Long before the latest election in Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu was a polarizing figure among U.S. Jews. But even many of his supporters said this week that they were appalled at his last-minute bid to mobilize Jewish voters by warning that Arabs were going to the polls in droves, and at his renunciation of a two-state solution to the Palestinian crisis.
Netanyahu’s party won the election and cheers from hawkish U.S. Jews. But in interviews this week, rabbis, scholars and Jews from across the country and a range of denominations said that with his campaign tactics, he had further divided U.S. Jews and alienated even some conservatives, who had already suspected that he was more committed to building settlements than building peace with the Palestinians.
Even with Netanyahu’s postelection interview walking back his statements against a two-state plan for peace with Palestinians, many Jews say they are worried that the most lasting outcome of the elections will be the increasing isolation of Israel – not only around the world but also from the younger generation of U.S. Jews. Unlike their parents and grandparents, these Jews have grown up in an era when Israel is portrayed not as a heroic underdog but as an oppressive occupier, and many of them tend to see Netanyahu as out of step with their views on Israel and the world.
Aaron Voldman, 27, who recently returned to Wisconsin after a year studying on a fellowship in Israel, said he was still “outraged” at Netanyahu’s campaign, especially his election-eve pledge that there would be no Palestinian state if he were re-elected.
“It is the only viable option to secure peace in the Holy Land – how could he, in good conscience, just write it off?” said Voldman, who like many Israelis speaks of Netanyahu using his nickname. “Bibi is not committed to doing what needs to be done to secure peace and justice. The Palestinians did not have a willing partner in his administration during the last round of negotiations.”
Anguish over Israel, after intensifying through the final days of the campaign, is now stirring up discussion among U.S. Jews online, at synagogues from coast to coast and even among some rabbis and Jewish organizational leaders who are understanding of Netanyahu’s statements that he is above all concerned about Israel’s security. They say they have watched as U.S. Jews pull away from Israel, alienated by the intractable conflict with the Palestinians and the expansion of Jewish settlements.
Rabbi Misha Zinkow at Temple Israel in Columbus, Ohio, said that one of his foremost concerns was “the lack of engagement of North American Jews with Israel” – a trend that he sees expanding among younger Jews.
“The scare tactics that emerged in the 11th hour of the election appealed to very deep anxiety and fear,” said Zinkow, who leads a 145-year-old Reform congregation with a membership of about 550 households. “They deepen the distance and provide fodder for those who want to disengage. Those statements appealed to emotions that young American Jews just don’t have, and they sound racist.”
He said that in his sermon Friday night, he would talk about the relationship between U.S. Jews and Israel.
“We’re family,” he planned to say. “Families have disagreements and disappointments and betrayal. Don’t let your disappointments cause you to walk away.”
The Jewish establishment’s calls for unity, however, are now competing with demands for escalated activism.
In a widely discussed opinion piece in Haaretz, Peter Beinart, a liberal critic of Israel, argued this week that those who support Israel should pressure the Obama administration to present its own peace plan “and to punish – yes, punish – the Israeli government for rejecting it.
“It means making sure that every time Benjamin Netanyahu and the members of his cabinet walk into a Jewish event outside Israel,” he wrote, “they see diaspora Jews protesting outside.”
Rob Eshman, publisher and editor in chief of The Jewish Journal, a mainstream Jewish newspaper in Los Angeles, wrote this week that the election results show that Israeli and U.S. Jews “are drifting apart.”
And Thursday, the Conservative Jewish movement’s rabbinical arm, the Rabbinical Assembly, took the unusual step of issuing a statement condemning Netanyahu for putting out a video on social media during the election campaign warning that “right-wing rule is in danger” because Arab voters were streaming to the polls. The video was widely criticized as race-baiting, and it offended the sensibilities of U.S. Jewish leaders who have long proclaimed with pride that Israel is a democracy in which the Arab minority has the right to vote.
Rabbi William Gershon and Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the president and executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, said, “This statement, which indefensibly singled out the Arab citizens of Israel, is unacceptable and undermines the principles upon which the State of Israel was founded.”
Netanyahu tried to explain himself in interviews Thursday with several U.S. outlets.
“I wasn’t trying to block anyone from voting; I was trying to mobilize my own voters,” he told National Public Radio.
And of course, plenty of U.S. Jews were not disappointed by the election results. At Congregation B’nai Israel, a politically active Reform synagogue in Sacramento, California, Rabbi Mona Alfi said that she had been teaching a women’s study group in the evening as the election results were coming in and that there had been a wide range of opinions on Netanyahu’s candidacy.
“One woman was really excited when it looked like Bibi was winning the exit polls,” Alfi said. “Another was expressing hope that it would be a different result. My congregation is like the majority of American Jews. It is more of a center-left congregation on Israeli politics, but we do have a very strong contingent of Bibi supporters as well.”
Orthodox Jews are often more reliable supporters of Netanyahu and his party, Likud, and they have tended to stay loyal. Rabbi Sidney Shoham is a retired Modern Orthodox rabbi who at 86 spends his winters in a predominantly Jewish apartment building in Boca Raton, Florida, where the televisions in the gym are often tuned to Fox News. He said he and other residents cheered Netanyahu’s recent speech to the joint meeting of Congress warning President Barack Obama against signing a nuclear deal with Iran, and he welcomed the prime minister’s re-election.
“My greatest thrill is that Netanyahu was able to pull off a feat that in my opinion was not only good for the morale of Israel and the security of Israel, but finally put Obama in his place,” Shoham said.
He said that he saw Israel was becoming more isolated internationally but that he was not terribly troubled by it because of what he said was a basic Jewish principle: “Being more or less in control of your own self, your own country, or your own being is much more important than being loved by others.”
But as criticism of Netanyahu continues to mount – Obama directly told him Thursday that the United States would have to “reassess our options” after the prime minister’s “new positions and comments” on the two-state solution – many other Jewish leaders are deeply disturbed at the prospect of Israel as a pariah.
“Having Israel so isolated and marginalized in so many places is profoundly troubling,” said Rabbi Richard Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism.
Jacobs said that the gap between Jews in the United States and Israel was “potentially widening” and that it needed to be addressed with openness and transparency.
“I think we have to work very hard,” he said, “and do more creative and honest work to have these deep, open conversations in our Jewish community and not simply paper over differences.”