On Sunday, US President Donald Trump officially waded into the Israeli election.
He is not running for office, of course, but his persona and image are being used by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to score votes. Massive posters of the two leaders went up on billboards in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv accompanied by the text: “Netanyahu. A different league.”
The White House did not know about the ad campaign before it went up, but that didn’t stop Trump from giving it his powerful embrace. On Tuesday morning, the president shared on his Instagram account a picture of the poster over the Ayalon Freeway that Netanyahu had posted a day earlier on his own account.
Election interference? A presidential ego trip? Or just a friendly Instagram share? That remains to be seen.
This story is important to consider when thinking about the impact election posters, campaign promises and policies promoted over the next nine weeks will have on Israel’s ties with Jews around the world. When Netanyahu, for example, famously warned in 2015 that Arabs were coming out to vote “in droves,” Jews around the world spoke up and condemned Israel’s prime minister.
And that was before Trump took office.
Trump – one of the most divisive presidents in US history – is opposed by most of the American Jewish community. Netanyahu cozying up to him could turn Israel into even more of a divisive issue, not just among Jews who are anyhow voting against Trump, but also within the Democratic Party, which has a good chance of retaking the White House two years from now.
Malcolm Hoenlein, veteran head of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, voiced concern about this in a meeting on Monday with The Jerusalem Post’s editorial board.
“Showing sensitivity is very important,” Hoenlein said. “Politicians do and say things to attract domestic support. But they must realize Israel is exposed more than most countries to coverage. Anything that can be exploited will be. They have to take into account how things are reported not only locally but also abroad.”
Hoenlein was pushing back against the old adage by Tip O’Neill that “all politics is local.” That is what Netanyahu is doing when he uses Trump in a campaign poster, and that is what he will be doing when he sits with him in the Oval Office at the end of March - two weeks before Election Day - and sings his praise.
Netanyahu is not thinking about the impact it will have on millennials who go to Berkley or Columbia, or about how these moves will affect Israeli-Diaspora relations. What Netanyahu is thinking about is how to ensure his reelection, and if that means alienating some members of the American Jewish community, then that will be the price today. Tomorrow he will work on trying to fix it.
I’m not sure that he’s fundamentally wrong. Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews have always viewed issues differently. It is an inherent part of living in different countries, with different threats, challenges and problems. Most Israelis, for example, will never understand the challenge of intermarriage and the concern Jewish parents feel when sending their children out to the world. They will likely go about their lives without ever experiencing classic antisemitism at school or the workplace as many Jews do throughout Europe.
On the other hand, most Diaspora Jews will never know what it is like to hunker down in a bomb shelter because rockets are being fired into your city, or to feel so scared that you get off a Jerusalem bus because someone looks suspicious and is carrying a big backpack.
These are fundamental differences that influence the way we think, feel and approach the different issues that we all face. The divide exists because there is a geographical and cultural divide that cannot really be bridged. It would be foolish to think that it can.
The historian Rafael Medoff recently wrote in these pages about the disagreements American Jewish leaders had with their Israeli counterparts about the capture, trial and eventual execution of Adolf Eichmann, the notorious Nazi war criminal. After Eichmann was captured by the Mossad in 1960 in Argentina, Nahum Goldmann, president of the World Jewish Congress, condemned the Israeli action, arguing that “the Nazis killed not only Jews,” and that Eichmann should be tried by an international tribunal and not an Israeli court. When Eichmann was sentenced to death by an Israeli court, the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis urged clemency for the Nazi, on the grounds that capital punishment was immoral.
This schism didn’t have to do with egalitarian prayer at the Kotel, recognition of pluralistic Jewish movements in Israel, or about the right solution for the conflict with the Palestinians. It was about something that today seems to be completely in the consensus: the trial and punishment of a ruthless Nazi murderer.
THE POINT is that even then there were disagreements. They existed because Jews, depending on their vantage point, viewed different controversial issues differently. Those same differences continue today as many Jews in the US, for example, fail to understand how most Israelis plan to cast their vote – as polls now indicate – for right-wing parties. They cannot understand why someone like Benny Gantz, initially perceived to be the savior of the Center-Left, would bring into his party Moshe Ya’alon, a known opponent of a Palestinian state.
They simply do not understand the Israeli sentiment, just like many Israelis had trouble understanding how so many American Jews could vote consecutively for Barack Obama, a president who a top member of the Saudi royal family said last week was responsible for setting the Middle East back 20 years.
The same applies to Trump. Most Israelis look at Trump and see a president who stands unabashedly alongside Israel, proving it by pulling out of the unpopular nuclear deal with Iran. American Jews, on the other hand, are almost completely aligned in their opposition to Trump, and at least 75% are expected to vote against him in 2020. Even an issue like moving the US Embassy to Jerusalem was condemned by some American Jews – including the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) – a position incomprehensible in Israel.
The reason for these discrepancies is like O’Neill said. Each side formulates its opinion based on where it is – Israelis see the embassy and Americans see the Mexico border wall and immigration policy. The different view changes the way each side thinks about policy.
But even with these differences, Israel gives voice and standing to its Jewish Diaspora more than most countries around the world. There is a Diaspora Affairs Ministry, a department in the Foreign Ministry that is responsible for Diaspora ties, the Jewish Agency, a Diaspora adviser to the prime minister, a ministry tasked with combating BDS, and countless NGOs whose sole purpose is to bring the sides closer together. There is not a week that goes by that the prime minister – as well as countless ministers and Knesset members – does not meet with delegations and groups of Jews from around the world.
The cynics will say that it is because Israeli politicians want to raise money for future campaigns. That argument might have once been valid, until the last Knesset passed a law banning fund-raising for primaries. All that money now comes from the state.
Does this mean that nothing more can be done? Of course not. Regular readers of this newspaper are well aware of the Post’s steadfast position on abolishing the Chief Rabbinate’s monopoly on all religious matters in Israel, on permitting civil marriage, on opening up a respectful government-recognized pluralistic prayer plaza at the Western Wall, and on making a greater effort to engage the Palestinian Authority.
At the same time though, we should not allow these differences – or so-called schisms – cast a shadow over the entire Israel-Diaspora relationship. There will always be differences, as there have always been differences.
That is why, while the results of the upcoming national election in Israel might contribute in one way or another – depending on who wins – to how American Jews relate to Israel, it should not be portrayed as the single catalyst for what happens next. With American Jewry in the throes of an identity crisis, hinging everything on the elections would simply be wrong.
Israelis have a lot to learn about the Diaspora, just as Jews in America have a lot more they can learn about Israel. As a start, both sides would do well to do a bit more listening and a lot less patronizing.
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