Making Sense of Netanyahu's Muted Response to Trump and Neo-Nazism

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is getting some intense but limited flak in Israel for not coming out more harshly against President Donald Trump’s false equivalence between neo-Nazis and those who protested their actions in Charlottesville.

Netanyahu’s behavior is reprehensible, but not incomprehensible. It is not a case of pragmatism: not biting the hand that provides Israel with billions of dollars in annual military aid. Netanyahu was invariably extremely hostile and disrespectful to President Obama without the latter retaliating, let alone putting any serious pressure on Israel to end the illegal occupation of the West Bank and negotiate to establish a viable Palestinian state. In fact, Israel received the largest multi-year military aid package ever, 38 billion dollars, without any quid pro quo.

It's true that Netanyahu might be particularly supportive of Trump because the President has repeatedly expressed strong support for the Israelis in their nearly 70-year conflict with the Palestinians. But a deeper reason may be a complex attitude towards Nazism and antisemitism, in general, that has roots within sectors of the Zionist movement and helps explain the symbiotic relations that have arisen between those who should always be mortal enemies.

Zionism traces its roots, not to the Nazi period, but to the 19th century. A reaction, both to historic European anti-semitism and western colonialism, Zionists dreamed of establishing a Jewish nation and, much like America’s black Muslims, never desired integration into any existing societies, which they assumed, sometimes accurately, would never accept Jews as full citizens.

Given that perspective, antisemitic groups and their actions, hateful though they might be, has served a useful function: providing a never-ending talking point for recruitment to the Zionist cause. During the 1930s, some Zionists even negotiated with leading Nazis to allow German Jews to emigrate to Palestine. These efforts were criticized by other Zionists and the far more numerous non-Zionist Jewish majority because, as part of the bargain, Zionists would undermine a worldwide Jewish economic boycott of Germany. The controversial Haavara Agreement allowed about 60,000 German Jews to settle in Palestine in exchange for the confiscation of some of their property but also required the emigres to buy German goods once resettled.

Once Israel was established outbursts of antisemitism and neo-Nazism throughout the world became an occasion for Israeli leaders to encourage emigration. When a small number French Jews in a Parisian bakery were deliberately killed by an Islamic jihadist in France, as part of the larger terrorist attack in 2015, Netanyahu spoke at the Great Synagogue in Paris and encouraged French Jews to move to Israel. However, there was no evidence the French government and citizens were not unconcerned with their safety or that their level of risk was objectively high or markedly greater than that of other Parisians.

Interestingly, the one country in the Mideast where Jews seem safest is Iran, where a stable and secure community of perhaps 25,000 lives and has resisted offers to relocate to Israel, even when offered cash inducements. They can even visit relatives in Israel. Iran is anti-Zionist but not anti-Semitic. Israel ignores this and declares Iran an existential threat to Jews everywhere as well as Israel because it has long found it helpful in deflecting criticism to claim that anti-Zionism IS anti-Semitism. Jewish critics of Zionist are designated “self-hating,” something Muslims who despise jihadists would never be accused of regarding their faith.

The one interesting exception to the open encouragement of emigration seems to be in responding to anti-Semitic outbreaks in the US, which have, like those against non-whites and Muslims, spiked since Trump’s election. In these cases, Netanyahu does not call for “Aliyah”---the emigration of Jews to Israel. The US’ continued guarantee of political and military support for Israel is critical if it wants to continue to ignore Palestinian aspirations. Affluent militantly pro-Israel American Jews represent an important source of campaign funds for White House aspirants, members of Congress and those seeking seats, Israel’s interest is having ardent Zionists continue to live in the U.S. and double-down in support of Israel. Knee-jerk apologists, such as Alan Dershowitz, can be far more helpful appearing on American television or writing op-eds in this country’s prestigious newspapers, than being a talking head on Israeli television or writing for the Jerusalem Post. If Cuban exiles fled Castro’s regime and settled in Mexico instead of Miami, with its large number of electoral votes, would there ever have been an economic boycott lasting almost sixty years?

American Jews need to consider whether their continued allegiance to Israel is a one-sided love affair and if Israel merely considers them “useful idiots,” essential for defending Israel’s interests, but of no other concern, even when a President unleashes bigotry against all but white Christians. American Jews, like those in other countries, might consider Israel the last refuge should virulent and powerful traditional anti-Semitic movements, along with sporadic Islamic jihadist terrorist attacks, threaten Jewish life in the diaspora. However, Israel’s widely condemned treatment of the Palestinians may contribute to a diminished sympathy among those who would otherwise leap to support Jews under siege if no daylight exists between a Jewish identity and support for Israel.

There is, in fact, among American Jews, an attachment to Israel, considerable sympathy for the Palestinians, and significant doubts regarding the sincerity of the Netanyahu government in pursuing peace. But the donor class’ voices have far have outweighed those of the rank-and-file in influencing the policies of both Republican and Democrat office-holders for some time. That’s not to say American foreign policy towards Israel has been solely, or even primarily determined by Jewish donors and AIPAC, the lobby which speaks for them.There have been geopolitical factors that have operated as well. Still, American Jews critical of current policies have begun, through organizations such as J Street and Jewish Voice for Peace, to make efforts in re-setting US-Israel policy in a manner they believe benefit diaspora Jews, Palestinians, and Israel in the long-term.

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