by David Sarna Galdi
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week told a delegation led by Reform Movement head Rabbi Rick Jacobs what it wanted to hear — that he was attuned to their concerns. But Netanyahu’s shocking silence during the recent wave of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States was far louder than his words.
Netanyahu, who just a couple of years ago declared that he represents the entire Jewish people, failed to show any support whatsoever for American Jewry during more than 190 anti-Semitic threats and attacks in six weeks.
How should U.S. Jews make sense of this non-sequitur?
Jews growing up in America in the second half of the 20th century were taught a very simple equation: Israel = Judaism. When American Jews sent their hard-earned dollars to the Jewish state, they believed that Israel was — in a reciprocal way — an embodiment of their values and, more importantly, their guardian.
After the Holocaust, Israel was naturally viewed as the guarantor of the common Jewish future, having absorbed hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees and legally enshrining automatic citizenship for any Jew, no questions asked. Leaders of the fledgling state like David Ben Gurion, themselves born in the diaspora, were explicit about Israel’s connection to “the great Jewry of the United States, to whom Israel owes so much.” In 1960, Moshe Dayan put it quite plainly when he argued, in Canada, that his government “should not only represent the people of Israel, but the interests of all Jews.”
The metaphorical umbilical cord connecting the Jewish diaspora with the Zionist State was expressed when Menachem Begin viciously protested 1951 reparation negotiations with post-war Germany. Tremendous financial benefit to Israel, he argued, did not trump the collective self-respect, not of only Israelis, but of all Jews. The ultimately successful reparations deal was unique, argues Ofer Aderet in Haaretz, because although it was signed between two countries, it “also encompassed a third party – the Jewish People.”
However, the idea that a Jewish state could be trusted to represent the entire Jewish people has always been tenuous. After herself escaping Nazi Germany and working for Zionist causes, Hannah Arendt supported a Jewish national revival but argued that politics were destroying the integrity of the original Zionist idea. She worried that an exclusively Jewish Palestine, “would eventually separate itself from a larger body of world Jewry and in its isolation, develop into an entirely new people.”
The lost narrative of early Jewish opposition to political Zionism is beyond the scope of this short article; it must suffice to say that Arendt’s doubts echoed those of a litany of Jewish leaders and thinkers like Lucien Wolf, Claude Montefiore, Israel Abrahams, Simon Dubnow, Congressman Julius Kahn, Rabbi Judah Leon Magnes, Martin Buber, Albert Einstein, Franz Rosenzweig, Gershom Scholem and many others who held doubts as to whether political Zionism had Judaism’s best interest in mind and feared the consequences of ethnic Jewish hegemony over another people.
“Will a Jewish nation save the Jews?” asked Rabbi Israel Mattuck, a leader of British Jewry between the two world wars. “It may save a small number of them; it may well destroy all the rest.”
Fifty years since the height of diaspora euphoria after the Six Day War — the idealistic, abstract Zionism of many U.S. Jews has fermented into what can be called at best, melancholy Zionism. A recent Pew Research Center Study found that only 35 percent of American Jews aged 18-50 believed that caring about Israel is an essential part of their Jewish identity. “Israel isn’t a brand some American Jews want to identify with,” admitted Liran Avisar, the CEO of Masa Israel.
Globally plugged-in young American Jews who protest for refugee rights and attend LGBT weddings face jarring headlines about Israel’s idolization of a soldier convicted of the manslaughter of an incapacitated Palestinian, laws legalizing theft of Palestinian land and discriminating against Muslim prayer, large-scale demolition of Israeli Bedouin communities, and the exclusion of egalitarian prayer from Judaism’s most holy communal space. Though Netanyahu wants to force Palestinians to announce, on-all-fours, that Israel is “Jewish,” it’s uncertain whether a 21st century American Jew would concede as much.
How are American Jews to understand the Israeli prime minister’s actions, which breathe new life into the dry bones of historical doubts of Israel’s concern for Judaism at large? Is his cozying up to anti-Semitic Evangelical preachers and the most offensive U.S. president in memory — at the expense of U.S. Jews — a return to the “Negation of the Diaspora” theory? Or is it the crystallization of a new, frightening brand of Zionism so distorted from the past that it can only be called, Alt-Zionism — a rabid dog wagged by its extremist, Jewish fundamentalist tail? The current government’s Alt-Zionism demonizes the press, decapitates the Israeli Supreme Court, rids the Knesset of Arab representation, passes unjust laws that threaten to turn Israel into a pariah apartheid state, and has no need for any diaspora Jewry that doesn’t fund the Judaization of East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Driving a wedge between Israel and U.S. Jewry while threatening their already wilting symbiosis is corrupt on a profound, Big-History scale. A country where Jews are safe is imperative. A world without the Jewish diaspora, however, is unthinkable.
Benjamin Netanyahu fancies himself a historically significant leader, a kind of Jewish Winston Churchill; he has gone on record repeatedly about his deep admiration for the British prime minister who risked isolation and unpopularity before World War II rather than negotiate with Nazi Germany. But Netanyahu, in throwing the American Jewish community under the bus of right-wing Israeli fanaticism, has proven himself to be more of a Marshal Pétain.
David Sarna Galdi is a former editor at Haaretz newspaper. He works for a nonprofit organization in Tel Aviv. Reprinted, with permission, from +972 Magazine. Photo: Benjamin Netanyahu listens to chief IDF cantor Arye Braun courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.