The Rhetoric of Netanyahu

The U.S.-Israel relationship has hit an all-time low. Benjamin Netanyahu's incursion into American domestic politics to scuttle the pending Iran nuclear deal; his cynical anti-Arab campaign propaganda; his embrace, then renunciation, and then embrace of the two-state solution; and his repeated swipes at Barack Obama, Israel's most powerful friend in Washington, D.C., have fractured the unified support for Israel among the American Jewish community.

Last year American synagogues debated how to react to the gruesome war in Gaza. A rough consensus emerged: It's OK, indeed necessary, to criticize and still love Israel, while refusing to accept preposterous claims that Hamas is anything but a terrorist organization bent on Israel's destruction. Israel still had the benefit of the doubt. But Netanyahu's recent calculus has since placed Israel on a collision course with the United States. The political relationship will likely recover over time. But I worry that the polarization is feeding anti-Semitism in the United States, especially on university campuses.

Natalie Charney, the student president of the UCLA chapter of Hillel, described the problem to The New York Times:

People say that being anti-Israel is not the same as being anti-Semitic. The problem is the anti-Israel culture in which we are singling out only the Jewish state creates an environment where it's O.K. to single out Jewish students.

A Jewish campus organization, Hillel operates in 500 universities in the U.S. as well as internationally, including in Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. When a student serves as president of a Hillel chapter, you can assume she represents a mainstream current of thought and experience as a young, American Jew. She has probably visited Israel and had a bat mitzvah and is likely serving her broader community on social justice issues well beyond those related to Israel or Judaism.

Before the Gaza war, a survey of Jewish students in the United States found that 54 percent had witnessed or experienced anti-Semitism on campus: swastikas and other neo-Nazi graffiti, defacement of Jewish fraternities, and at UCLA last month, an effort to prevent a top student from joining a student government board because she is Jewish, to mention just a few.

In recent years, a Palestinian campaign to promote boycotts, divestment and sanctions has successfully mobilized student groups around the United States against Israel. If it exists at all, no such activism around any other country's trespasses (think Syria) rises to this level. As with anti-Semitism throughout time, anti-Israel activism has become a surrogate for the anger of the disempowered, and the Jewish student the manifestation of "white privilege." Bibi can't be blamed entirely, but alienating the American president and political class is bad not just for Israel but for American Jews as well.

This post was originally published in Portuguese in Folha de São Paulo. It is available here.