March 23, 2019

Bibi’s Disgraceful Act Tarnishes All Jews

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opens the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office September 26, 2017. REUTERS/Gali Tibbon/Pool/File Photo

I have a tip for Israeli prime ministers: When not even the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the American Jewish Committee (AJC) can stomach your shtus, you have gone well off the rails.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, facing the possibility of political loss, has gambled — much like President Donald Trump — on currying the favor of the worst of his compatriots to help pull him through to victory. Netanyahu orchestrated the merger of a coalition partner, the pro-settlement Jewish Home party, with Otzma Yehudit, the racist, annexationist party of the Kahanist movement.

Netanyahu’s move to legitimize Otzma Yehudit was too much for AIPAC and the AJC, who tweeted their objections to the potential presence of what they called a “racist” and “reprehensible” party in the next Israeli government. This is an extraordinary development. Netanyahu has managed what J Street and other pro-peace groups could not do. He has extracted from AIPAC an unequivocal denunciation of an Israeli leader’s policies with regard to internal Israeli affairs and the government’s relationship with the Palestinian people.

Otzma Yehudit was formed in 2012 but has never won enough votes for a seat in the Knesset.  The party has been called Kahanist, due to its members’ adherence to the ideology of the late U.S.-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, who founded the Jewish Defense League in the U.S. in 1971 and served in the Israeli Knesset before being banned in 1988 on the grounds that he was a “racist” and “undemocratic.” Kahane was linked to violent attacks on Israeli Arabs and Palestinians before he was assassinated in a Manhattan hotel in 1990.

Otzma Yehudit leader Itamir Ben Gvir displays in his home a picture of Baruch Goldstein, the perpetrator of a mass murder of Palestinians at prayer in 1994; and his party advocates ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from Israel, which they consider to encompass not only the occupied territories of the West Bank but also the entire biblical territory from the Euphrates River (in Iraq and Syria) to the Mediterranean Sea. Their platform also calls for the denial of reproductive rights to women and, interestingly, “Jewish capitalism.”

By bringing a party that celebrates murder and ethnic cleansing into the political mainstream, Netanyahu has committed a disgrace. The state of Israel is linked with the Jewish people, so we have all been tarnished. Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5 teaches a crucial meaning to be found in the story of God’s creation of the first human in the Divine image: “For peace among the created ones [human beings] so that a person will never say to their companion, “My father is greater than your father.” In other words, racism is not a Jewish value.

Surely, this development will finally exhaust the idea that American Jews may not criticize Israel for fear of accusations of internalized anti-Semitism. We don’t criticize President Trump because we hate the U.S. but because we love our country and object to its degradation. Why shouldn’t the same view apply to Israel? At this point, we have no choice, because failure to object to current events is to collude in an insult to the entire Jewish people.

Finally, it is long past time for American Jews to quit conflating their Jewish identity with the State of Israel and parking it overseas. Judaism is not an “identity,” it is a way of life that each of us needs to embody in ourselves, in community and in relationship with other Jews, HaShem and with all of creation. Perhaps this shanda, this outrage, will provoke a sense of insult in American Jews whose relationship with Judaism has been on the casual side. Perhaps this will impel more of us to find out more about this heritage that we have been assuming will take care of itself, to learn about our ethic of mutual interhuman obligation and take up our part in it.


Rabbi Robin Podolsky teaches at Cal State Long Beach, writes for Shondaland and blogs .