Bibi’s Threat to American Jews

More than a half century ago, at the high school a few blocks from a creek where I hunted for frogs as a boy, an Israeli kid who didn’t fit in lost patience with his Jewish classmates’ interest in cars and sex.  He skipped his June 1967 graduation – to join his country’s army, he’d later say – as Arab armies menaced Israel in the run-up to the Six Day War.

His disdain for his Jewish peers as a Philadelphia-area teen extended to their politics, putting him at odds with the progressivism that’s long been at the core of American Jewish identity.  The Israel to which he returned in 1967 was nearly as liberal, at least culturally.  But over the next five-plus decades, he’d transform his country’s politics to fit his dark, fierce vision.

And his response, as Prime Minister of Israel, to Hamas’s October 7th barbarism has brought on a crisis for Jewish Americans.  Israel, conceived as a redoubt for the Jewish people, has shape-shifted into a threat to our sense of ourselves.

For the past six months, we’ve been waking to this crisis daily – it’s been as in-our-face as each morning’s headlines about students shouting down “Zionists,” IDF assaults on hospitals, and slaughter and rape being celebrated as “resistance.”

Our distress is trivial compared to the agonies and losses of so many – lives shortened by October 7th’s horror and Israel’s ferocious response, families shattered, and thousands maimed in body and spirit.  And perhaps Bibi Netanyahu and his allies are right in figuring that Jewish-American support matters little, and that U.S. backing for Israel can best be secured through alliance with America’s Trumpist hard right.

But to the degree that the American conception of Jewishness is worth preserving – and to the extent that Jewish-American support matters for Israel’s survival – squaring American Jewishness with how Israel comports itself matters hugely.

My own conception of Jewishness is rooted in painful memory.  I’d just learned to read when my parents embarked on one of their frequent drives from Philly to Miami to visit my grandmother.  In South Carolina, we stopped at a gas station to use the necessities.  I saw two bathrooms, side-by-side, one filthy, the other much cleaner.  It took me a few moments to sound out the letters on each, “C-o-l-o-r-e-d,” then “W-h-i-t-e.”

I’d learned about slavery and segregation, but this was my first face-to-face encounter.  These were the bad guys, and I knew that as Jews, we weren’t supposed to do what the bad guys wanted.

So I was going to pee in the “Colored” toilet.  I ran toward it.  My mother screamed.  Come back here NOW, she demanded.  They might beat me bloody, or lock me up!  These people did things differently, she explained when I came back to the car.

I’d later learn about her shame, as a child in Miami, when she saw signs in storefronts announcing, “No [N-word], Jews, or Dogs,” and when a classmate asked to see her horns.  And I heard of how my grandmother’s sister survived the Holocaust in Hungary, only to be gunned down, with her two small children, by Soviet soldiers as they tried to flee toward Western lines.

I also learned of my grandmother’s first cousin, who ambushed Nazis as a Jewish partisan, then made his way to Palestine to fight Nazis as part of Britain’s Jewish Brigade, then held out, under siege by Arab armies, as part of the Jerusalem Garrison during Israel’s War of Independence.  And as an 11-year-old, in June 1967, I worked the dials of our Telefunken shortwave radio, searching for updates on Israel’s attempt to avoid annihilation by pre-emptively striking the Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian forces massing around it.

Against impossible odds, Israel prevailed.  And at home, as I came of age, Jews played important roles in the civil rights movement and the fight for economic justice.  I didn’t take to Judaism’s religious rituals.  But I connected with a secular concept of the Jewish people as survivors who’d transmuted suffering into empathy for the marginalized and who’d harnessed their new-found strength to pursue social fairness.

My own story is hardly exceptional.  Only a fifth of American Jewish adults say religion is “very important” in their lives.  Just 12 percent attend services at least weekly.  In presidential elections, Jews overwhelmingly choose Democrats; since 1968, they’ve done so by an average margin of 71 percent to 26 percent for Republicans.

So well before October 7, successive right-wing Israeli governments’ tightening embrace of anti-Arab bigotry was a source of distress for American Jews, including me.  Bibi’s election campaigns conjured bigoted tropes – e.g. “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls” – that would have outraged progressive and centrist U.S. voters had candidates for Congress or President uttered them about marginalized Americans.

Worse were the proto-fascists whom Bibi invited to join his current, hard-right coalition: they’ve celebrated mass shooting of Arabs, urged Israel to “wipe out” a Palestinian town, and pressed for territorial expansion into “Judea and Samaria.”

This shameful stuff hardly stayed below the media waterline, but it didn’t gain global, news-dominating attention.  Then came Hamas’s grotesque assault and the unmasking of Israel’s stunning lack of preparation.

Israel faced a choice.  It could take Hamas’s bait, killing thousands of civilians in enraged pursuit of terrorists in tunnels, thereby making itself a global pariah, giving succor to the world’s anti-Semites, and squandering its hard-won acceptance in the Arab world.  Or, it could stymie Hamas (and Tehran) by striking Hamas leaders surgically, correcting its disastrous failure to take Gaza border defense seriously, and embracing the “Grand Bargain” of Saudi recognition and irrevocable steps toward Palestinian statehood.

