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Netanyahu is not Israel

Yes, I am sad. I am disappointed. That is why I am doubling down on Israel.

The classic rock band, The Who, put it like this: “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

Benjamin Netanyahu has won re-election as Israel’s prime minister, for an unprecedented fifth term.

Albeit, very narrowly. Benny Gantz, a centrist former military chief, came very close to victory. Several media outlets declared him the victor. It was a replay of the 1948 presidential election, in which the Chicago Tribune ran a headline “Dewey Beats Truman!”

If anything, as my colleague Rabbi David Kaufman of Des Moines, Iowa, has said: “The center massacred the wings.”

True — Israel’s electorate re-elected its iconic right wing prime minister.

But, it also rejected the radicals — on both sides.

At the end of the day, Israel is a center-right country.

Which drives most American Jews crazy.

Consider the findings of a 2018 American Jewish Committee survey of American Jews, and you will see the growing divide between American Judaism and Israeli Judaism:

  • 80% of American Jews favor Israel granting non-Orthodox rabbis the power to perform life-cycle events and conversions; 49% of Israelis believe that.
  • 81% of American Jews favor civil marriage and divorce in Israel; 55% of Israelis favor that.
  • 73% of American Jews favor a mixed-prayer area adjacent to the Western Wall; 42% of Israelis would favor that — a number that includes Benny Gantz, who said at the AIPAC policy conference that “the Western Wall is long enough to accommodate everyone.”
  • 57% of American Jews disapprove, either “strongly” or “somewhat,” of how President Trump is handling US-Israel relations; 77% of Israelis approve.
  • 59% of American Jews favor the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state in the current situation, and the same percentage think that all or some of the West Bank settlements should be dismantled as part of a peace agreement. In contrast, the figures for the Israelis are 43% and 39%, respectively.

I can hear you screaming in Haifa: “So, if you don’t like it, leave Florida and come to Israel! Bring your entire community! Come here to live, and to vote!”

Sorry. You cannot say that we are one people, and then discredit the voices of so many of your people.

I say the same thing to American Jews: you realize, don’t you, that half of world Jewry lives in Israel. That we must move Israel, and Jewish peoplehood, to the center of our self-definition as Jews.

Because it gets even sadder.

Researchers asked American Jews and Israelis to choose a familial metaphor to describe how close they feel to each other.

  • 31% of  American Jews and 22% of the Israelis responded about the other: “not part of my family.”
  • Only 28% of the Israelis consider American Jews “siblings.”
  • 12% of American Jews view Israeli Jews as “siblings.”

So, yes — it’s bad.

But, wait a second.

Do you really think that Netanyahu and the Orthodox are responsible for the growing estrangement between American Jews and Israel?

Do you really think that if Gantz had won, within a few years, liberal American Jews would be flocking to ulpanim (Hebrew immersion centers); sending their children on gap years to Israel; traveling to Israel; increasing their giving to Israel-based causes?

Guess again.

American Jews and Israeli Jews speak two different languages — and I am not talking about English vs. Hebrew.

Israelis speak of land, nation and people.

American Jews speak of religion (as a discrete, separate, elective part of life), Jewish “culture” (vaguely defined), and ethnicity (which is fading with every passing generation).


  • Bibi Netanyahu did not ask American Jews to put Jewish education below soccer in their list of priorities.
  • The chief rabbinate did not call on American Jews to put synagogue affiliation at the sub-bottom of list of things to do in life.
  • The right-wing settlers in the West Bank did not lobby American Jews to willfully fray their communal bonds and norms.

Yes, Israel has changed.

But, so have American Jews.

And, so has American Judaism.

If there is estrangement between American Jews and Israel, we should ask ourselves: What have we done to maintain the centrality of Jewish peoplehood in American Jewish life?

The answer: not nearly enough.

One step further.

You know how Donald Trump is not America?

Bibi Netanyahu is not Israel. Israel is far richer; Zionism far more diverse; Israeli secular culture far deeper and even far more “religious;” than any one political party or personality can define.

Moreover, look at all the people who voted for Gantz. They are not chopped liver.

Check out the illustration for this column.

If Netanyahu fulfills his vow of annexing the West Bank settlements, thus squashing any hope of a two-state solution, world Jewry will be unable to defend such a move — especially if it means the end of a democratic Jewish state.

At that moment — yes, Herzl might consider entering the cold waters.

But, we can keep Theodor out of the Danube.

We can say to him that his dream, and the dream of so many Zionist thinkers — the dream of a state that will be a laboratory for Jewish values — is alive.

Take those two hands that you are wringing together.

Tell those hands to open your drawer, and to find a check book.

You want your kind of Israel?

Start writing checks. To:

The Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism. Build progressive Jewish institutions in Israel.

The Israel Religion Action Center. Israel’s leading civil and human rights organization, addressing issues of religion and state in Israel.

Hiddush, which works for religious freedom and equality in Israel.

Women of the Wall, fighting for the rights of women to pray in equality and joy at the Western Wall.

The Shalom Hartman Institute, the Jerusalem-based study center (full disclosure: I am an active participant in its programs) that strengthens Jewish peoplehood, identity and pluralism and ensures that Judaism is a compelling force for good in the 21st century.

I can feel the text messages coming in now.

I know. I omitted your favorite cause.

So, go write that organization a check.

Look, friends: two generations ago, the Israeli poet and statesman, Nathan Alterman, said: “The state will not be given to the Jewish people on a silver platter.”

It wasn’t.

Neither is the state that we want as well.

I am not giving up.

Neither should you.










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