Jerusalem – Israelis are enthusiastic about a Trump presidency.
Among those I met with last week during a visit for a Jewish Media Summit, in interviews and conversations from the prime minister and other top government officials to taxi drivers, the consensus was that unlike President Obama, Donald Trump has warm feelings toward Israel, will not pressure Jerusalem on settlements, may toughen up the Iran nuclear deal, finally move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and make the U.S. stronger militarily, thus bolstering Israel’s position in the region.
Complaints from American Jews about Trump’s boorish behavior; mockery of women, minorities and the disabled; choice of an “alt-right” champion as his chief strategist; and contempt for traditional approaches to policy and diplomacy were ignored or dismissed as secondary to his apparent empathy for Israel.
“The big question isn’t what the Trump administration will do [in terms of policy change toward Israel] but what Prime Minister Netanyahu will ask for,” the education and diaspora affairs minister, Naftali Bennett, told the media summit. “We will have the opportunity, for the first time in our history, to say what we want,” he asserted. Bennett, widely viewed as a threat to Netanyahu from the right, is opposed to a two-state solution and has called for the expansion of settlements. “It’s time to rethink our views” on a peace effort that has failed for decades, he said.
The difference in attitudes among the majority of American Jews, 70 percent of whom voted for Hillary Clinton, and Israeli Jews, who are quickly learning to like Trump, is one of many indicators that the two societies are moving further apart.
During the media summit, which was sponsored by the Israeli Foreign Ministry and Government Press Office and included about 50 journalists from around the world, there were a number of panels and discussions that underscored diaspora concern about inactivity on the Palestinian peace front, lack of equality for traditional and liberal prayer at the Western Wall and the Orthodox rabbinate’s control of personal-status issues like marriage, divorce, conversion and burial in Israel.
But a consistent message, delivered in varying degrees of sensitivity, from Israeli government officials, organizational leaders and journalists was that most Israelis don’t understand or really care about diaspora communities or their concerns.
Noting “the very asymmetrical” relationship between American and Israeli Jews, Daniel Goldman, chairman of Gesher, an Israeli nonprofit that seeks to bridge the religious-secular gap in the country, pointed to the roomful of diaspora journalists and asserted, “You wouldn’t get one table full of Israeli journalists interested in diaspora communities.”
Zvika Klein, a reporter for Maariv who said he is the only Hebrew-speaking Israeli covering diaspora affairs full-time, decried the lack of a sense of “peoplehood in Israeli society.” He said the Israeli media “loves stories about anti-Semitism” in the diaspora, sensing a kind of schadenfreude among his editors. “It’s almost as if they feel [diaspora Jews] deserve it, like ‘We’re in the Jewish homeland and they’re not.’”
Rabbi Na’ama Kelman, dean of the Hebrew Union College (Reform) in Jerusalem, noted that “part of Zionism’s DNA is rejection of the diaspora, and that’s still part of the ethos here.” A native New Yorker, she said she was “amazed” that Reform Jews in the U.S. continue to support Israel at the level they do “despite what they say about us,” making reference to demeaning statements from members of Knesset and Orthodox rabbis about Reform Jews as inauthentic. “How patient can we be?” the rabbi asked.
Regarding the controversy over egalitarian prayer at the Kotel, she said that Israelis think of the Western Wall in national terms, recalling “its liberation by the IDF in the 1967 War, while diaspora Jews view it as a place of prayer, hopes and dreams.”
Aliza Lavie, a Knesset member from Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, bemoaned the fact that Israeli and diaspora Jews lack a common language and sufficient opportunities for meaningful dialogue. “The gap is growing” between diaspora and Israeli Jews, she said, a sentiment that was echoed throughout the conference.
Belligerent Bibi: Prime Minister Netanyahu, meeting with diaspora journalists, had little patience for their questions. Haim Zach/Government Press Office
Meeting A Confrontational Bibi
An expected highlight of the summit, an exclusive press conference for our group with Prime Minister Netanyahu, turned out to be a low point for many of us. As we awaited his arrival in a small auditorium at the foreign affairs ministry — Netanyahu also serves as foreign minister — the air was charged with excitement in anticipation of the meeting. But his abrupt entrance and challenging, dismissive manner — “OK, what’s on your mind?” he began matter-of-factly from the podium — swiftly turned the mood to confrontational.
