Netanyahu’s Speech and American Jewry

Yesterday a friend in the United States asked what I would advise a Democratic U.S. Senator (with whom he was friends) on the matter of attending Netanyahu’s speech to Congress. I was quiet for so long (thinking about my answer), that my friend finally said: “wow, you are speechless – that doesn’t happen very often”. Indeed, he was correct. I was speechless, because I was not sure what to say. Contemplating the dilemma, I realized how glad I am that I live in Israel and can express my views clearly, without getting involved in the competing identities and issues that concerned American Jews grapple with on a regular basis – but especially at a times like this.

My decision is relatively easy. I get to vote on March 17th. I definitively oppose the re-election of Prime Minister Netanyahu. I strongly believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to speak at the Congress is a disaster for Israel and a setback in our fight to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons. Moreover, as an Israeli, I was appalled by the Prime Minister’s decision to go to America and address Congress two weeks before the upcoming election. Netanyahu refuses to debate his political opponents in Israel, so he chooses instead to show off his one great skill – i.e. his ability to deliver speeches in the English language (more skillfully than most of the Senators who will be listening.) It is too bad for Netanyahu he did not live in the time of Senators such Daniel Webster, or Stephen Douglas when a powerful speech might truly make a difference.

Despite my views on Netanyahu and how important I believe it is to replace the current government, I am incredibly uneasy with the actions of some of the Jewish organization in the U.S. who oppose the Prime Minister’s visit – first and foremost, JStreet. The JStreet campaign proclaiming: “Netanyahu does not speak for me”, shows a total lack of understanding of what Zionism has meant. Moreover, it proves once and for all that while JStreet might profess to be supporters of Israel, they are not Zionist. Regardless of one’s political views and however problematic the actions of a sitting Israeli Prime Minister might be, Zionists do not go around declaring that Israel’s duly elected leaders “does not speak for me”. That is without question not the action of a Zionist. Furthermore, JStreet’s repeated quotation of David Ben Gurion’s statement  to Jacob Blaustein (head of the American Jewish Committee) in 1950, shows a very fundamental misunderstanding of history and Zionism. The letter, which was issued after intensive negotiations and after the American Jewish Committee – who never supported Zionism – threatened not to support Israel’s request for assistance from the United States, stated the following:

The Jews of the United States, as a community and as individuals, have only one political attachment and that is to the United States of America. They owe no political allegiance to Israel. … The State of Israel represents and speaks only on behalf of its own citizens and in no way presumes to represent or speak in the name of Jews who are citizens of any other country. We, the people of Israel, have no desire and no intention to interfere in any way with the internal affairs of Jewish communities abroad.

It should be further noted that this letter was partially a result of the anger the American Jewish Committee had expressed toward Ben Gurion for his earlier call on American Jews to make Aliyah. Ben Gurion then went on to say:

Let me say a word about immigration. We should like to see American Jews come and take part in our effort. We need their technical knowledge, their unrivaled experience, their spirit of enterprise, their bold vision, their “know-how.” We need engineers, chemists, builders, work managers and technicians. The tasks which face us in this country are eminently such as would appeal to the American genius for technical development and social progress. But the decision as to whether they wish to come — permanently or temporarily — rests with the free discretion of each American Jew himself. It is entirely a matter of his own volition. We need halutzim, pioneers, too. Halutzim have come to us—and we believe more will come, not only from those countries where the Jews are oppressed and in “exile” but also from countries where the Jews live a life of freedom and are equal in status to all other citizens in their country. But the essence of halutziut is free choice. They will come from among those who believe that their aspirations as human beings and as Jews can best be fulfilled by life and work in Israel.

Blaustein’s response was as follows:

While Israel has naturally placed some burdens on Jews elsewhere, particularly in America, it has, in turn, meant much to Jews throughout the world. For hundreds of thousands in Europe, Africa and the Middle East it has provided a home in which they can attain their full stature of human dignity for the first time. In all Jews it has inspired pride and admiration, even though in some instances, it has created pressing headaches.

