The prime minister sparked controversy when he announced he wouldn’t be speaking at the biggest Jewish American event of the year. But Bibi knows that no matter what, American Jews won’t speak out against his occupation policies.
By Joshua Leifer
Prime Minister Netanyahu knows that no matter what, he can count on American Jews not to speak out against the occupation.
Netanyahu initially announced last week that he would not be addressing the annual Jewish Federation of North America’s General Assembly, prompting journalists and Jewish leaders alike to speculate. Unnamed “senior sources” intimated to Haaretz that the prime minister was unwilling to share the GA stage with President Reuven Rivlin, while “a senior representative of one of the non-Orthodox movements” suggested that Netanyahu was afraid that he might be booed. A week later, Netanyahu announced he would address the GA after all.
These are unlikely reasons for Netanyahu’s hesitation. Despite the disagreements between Netanyahu and Rivlin, the two belong to the same party and often share the same stage. Boos from an American audience would hardly perturb a veteran Israeli politician like Netanyahu, accustomed to the debates in the Knesset where the decorum more closely resembles that of an American football game than a legislative assembly.
It is likelier that Netanyahu’s initial reluctance to address the GA stemmed from practical political concerns. His right-wing coalition is precarious and depends on the support of ultra-Orthodox parties — the same ones that sunk the Kotel compromise this past summer. Addressing the GA puts Netanyahu in an uncomfortable position; he has to make sure he doesn’t say anything that upsets his Haredi coalition partners, while trying to be gentle with the American Jewish groups, specifically the Reform and Conservative movements, who viewed the collapse of the compromise as a rejection of their way of life and religious identity. When Haredi leaders such as Moshe Gafni, chair of the Knesset’s Finance Committee, say things like, “Reform Jews are a group of clowns who stab the holy Torah,” this becomes no easy task.
Netanyahu probably would have preferred to skip the whole ordeal, which would have signaled unequivocally to the Haredi parties that he is on their side. Now, when he addresses the JFNA, Netanyahu will again have to walk the tightrope between his religious-right coalition and the comparatively liberal American Jews at the GA.
Not that he fears the potential consequences of snubbing American Jews. He knows fully well that no matter what, they won’t speak out against funding the occupation and supporting attacks on BDS activists. A recent Haaretz investigation found that Federation funds have sent money to some of the most extreme settlers in Hebron, as well as the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan. This year, the JFNA GA will feature a session on how to pass anti-boycott laws, like the one in Texas that denied relief after Hurricane Harvey to boycott supporters.
Netanyahu and the Israeli Right can also find comfort in the American Jewish establishment’s bold response to the rejection of the Kotel plan: a marketing campaign for Reform Judaism in Israel. The New York Times reported this week that Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, and other Jewish Agency leaders will be launching “an advertising and media campaign, educational efforts in Israeli schools, and trips for Israeli lawmakers and leaders” to the U.S. to better acquaint Israelis with American liberal Judaism.
It seems not to have occurred to Jewish institutional leaders that Israel might not need more Jewish educational initiatives, or that Israeli liberals might not be interested in importing American Jewishness. The past decade has seen a flourishing of local Israeli initiatives aimed at strengthening liberal and humanistic forms of Jewish expression, and there is now a plethora of secular Talmud study groups, venues for “Israeli prayer,” and organizations devoted to Jewish-Israeli culture.
More importantly, however, Jacobs’ plan to sell Israelis Reform Judaism exemplifies the narrowness of the Jewish establishment’s moral vision. If American Jewish leaders truly cared about human rights, justice, and equality, they would use the money for their new marketing campaign to instead support Israeli civil society organizations that are under unceasing attack from Netanyahu and the Right. Furthermore, they could use their organizational clout to put pressure on Netanyahu to cease settlement building and return to the negotiating table. Finally, they could stop sending money to violent settlers in the West Bank, who have absolutely no interest in an egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.
But they won’t do any of this. Because when it comes to Israel, “the prophetic vision of social justice” professed by American liberal Jews extends only to the injustices they experience themselves.
Joshua Leifer is based in Jerusalem. His writing has also appeared in Dissent and Jacobin.