By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Rarely in the history of Israel has such a series of crises come to the fore regarding Israel, the US government, the American Jewish leadership and Israel’s politics. It pits Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against his opponents in the Zionist Union before elections; and at the same time pits American Jewish institutions such as J Street, the ADL and the Zionist Organization of America against one another. Meanwhile US Congressmen and the President are taking sides. Whose tail is wagging the dog? Are US Jews playing an outsized role in Israel, lobbying for the Zionist Union or Netanyahu or has US politics become colonized by the debate over Israel?
First, a sense of the current crises.
On January 21 Netanyahu announces that he has accepted US Republican Congressional leader John Boehner’s invite for a March 3 speech to US Congress. On Jan. 25; Netanyahu is attacked by Foxnews for insulting the President and protocol; “It just seems that they think we don’t pay any attention and that we are just a bunch of complete morons, the US citizens, like we wouldn’t pick up on what is happening here,” says Sheperd Smith. Ron Dermer, the Israeli Ambassador to Washington became a center of controversy, with accusations he was “campaigning” for Netanyahu.
This is followed by a Jan. 30 NYT story describing the controversy. The ‘Times then issues a correction: “An earlier version of this article misstated when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel accepted Speaker John A. Boehner’s invitation to address Congress. He accepted after the administration had been informed of the invitation, not before.”
Feb 3 Steve Cohen and other Jewish Democrats say they will consider skipping the speech: “Dozens of House Democrats are privately threatening to skip the March 3 address.” This is followed on Feb 6 when Joe Biden says he will skip the speech.
Feb 6: White House asks members of black caucus to skip speech, “the black lawmakers, Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranked House Democrat, joined Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights hero, and Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, in saying he will not attend. The Hill newspaper has also reported that Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), a prominent Hispanic lawmaker and the chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, will not attend.”
The Israeli press which has been incessantly critiquing the Prime Minister for the speech is now joined by Israeli politicians who are running against him in the elections. On Feb. 8 Labor leader and Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog calls speech “a strategic mistake.” The same day the ADL’s Abe Foxman, says Netanyahu shouldn’t make speech. Also that day, Seymour Reich, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations, the community’s umbrella organization on policy, slams the speech plan.
The next day, Feb. 9: Obama says “As much as I love Angela [Merkel], if she were two weeks from an election, she probably would not have received an invitation to the White House.” That is folowed by the Union of Reform Judaism President Rick Jacobs calling on Netanyahu to call off the speech. In addition Haaretz editorializes: “Netanyahu must call off his speech to Congress.”
Bellwether commentator Shmuel Rosner chimes in in an oped at the ‘Times’ on February 10: ‘Don’t speak to congress, Mr. Netanyahu.’ With the left wing Jewish press, like Haaretz, going after the speech, the right begins to respond, claiming the “knives” are out for Netanyahu. They seem right, as Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, a Jewish Democrat, said the scheduled event “does more harm than good to the bipartisan U.S.-Israel alliance.” The same day The Hill reports, “More than half of the 27 Jewish Democrats in the House and Senate surveyed by The Hill say they’ll attend the speech. Only two Jewish lawmakers, so far, say they’ll skip it: Sens. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont who caucuses with the Democrats.”
This is capped off by the Feb. 11 revelation that Patrick Leahy, the top ranking Democrat will skip speech; “unfortunate way [they] have unilaterally arranged this, and then heavily politicized it.” Al-Jazeera calls this “A Bibi boycott in Congress.”
The Right, that smells the knives being out, is correct. Ari Shavit, one of the few institutional Israeli leftists to have as much passion about the Iran issue as Netanyahu, claims that “Bibi and Obama are lost” and that only the Zionist Union party head Isaac Herzog can now save Israel.
A historical impasse
The fact is that the Netanyahu dispute with major heavy hitters in the US Jewish community is not new. Since the dawn of Zionism many American Jews have been ambivalent on Zionism and Israel. This makes it laughable the claims that Jon Stewart, the US comedian, “made it ok to be ambivalent on Israel.” But comments like Anshel Pfeffer’s “Netanyahu speaks for all Jews, whether we like it or not,” are equally problematic.
In 1950 there was a historic deal between Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and American Jewish Committee leader Jacob Blaustein. This ‘Ben Gurion-Blaustein Exchange’ became known as an essential agreement or concordat between the world’s two largest Jewish populations. One expert explains; “In exchange for dropping the then non-Zionist and often antagonistic posture of the American Jewish Committee towards Israel, and thus enabling American Jewry to unite in financial and political support for the newly-established state, Ben-Gurion agreed that Israel would refrain from speaking on behalf of the Jewish people, would recognize that American Jews owe their allegiance only to the government of the United States, would accept the legitimacy of American Jewry, would refrain from campaigns aimed at encouraging wholesale Jewish emigration to Israel and would even stop using the word ‘aliyah,’ to ascend, as that implies a superiority of the Israeli-Jewish existence.”
