by Henry Siegman
The New York Times fully deserved the recent outpouring of public anger in reaction to a political cartoon that appeared in the April 25 international edition. The cartoon contained classic anti-Semitic tropes reminiscent of Nazi propaganda. It did not appear in The New York Times because the paper traffics in anti-Semitism, but because it was guilty of a scandalous failure of editorial oversight. The Times recognized its mistake and accepted the blame in its fulsome editorial apology for that failure.
But there’s been a more longstanding indulgence of anti-Semitism far more egregious than the anti-Semitic cartoon, and from a source far more shocking than The New York Times. Moreover, this indulgence of anti-Semitism, which has not provoked anything resembling the outrage that the Times’ failure of oversight triggered, has not been the result of negligence. It has been deliberate and with malice aforethought.
I refer to the embrace by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of authoritarian and racist heads of state and of political parties, including parties with deep anti-Semitic and fascist parentage. If Netanyahu, who so often reminds his critics that he heads “the world’s only Jewish state,” prefers collaborating with authoritarian leaders who are increasingly indistinguishable from racists, fascists, and anti-Semites, and treats democracies and democratic norms with contempt, what does a Jewish state add to the well-being of the Jewish people, or of the world?
How long do Israelis think it will take before these racist autocrats who now celebrate Netanyahu revert to their more accustomed right-wing demonologies in which Jews occupy pride of place? And what does it say about the state of Israel, its leaders, and its citizens, that Donald Trump, who is detested in nearly every democratic country in the world, and most especially by the overwhelming majority of American Jews, enjoys his greatest popularity in the Jewish state of Israel?
Netanyahu’s friendships with xenophobic authoritarians have been going on for several years now, but there has not been a comparable outpouring of angry letters, not even from four prominent rabbis whose reproaches for the anti-Semitic cartoon were published in The New York Times.
Zionism and Democracy
I was raised from early childhood in a religious Zionist home. My father was a leader of the Religious Zionist movement in Western Europe, and I considered myself a Zionist for much of my early adult life. I was the longest serving executive head of the American Jewish Congress in the nearly 100-year history of the organization, the only major American Jewish defense agency committed to Zionism from its founding. Its founders believed Zionism to be consistent with the American Jewish Congress’ commitment to Jewish, humanitarian, and democratic values, as the founders of the Zionist movement also believed.
But that belief has turned out not to be true at all, ironically because of the influence of Orthodox Jewry, both inside and outside of Israel. It is ironic because nearly up to the war of 1967, worldwide Orthodox Jewry overwhelmingly rejected Zionism as a religious heresy. (Most Haredi ultra-Orthodox Jews reject Zionism to this day.) Since then, it has been mostly because of the political influence of the Orthodox that Benjamin Netanyahu succeeded in persuading Israel’s Knesset to adopt a constitutional Basic Law redefining Israeli national identity in Jewish religious terms. That law also declares the right to national self-determination in Palestine to apply only to Israel’s Jewish citizens and not to its non-Jewish citizens or West Bank Palestinians.
Orthodox and secular nationalist influence is also behind the current drive to deny Israel’s Supreme Court the right to override legislation passed by the Knesset. In combination, these actual and still pending changes fully put an end to Israel’s claim to be “the only democracy in the Middle East,” a claim that was highly suspect anyway following Israel’s half-century-long total disenfranchisement of the Palestinians under its military occupation.
Why have these issues—Israel’s embrace of racist regimes and its abandonment of democratic norms—come to a head now?
The reasons are several. The most compelling is that Israel’s recent governments—particularly those headed by Netanyahu—never had any intention of allowing Palestinians to achieve the state promised them in the same UN Partition Plan recognized in Israel’s Declaration of Independence as the source of Israel’s own legitimacy. Because that denial of Palestinian statehood flagrantly violates international law, Israeli governments have long pretended they would abide by previous agreements as soon as a Palestinian leadership emerges that accepts Israel’s terms for a peace accord—terms diabolically designed, particularly by Netanyahu, to assure immediate rejection even by the most moderate of Palestinian leaders. (Former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Rabin have been credited with putting forward more serious peace proposals, but these too fell far short of Palestinian sovereignty. The Oslo Accords did not even mention the term Palestinian statehood, and Rabin refused to sign the Oslo agreement if Yasser Arafat were to demand the removal of Jewish illegal settlements in the West Bank as part of that agreement.)
When the creation of a Palestinian state became possible in the aftermath of the 1967 war that brought the West Bank under Israel’s military control, Labor governments initiated unilateral confiscations of West Bank territory for the illegal settlements that were intended by its settlers to make a Palestinian state impossible. Israeli governments never had an answer to the question of what they will do with the millions of disenfranchised Palestinians under its military occupation. Instead they pretended that they are waiting for a more compliant generation of Palestinian leaders with whom they can reach a peace agreement.