Bibi chose the former.  Catastrophe ensued.  Accounts of mass killing and maiming of children, attacks on medical centers and relief workers, and large-scale starvation have eclipsed memories of October 7th, cast Israel as a global villain, and stoked anti-Semitism.

The Netanyahu government’s shocking statements – its defense minister’s declaration of “complete siege” on Gaza, with “no electricity, no food, no fuel”; Netanyahu’s denial that famine looms there (despite compelling evidence); and far-right ministers’ calls for mass relocation of Palestinians from Gaza – have further ravaged Israel’s moral standing.

Such statements, as Israeli legal scholars Amichai Cohen and Yuval Shany note, “seem to border on genocidal.”  For reasons Cohen and Shany set out, they don’t suffice to meet international law’s intent requirement for the crime of genocide.  But genocide’s borders aren’t a place Israel can step near without disastrous effect.

Bibi and the thugs he invited to govern with him have taken Israel – and the Jewish people – on a forced march to these borderlands.  Not only have the consequences been devastating for Palestinians and, as U.S. Sen. Majority Leader Charles Schumer has warned, damaging to Israel’s ability to sustain the support it needs to survive; this forced march is a frontal assault on the American sense of Jewishness.

It does no good to dismiss all condemnations of Israel’s conduct as anti-Semitism.  Yes, Jew-hatred often masquerades as criticism of Israel (at the university that employs me, I’ve called it out).  But 30,000-plus dead Gazans, spreading starvation, and the Netanyahu government’s bizarrely belligerent rhetoric have led well-meaning observers to issue understandably harsh judgments.

There’s a matter-antimatter collision between Bibi’s dark vision and the American Jewish commitment to tikkun olam – “repair of the world.”  The two are irreconcilable, a truth that’s paralyzed American Jews who still hope to square their progressive ideals with love for Israel.

Silence about Israel at Seder tables and growing disavowal of Israel by the young are symptoms of this irreconcilability.  Perceptions that all Jews are accountable for Israel’s excesses reflect anti-Semitic undercurrents, but they’re stoked by the Israeli hard-right’s toxicity.

I’m tempted, I confess, to lay low through all of this – to pursue my writing and teaching, blessed by two seas of distance from the Mideast’s traumas.  But Israel’s hold on my soul won’t allow me; neither will my impulse toward tikkun olam.  Despite, or because of, Bibi’s and his partners’ assault on my Jewish identity, engagement feels urgent.

Progressive American Jews’ silence about what Israel risks becoming is dangerous.  It undermines our credibility as voices for the marginalized, and it corrodes our self-concept, as people who’ve learned, from our own suffering, not to keep silent about disregard for others’ humanity.

More than this, our paralysis and silence invite the impression that those who say supporting Israel means backing Bibi and his ilk speak for us.  Silence also sends the message to Israeli voters and leaders that we’re accepting of rightist lawlessness and policies inspired by rage.

So in our conversations with each other and wherever else we speak to matters of public import, we should share our insistence that Israel act within the constraints of international law and humane decency.  We should speak to the enormity of the slaughter in Gaza, to settler terror and impunity on the West Bank, and to the vengefulness that’s driving failure to enable adequate Gaza relief.  Ditto for the right’s rejection of a two-state compromise that’d offer Palestinians a horizon of hope.

We can do so while insisting that the hostages not be forgotten and that Hamas’s rampage renders it unfit for any governance role.  And we can do all this, as Sen. Schumer offered in his prophetic March 14 speech, as Shomrim Yisroel – guardians of the people of Israel – without fear that championing Israel’s finest aspirations constitutes disloyalty.

We can take comfort from Israel’s answer to Iran’s massive missile attack.  Israel’s spectacular defensive success evoked the IDF of yesteryear, stymying existential threats through strategic and technical brilliance.  And the country’s alliance with Arab states to thwart Iran points toward prospects for wider collaboration with one-time foes.

Championing Israel’s finest aspirations also means championing Bibi’s departure.  There’s room for debate over whether he’s the worst leader in Jewish history or merely doomed to be remembered by Jews with scorn in a thousand years.  But his toxic mix of provocation, overpromising, actions driven by rage rather than strategy, and embrace of Israel’s lawless fringe right makes him a menace to his country as well as to Jewish values.

Bibi’s last, cynical redoubt is his claim that his quick departure would paralyze Israel and aid Hamas.  But the strategic failure and moral shame he’s visited upon Israel has been a triumph for Hamas and a boon to anti-Semites worldwide.

American Jews, still a larger share of world Jewry than the Jewish population of Israel, shouldn’t allow Bibi’s self-serving cynicism to blind us.  We take a strong stand for Israel and against silence’s complicity by proclaiming that it’s past time for him to go.

About the Author
M. Gregg Bloche is the Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Health Law, Policy, & Ethics at Georgetown University. His writing on medicine’s cultural, economic, and national-security roles has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, New England Journal of Medicine, and other media, academic, and professional venues. He’s a lawyer and psychiatrist by training, a former Guggenheim Fellow, and past and present board member of multiple academic journals and human-rights organizations.
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