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.”
In the drama of Charlottesville, Benjamin Netanyahu had only a small supporting role, on the near-eastern side of the stage. The way he played that role, however, was breathtaking in its audacity: For three days, the prime minister of Israel said nothing about people marching with Nazi flags in an American city, or about a terrorist attack with a car allegedly by an admirer of Hitler. As of this writing, he has not uttered a word about President Trump’s infamous “both sides” news conference.
We Israelis are used to Netanyahu responding immediately to terrorism, perceived anti-Semitism or threats that remind him of the Holocaust. This time, the anti-Semitism was blatant, with demonstrators in Charlottesville chanting “Jews will not replace us” and carrying Nazi flags. Understanding the connection of those flags to genocide required no more than a third-grade Israeli education. Understanding the nature of the murder was also easy: Israelis are familiar with terrorism by speeding auto.
Yet it took Netanyahu three long days before he managed to tweet, “Outraged by expressions of anti-Semitism, neo-Nazism and racism. Everyone should oppose this hatred.” Even the brevity that comes with using Twitter was un-Netanyahulike. He usually prefers Facebook, which has room for lucidity that, one must recognize, is beyond the reach of America’s tweeter in chief.
Netanyahu’s obliviousness to the odor of anti-Semitism around Trump isn’t new. In February, Netanyahu traveled to Washington to meet the new president. At a news conference, Netanyahu was asked about Trump’s statement on international Holocaust Remembrance Day. That statement made no mention of Jews, erasing the Holocaust’s victims and the anti-Semitic ideology behind the mass murder. Netanyahu’s answer: “This man is a great friend of the Jewish people and the State of Israel.”
At the time, it seemed to me that Netanyahu’s attitude followed a certain distorted logic: The Holocaust and Israel were inseparable, like shadow and light in the same picture. Threats to Israel were threats of a new Holocaust. Criticism of Israel, or of Netanyahu’s hawkish policies as Israel’s leader, were anti-Semitism. On the other hand, if you supported those policies, you were ipso-facto a friend of the Jews. Netanyahu’s inability to separate the issues was mistaken, but I was willing to believe it was sincere. His near-silence after Charlottesville convinces me that I was too kind.
Let’s dispense with some possible explanations. For instance, that he thought a foreign leader shouldn’t leap into a domestic American dispute. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s quick denunciation, through a spokesman, of “naked racism, anti-Semitism and hate in their most evil form” in Charlottesville undercut that excuse.
Or perhaps Netanyahu is too involved in American domestic debates, too much the Republican from Israel, to criticize Trump’s assignment of blame to “both sides”? No, he had cover on that front as well, after the condemnations of the president’s “moral equivalency” from the likes of John McCain and Mitt Romney.
If Netanyahu was concerned purely with internal Israeli politics, there’d be even less reason for him to hold back. The Israeli media covered the flags, the violence and Trump’s statements with horrified fascination. Condemnations from opposition politicians of the left and center were predictably harsh.
But one of the first statements came from Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing Jewish Home Party. The “waving of Nazi flags” offended Jews and dishonored “American soldiers who sacrificed their lives” fighting Nazism, Bennett said. He added a pointed demand that “leaders of the U.S.” denounce anti-Semitism. With his mumbling, Netanyahu ceded the high ground to the electoral rival who most concerns him.
So what gives? Netanyahu, it appears, is most concerned about staying on the good side of a U.S. president who is clueless about the Middle East and has made no meaningful effort to restrain Israeli actions in the occupied territories — but who explodes at criticism and bears grudges. Netanyahu also understands that there is an emotional bond, a similarity of angry spirit, between the president and the torch-bearing crowd.
So the prime minister said nothing until Trump chose to recite his condemnation of racists and neo-Nazis on Monday. Then Netanyahu tweeted words calibrated to be no stronger. When Trump backtracked, Netanyahu went silent.
The man who built his rhetoric around the Holocaust is willing to speak softly about anti-Semitism and revived Nazism, and to excuse the president who has inspired the ugliness, for the sake of avoiding interference from Washington.
Here are two conclusions. First, for any U.S. Jews still trying to keep Trump and the chants in Charlottesville apart in your minds: Examine the implications of Netanyahu’s behavior. He deduced that criticizing the anti-Semites would offend the president.
Second, anti-Semitism is very real. We can see that. But the next time Netanyahu starts up about it, treat his talk with as much cynicism as he does.