If you are in the Jewish news business, then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the gift that keeps on giving. I am not even talking about his speech this week to Congress (you might have heard something about it). But in the past few weeks — really ever since his trip to France to join the solidarity march for the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher victims, Bibi has managed to crystallize — catalyze, antagonize, you name it — debate on just about every major Jewish issue I can think of.
Politics aside, the brouhaha around The Speech forced us to ask a number of vital questions — about what we are willing to sacrifice to prevent a nuclear Iran, about the United States’ responsibility to protect a historic ally, about our sense of security as Jews. Whether or not you approve of Netanyahu’s decision to accept John Boehner’s invitation — and I think it was a huge misstep — you can’t deny how it has placed these issues at the top of the national agenda.
But that wasn’t the only debate to leap out of the back row of your synagogue into the mainstream press. Last month, Netanyahu said he’d be coming to Washington “not just as the prime minister of Israel but as a representative of the entire Jewish people.”
This set off more fireworks. J Street started a campaign called “I’m a Jew. Bibi does NOT speak for me!” But that was a political objection. The deeper debate over his remarks was about the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora. True, Zionism has historically been a national liberation movement for the entire Jewish people. But Israel is also a sovereign country, and Jews living in the Diaspora are not its citizens. So this is a debate as old as Zionism itself.
Bibi’s comments put Diaspora Jews in a bit of a bind. On the one hand, we cherish our solidarity with Israel. Israeli flags hang alongside American flags in our shuls, schools, and homes.
But attacks in Europe present a dilemma: Are these anti-Semitic attacks or anti-Israel attacks? Is it bigotry to blame all Jews for the actions of the sovereign Israeli government? And if the prime minister of Israel speaks for all Jews, does that make Jews responsible for the actions of the Israeli prime minister?
The Netanyahu curriculum in Zionist ideology continued after a gunman attacked a synagogue in Copenhagen and killed a Jewish guard. “We are preparing and calling for the absorption of mass immigration from Europe,” Netanyahu said. “I would like to tell all European Jews and all Jews wherever they are: ‘Israel is the home of every Jew.’”
Again, this is standard Zionism. Israel was founded in part as a haven for Jewish refugees. Doctrinaire Zionism even holds with the “negation of the Diaspora,” or shlilat ha’galut. It asserts, according to our friends at Wikipedia, that “life in the Diaspora will either lead to discrimination and persecution or to national decadence and assimilation.” The Israeli novelist A.B. Yehoshua is one of its current proponents.
But Jewish leaders in the Diaspora don’t like being told that they don’t have a future. Rabbis and communal leaders in France and Denmark told Netanyahu, “Thanks but no thanks.” Or as Netanyahu’s political rival, Tzipi Livni, put it: “Jews should not immigrate because it is a safe haven. I want them to make aliya despite the concrete barriers in Jerusalem, despite the fact that we have to fight terror. I want them to come because of Zionism.”
And then there were the communal political dimensions of The Speech. If Netanyahu was thumbing his nose at the president, that means he was also thumbing his nose at the 70 percent of American Jews who voted for Obama. Some might argue that this majority is overrepresented by Jews who are not affiliated with any Jewish institutions or do not identify with Jewishness in a positive, proactive way — as opposed to a smaller elite of those who belong to Jewish institutions, give to Jewish organizations, and support Israel with their money, time, and political capital. Turning Israel into a partisan issue is thus not just a political tactic, but a verdict on “who is a Jew.”
Some of my friends on the right are positively giddy about polls showing that Republicans are increasingly more likely than Democrats to sympathize with Israel. “The myth about bipartisan support for Israel exists only in the political imagination,” crowed Jeff Ballabon, a Jewish activist, at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference. Maybe that’s good news for Republicans, but not for Israel, which can use all the support it can get. The last thing any of us wants is for left-leaning Millennials to regard Israel as a “Republican issue,” like abortion, guns, school vouchers, and closed borders.
Benjamin Netanyahu has had himself a very busy winter. I don’t remember any other prime minister inspiring so many essential Jewish debates in so short a time, intentionally or not. My old friend, Rabbi Irwin Kula, thanks the prime minister for “shocking the American and American-Jewish political system and catalyzing an important, potentially life-or-death conversation.” Personally, I could do without the shock. But I am glad we’re having some very difficult conversations.