It was not the right-wing Likud party but Moshe Dayan, a Labor party stalwart and legendary military leader, who, when asked in 1968 about Israel’s plan for the Palestinians, replied “What exists today must remain a permanent arrangement in the West Bank.” When asked the same question 10 years later, he said, “The question is not what is the solution, but how to live without a solution.”
Israel is finally able to tell the truth about its opposition to Palestinian statehood because it is dealing with an American president who couldn’t care less if Israel does not want a two- state solution. Even what little is already known about Trump’s long-awaited “Deal of the Century” has made that clear. Netanyahu therefore no longer needs to pretend he is awaiting a more moderate Palestinian partner to make peace with. He is finally free to announce, as he did during the recently held election, that Israel will henceforth manifest the Jewishness of its national identity and destiny by completing its annexation of the West Bank, thereby assuring Israel’s retention of Palestinians under Israel’s permanent military occupation, or by arranging for their expulsion. The latter option is already being implemented gradually in what the Oslo accords designated Area C, comprising over 60 percent of the West Bank.
The Company He Keeps
Another reason for “why now” is that Netanyahu and his far-right political colleagues have dropped all pretense of adhering to democratic norms or the rule of law. The new government Netanyahu was trying to form includes the former Kahanist party that was thrown out of the Knesset when both Israel’s Supreme Court and the U.S. government ruled it to be a terrorist organization. Netanyahu personally insisted they be returned to Israel’s Knesset even though they continue to celebrate their previous terrorist and fascist inclinations. That is not inconsistent with Netanyahu’s having come down heavily in favor of Trump’s continuing friendship with the Saudi bone surgeon or with Netanyahu’s admiration for Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Italy’s Matteo Salvini, and Austria’s Heinz-Christian Strache. He not only admires these “strong men.” He has come to resemble them.
If that seems an outlandish and defamatory accusation to make against the prime minister of a Jewish state, consider the following.
The president of Hungary, Viktor Orbán, recently ran a three-year-long anti-Semitic campaign in his country that portrayed George Soros, the Jewish financier and human-rights activist, on giant building-sized billboards as a vulture-beaked predator and puppet master—classic anti-Semitic imagery taken directly from Goebbels’ portrayal of Jews in Nazi Germany. When at the request of an outraged local Jewish leadership, Israel’s ambassador to Hungary publicly demanded the removal of the anti-Semitic billboards, Netanyahu slapped him down and formally retracted the criticism. According to Ha’aretz, Netanyahu’s intervention left the Hungarian Jewish community reeling.
What the Jewish community in Hungary did not know at the time is that Netanyahu had secretly dispatched two of his advisors to Hungary to assist Orbán in mounting his anti-Semitic project.
Oxymoron of the Century
Would Israel have been able to preserve both its democratic and its Jewish character had it accepted a two-state peace agreement? It is difficult to see how, for the new Basic Law defining Israel’s national identity denies Israeli non-Jews the right to national self-determination, no matter how many generations they and their ancestors may have lived in Palestine. It limits that right to its Jewish citizens, no matter how recently they may have arrived in Israel.
But even without that new Basic Law, Israel would have had to continue denying immigration and Israeli citizenship to anyone other than Jews in order to prevent the loss over the long term of its Jewish majority, even if it remained within its pre-1967 borders. How does such an arrangement differ from white supremacists’ insistence on denying citizenship and immigration to anyone other than white Christians? Can any country that implements such religious or ethnic discrimination be recognized as a democracy?
There is actually no way Israel can claim to be a democracy as long as it defines Israel’s national identity in Jewish terms. The argument that the term Judaism is being used in its secular cultural and not its religious sense is of course untrue. If it were true, there would not be a rabbinical office within the prime minister’s office where immigrants of questionable Jewish identity can undergo religious conversion in order to qualify for Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return. Unless Israel’s government grants full and equal citizenship to all of its citizens, including the right to national self-determination that it claims for its Jewish citizens, the term “a Jewish and democratic state” as applied to Israel will be seen universally as “the Oxymoron of the Century.”
If current political trajectories in Israel continue and are not reversed, the ties between Israel and the world’s democracies that have been deteriorating will continue to do so, and American Jewry will increasingly turn for spiritual nourishment to its own cultural and religious resources rather than to Israel’s. After all, it was not a Reform Rabbi but the Prophet Isaiah who declared that, absent justice and compassion for the weakest of God’s creatures, the God of Israel finds even the most sacred practices of Yom Kippur deeply offensive.
Henry Siegman is president emeritus of the U.S./Middle East Project and a past senior fellow on the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was a visiting research professor at SOAS, and formerly headed the American Jewish Congress and the Synagogue Council of America.