columnU.S.-Israel Relations

Jewish critics of Israel have a problem with Israelis, not with Netanyahu

The willingness of major groups and denominations to try to undermine the choice of Israel’s voters calls into question their belief in and respect for democracy.

Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs speaks at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly. Credit: Robert A. Cumins/JFNA.
Union for Reform Judaism President Rabbi Rick Jacobs speaks at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly. Credit: Robert A. Cumins/JFNA.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

The last time the outcome of a U.S. presidential election was as decisive as the vote held last week in Israel, Americans were pretty much unanimous as to what to call it. The word was landslide. And that’s why those American groups and denominations that wasted no time in not merely denouncing a newly re-elected Benjamin Netanyahu, but called for the U.S. government to override the will of Israelis, should reflect on the damage they are doing to the Jewish people.

The traditional benchmark for a landslide is 55 percent of the popular vote. Since the start of the 20th century, that total was matched or exceeded 10 times by American presidents. Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election was the last such occasion.

I bring this up because it’s important to place the outcome of the April 9 Knesset election in Israel in perspective.

To place Israel’s electoral system alongside that of American presidential votes would appear to be comparing apples to oranges. With voters casting a single ballot for one among many lists of candidates for the Knesset, it’s easy to misunderstand the outcome. Israeli elections always come across to Americans as a chaotic muddle with no party ever gaining a majority.

But if you think Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party won only a razor-thin plurality over Benny Gantz’s Blue and White Party, you don’t understand what really happened. Israelis knew that when they cast a ballot for a party that pledged to support Netanyahu’s bid to lead the next government—even when it wasn’t the Likud, but one of the prime minister’s allies or frenemies—it was as good as a vote for the Likud. The same goes for those who voted for parties other than the Blue and White, but which were prepared to back Gantz’s bid to be prime minister.

So, if you want to know how many Israeli voters really voted for Netanyahu, you need to total the votes of all the right-wing and religious parties that were pledged to him. That total was approximately 55 percent. That’s why few (even among the prime minister’s die-hard foes) are pretending that the election was anything but a decisive victory for him.

This is important because the immediate reaction from much of the organized Jewish world in the United States was to treat Netanyahu’s victory as an event that called into question the ties between Israel and the Diaspora. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the head of the Union of Reform Judaism, stated that Netanyahu was causing “a dramatic rupture with many in the American Jewish community.” Jacobs helped organize a letter signed by nine Jewish groups that demanded that U.S. President Donald Trump ignore the wishes of Netanyahu and his new government, and insist on the creation of an independent Palestinian state and to oppose the extension of Israeli law to West Bank settlements as the prime minister promised.

These nine groups (which include some entities associated with Reform and Conservative Judaism, the left-wing Israel Policy Forum and the formerly mainstream Anti-Defamation League) have, of course, every right to oppose Netanyahu’s positions, just as many among the minority of Israelis who voted for his opponents may do. But they should be honest about what they’re doing. By speaking out in this fashion only a couple of days after the dust settled post-voting, they are trashing the verdict of Israeli democracy.

Given that some of the same sources were among the most vocal in expressing worries about the future of Israeli democracy, this is highly ironic. Israel’s democratic system is in no danger, but these critics are angry that most Israelis don’t vote the way they would like them to.

The issue on which they are prepared to discard the ties between Israel and American Jews is one that is hardly worth such a split. Netanyahu made it clear that he’s not talking about annexation of the West Bank, but applying Israeli law to settlements where, it must be pointed out, Israeli law already is applied as a general practice. Doing so wouldn’t prevent a two-state solution were the Palestinians ever inclined to accept one, which Jacobs and his friends know very well they have repeatedly rejected.

What is really at stake here is nothing more than the anger of American Jews who are still shocked that Israelis don’t value their advice. The clear majority of Israelis, including many who voted for Blue and White because of disgust with Netanyahu’s legal problems and because Gantz offered no substantive disagreements with the prime minister on security issues, have rejected the blind belief of Jacobs and his friends in withdrawal from the West Bank as an end in and of itself.

We know Jacobs and ADL head Jonathan Greenblatt oppose Netanyahu and Trump. But it’s time to acknowledge that their real beef is with the Israeli people, who have repeatedly rejected their opinions by margins of landslide proportions. Most Israelis believe that endangering their security by creating a hostile sovereign power in Judea and Samaria—the way Ariel Sharon did in Gaza with his 2005 withdrawal—would be madness.

Writers like former Forward editor Jane Eisner and Peter Beinart, who are open about rejecting the political will of Israeli’s people and in abandoning the notion of Israel’s centrality (Eisner) or working to subjugate Israel to the will of foreign powers who wish to impose a solution on it (Beinart), are more honest than Jacobs and Greenblatt about their goals.

Regardless of their own opinions about Netanyahu or the conflict, it’s likely that many Reform and Conservative Jews, as well as donors to ADL, aren’t comfortable with having these organizations express such contempt for the people of Israel or for them to attempt to sabotage the U.S.-Israel relationship. Nor should they be. These unelected leaders of American Jewry who have the nerve to lecture the people of Israel about Jewish values and morals deserve to be ignored.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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