We are witnessing the establishment of two central “homes” for the Jewish people. Netanyahu firmly rules one. He does not rule the other.
Jane Eisner is the Forward’s writer-at-large and the Koeppel Fellow in Journalism at Wesleyan University. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, is writer-at-large at the Forward and the 2019 Koeppel Fellow in Journalism at Wesleyan University. For more than a decade, she was editor-in-chief of the Forward, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward’s digital readership grew significantly, and won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.