Friday May 5, 2023 – י״ד אִיָיר תשפ”ג
The Knesset returned to full action this week launching its summer session and resuming the Netanyahu government’s legislative agenda. This agenda is hell-bent on pushing through its judicial “reforms” to limit significantly the Supreme Court’s independence and essentially dismantle Israel’s democratic institution. There is much speculation about the timing and the politics. Some analysts think that Netanyahu will stall the proposals for a few months or let them go through gradually. Whether or not that is the case, few protesters are willing to sit back and wait to see what happens as they continue with deliberate disruption and perpetual pressure against the ruling majority.
But, beyond the current crisis, the wedge dividing American Jews (and possibly Americans as well) is about identity and values, morality and worldview (השקפה). Increasingly in today’s world, the dividing line between people is not along tribal or ethnic lines, nor along nationalist or religious lines – rather, our values and morals determine our identity.
Ehud Barak, in his speech to the weekly Saturday night rally on Kaplan St. in Tel Aviv in February, posed the following binary choice: “Either you’re in the Megilat Haatzmaut (Declaration/Scroll of Independence) camp or you’re in the ‘D-9’ (bulldozer) camp.” No gray area, no nuance, no complexity. A polarizing dichotomy that has no middle ground.
I am concerned about this, not because I am wavering about which side I fall, or upon which side our Movement falls (we are firmly in the Jewish and democratic camp). I am concerned because of what happened this week that has severe and lasting ramifications for American Jews.
Israel received a few high-level American delegations that arrived to celebrate Israel at 75. Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy became only the second Speaker to address the Knesset. Florida Governor Ron Desantis also showed up for mere hours to demonstrate his support, as did Minority Leader Representative Hakim Jeffries with a Congressional delegation.
Haaretz journalist and former NY Consul General Alon Pinkus set the scene:
“Here was McCarthy, leading a bipartisan delegation ostensibly marking Israel’s 75th Independence Day, assisting Netanyahu’s latest phase of a 25-year quest to dispense with bipartisanship and align Israel tightly and unequivocally with the Republican Party.”
After McCarthy’s counterpart, Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana welcomed him with a rousing rendition of ‘Hotel California’ on electric guitar in front of the Knesset’s famous Chagall tapestry, McCarthy delivered an address to Israel’s parliament:
“Our values are your values. Our heritage is your heritage. Our dreams are your dreams,” McCarthy stated. “America is grateful for our friendship with Israel. We are a better nation because of it, and we must never shy away from defending it.”
When we throw out the “shared values” adage, we often infer the shared values of democracy, freedom, and equality that were stalwart values in the US-Israel relationship. However, neither McCarthy nor DeSantis made mention of the judicial overhaul, save for the dig at President Biden for snubbing Netanyahu.
McCarthy’s arrogation of this coded vocabulary increases the partisan wedge between Democrats and Republicans, and more importantly, between different moral teams.
Is the current climate in Israel forcing liberal American Jews to make a choice between their values and their people? Is it forcing a choice between a commitment to freedom and equality against a commitment to support the well-being and security of the Jewish State?
Over the past few months, the strains between Israel and the Democratic Party, and particularly an American Jewish community that remains predominantly liberal, have only grown worse. Of course, there are some prominent conservatives who are outspoken and critical of Netanyahu’s overhaul, but most are hesitant to be critical, and many – including those in the Orthodox Movements – are, in fact, supportive.
At stake here is the risk of losing a whole generation of American Jews. There is a serious risk of alienating those who simplistically perceive Israel to be ruled by a corrupt, illiberal, and anti-democratic government that aligns with everything they abhor – including the new McCarthyism (Kevin, not Joseph) and the Likud-GOP alliance.
Jewish pollster Harry Enten argues:
“When you put it all together, [a majority] of Jewish voters are Democratic for a reason. They believe in the party’s liberal ideology and identify with its core values. They will not be swayed by Republican attempts to switch allegiances, because on the key issue on which the GOP (partly under Evangelical influence) highlights — diehard support for Israel — just doesn’t impress Jews much. They don’t view Israel as essential to their political allegiances in the United States, and even if they did, they think Democratic policy is just fine.”
My sense is that Speaker McCarthy lacks a real interest in Israel (unlike Pres. Biden) and brings neither a genuine or deep understanding of the political dynamics in Israel. It is likely that Netanyahu is manipulating McCarthy which is bad news for Jews and Judaism around the world because it will likely result in dividing Jewish electoral votes and Jewish political donations in America. Netanyahu knows McCarthy is only interested in those two things and will not hesitate to exploit them.
We must desperately avoid Israel’s fight for democracy to be seen as a fight between Democrat and Republican, American “right” and “left” (as well as “right” and “wrong”). While this may be savvy on Netanyau’s part in the short term it will prove to be disastrous for all Jews in the long-term.
We are facing a situation in which many American Jews might decide to cut off ties with Israel because they perceive Israel as not representing “our values.” This is not all that new, but it is manifesting in an irreparably damaging way, especially among young liberal American Jews.
The political and ideological love affair between Netanyahu and the Republicans/Neocons goes back to the Reagan presidency and the last years of the Cold War when Netanyahu served as Israel’s representative to the United Nations. The first generation of neoconservative intellectuals (Richard Perle, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Elliott Abrams, Kenneth Adelman, and Max Kampelman) were serving in top foreign policy positions in the Reagan administration.
To the ruling Likud Party, the policies of the Republican Party seemed to offer Israel time to consolidate its hold on the West Bank and Gaza as it encouraged Washington to view the Arab‐Israeli conflict through a Cold War lens and to identify Palestinian nationalism as an extension of Soviet‐induced international terrorism. In that context, Republican-led Washington could view Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands with benign neglect.
The Obama presidency threw a wrench in Netanyahu’s plans, only to have the pendulum swing the other way when Donald Trump was elected. As Netanyahu plastered billboards of his picture with the American President, threatened annexation, and furthered his agenda, he also succeeded in further distancing liberal American Jews from the Jewish and democratic state. President Biden clearly expressed his Zionism and strong affinity for the State of Israel and pushed back against Netanyahu. By stating plainly that Netanyahu is not (yet?) invited to the White House – because of the systematic dismantling of democracy – Biden risks a backlash of Republican partisanship which will exacerbate the use of Israel as a wedge issue.
McCarthy invited Netanyahu to Washington. If he addresses Congress, it will be the fourth time that PM Netanyahu has addressed a joint session of Congress. The controversy around his 2015 appearance, which took place largely to spite President Obama, will pale in comparison to what could happen if that is repeated – especially with a presidential election looming in the next 18 months.
In response to Netanyahu’s blatant meddling in American politics, let us assert, as Rabbi Eric Yoffie once wrote, “without equivocation or apology, that American Jews have the absolute right to involve themselves in the arguments and the politics of the Jewish state. … Israel is the state of the Jewish people, and Zionism affirms that Israel is the concern and the potential home of Jews everywhere.” Let us also assert to American Jews that we must involve ourselves in the arguments and the politics of the Jewish State just as we do in the U.S.
We also must work closely with the pro-democracy camp of Israelis to build the cooperation and support of American Jews with similar values. As absurd as it sounds, and despite the myriads of public protesters, many American Jews seem to think that support for anything Israeli is tacit support for the government of Israel. Today’s lines are delineated by values, and as liberal American Jews, we have more in common with the Israeli street than does the MAGA Republican Party. It is high time we champion our liberal Jewish values and our liberal Jewish identity.