Judah Isseroff
Judah Isseroff

Zionism’s Psychic Itch: Do We Really Belong?

In his recent debut speech at the United Nations General Assembly, Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett gave his audience a less hysterical rendition of the annual cage-rattling diatribe made famous by his indicted predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu. Compared to Netanyahu, Bennett was restrained and statesmanlike. But, as regards substance, Bennett’s first performance at the UN did not appear to deviate much from Netanyahu’s in years past. Like Netanyahu, Bennett served up the Iranian nuclear threat as the main dish. And, in a way that went even further than Netanyahu’s downgrading of the importance of the Palestinian issue, Bennett left the Palestinians off the menu entirely.

Yet, if we peer a bit closer, even Bennett’s adoption of Netanyahu’s favorite Iranian hobbyhorse shows some revealing discontinuities between the two Prime Ministers. Specifically, Bennett is trying to recast the Israel-Iran rivalry in a way that emphasizes Israel’s usefulness to the world rather than its standing as the Jewish people’s refuge from the world. This shift represents the other side of the coin in Israel’s traumatized relationship to the global community. The Jewish state continues to toggle back and forth between “we don’t need you” and “please accept us.” Both positions are a kind of desperate exhibitionism, which belies ongoing turmoil. Israel remains uncomfortable in its own skin.

During his record-setting tenure as Prime Minister, mention of Iran by Netanyahu would always be quickly followed by the hysterical invocation of the prospect of another Holocaust. Netanyahu would fixate on the bloviating rhetoric of the Iranian government—like the pledge “to wipe Israel off the map”—and then he would pompously announce that he was the one who stood between that pledge and actual destruction.

For him, the Iranian regime was the special enemy of the Jewish people, devoted relentlessly to its destruction. The world’s slothful response to Iran betrayed its ongoing indifference to Jewish lives. Thus, Netanyahu could bludgeon his audiences with the question, “have we learned nothing from the Holocaust?!” With this picture of global politics, Netanyahu would attempt to shame the world. Just as often, he would shame himself.

Bennett’s renunciation of Netanyahu’s melodrama at the UN signaled a strategic shift in the presentation of Zionism’s relationship to the world. Where Netanyahu stood on the world stage and pronounced the nations guilty of criminal negligence with respect to the Jewish people, Bennett now emphasizes the common interests of Israel and the world regarding Iran. In his speech, Bennett quickly moved on from the threats that Iran poses specifically to Israel in order to highlight the suffering populations of several Middle Eastern nations at the hands of Iranian proxies.

Bennett’s message was simple: Iran is much more than an enemy of Jews or of Israel. It is a global problem. His rhetoric on this point left no doubt: “If you think Iranian terror is confined to Israel”—an impression left by my predecessor, by the way—“you’re wrong.”

So, what are we to make of this change? Is it just another strategy for avoiding the Palestinian issue? Does it signal Bennett’s implicit openness to global (and potentially diplomatic) ways of dealing with the Iranian nuclear program?

At the very least, Bennett’s rhetoric announced a new chapter in the relationship between Zionism and the wider world. Where Netanyahu once laid bare the scars of the Jewish psyche in order to capitalize on them for political gain, Bennett presents a picture of Israel’s youthful maturity:

“At a ripe young age of 73,” he declared, “more and more nations are understanding Israel’s value and unique place in the world.”

On his view, Israel is a pioneer of the Covid vaccine, a purveyor of groundbreaking technologies, and an ally in a distinctly global fight against Iranian malfeasance. Netanyahu once berated the world (and other Jews) with what they owed Israel; Bennett, the former tech entrepreneur, now lists the things that Israel can offer the world. Modern Israel is a blessing to the world, if only the nations would open their eyes.

In the context of heralding Israel’s warming ties with a host of repressive regimes through the Abraham Accords, Bennett proceeded to tick off his country’s other fine attributes. He proclaimed Israel as a “lighthouse”—a leader in the fight against those who “[persecute] political prisoners, [murder] the innocent, [abuse] women and minorities, and [seek] to end the modern world as we know it.”

The irony is much too rich—not least because of Israel’s own problematic human rights record as well of those of its new friends. But the real issue is that Bennett’s picture of Israel and the modern world is out of touch with reality. He is hoping that the imagery of the “lighthouse” will evoke the prophetic role of Israel as “a light unto the nations.” But, this noble premise is betrayed by his categorical disregard for Israel’s own misdeeds and those of its new friends. His position is closer to prophecy for thee, realpolitik for me.

Bennett may be both a stylistic and substantive improvement over Netanyahu. But, in his zeal to sell Zionism to the world, he—like Netanyahu—has adopted a far too unrealistic picture of the world. Each Prime Minister looked out into the UN General Assembly and saw either the best of friends or mortal enemies. Thus Bennett looked past not only the Palestinians and Israel’s occupation, but blithely whitewashed the faults of his new allies and painted an all-too rosy picture of a modern world beset by war and disease. Where Netanyahu once belligerently preyed on fear, Bennett’s cloying optimism serves the same purpose: to scratch Zionism’s psychic itch which says that Israel doesn’t really belong in the community of nations.

At the UN, Israel has stood before the world alternatively defiant or solicitous. In each case, the Jewish state has refused to risk giving an honest account of itself or the world. The arc of Jewish trauma is long, we’ll have to wait and see in which direction it will finally bend.

About the Author
Judah Isseroff is a PhD candidate in Religion, Ethics, and Politics at Princeton University. His dissertation "Beyond Political Theology: Hannah Arendt's Jewish Theology of Givenness" gives a novel theological interpretation of Arendt's writings on Jewish politics and antisemitism. He lives in New York with his wife and their twins.