Two significant events in the United States that have nothing in common except that they occurred within ten days of each other should send a message to Israel’s leaders. The events are the tragic massacre of 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue on October 27, which shocked Israelis and Americans, and the midterm elections here on November 6. The message: Israel’s leaders should strive for unity with American Jews – all American Jews. And this requires more than platitudes and lip service.
Thus, when Naftali Bennett, Israel’s minister of education and diaspora affairs, came to the United States following the Pittsburgh massacre, he told the more than 4,000 participants at the Pittsburgh vigil: “We stand together, as Jews from all communities united, as well as members of all faiths. Together we stand. Americans, Israelis. People who are together saying ‘no ‘to hatred. The murderer’s bullet does not stop to ask: Are you Conservative or Reform, are you Orthodox? Are you right wing or left wing? It has one goal, and that is to kill innocent people. Innocent Jews.”
These are truthful and powerful words, to be sure. But they were spoken by a key member of the Israeli government which is increasing the Orthodox hold over Israeli society and by the very same Israeli minister who backed the government’s reneging on its promise to allow egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall. Minister Bennett, if he truly believed his own statement, would be taking steps to change both policies in Israel. As Michael Oren wrote in an opinion essay in The New York Times two days after the Pittsburgh killings, “And yet, for all these expressions of sympathy, Israel still refuses to recognize the Conservative movement to which all 11 victims belonged.”
The depth of insensitivity to, and lack of understanding of, American Jewry was demonstrated by Israeli officials defending President Trump on charges – voiced by many American Jews — that his divisive, xenophobic, anti-immigrant rhetoric inspired the anti-Semitic perpetrator of the Pittsburgh massacre. Israel’s U.S. Ambassador Ron Dermer said in an interview with MSNBC that anti-Semitism in America is as much a result of left-wing activists pursuing a boycott of Israeli products as it is a result of right-wing American nationalism. “I see a lot of bad people on both sides who attack Jews,” Dermer said. His remarks were seen as providing political cover for Trump. That is not the job of Israel’s ambassador, or any Israeli official
Bennett also defended Trump when he came to the U.S., including a series of tweets in which he praised President Trump as “a true friend of the State of Israel and to the Jewish people,” and criticized those “using the horrific anti-Semitic massacre to attack President Trump.”
Perhaps even more disturbing, during a meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on the Wednesday following the massacre, Bennett doubted that the number of anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. has increased under President Trump. “I am not sure at all that there’s a surge in anti-Semitism in America,” he said, despite ADL’s report detailing a 57 percent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States in 2017, the first year of the Trump presidency, “I am not sure those are the facts,” Bennett said. “I am not saying they are not, but I have not been convinced that they are.” (Bennett later clarified his remarks at the end of the lunch, saying that he was not dismissing the ADL study but calling for further inquiry).
Neither Bennett nor Dermer – nor any Israeli leader — has any business defending an American president against criticism by American Jews. They became Trump’s prime validator in the wake of the massacre in Pittsburgh. But this comes as a steep price: the deepening of the Israeli government’s rift with American Jews, many of whom consider Trump at least partly responsible for the rise in anti-Semitism over the last two years. Their actions belie Bennett’s words of unity at the Pittsburgh vigil.
Why would Israel throw its support behind one American political party when 80 percent of American Jews vote for the other?
Moreover, in the past several years, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has moved his government into a close embrace of the Republican Party at the expense of Democrats. This policy jeopardizes America’s long-standing bipartisan support for Israel, which is critical to Israel’s security, and has turned support for Israel into one more political weapon.
This leads us to the midterm elections. According to a CNN exit poll, Jewish voters preferred Democrats over Republican candidates by a 79 to 17 percentage point margin. These numbers are not an aberration; they are consistent with Jewish voting patterns over the last several election cycles. Surely, Israeli leaders know this.
Moreover, the election has now placed Democrats – and specifically, Jewish Democrats — at the helm of several House committees and sub-committees that have a direct impact on Israel. These include: Eliot Engel, the likely Foreign Affairs chairman; Nita Lowey, the likely Appropriations chairwoman, and Ted Deutch, the likely chair of the Middle East and North Africa subcommittee.
So, as a long-time leader in the American Jewish community, I cannot help but ask the following questions about the current Israeli government: Why would it profess solidarity with American Jews, but take actions that drive the wedge between it and American Jews even deeper? Why would it blatantly throw its support behind one American political party when 80 percent of American Jews vote for the other — and when it should steer clear of domestic U.S. politics? Why would it jeopardize the bipartisanship that has long been a critical pillar of the U.S.-Israel relationship?
The answer to these questions is clear. Netanyahu is appealing to Evangelicals, Republicans and Orthodox Jews. What he should do, especially in light of the midterm elections, is broaden his and his government’s appeal to Democrats and, of course, not ignore the vast majority of American Jews. More than professing unity, Israel’s leaders must take steps to bridge the divides.
The writer is a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.