We have been greatly distressed that at the very hour when so much has been achieved, harmful and futile discussion and misunderstandings have arisen as to the relations between the people of the State of Israel and the Jews in other countries, particularly in the United States. Harm has been done to the morale and to some extent to the sense of security of the American Jewish community through unwise and unwarranted statements and appeals which ignore the feelings and aspirations of American Jewry. Even greater harm has been done to the State of Israel itself by weakening the readiness of American Jews to do their full share in the rebuilding of Israel which faces such enormous political, social and economic problems.

Your statement today, Mr. Prime Minister, will, I trust, be followed by unmistakable evidence that the responsible leaders of Israel, and the organizations connected with it, fully understand that future relations between the American Jewish community and the State of Israel must be based on mutual respect for one another’s feelings and needs, and on the preservation of the integrity of the two communities and their institutions.

At the time of the Blaustein-Ben Gurion exchange, the State of Israel was desperate to receive financial aid from the United States and from American Jewry. Ben Gurion, ever the pragmatist, held his nose and made the above statements. Blaustein who was not a Zionist and clearly did not share my view that Ben Gurion was the greatest Jew in modern Jewish history, could not stop himself from attacking Ben Gurion one last time – even as he accepted Ben Gurion’s outstretched hand. While the Blaustein-Ben Gurion exchange has gone down as a footnote in history, it also had the long-term historic effect of undermining American Zionist organizations whose ideological commitment to the centrality to Israel was slowly replaced by non-Zionist, albeit wealthy Jewish groups.

So if Jeremy Ben Ami and JStreet wish to be the new “Blaustein” and the “American Jewish Committee”, that’s fine. However, they should realize whose heritage they are embracing.

Further complicating the discourse today, is that the deal the United States might reach with Iran could actually be problematic for Israel. The Prime Minister of Israel should be free to publicly state that – wherever and when ever he can. However, to make that stand abroad two weeks before an election is very problematic. Moreover, in this case, to state that some things are more important than elections is disingenuous – since this was not a regularly scheduled election. This election was called for by Prime Minister Netanyahu.

As an Israeli I can say that Netanyahu’s trip to America is one of the worst policy decisions I have ever seen made by a sitting Israeli Prime Minister. To go head-to-head with a sitting American President, in an area where the President has complete control of the agenda – and in a way that seems to have been coordinated with the President’s political opponents – is simply suicidal for Israel. It is a grave mistake to force American Jewry to choose between Israel and their domestic political views, in a moment that is not critical to Israel (I am not saying that the situation with Iran may not be critical, though Netanyahu’s speech is clearly not vital.) While it is disastrous for us to show our enemies that the United States and Israel are not on the same page, it is deeply alarming, and downright exploitative for a politician to use a speech to the Congress as a prop in a campaign here in Israel. This is purely unforgivable.

Sitting in Tel Aviv I speak out and vote against the reelection of Benjamin Netanyahu as Prime Minister. Though when it came to indirectly advising a U.S. Senator, I suggested he should attend Netanyahu’s speech, along with issuing the following statement:

“I regret that Prime Minister Netanyahu is speaking to the Congress at this point in time. Yet, despite my disapproval of his choice, I will attend the Prime Minister’s speech to show my support for the State of Israel. Although I think delivering this speech is a mistake, I will not allow the enemies of Israel take comfort in a U.S. Senator purposefully absenting himself from the chamber while the elected representative of the people of Israel speaks.” 

I would expect the U.S. Jewish community to articulate the same position. I believe that Netanyahu should be replaced. I will vote on March 17th in the hopes of making that reality happen. Those who do not have the privilege and burden of living here may think it is a political mistake for Netanyahu to come and speak in the Congress at the moment, but they should not be waging a very public political campaign against him right now. Since, until we – the Israeli voters – replace him that campaign of protest is also a public campaign against the State of Israel.

About the Author
Marc Schulman is the editor of -- the largest history web site. He is the author a series of Multimedia History Apps as well as a recent biography of JFK. He holds a BA and MA from Columbia University, and currently lives in Tel Aviv. He is also a regular contributor to Newsweek authoring the Tel Aviv Diary. He is the publisher of an economic news App about Israel called DigitOne and has a weekly newsletter on substack called Israel Update
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