Other important players in this historic Jewish-American-Israel relationship were men like Abba Hillel Silver, who foresaw two major centers of Zionism, the US and Israel. He believed the two were equals and Israel was not the center of world Jewry. But this has led to a long-term disconnect and tension. It is worth reading important discussions of the historic nature of this relationship, such as this one at the American Council for Judaism.
Over the years the relationship has been strained, and increasingly there has been tension to re-orient Us Jewry towards Israel with programs like Birthright. Israelis have also become dismissive of US Jewish independence, castigating them for not being Zionist enough or claiming they are not “authentic” and are all assimilating. Israeli author A.B Yehoshua launched into a tirade at a 2014 literature event according to reports he “totally rejected the possibility of leading an authentic and significant Jewish life outside the borders of this country and the Ben Gurionist-Zionist paradigm which he espouses. He rejected in one sweep any non-Israeli Jewish literature, taking particular aim at the giants of American Jewish literature of the previous generation, such as Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth and Saul Bellow.”
The latest round
On February 11th the left wing lobby group J Street launched a campaign claiming “Bibi does not speak for me.” This insinuates that Netanyahu does claim to speak for all the world’s Jews, a sort of straw man theory. This was met with criticism by the ADL’s Foxman who called J Street’s ads “Repugnant.” J Street argues that Netanyahu has gone abroad and said he is speaking for Jewish people. “We have called for a postponement of Netanyahu’s speech to Congress until after the Israeli election on March 17 – just as Foxman has. And we have provided a mechanism for the many American Jews who do not feel that Netanyahu speaks for them to express that sentiment.”
It comes at a time of numerous controversies in the US Jewish community over Israel. It seems everyday there is a new breakdown between Jewish organizations as they part ways over Israel. From Open HIllel to J Street, to Peter Beinart, and various disputes at Brandeis, NYU or elsewhere; Israel is always the topic of attention. I wondered whether the Israeli Prime Minister has actually fallen into a trap on a radio show with Yishai Fleisher at Voice of Israel. A conservative poker player, has Bibi simply been chasing a river card? Was he being played by Boehner and the Congress and dragged into an attempt to lambaste the US President’s Iran policy.
What is interesting to consider are several points. What if the Netanyahu speech was misunderstood. Not only did he overlay his hand and fall into a trap, but what if this whole story is actually about American Jewish leaders, institutions and activists meddling in Israeli politics. Recent reports showed how Israel’s ‘Yediot’, the largest newspaper is waging a battle with Israel HaYom, the pro-Netanyahu newspaper supported by Sheldon Adelson. Netanyahu accused Yediot’s owner of being behind a wave of critique. And from looking at Ynet, it is clear that anti-Netanyahu stories are not only far more common, but ubiquitous.
Another controversy surrounds an organization called V15 that is accused of being supported by foreign donors and backing the Zionist Union campaign and which is said to be staffed by former Labor supporters. Reports note: “V15 has received funding from S. Daniel Abraham and Daniel Lubetzky, who are not Israeli citizens, but Zionist Union, the group and its supporters counter that there is no direct connection between V15 and any political party – only a common desire to defeat Netanyahu.”
Why is the leader of Reform Judaism and the head of the ADL chiming in on Netanyahu’s speech. If you take the J Street logic to its conclusion, namely that Netanyahu speaks for Israelis and not American Jews, then why do American Jews and their organizations seek to play such a major role in Israeli politics. Why does the head of Reform Jewry insert himself so clearly into an Israeli political speech? Does he comment on speeches by Italian or Chinese leaders in the US? And why is the ADL involved? The involvement of all these groups shows that American Jewish groups routinely feel they have a major role to play in Israeli politics. So the interference goes both ways. Netanyahu is as much a victim of US Jewish politics as vice-versa.
It is probably for worse that this has happened. US Democrats and Republicans have become divided over Israel and along Israeli political lines. Two Hillels have emerged, two lobbies focused on Israel. There is an unhealthy obsession with Israel. Sometimes that seems to play to Israel’s advantage. It may not have in the case of Iran.
Israel attorney general says that Netanyahu’s speech can be broadcast on Israeli TV.
Steve Forbes says Netanyahu, “the Churchill of our time,” must speak to Congress on Feb. 14.
Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel says he will attend the speech on Feb. 13.
On February 14 it is reported that five former Israeli Ambassadors, all with intimate experience with the US-Israel relationship, come out against the speech, including Itamar Rabinovich, Sallai Meridor, Michael Oren, Moshe Arad and Danny Ayalon. Michael Oren was ambassador under Netanyahu but is not running for office, which colors his comments. Moshe Arens supports Netanyahu’s trip, while Zalman Shoval and David Ivry declined to be involved in the interviews.