In January 2015, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accepted an invitation from then-House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in a move that many interpreted as intentionally undermining and insulting President Barack Obama. The speech became a point of partisan confrontation and division among American Jews.
Later that year, in October, Netanyahu, the son of late historian Benzion Netanyahu, peddled a revisionist version of Holocaust history. In a speech delivered to the World Zionist Congress, he insisted that Hitler had initially only planned to expel the Jews but was convinced by the Palestinian Grand Mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini to pursue plans for a Final Solution.
Netanyahu’s rewriting of the Holocaust continued in June 2018 when he whitewashed Poland’s role in the genocide of his own people. In a joint statement with Polish Prime Minister Mateus Morawiecki, the two rejected “actions that blame Poland or the Polish nation as a whole for the crimes committed by the Nazis and their collaborators from other nations.” The statement did not only minimize Poland’s role in the atrocities, but also inflated Poland’s role in aiding the Jews by acknowledging “the fact that certain structures of the Polish Underground State, supervised by the Polish government in exile, created a mechanism of systematic assistance and support for the Jews.” The Israeli Premier changed his tune in early 2019 when he was quoted as saying “Poles cooperated with the Germans,” but the precedent for a revisionist Holocaust history from the man who serves as the closest thing to a national spokesperson for world Jewry had been established.
Then in December, it was reported that Netanyahu’s administration was working with Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán on a “consensus narrative” downplaying Hungary’s collaboration in Nazi crimes. This was just one in a growing list of nationalist leaders that Netanyahu began to embrace, including Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, and Vladimir Putin which has left these nations’ Jews more vulnerable to growing anti-Semitism in their respective countries.
A further indication that Netanyahu seems to have disregarded Diaspora Jews is his handling of the negotiations over a permanent egalitarian prayer space at the Robinson’s Arch section of the Western Wall. In early 2016, a deal was penned to establish Robinson’s Arch as a permanent location for Conservative and Reform Jews to conduct mixed-gender prayer without fear of protest or provocation. The following year, Netanyahu caved to pressure from the ultra-Orthodox and the deal seemed to be collapsing. To this day, there has been no concrete progress made on a final agreement.
Perhaps Netanyahu’s most shortsighted move came just last week when he barred two freshman U.S. congresswomen, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar from visited Israel. After Tlaib sent a letter requesting she be allowed entry to visit her elderly grandmother, the Netanyahu administration acquiesced, allowing the congresswoman to visit under strict conditions. Faced with an impossible choice between her family and her principles, Tlaib ultimately turned down the offer.
I am no fan of either Congresswoman Tlaib or Omar. At best, they are unfairly critical of Israel. At worst, they may be virulently anti-Semitic. Their intended itinerary during the planned visit likely had an agenda consistent with the BDS movement. And if they did intend to visit with Jewish Members of the Knesset, they likely were not intent on gaining a broader understand of the political landscape from an objective perspective. Nevertheless, Tlaib and Omar are elected representative of the United States government, and barring their entry sets a disturbing precedent.
Jews and Zionists who support Netanyahu’s decision argue that their visit would have given greater voice to BDS. Some even suggest that Tlaib and Omar would have incited acts of terrorism against Israel. The latter is far-fetched, though, had either incited violence against Israel, that may have amounted to penning their own political obituaries. By barring their entry, Netanyahu has given the narrative of Israel as non-democratic greater credibility. The ban amounts to a silencing of political opposition and a suppression of the freedom of speech. If Netanyahu wanted to put conditions on their visit, more helpful would have been taking the opportunity to schedule meetings and tours that could offer the two congresswoman a wider look at Israel and its complex reality.
Netanyahu has further solidified Israel as a partisan wedge issue in the United States. We are living through insecure times for World Jewry. Violent acts of anti-Semitism are on the rise. Congress debates the definition of anti-Semitism, soliciting no meaningful input from the Jewish community, promising only greater division among American Jewry. The President of the United States draws equivalency between white supremacists who, with torch in hand, chant, “Jews will not replace us” and those who protest their sickening hatred. And the Prime Minister of the State of Israel made a decision that will isolate the Democratic Party from Israel, draw America’s left, including young American Jews further from Israel, and place the solid relationship between these two allies on shaky ground.
The risks to world Jewry are not insignificant. There are growing calls to cut American financial support to Israel. Though it may, indeed, be reasonable for the United States to take action against Netanyahu so he, or any future right wing cabinet understands that decisions have consequences, I fear that, too, would set a dangerous precedent that would grant Congress too much influence over Israeli policy. At the end of the day, Israel faces existential threats and its security should not be a bargaining chip. But Netanyahu may have brought us to this place, and, with an election fast approaching, I anticipate presidential candidates to be asked what should be done in response to Netanyahu’s spitting in the face of the Democratic Party.
Further, Netanyahu has gift-wrapped fodder for BDS and the rest of Israel’s left-leaning opponents who likely feel vindicated by his decision. Every time the voice of our opponents is strengthened, our own voice is made weak. Just the other day, outspoken BDS supporter, Linda Sarsour, tweeted, in response to the barring of two democratically elected congresswomen, “Who is surprised??? When they show you who they are, believe them.” Her use of “they” is likely far more inclusive than just Netanyahu and his government. By taking action to serve his own narcissistic political gain, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has done world Jewry great harm. Most gravely, he has committed an act of hillul ha-Shem, a desecration of God’s Name by standing to represent all Jews in a hateful act.