Netanyahu swatted away some questions, asserting, for example, that the level of anti-Semitism that has arisen in the U.S. over the presidential election campaign is nowhere near that of Europe. “It’s ridiculous,” he said of the comparison. He interrupted some questioners, suggesting alternative topics to ask him, like the increased interest many countries have in doing business with Israel.
“This is a great story,” Netanyahu said, citing Israel’s successes in cybersecurity and other innovations. (Why doesn’t he interview himself? I wondered, and would he treat mainstream journalists with this level of disrespect?)
On the Kotel controversy, he acknowledged that the government “backtracked” after approving a compromise on prayer space early this year. He sounded passive, saying he hoped the issue would be resolved, adding “these things take time.”
Regarding peace prospects with the Palestinians, the prime minister reiterated that he is willing to meet with the leadership of the Palestinian Authority “with no conditions.” He said the public does not understand that the real issue is not settlements but that Israel now has Sunni allies in the Arab world, however private for now — presumably including Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia — in opposing militant Islam, joined in fear of a nuclear Iran.
Netanyahu, who seems to be under constant scrutiny by the media, was most animated when he said that “free speech is not reserved only for journalists. I have a secret — we can criticize back.”
When Israeli And American Jewish Values Clash
During my visit I was invited to address a staff meeting of the Jewish Policy Planning Institute (JPPI), a Jerusalem-based think tank dealing with issues of primary concern to the Jewish people. The topic, not surprisingly, was American Jewish reactions to the presidential election.
I began by noting the statistics, with the only significant element of U.S. Jewry in Trump’s camp being the Orthodox community. About 56 percent opted for the Republican, and the vote in communities like the Five Towns and Borough Park was as high as 75 percent for Trump. It was one more indication of the growing divide between the Orthodox and the rest of the American Jewish community, I suggested.
I said I understood the relief many Israelis are feeling after years of tension between Obama and Netanyahu, with the onus on Jerusalem to make progress on the peace front with the Palestinians and existential fears of a nuclear Iran in the not-too-distant future. But I emphasized that the almost daily dose of Trump’s offensive behavior throughout the campaign on matters large and small; the indication that basic Constitutional rights may be in jeopardy; and the increasing anxiety over the rise of anti-Semitic rhetoric and incidents attributed to the racist views unleashed by the alt-right, have many American Jews deeply worried about the next four years.
The response, for the most part, was that while Trump may be a loose cannon, he represents an opportunity for Israel to be seen in the White House as a vital ally rather than an annoyance, as was the perception shared by many friends of Israel these last eight years.
Shmuel Rosner, a journalist, JPPI fellow and keen observer of American Jewish life, noted that while “Trump has sentiments, not policies,” Israel will engage with the incoming president and “prioritize its own needs over moral issues.” His advice was to be “less hysterical” about the election results. “This is politics,” he said. “There will be compromises.”
One high official in the Israeli government with a deep understanding of American Jewry offered a concise and telling observation about the differences between the two cultures. Liberal American Jews view issues like prayer at the Kotel and religious divisions over marriage and divorce as matters of Jewish and Western moral values and principles, he told me, preferring anonymity in our private conversation. “But to Israelis, it’s all politics.”
He said that perhaps the only way to get the Knesset to take action on issues dear to liberal Jews is to frame them as either matters of security or impacting on the strategic U.S.-Israel relationship, two areas of vital concern to the Israeli establishment.
It’s advice worth keeping in mind. Meanwhile, Rosner is concerned that the Trump election will divide Israeli and American Jews further. He wrote in The New York Times last month that if Trump’s “policies match his campaign rhetoric, Israelis … will grow to like him” while American Jews “will seethe,” based on their history of prioritizing liberal domestic issues over Israel.
A close Trump relationship with Jerusalem could “alienate them [American Jews] from Israel,” Rosner wrote, and if “American Jews oppose President Trump at every step,” Israelis will “doubt their commitment to Israel’s security.”
We’re not there yet, but one can see how the gap between the world’s two major Jewish communities could widen if lines of communication and mutual understanding are not strengthened. The media summit was a demonstrable way to underscore the need for Jewish journalists, in Israel and around the world, to better understand each other — and each other’s cultures. The journalist’s role, in a “post-truth” age of “fake news,” could prove to be a critical element in keeping Jews everywhere one people.