The Jewish people have never been known to back down from a debate. Historically opinionated, we relish in the vibrancy of conversation—even if this means holiday celebrations turning into a family-wide, less-polite version of a debate club— we just can’t help ourselves. For the most part, it’s a healthy and admirable trait that speaks to the Jewish world’s commitment to education. These discussions are often most passionate when surrounding religion or politics—and the one topic that comprises them both, Israel. These dinner table discussions often give way to attempts at unity when presented in larger Jewish forums, like at a conference or in a synagogue where the goal is often to create a united Jewish voice. After the resounding victory for Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli right-wing this week, the American Jewish community, particularly millenials, must commit to a serious, vibrant, and challenging discussion about Israel now more than ever. Here’s why:
Over the past few months, Israel has undergone a campaign full of rhetoric and political maneuvering. What started out as a rebellion in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s governing coalition metastasized into an overt disintegration of the US-Israeli relationship in the United States Capitol. The rhetoric reached such a level that The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg compared Benjamin Netanyahu’s game plan to the “Southern strategy”—using racism in order to gain votes. Others accused him of a verbal “scorched earth” policy.
In the days leading up the election, Netanyahu disavowed his Bar-Ilan speech, in which he advocated for a two-state solution in 2009. One of his most important lines from that address now rings hollow:
“Friends, up to now, I have been talking about the need for the Palestinians to recognize our rights. Now I will talk about the need for us to recognize their rights.”
Netanyahu’s support of the two-state solution has always been suspect. It took him a while to support the initiative, making headlines when he made such an announcement after the 2009 election. The once, past, current, and assuredly future Prime Minister of Israel has now publicly placed himself on the side of the one-state solution—pitted against the expressed stance of the United States and Europe. While his political advisors will point out the wiggle room in his renunciation, his intentions have been made clear time and time again.
This is a Prime Minister who has effectively ignored the Saudi peace initiative and scuttled (with equal participation by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas) the most recent round of peace negotiations while furthering the controversial settlement policy that puts Israel at odds with the United States and key European allies. All of this while overseeing an Israeli economy that has seen inequality skyrocket and housing prices rise more than 50% in Tel Aviv. Netanyahu speaks of security, but he has never presented long term strategy to ensure it. Netanyahu defends a status quo that is both difficult to morally defend and politically unsustainable.
On Election Day, he warned his constituency of Arab citizens voting in droves, being bussed to the polls, and of an opposition being funded by outside money. Netanyahu did not mention the swath Israeli media owned by American billionaire Sheldon Adelson, a staunch right wing ally, who sat in the gallery at the Prime Minister’s speech in front of Congress. As The Washington Post noted in 2014,
“Adelson already owns one of the four mainstream newspapers here, a free daily tabloid called Israel Hayom (Israel Today)…With his latest purchases, Adelson will now also control the main religious daily, Makor Rishon, which caters to Israel’s Zionist religious right, and NRG, the news Web site of the Maariv newspaper…”
What Netanyahu and the 24% of Israelis who voted for him miss is that Israel does not enjoy the luxury to impose the policy of its choice. In its relationship with the United States, Israel receives $3 billion a year in military aid, funding for the life-saving Iron Dome and constant American defense in international bodies like the United Nations, which disproportionately vilify it. The alliance is strong, enduring, and critical for both countries, yet Netanyahu has been used it as a political pawn.The United States and the American Jewish community have been there for Israel, but Netanyahu is hedging a dangerous bet that it will always be there regardless of his actions.
For a leader with such a nuanced understanding of American politics (and a top political advisor/US ambassador in Ron Dermer, who does as well), he has failed to notice the changing American political landscape. While Netanyahu clearly does not trust President Obama, he is placing him in a position where trust is required. President Obama, as the executive and commander- in- chief, controls US foreign policy for the next 22 months. Samantha Power’s UN veto power derives from him, a tool the United States has used to block Palestinian and other resolutions at the UN countless times on Israel’s behalf. If Israel seeks to strike Iran, it will require American cooperation. At a time when Israel faces immense pressure diplomatically and strategically, the Prime Minister of Israel should not be widening ideological differences with the American President. Netanyahu’s fear-based political calculus is at best questionable. His nationalist vision just contradicts reality.
The American Jewish community, which is more diverse, sophisticated, and well-read than Netanyahu gives it credit for, needs to start a conversation—in synagogues, in community centers, and on college campuses.
Does the American Jewish community want to align itself with the nationalist views of the Israeli Prime Minister? Are we willing to watch Israel sacrifice democratic values?
The Pew Research Center composed the most comprehensive study on American Jewry to date in 2013 with poignant results. The community believes settlement construction hurts Israel’s standing by wide margins. Fifty-six percent of respondents say that working for justice and equality is key to their Jewish values. Only 38% believe the Israeli government makes a sincere effort in peace negotiations. These findings do not support Prime Minister Netanyahu. Yet, Netanyahu tells the international community that he is the emissary of the Jewish people.
The most important number in the Pew study was that 94% of American Jews are proud to be Jewish. American Jews need to use that pride, and the influence and energy we have, to make Israel better. Unbreakable support for Israeli policy does not make Israel better.
The pro- or anti-Israel dialogue has long pigeon-holed any serious debate over Israeli policy in the American Jewish community. The creation of this binary makes it hard to bring up legitimate complaints about Israeli policy, one of the sentiments popularized in Peter Beinart’s seminal and tendentious essay “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment.” Beinart’s article, love it or hate it, is more relevant for discussion now than ever. Regardless of the political overtures of Netanyahu and his religious Zionist base and coalition members, their strategy does not place Israel on the right side of history. Controlling the movement and citizenship of millions of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza (along with Egypt) is not what Israel’s stands for; Israel needs a solution. Time will lead to demographic changes that most likely will not favor Israel in the long term with the former head of the Mossad Meir Dagan saying Israel’s current policy will lead it to become the “A” word.
The ground may not currently be fertile for peace, but Israel needs leadership that is ready to identify when it is, not leadership that would be scared to embrace it. Being Prime Minister of Israel requires a willingness to take risks—Israel is not like every other country in the world. Its critical existence in a sea of enmity creates challenges that no serious commentator can downplay. Still, Menachem Begin, a patriarch of the political ideology that Netanyahu and his Likud party subscribe too, made peace with Anwar Sadat and Egypt forging a pillar of Israeli security. Today, Netanyahu concerns himself with taking punitive measures against the Palestinians, like withholding tax revenues which hold the government together— a government, who for all its flaws, supports Israel immensely with security cooperation.
The American Jewish community’s geographical distance from and emotional attachment to Israel makes it easier to rationally grasp and recognize fear-mongering where it exists in Israeli politics (No, electing the Zionist Union would not have led to the creation of “Hamastan B” on the West Bank.) We need to know that’s okay to speak out, to challenge, and to attempt to bolster Israel through bold ideas. As millenials, this is typically our strength. When speaking to an American audience, Netanyahu knows what lines to use to get applause, but American audiences need to be willing to be inquisitive and skeptical of a leader whose accomplishments as Prime Minister pale in comparison to the weight of his words.
Benjamin Netanyahu took home a big victory on Tuesday while the American Jewish community and its leaders took home a monumental challenge—ensuring a Jewish and democratic future for Israel, the Jewish community’s most important possession. Our voices need to be louder than ever.