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US Jews brace for Netanyahu’s ‘ill-advised’ Congress speech

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech in Jerusalem on February 16
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech in Jerusalem on February 16 AFP

By accepting a Republican invitation to address the US Congress next week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not only upset the White House and the Democrats, he’s also rattled America’s largely liberal Jewish community.

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“Like an increasing number of American Jews, I want to make it clear that Netanyahu does not speak for me,” wrote Rabbi David Teutsch in the Huffington Post last week, adding that he had never spoken out publicly against a sitting Israeli official before but could not ignore the “train wreck” that he considers Netanyahu’s speech on March 3 to be. 

“Netanyahu's decision to accept Republican leaders' invitation to address Congress [which did not involve consultations with the White House, thereby “breaching protocol”] has dealt a major blow to the long-time United States-Israel alliance,” said Teutsch, who heads the Philadelphia-based Center for Jewish Ethics. “Taking the Republican side is an attack on President Obama and the Democratic Party.”

Unlike their Israeli and even American counterparts, American Jews are overwhelmingly Democratic, progressive, and steadfast in their support of President Barack Obama. According to a Pew survey published in October 2013, 70 percent of Jews count themselves as Democrats or leaning towards the Democratic Party, while only 22 percent identify as Republican or GOP-leaning. 

The survey also revealed that while generally wary of publicly criticising the Jewish State, most US Jews disagree with the current Israeli administration on fundamental Middle Eastern issues, including Iran, Palestinian statehood and ongoing settlement construction.

Only 17 percent of American Jews support the continued construction of settlements in the West Bank – a policy which has thrived under Netanyahu. Just 38 percent said they felt the Israeli government under Netanyahu was making “a sincere effort to establish peace with the Palestinians”. A poll in November 2014 meanwhile found that among that same demographic, 57 percent approved of Obama's performance as president.

So it comes as little surprise that a move which has pitted the Israeli prime minister against the US president has left many Israeli Jews feeling frustrated.

“This incident has empowered a lot of American Jews who have felt uncomfortable with Netanyahu for a very long time to be more vocal about where they differ with the prime minister,” Benjy Cannon, student president of American Jewish advocacy group J Street U, which describes itself as “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans", told FRANCE 24 on Tuesday.

“In terms of Iran, many of those people favour a diplomatic solution; and are desperate and excited about giving diplomacy a chance.

“At the bare minimum, it’s put Jews that traditionally see themselves as supportive of both the Israeli government and Obama in a really tough position,” Cannon said.

Between Bibi and Barack

American pundit Peter Beinart wrote in Haaretz on February 11 that American Jews must not “feel forced to choose between Obama and Netanyahu", because it could distance US Jews from the Jewish State. “But that’s effectively the dynamic that Netanyahu has set up", says Cannon.

That support base, which counts some 5.3 million American Jews (the Israeli population barely tops eight million), has a “tremendous stake” in Israel, Cannon says, citing both ideological support and philanthropic funding – Israeli organisations receive at least 1.4 billion dollars annually from Jewish-American philanthropists, or almost half of Washington’s military budget for Israel.

“It’s important for Jews worldwide to have a strong relationship with Israel, to be excited about Israel’s future and want to help the country – especially young Israeli Jews like of my generation, who have serious issues with current Israeli policy – and that also means having a stake in Israel’s future.

“If Jews continue to be philanthropically and emotionally involved in Israel’s future then it’s really important that their views are taken into consideration [by the Israeli prime minister],” Cannon said.

But just a few weeks ahead of a tight election against the Labor Party and its leader Isaac Herzog, Netanyahu is focused squarely on the Israeli electorate. Some analysts believe that a well-received speech in Congress, which Jewish Tennessee lawmaker Steve Cohen has described as a “reckless” piece of “high theatre for a re-election campaign", could indeed secure Netanyahu a fourth term as prime minister. Many US Jews, whether fans of Netanyahu or not, argue that such a stunt is not worth any amount of electoral gain.

“We have bigger agendas as a Jewish community – the safety, security and well-being of Israel is high on all of our agendas – and on that there is no partisan divide", said Rabbi Rick Jacobs of the New York-based Union for Reform Judaism in an interview with FRANCE 24. “How we achieve it, that’s a different story. Two weeks before the Israeli election is an ill-advised time to speak on this issue in the US Congress.”

Messy aftermath

Jacobs, like Cannon, has noticed a surge in agitation around the Jewish community in response to Netanyahu’s upcoming trip. “I find great divisions and a lot of acrimony and partisanship", he said. “At the end of the day that only reinforces the danger of the visit.”

Jacobs believes that religious leaders like himself will be left to clean up the mess Netanyahu’s speech will cause the American Jewry. “I’m sure he’ll speak eloquently towards the existential danger that a nuclear Iran poses to Israel, the Middle East and the world, but I think there will be enormous amounts of work to be done in the aftermath.

“We in responsible positions of Jewish leadership will have to make sure that the bipartisan support for the state of Israel is put back together and that there’s no permanent damage to that relationship. At the end of the day, no matter where you stand on the political spectrum, Israel’s relationship with the US is the most precious relationship it has,” Jacobs added.

Meanwhile in Israel, some hope that the spat will bring American Jews closer to their Israeli counterparts, at least eventually.

“Reservations among American Jews over settlements, for example, should not be a reason for the complete deterioration of relations between American Jews and Israel,” Eytan Gilboa, an expert on American-Israeli relations and public opinion, told FRANCE 24 from Tel Aviv. Gilboa believes that if the Obama administration’s agreement with Iran fails, which he believes it will, then American Jews will, following “some humiliation", return to “support whichever Israeli government is going to be in place”.

Gilboa is disappointed by the political chasm between American and Israeli Jews. “When two thirds of Israeli Jews do not trust Obama to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power, American Jews should not ignore that,” he said.

Back in Maryland, Benjy Cannon sees US Jews as the ignored party rather than the ignorant. “We need to be having a public conversation about the substantial disagreements between American Jews and Netanyahu’s policies, particularly around settlement building and the peace process,” he said. “Not speaking up is creating a false sense of unity on certain issues. We need to correct that.”

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