A Dose of Nuance: The prime minister is not the pope

No one has ever spoken for all Jews, and it is hard to imagine anyone ever will.

By
February 12, 2015 15:45
Netanyahu Lapid

Netanyahu and Lapid at a cabinet meeting in October 2014.. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

It is still too early to know how the latest crisis in American-Israeli relations is going to play out.

Will Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu end up going to the US Congress to deliver an address on the dangers of Iran? If he does, will he end up speaking to a room largely devoid of high-profile Democrats? If that happens, will he have made Israel even more of a partisan American political issue than it already is? Or, alternatively, will Bibi figure out that though he may be right on the facts, a public tussle with even a lameduck president of the United States is never a smart way to go? Will he then look for a way to climb down from the tree on which he has so demonstratively perched himself? Time will tell.

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Israel’s prime minister is probably right about the dangerous and foolhardy (some would say “evil”) strategy to which the Obama administration has committed itself. He is hardly alone in this assertion. Michael Doran, a senior fellow at the highly regarded Hudson Institute, argued in a superb recent piece, titled “Obama’s secret Iran strategy,” that the American president is intentionally misleading the public, making major American concessions in exchange for mere gestures on Iran’s part. While Iran’s gestures will soon vanish, the American concessions will be almost impossible to reverse.

Iran is winning; on that matter, there is little doubt. Netanyahu is right to be alarmed.

Those who whisper that Obama’s intentions may be nefarious are also quite possibly right. When the president of the United States suggested in a recent interview that the terror attack at a kosher supermarket in France’s capital was nothing more than “vicious zealots… randomly shoot[ing] a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris,” there is good reason to believe that his motivations are far less than pure. This, too, Netanyahu may understand better than most.

At the same time, though, there is much that Netanyahu does not understand.

He appears to have forgotten how Israel can be made to suffer if he publicly humiliates the American president.

Have we forgotten the US Federal Aviation Administration ban on flights to Israel this past summer, or the “administrative delay” in Hellfire missiles making their way to the IDF? Bibi is playing with fire.

No less important, Israel’s prime minister appears not to understand for whom he speaks, and for whom he does not. At a recent Likud party meeting, Netanyahu said, “I went to Paris not just as the prime minister of Israel, but as a representative of the entire Jewish people.”

A lovely notion, but also one that is completely wrong. It was bad enough that cameras caught Bibi smiling and waving to the crowd as all other world leaders stood grim and somber in the front row of the Paris march. What is more dangerous in the long run, however, is that Netanyahu appears to have forgotten that while in his own mind he may represent all Jews, in the minds of most, he is simply the prime minister of a state the size of New Jersey with the population of Los Angeles.

Even if we grant that French Jews, who had always been deeply committed to Israel and now find themselves facing a frightening future, may believe Israel’s prime minister represents them to some degree, Bibi would do well to remember that most American Jews certainly do not. Indeed, he would do well to recall that American Jews’ objection to the notion that Israel speaks for them is almost as old as the Jewish state itself.

In the famous 1950 battle of wills between prime minister David Ben-Gurion and American Jewish Committee president Jacob Blaustein, Blaustein essentially went ballistic at Ben-Gurion’s notion that Israel represented all Jews. In an address to the AJC’s executive committee in April 1950, Blaustein reminded his listeners that it had not been a foregone conclusion that the American Jewish community would support the 1947 Partition Plan, because American Jews understood that the creation of a Jewish state would force them to choose between competing loyalties.

Then, as if he were speaking to Netanyahu today, Blaustein had this to say: “Israel… must recognize that the matter of goodwill between its citizens and those of other countries is a two-way street: that Israel also has a responsibility in this situation – a responsibility in terms of not adversely affecting the sensibilities of the Jewish citizens of other states by what it says or does.

And, of course, there can be no single spokesman for world Jewry, no matter who that spokesman might try to be.”

Were Blaustein alive today, he would undoubtedly remind the prime minister that not much has changed. Yes, what was once a tentative relationship between American Jewry and the State of Israel has since solidified.

To be sure, the AJC is now a very different organization. Yet there is also much that has not changed. In the 2012 American presidential elections, long after it became clear that Barack Obama’s relationship to Israel was at the very minimum “complicated,” Obama won a full 69 percent of the Jewish vote.

American Jews are complex, and their relationship to Israel is nuanced. When Netanyahu says he will continue to speak for the entire Jewish people, he both proves that he does not understand the American Jewish community and guarantees that at least in America, he will actually diminish his standing.

The Jews have never had a pope; decentralization has long been one of our great strengths. Our divisiveness, painful and exasperating at times, has also been key to our creativity and longevity.

No one has ever spoken for all Jews, and it is hard to imagine anyone ever will.

Bibi might be right that it is time to go to Congress. Should he go, however, he will do himself and American Jews a great service if he acts like the prime minister of a small country that still desperately needs American support, and not as the king of the Jews.

This is not the time for Israel’s leadership to alienate American Jews more than it already has.

The writer is senior vice president, Koret Distinguished Fellow and chair of the core curriculum at Jerusalem’s Shalem College, Israel’s first liberal arts college. His latest book is Menachem Begin: The Battle for Israel’s Soul; he is now writing a concise history of the State of Israel.


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