Why US Jewish leaders have a problem with Netanyahu

Though they claim to be moved by concern for Israel’s well-being, their actions have more to do with political bias and the narrow interest of the liberal Jewish movements’ tiny Israeli branches.

Victor Rosenthal (Credit: abuyehuda.com)
Victor Rosenthal

I recently wrote about the foolish and arrogant letter sent by the American Reform and Conservative movements and some of their associated organizations to U.S. President Donald Trump, demanding that in light of newly re-elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s intention to extend Israeli sovereignty to Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria he should act to preserve the holy “two-state solution.”

As Jonathan S. Tobin argued, Israelis democratically elected Netanyahu’s Likud Party. Furthermore, if you consider the breakdown of parties that favor the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state in Judea/Samaria vs. opponents of it, the election can be seen as referendum on the two-state solution—those opposed won by a landslide. So the decision of American Jewish organizations to oppose the will of the great majority of Israeli citizens can be seen as, in Tobin’s words, “trashing the verdict of Israeli democracy.” The fact that the letter was addressed to Trump, rather than Netanyahu, shows even more strongly that these individuals reject Israel’s pretension to self-government. The United States, they think, guided by the wisdom of the leaders of its liberal Jewish community, should force Israel to do its will. They are uncomfortable with a sovereign Jewish state and would prefer a banana republic, with themselves calling the shots.

I find myself speculating about the political and psychological motivations for this letter. Although the writers imply that they are moved by concern for Israel’s well-being, I suspect that several other impulses that are both more likely and less admirable.

The Reform and Conservative movements have satellite movements in Israel, which they would like to see recognized by the Israeli government as legitimate forms of Judaism. If recognized, they would receive subsidies from the Religious Affairs Ministry, the same as Orthodox synagogues do. They would like their rabbis to be able to perform marriages and conversions in Israel, and would also like a measure of control over religious sites. They would like a section of the Western Wall to be made available for mixed-gender prayer.

As long as the Chief Rabbinate is in control of these things, and as long as it in turn is dominated by the haredim (the so-called “ultra-Orthodox” Jews) that represent some 12 percent of the Jewish population of Israel, these desires will never be satisfied, no matter how many Supreme Court decisions there are in their favor. Netanyahu has been forced—as his center-left opposition also probably would have been—to include haredi parties in his coalition, and for this reason the demands of the liberal movements remain unmet. Netanyahu has made the political calculation that haredi support for his government is more important than the approval of Diaspora Jews that can’t vote, and they are bitter about this.

Despite misleading poll results, very few Israelis—according to Shmuel Rosner, less than one-half of 1 percent—are affiliated with the Israeli versions of the liberal movements. But the egos of the American leaders are bound up with their success (or lack thereof) in attracting Israelis to them. They need to believe that there are strong reasons to attend a non-Orthodox synagogue other than a lack of Jewish education. So they are trying very hard to get their movements into the Israeli mainstream to prove this, and they see Netanyahu as an obstacle.

In addition, the Israeli left has good connections with the liberal movements in the Diaspora. They speak English and are well-represented in the media. Directly, and through media outlets like the Haaretz’s English website, they present their point of view to the Diaspora much more effectively than Netanyahu’s supporters, many of whom are working-class people who speak only Hebrew.

Finally, there is the fact that most of the members of the liberal American Jewish denominations and virtually all of their leadership are sympathetic to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. This political constellation, especially beginning with the election of Barack Obama in 2008, has become increasingly anti-Israel. Although Obama made his pro-Arab sympathies evident from the very beginning, even by 2012 some 70 percent of Jewish voters voted to re-elect him. In his second term, he did not disappoint, ramming the Iran deal through Congress in a process which included viciously attacking Netanyahu. His administration played on traditional anti-Jewish themes when it suggested that Jewish opponents of the deal were more loyal to Israel than to the United States, and wanted the U.S. to engage in war with Iran for the benefit of Israel. His final gift to Israel was U.S. abstention on (and some say, the promotion of) an anti-Israel U.N. Security Council resolution.

Nevertheless, liberal American Jews and their religious movements have continued to embrace the progressive ideology represented by Obama, and have, for the most part, joined the fierce Democratic opposition to Trump.

This has placed them at cross-purposes with Israel because Trump has proven himself to be the most pro-Israel American president since Harry S. Truman. Trump recognized Jerusalem as capital of Israel, reversing an obnoxious policy that held since 1948 that no part of Jerusalem—not even the ground under the Knesset—belonged to Israel. He became the first president to enforce the will of Congress to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem, after three previous presidents—Clinton, Bush and Obama—found excuses not to do so. He removed the U.S. from the disastrous Iran deal and reimposed sanctions (compare this to Obama’s paying off the Iranians with pallets of cash). He cut U.S. funding for the UNRWA Palestinian “refugee” scam, and began to enforce the Taylor Force Act, which deducts payments made to terrorists by the Palestinian Authority from U.S. aid to the P.A.. He recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. And, although this is not yet confirmed, it is beginning to look as though his “deal of the century” will not include a sovereign Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria.

Trump broke through Israel’s pariah status as the only nation in the world that can’t choose its own capital. He cracked the myth of the “Palestinian refugees” that must be nurtured and helped to grow like no other refugee population, and that can never be resettled anywhere but in Israel. He may yet put the final nail into the coffin of the Oslo process. These are accomplishments that a successor will find hard to reverse.

Can Netanyahu be excused for claiming that some of this is due to his “close personal relationship” with the American president? Apparently not for these “leaders,” for whom Trump is the devil incarnate.

Trump’s actions towards Israel have all been in both U.S. and Israeli interests. In some cases, such as Jerusalem, they have righted long-term wrongs that should have been corrected long ago. If any other president had done these things he would have been applauded and embraced by American Jews that cared about Israel. But this president is Donald Trump—and these American Jews have forgotten why there needs to be a Jewish state and what their connection to it is.

And so we have American Jewish leaders attacking a democratically elected Israeli prime minister, arrogantly implying that they know what’s better for Israel than Israelis themselves, who vote in Israel, pay taxes in Israel and send their children to serve in the Israeli army. They have chosen to attack him on an issue—whether or not there should be a sovereign Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria—that many Israelis consider existential, and they have done so in the narrow interests of the tiny Israeli branches of their movements and because of their political bias against the American president.

My guess is that Netanyahu doesn’t care. And fortunately for Israel, Trump—who knows that these “leaders” are without a single exception his bitter political enemies—is unlikely to take their advice.

Victor Rosenthal was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., lived on a kibbutz through the 1980s and returned home to Israel in 2014 after 26 years in California. He writes at the Abu Yehuda blog.

This article was originally published on AbuYehuda.com.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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