Gershom Gorenberg, an Israeli historian and journalist, is the author of “The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977″ and, most recently, “The Unmaking of Israel.”
Benjamin Netanyahu has never been suspected of forgetting the Holocaust. In his rhetoric, the Nazi genocide is not just a memory but also a way to understand present threats. “It’s 1938, and Iran is Germany,” he famously said.
A related motif of Netanyahu’s rhetoric is that he sees himself as the spokesman of Jews everywhere, not just as the prime minister of Israel.
Let me revise this: Netanyahu has never been suspected of playing down the Holocaust, or anti-Semitism, until this week in Washington, as he defended his new best friend, President Trump. What was he thinking?
First, let’s recap: At the joint Trump-Netanyahu news conference on Wednesday, Israeli journalist Moav Vardi asked Trump about the “rise in anti-Semitic incidents” in America during the campaign and since the election. “I wonder what you say to those among the Jewish community in the states, and in Israel, and maybe around the world who believe … that your administration is playing with xenophobia and maybe racist tones,” Vardi demanded.
Trump’s response — even more surreal than usual — was to talk about his electoral college victory. Afterward, he got around to reminding everyone that his daughter and son-in-law are Jewish.
To which Netanyahu added, “there is no greater supporter of the Jewish people and the Jewish state than President Donald Trump.”
Later, Netanyahu held another meeting with journalists at Blair House. There he was asked about Trump’s statement on international Holocaust Remembrance Day, which glaringly made no reference to the fact that the Holocaust was aimed at eliminating Jews from the face of the Earth. Renowned historian Deborah Lipstadt has accurately diagnosed the statement as “softcore Holocaust denial.” American Jewish organizations denounced it.
Netanyahu’s response to the question was that “this man is a great friend of the Jewish people and the State of Israel.” The concerns of American Jews, he said, “were misplaced.”
The simple explanation is that this is pure political cynicism, like that of GOP members of Congress who dismiss Trump’s Russian connection because he’s ready to scrap Obamacare and appoint antiabortion judges. For Netanyahu, the payoff is that Trump has dropped U.S. insistence on a two-state agreement.
I’ve also heard it suggested that Netanyahu has been cynically exploiting the Holocaust all along, and therefore easily ignored Trump’s statement. I don’t believe this. For almost any Jew today, memory of the genocide is basic to Jewish identity. More than that, the prime minister is the son of historian Benzion Netanyahu, who regarded the entire Jewish past as a “history of holocausts.” The issue, though, is how the prime minister understands — or misconceives — the Holocaust.
For Netanyahu, the Holocaust is both the prequel and the very possible sequel to the state of Israel. As prequel, it does more than prove the need for a Jewish state. Like others on the Zionist right — particularly in his father’s generation — he sees the Holocaust as evidence of the perfidy of Britain, which didn’t allow the creation of a Jewish state on both sides of the Jordan as refuge for Europe’s Jews. It also testifies to the naivete of Jewish intellectuals who didn’t accept the right-wing Zionist view in the 1930s and of Jews who don’t accept it now.
At the same time, Netanyahu looks at threats to Israel as potential new holocausts. Hence his description of Iran. Perhaps the most telling example of his inability to distinguish between Israel’s opponents and the Nazis was his false assertion in 2015 that it was a Palestinian leader, Haj Amin al-Husseini, who gave Hitler the idea for the Final Solution.
It appears that Netanyahu believes in a corollary: If you support Israel, especially the right’s vision for Israel, you couldn’t possibly be an anti-Semite or Holocaust denier. There’s simply no moonlight between the Holocaust and Israel.
At the risk of generalization, my estimation is that most American Jews view the genocide quite differently. For many, its lesson is that the world’s acceptance of Jews is fragile. This may have seemed less relevant in America — until Trump’s rise unleashed a wave of anti-Semitic incidents including bomb threats against Jewish community centers. For most U.S. Jews, the Nazis’ very particular targeting of Jews also has a universalist lesson: They must support refuge for the persecuted, oppose authoritarian leaders and oppose them even more if they pick out an ethnic or religious group to hate. Hence the intense, widespread Jewish opposition to Trump’s attempted ban on Muslim immigration and Syrian refugees.
Netanyahu is oblivious to this. In fact, the American-educated, American-accented prime minister of Israel is profoundly out of touch with the majority of American Jews. For U.S. political support, he has always depended on a right-wing minority of American Jewry, on conservative Christian evangelicals and on the Republican Party.
This is one flaw (and not the only one) in Netanyahu’s claim to speak for all Jews.
Americans, however, might easily believe that he speaks for all Israelis. This is also a mistake, and one that magnifies the damage done by Netanyahu to Israeli-U.S. ties.
Please remember: America’s strange electoral system has made Trump chief executive. That hardly means that he speaks for all Americans. Israel’s system has made Netanyahu its chief executive. The last thing this means is that he speaks for all Israelis.