Yair Lapid, Diaspora’s New Menachem Begin

It takes time for new administrations to implement their new policies, especially in non-partisan institutions. Yet within less than 24 hours of being installed as Israel’s Foreign Minister and alternate Prime Minister, Israeli embassies around the world sent the following message from FM Lapid to local Jewish community leaders stating:

“The support of Christian evangelicals and other groups is important and heart-warming, but the Jewish people are more than allies; they are family. Jews from all streams, Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox, are our family. And family is always the most important relationship, and the one that needs to be worked on more than any other.”

This highly unusual message echoed the spirit of Menachem Begin and his unique approach to diaspora Jewry. Begin did not see in his commitment to the entirety of the Jewish people a political convenience or an electoral asset—it was rather a moral obligation. It was who he was rather than what he needed. Menachem Begin’s famous speech electrifying Israel with the words “Yehudim! Achim!— Jews! Brothers!” has electrified Israel at the time and highlighted the need for unity between Mizrachi Jews and Ashkenazi Jews. Begin also pioneered the need to bring harmony between religious and non-religious, Diaspora and Israeli Jews. Lapid has played the same historic role.

Tragically, Lapid’s message has been anything other than obvious. Over the past few years, Israeli policy has become more and more comfortable with the idea of writing off Jews it did not need politically and shifting its focus to Evangelical Christians. The raw truth which many of us have suspected for a while had erupted when former Israeli Ambassador to Washington, Ron Dermer, explicitly articulated it when speaking at Israeli newspaper Makor Rishon’s conference on Israel-Diaspora relations.

 

In a jaw-dropping interview, Dermer said that Israel should be investing much more in Evangelical Christians as opposed to American Jews, who are often among Israel’s most fierce critics. “People have to understand that the backbone of Israel’s support in the United States is the evangelical Christians. It’s true because of numbers and also because of their passionate and unequivocal support for Israel”.

Had Dermer just got up and spoken about the importance of Israel investing in Evangelical Christian support for Israel, the cause would be indisputable; he didn’t. Instead, he presented it as an exchange: drop the pesky and critical American Jews, and take instead of the passionately supportive Christians. Dermer’s missed opportunity to tell the interviewer that he considered American Jews his brothers was painful and regrettable.

These words, which will live in infamy in the history of our people, spoken by an observant Jew, echoed recent Israeli policy over the past few years. Confidants of Netanyahu shared that since seeing Jewish support, or lack of opposition, to the Iran deal in 2014, Netanyahu has decided to write off American Jews. Others shared his reasoning for this abandonment due to the fact that assimilation will “make American Jews disappear within one generation.” When it comes to diaspora Jewry—and especially American Jews—it is almost as if the Netanyahu-Dermer doctrine adopted the infamous George H. Bush doctrine (“**** the Jews, they don’t vote for us anyway”).

Netanyahu and Dermer’s calculations may have reasonable logic, just as Israel’s Labor movement has its considerations after almost thirty years in power. Years in power often make politicians get so used to thinking in terms of power and payoff that they forget why they came to the position in the first place. In the state’s early days, this disregard was to Mizrachi and orthodox Jews, and in recent decades it has been to Diaspora and non-orthodox Jews.

This approach led to a crime against Zionism. History books will note that the first time the gates of Israel were locked to Diaspora Jews, since the British White Paper, was under Netanyahu and Dermer in the year 2020-2021. Sure, there were serious health considerations as this was during the covid-19 pandemic, but this did not stop 60,000 people from traveling to the Gulf and back or from Evangelical groups to stroll into the county while Jewish parents of lone soldiers were locked out of Israel. Shortly after the pandemic demand, Zvika Klein of Makor Rishon reported a skyrocketing surge in demand for Aliya. A Menachem Begin or Golda Meir would have jumped on this opportunity rather than keep it locked out.

While Diaspora Jews are not part of Lapid’s electoral base—they cannot even vote—yet, Lapid, like Begin, understands that if we do not include all Jews, we lost our right to exist. Sadly, many in Israel’s religious and political orthodoxy became so occupied with the question of who is not a Jew and what is not a Kosher conversion. They had forgotten about the question of who is a Jew. They have forgotten that being Jewish means caring for all Jews.

Menachem Begin’s passion for Diaspora Jewry led him to sharply rebuke Israel’s Labor government and urge them to allow Mizrachi Jews into Israel in the 1950s despite the vast logistical difficulties that came with it. Another centerpiece of Begin’s policy as Israeli Prime Minister was the fight to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel.

