Reality Check: Which US Jew has really influenced today’s Israel?

The organizers chose the wrong Diaspora figures to light an Independence Day torch

State Ceremony at Mt. Herzl begins with singing and torch lighting.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
State Ceremony at Mt. Herzl begins with singing and torch lighting.
Looking back on last week’s Independence Day ceremony on Mount Herzl, it’s clear the organizers chose the wrong Diaspora Jews to light a torch at the opening of the country’s 69th anniversary celebrations.
This is not to say Michael Steinhardt was an unworthy choice, given his mega-philanthropic contributions to Israel over the years, but neither he, nor the other American torch-lighter, Rabbi Marvin Hier, best known now as the rabbi at Donald Trump’s inauguration, have affected modern-day Israel to the same extent as another American Jew whose spirit hovered over the event.
The influence of this American Jew on Israel’s political culture was even referenced in Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein’s speech, when he talked of “today, as Israel begins its seventieth year of independence, we must internalize that not everything in life is Right or Left. Not every right wing is fascist. And not every left wing is traitorous.”
Indeed not. But this government, under the leadership of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has done its utmost to ensure that the term “left wing” has become a synonym for “enemy” or “traitor.” As far as Netanyahu is concerned, anyone who is not behind him 100% is a “leftist,” from the judiciary, the media, to even the IDF leadership. The word “leftist,” used liberally in the prime minister’s Facebook posts and Twitter outbursts, is his clearest form of condemnation.
And it’s not just dyed-in-the-wool people of the Left like myself who think this. Former Likud Knesset member and defense minister Moshe Ya’alon recently told a Hebrew newspaper that “suddenly Benny Begin [another Likud MK] and myself are leftists” because they demanded the rule of law be applied against illegal settlement construction in the West Bank, or because Ya’alon spoke out against Hebron shooter Elor Azaria.
Netanyahu’s use of language to sow divide and discord – as opposed to the unity that a national leader is expected to promote – is a lesson he learned many years ago from Arthur Finkelstein, the American Jew whose malicious influence is still polluting the Israeli political dialogue and direction for the worse this country has taken over the past two decades or so.
Finkelstein is a political consultant and strategist who works exclusively with Republican candidates in the United States, and was the brains behind Netanyahu’s first election victory in 1996. Netanyahu’s campaign back then, from which he has never wavered, was that you’re either for him or an enemy of the people.
His campaign slogan at the time, “Netanyahu is good for the Jews,” encapsulated this. By implication, if you’re not for Netanyahu then you’re not good for the Jews, and therefore an enemy. And if Netanyahu is good for the Jews, then this also not-so-subtly hints that Netanyahu’s bad for the Arabs, regardless of the fact that they are supposedly citizens of equal standing who comprise around 20% of the country’s population.
And the results of the divisiveness and hatred seeded back then can be seen everywhere today. One particularly jarring example were the curses spewed by right-wing protesters at the Remembrance Day ceremony featuring bereaved families of Israelis and Palestinians last week in Tel Aviv.
There is a clear argument to be made against a joint Israel-Palestinian memorial ceremony: on Remembrance Day, Israelis are remembering the fallen of Israel’s wars and terrorism victims, whose lives are part of the high cost Israeli society has paid to achieve independence. For many people there is no moral equivalence between this and Palestinian lives lost due to IDF activities in the territories or the relatively few incidents of Jewish terrorism against Palestinians.
But this is not the principled stand the Israeli-flag-draped demonstrators chose to take. Instead, the protesters yelled “Nazis” and “traitors” at the bereaved Israeli families, with one even shouting: “I hate Hitler – not for what he did, but for not finishing the job and killing you.” Another person said: “These are the worst people in the world. They hate Israel... They are our tragedy.”
This kind of debate, this level of hatred is promoted by our prime minister through his failure to condemn such actions and by his own continued attacks on the Supreme Court, his determination to subjugate an independent news media and his government’s legislation against human rights organizations seeking to ensure the country remains true to the commitments laid out in the country’s declaration of independence.
Arthur Finkelstein may not have lit a torch at Mount Herzl, but this American Jew has certainly lit the spark that threatens to devour this country’s civil discourse.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.