Gershom Gorenberg is an Israeli historian and journalist.
Here’s a story that didn’t make it into the Israeli news media, but should have: The day that the Knesset passed the controversial “nation-state law,” the president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, issued a statement saying that the law “repudiates the democratic, egalitarian and pluralist values on which the state of Israel was founded.”
Weingarten added that it “embodies a bigotry and authoritarianism that I fear was energized and emboldened by the current U.S. president.”
This shouldn’t merely have been a news item in Israel. It should have been an item on the agenda of an Israeli cabinet meeting.
True, the AFT isn’t an obvious player in Israeli politics. And Weingarten’s criticism merely echoed that of opposition politicians in Jerusalem. Yet bundled up in her brief statement are a whole set of developments that could reshape relations between Israel and the United States.
To start: the nation-state law is awful. It is a mix of the unnecessary and the atrocious. It declares that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people, which has been true for 70 years without need of bombastic legislation from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition to confirm it.
For a state to be a democracy, though, it must constantly work to protect the rights of minorities. The law does the opposite. It demotes Arabic from its erstwhile status as an official language equal to Hebrew. It contains a provision that encourages planning authorities to build communities intended for the Jewish majority, and that may permit banning Arabs from them. The law loudly tells Israel’s Arab citizens that their citizenship is lesser and unequal.
The law is also a prominent piece of Netanyahu’s wider agenda of illiberal democracy. Legislation passed in the same hectic parliamentary week, for instance, is intended to keep high schools from inviting lecturers from human rights group to speak to students. Principals want open-minded civics education; the government wants to close doors.
The illiberal agenda isn’t new. But Netanyahu is less inhibited in implementing it since Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. Netanyahu no longer needs to worry about displeasing the leader of Israel’s essential strategic ally. The opposite is true: The more the prime minister acts like a strongman, the more likely he is to increase Trump’s affection.
The relationship has paid off for both sides. Netanyahu fawns, and ignores Trump’s sympathy for neo-Nazis. Trump fulfills Netanyahu’s wish list by moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal.
In the process, Netanyahu links his brand, and Israel’s, to Trump’s in American politics. This has consequences.
Even before Trump, reticence about criticizing Israel was weakening among Democratic politicians and liberal American Jews. By tying himself to Trump, Netanyahu is accelerating the trend.
Weingarten’s statement is emblematic. She is the leader of a labor union with 1.7 million members strongly supportive of the Democratic Party. She’s also a proudly identifying Jew.
In Congress, dissatisfaction among Democrats with Israeli actions in Gaza and the West Bank is becoming more visible. In May, 13 senators signed a letter pressing the administration to act to “alleviate the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip.” Another letter, from 76 members of Congress, was addressed directly to Netanyahu, pressing him to cease the demolition of Palestinian villages in the West Bank.
This is a positive change. For Israelis trying to change the country’s direction, it has long been dispiriting to watch Democratic politicians drop their critical thinking at the door in AIPAC conventions.
If more Democrats draw a line between support for Israel and support for Netanyahu’s destructive policies, I’d count that as one of the rays of light in these dark times.
The key for Democrats is to develop the nuance that so often seems to be lacking in the mainstream American discussion of Israel. Don’t replace the simplistic Israel-is-always-right narrative with an equally shallow story line that says Israel is always wrong. (For an example of how a progressive party should not deal with Israel, google “Jeremy Corbyn.”)
Over-the-top condemnations from abroad set off Israelis’ raw feeling of being besieged and shove public opinion rightward. Criticism from Washington can be effective when aimed at specific policies that are already controversial in Israel. Razing Palestinian villages to make way for settlement is such a policy; passing the nation-state law is another.
With a few exceptions, the Israeli media has paid scant attention to Democratic dissatisfaction. Immediate crises on the borders take up too much bandwidth. Coverage of the United States focuses on the spectacle of Trump himself.
As for Netanyahu, he appears oblivious. Perhaps Israeli diplomats have cautioned him that his actions could affect the attitude of a changed Congress after November, or of a Democratic administration after Trump. If so, there’s no sign he’s listening.