Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is giving chutzpah a bad name.
Over the past several weeks, Netanyahu has aligned himself and his cause with the Republican Party, which an overwhelming majority of American Jews reject, and many actively despise; he has told European Jews to pull up stakes and come to Israel; and, according to a report just released by Israel’s comptroller, he has spent large amounts of Israelis’ tax dollars (well, actually, shekels) on cleaning his private home (to the tune of $2,000 a month) and his wife’s makeup and hairstyling ($68,000 over a two-year period).
Like every world leader and, for that matter, nearly everybody else, Netanyahu is fully aware that the fault lines in U.S. politics between Republicans and Democrats have widened to a chasm. Unlike every other world leader, the bumptious Bibi has decided to take a side in America’s internal conflict by addressing a joint meeting of the Republican-controlled Congress (responding to an invitation from House Speaker John Boehner) without even informing President Obama that he was Washington-bound. One of Netanyahu’s goals is to undercut the administration’s efforts to negotiate a pact with Iran that will impede that nation’s nuclear program. His other goal is clearly to stick it to Obama and thus appear to the Israeli electorate — which will go to the polls on March 17 — as one tough dude. If Netanyahu’s talk, the idea for which was at least partly cooked up by Ron Dermer, a former GOP operative who moved to Israel and is now its ambassador to the United States, also has the effect of boosting the Republican Party at the expense of Obama and the Democrats, so much the better. During the 2012 election, Netanyahu did everything he could to make apparent that he preferred Mitt Romney to Obama, with no perceptible effect on the outcome or even on the voting preferences of American Jews, who backed Obama, 69 percent to 30 percent.
Of all the reasons that American Jews remain firmly Democratic, and liberal as well, the most fundamental is their commitment, both particular and universal, to minority rights. For Jews in a majority-Christian country, the enshrinement of minority rights and its institutional guarantees — nondiscrimination in hiring and voting, say, or a judiciary independent of the elected branches of government — has always been paramount. It’s why American Jews have embraced not only the battles for their own liberties but those of every other minority group.
Consider, for instance, the way most American Jews look at the two parties’ stances in recent decades on immigration and immigrants’ rights. As far back as 1994, when California voters approved a ballot measure, Proposition 187, that would have denied virtually all public services — including the right to attend K-12 schools — to undocumented immigrants, the state’s most heavily Jewish neighborhoods, including West Los Angeles, voted overwhelmingly against it. (The measure was subsequently struck down by the courts.) Today, with Republicans bent on denying legal status to undocumented immigrants who’ve been here for decades, or who were brought here as children, or who came here fleeing horrific violence in their Central American homelands, many Jews respond not just with sympathy but with empathy: Their grandparents or great-grandparents once came here, too, and many of them were fleeing the kind of violence that propelled more recent immigrants to cross the Rio Grande. Some of their grandparents also tried to come here after Hitler’s rise to power, but our restrictive post-1924 immigration laws blocked their escape.
Some American Jews, to be sure, support the Republicans, but for most, to back a party so hostile to minority and immigrant rights is all but unnatural. It’s not in their DNA. This egalitarianism also informs many American Jews’, and American Zionists’, support for a two-state solution establishing a Palestinian state that abuts Israel.
When American Jews — or anyone with eyes to see — look at Netanyahu and the Israeli right, they don’t see a leader or movement with any such interest in a two-state solution or the minority rights that have been so fundamental to Jews in the diaspora. Many Israelis, in contrast to Bibi, have maintained that more egalitarian perspective despite living in a state where they constitute the majority. Many have not; the upcoming Israeli elections will at least partly measure the strengths of these two camps.
For now, Israel’s prime minister is aligning himself with one of America’s two camps. It’s not the camp that commands — or even can command — the support of most American Jews. That will pose a problem for Israel.