How can one explain the Jewish-American Left’s negative response to Benjamin Netanyahu’s coming to the United States to address Congress about the existential threat posed by Iran and their negative reaction to the speech itself? Instead of pride that the Congress of the United States (including most Democrats) wanted to hear the prime minister of Israel, the Left attributed partisan motives to his appearance, accused him of alienating Democrats, and even cast aspersions on his wife’s spending habits.
A visitor from Mars might find this more confusing than a visit to a baseball park, a trip to a shopping mall, or an episode of Breaking Bad. No rational explanation would come to an alien’s mind, and for days I could find none as well . . . but watching the Left’s reaction I have a theory.
Over the past decades Israel has become an embarrassment to the Jewish American Left. Among other issues, the ongoing conflict with those who call themselves Palestinians has caused them to be ashamed of today’s Israel.
They are disgusted by the occasional acts of individual violence by Jews, such as the killing of 16-year-old Mohammed Abu Khudair this past summer, by the government’s refusal to stop adding settlements in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), and by the deaths of civilians as by-products of Israel’s defense against terrorist attacks.
And, while Netanyahu views the defense of Israel as necessary for the survival of the Jewish people, the Jewish American Left could not disagree more strenuously. Diaspora Judaism is not only alive and well, they will tell you, but look at all the wonderful things we have accomplished since World War II––from breaking down of barriers that prevented Jews from full participation in Western society prior to the war, to the achievements of individual Jews in multiple fields including medicine, the arts, and politics.
The Jewish-American Left acts as if it would be where it is today even if Israel didn’t exist. If one examines that claim, however, it quickly falls apart. Start with the fact that Israel sopped up the refugee population that neither the United States nor Europe of 1945 were willing to absorb. Had there been no Israel, tens of thousands of Jewish Holocaust survivors would have remained a financial and social burden possibly for decades, and as a result integration of Jews into the mainstream might have been forestalled.
Israel’s existence also provided a rallying point for the American Jewish community in the 1950s and beyond. Israel was both a source of pride and a means of communal cohesion. It kept the holiday of Pessah a central event in American Jewish life, giving testimony to the Passover story as well as providing a counterbalance to the embarrassment of the Holocaust.
The Jewish-American Left finds Netanyahu’s conservative politics an insult to their place in the firmament of world Judaism. He claims to speak for them, but he is not one of them. He is not their kind of Jew.
The Left longs for the Israel before 1967––the Israel of kibbutzim, when the Labor Party of Ben-Gurion dominated. They forget that Judaism was frowned upon on many kibbutzim and if any worship took place, the deity was Joseph Stalin, the leader of the paradise on earth that kibbutzniks hoped to emulate.
The American Left forgets that it was the willingness of Jews to defend themselves that enabled Israel not only to survive, but to prosper. They forget that military service is a core experience for Israelis and that many have faced deadly fire.
Benjamin Netanyahu has a soldier’s mentality. He has had to make the kind of decisions no Diaspora Jew has ever faced––to find the line between allowing enemy successes and being blamed of civilian loses even when those loses are the result of the enemy’s outrageous manner of fighting. He is not the passive Jew of Europe nor the American Jew who has no experience of having to act when lives are at stake.
I am reminded of Jewish life in Europe in the years prior to Hitler’s rise. That was the time of my parents who were born in 1913 and 1916 respectively. They lived in Austria, which, as one of the losing parties of the “great” war, was reduced from a huge empire to a tiny republic.
Jews in those years had to choose what being Jewish meant. Many converted or stopped practicing their faith. Men who fought for Germany and Austria came back with their medals and scars, expecting to be accepted as equals and to be able to raise their families without fear of pogromic attacks. When anti-Semitism re-emerged, they couldn’t understand why nor could they believe it was a real danger. A few fled, but most stayed past the time when they could save themselves.
No doubt most American Jews were surprised by the outbreak of anti-Semitism in Europe this past year. People might still harbor those feelings, they said to themselves, but to act on them—they didn’t expect that. But don’t worry, that can’t happen here, they tell themselves.
If Iran signs an agreement with the U.S., it will be because it sees that agreement as a step on the path towards imposition of Islamic rule world-wide. If that happens, not long afterward we are likely to see events in this country of the kind that took place in France and elsewhere. What we might see has been foreshadowed on a number of college campuses where Jews feel threatened if they wear a kippah or the star of David.
In that scenario, left-leaning Jews will have to decide which comes first, their leftist ideology or their faith. I worry that many will discover they made the wrong decision when there was still time to stand up for Israel in its hour of need. They will be like the kibbutzniks who worshiped the Soviet Union only to discover Stalin arming their enemies. That would be a sad day indeed.
Diaspora Jews need a strong Israel. With all his flaws, Netanyahu represents what is needed. He spoke with conviction and without fear of the consequences of telling truth to power. I hope the Jewish-American Left will see the error of its ways before their illusions contribute to fatal outcomes.