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Why Netanyahu is such a polarizing figure for American Jews

By Jeffrey Salkin
On March 16, 2015

Prime minister Netanyahu does not apologize
for what he believes to be in the best interest of Israel.
World Economic Forum/Creative Commons

(RNS) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told us why Elie Wiesel was sitting in the congressional chamber when Netanyahu gave his speech last week. 

“Your life and work inspire us to give meaning to the words ‘never again.’”

But who was sitting next to Wiesel? None other than Professor Alan Dershowitz –  the Harvard law professor and activist.

Those two people represent Netanyahu’s worldview.

On the one hand, there’s Holocaust survivor Wiesel – the great moral symbol of Jewish suffering and victimhood. On the other, there’s Dershowitz – the symbol of Jewish defiance and defense – a man whose memoir is titled (appropriately) “Chutzpah.”

I am going to leave it to others to analyze the political implications of Netanyahu’s speech.

No doubt about it: Netanyahu is a polarizing figure. Over the last 24 hours, I have heard formerly reasonable people refer to him with vulgarities so vile that they’d offend a gangsta’-rap performer.

Maybe it’s because he stirs up something very deep within the Jewish soul. For centuries, the bullies of the world stole the Jews’ lunch money. Bibi is the guy who walks you home from school. For many Jews, that is precisely the source of his appeal.

But for other Jews (and some gentiles), this is a problem. Netanyahu single-handedly shreds all of the old Jewish scripts. He is not a cringing figure out of a Hasidic tale. He is not Tevye the Milkman from “Fiddler on the Roof.” He is not Woody Allen. He does not apologize for himself, his people, his state or for what he believes to be in their best interests.

He is a Jew straight out of “Inglourious Basterds,” Quentin Tarantino’s fantasy counterhistory of World War II, in which a fighting corps of American Jews laid waste to the Third Reich.

In that film, Winston Churchill says: “Don’t mess with the Jews.” Bibi is that Jew you don’t mess with.

Here is how Netanyahu put it: “The days when the Jewish people remains passive in the face of genocidal enemies – those days are over. We are no longer scattered among the nations, powerless to defend ourselves. We have restored our sovereignty in our ancient home. For the first time in a hundred generations, we, the Jewish people, can defend ourselves.”

I prefer the notion that Israel is the laboratory for Jewish values and ideas. Zionism also means that Jews – and only Jews – can define their reality. And that is what Benjamin Netanyahu does.

Many American Jews are imbued with Jewish spirituality (I am one of them). Netanyahu reminds us that Jewish spirituality is not always about singing the Hebrew equivalent of “Kumbaya.”

When anti-Semitic terror struck Paris, he reminded French Jews of the core meaning of political Zionism and urged them to immigrate. Yes, Netanyahu sometimes comes off as arrogant, overbearing, obnoxious and other harsh adjectives. He’s no Gandhi.

But Netanyahu pushes American Jewry’s most sensitive historical button.

It’s about dual loyalty.

Pharaoh was the first to raise it: “In the event of war they may join with our enemies … and rise up from the land.” (Exodus1:10) Haman, the archvillain of the Purim holiday, said: “There is a certain people … whose laws are different from those of any other people.” (Esther 3:8).

In the early 1800s, Napoleon raised it with French Jewish leaders: “Do the Jews born in France, and treated by the law as French citizens, acknowledge France as their country?”

David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first premier, affirmed that American Jews have only one political loyalty – to the United States. He made it clear: The State of Israel speaks only on behalf of its own citizens and does not presume to speak for Jews who are citizens of any other country.

But the American Jewish heart is a dual-chamber heart – divided between United States foreign policy and the deepest fears of the Jewish people.

That’s why Netanyahu makes us crazy. He reminds us of the struggles that go along with being a Jew in the modern world – torn in several different directions, forced to struggle with deep issues of identity.

Which, by the way, is what Israel means – Yisrael – a people that struggles.

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