A fascinating example of Begin’s selfless dedication to Diaspora Jews was in the case of Argentinian Jews. A group of Argentina Jews supported the PLO, then a recognized terrorist organization, and were members of far-left communist parties. A 1976 far-right military coup in Argentina put these young Jews in immediate danger. Menachem Begin immediately urged the Knesset’s Aliya commission to bring those Jews to Israel. Begin disregarded Knesset members who tried to dissuade him from this move, arguing those young people might join radical leftist organizations in Israel that fiercely opposed him. Begin said, let them come and join; we need to save them. Tragically, too many recent policies coming out of Israel regarding the prioritization of Aliyah and lack thereof seem to be rooted in narrow political calculations. The irony of the same people fiercely advocating for Israel’s nation-state law while willfully forgetting about our nation outside Israel cannot be overstated. Lapid’s unabashed sense of Jewishness and peoplehood are a refreshing update, reminding politicians that we are part of the Jewish people.

Yair Lapid’s fiery Menachem Begin style is not limited to seeing all Jews; it also expresses itself in his uncompromising commitment to the sanctity of Holocaust memory.

Like Menachem Begin standing defiant in the face of Germany’s prime minister, Yair Lapid has stood up repeatedly to maintain the status of Holocaust memory as sacrosanct. Be it in his fearless willingness to call out the role many Polish citizens played in enabling the killing of Jews during the Holocaust, his insistence that Yad Vashem remains a non-partisan body of sacred memory, or his strong commitment to carry his family’s Holocaust legacy and ensure their story is carried on and never forgotten.

I do not write this merely as an observer. It is something I and other American Jews have witnessed firsthand from when Lapid was Leader of the Opposition; his door was always open to us.  Lapid’s strong sense of Jewish peoplehood is one that I have seen time and again. We may not agree much on politics, we do agree on our shared peoplehood. That is what earned Menachem Begin profound respect among diaspora Jews, and I believe that will be the case with Lapid as well.

Like Menachem Begin at the time, Lapid has sent an electric jolt reviving Israel-Diaspora relations, igniting optimism in many hearts. Like Menachem Begin, Lapid is an outsider coming into power after years of status quo. Like Menachem Begin, Lapid’s considerations are not all about his base or who will be voting for him in the upcoming election—his identity as a part of the Jewish people supersedes the immediate here and now of Israeli politics. Like Menachem Begin, I believe that Israeli Jews will come to see Lapid’s Jewish identity and genuine and appealing. Like Menachem Begin, I do believe that this new relationship of Lapid with diaspora Jews will be good for Lapid and for Israel.

 

In the case of Begin, the Diaspora Jews who felt more alienated from Israel were often the more traditional Jews, while today, it is the non-traditional Jews that feel more alienated from Israel, but a Jew is a Jew. If Lapid can bring warmth and unity to our people wherever they may be, that is something to celebrate.

I know that many of my rabbinic colleagues in the US and Israel are worried about the forming of this new government. They are worried about changes to the halachic conversion system, addressing the question of who is a Jew, marriages, and other religious issues. While I have no say on how Israelis choose to address their domestic issues, I do share their concerns. Yet, from an Israel-Diaspora perspective, perhaps this is an opportunity to ask ourselves if we spent more time worrying about who is not a Jew rather than worrying about who is. Perhaps the fact that we have no idea where a majority of the Jewish people even are, how they live, and where we can find them is what is coming to haunt us now. While too many focuse on specific details, Lapid reminds us all of the big picture—we are one people. Am Yisrael. We have a shared peoplehood that too many of us forgot about.

I personally find the Dermer-Netanyahu approach to Diaspora Jews far more problematic from a religious perspective. Halachic conversion and marriages are only relevant if we acknowledge that we are one nation. Lapid might be more secular than Netanyahu, but the idea of losing a majority of the Jewish people seems to pain Lapid much more than the death of Rush Limbaugh, something I wish I could say for the former.

The jubilant responses from American organizations welcoming Lapid cannot be attributed squarely to his more liberal views. I am an Orthodox rabbi with few shared policies with Israel’s left. Yet the outburst of joy is because Ron Dermer confirmed what we had felt for years: we had been swapped for Evangelical Christians or just deemed politically not very relevant. I pray that, like Begin, Lapid’s new leadership will breathe fresh air into the Jewish people as a nation, wherever we may be.

“Behold I will take the stick of Joseph, which is in the hand of Ephraim and the tribes of Israel his companions, and I will place them with him with the stick of Judah, and I will make them into one stick, and they shall become one in My hand. (Ezekiel 37)

About the Author
The writer is a rabbi, writer, teacher, and blogger (www.rabbipoupko.com). He is the president of EITAN-The American Israeli Jewish Network and lives with his wife in New York City.
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