TEL AVIV, Israel – In recent years the symbiosis between Israel and America has grown more pronounced. In the country sometimes referred to as the “51st State,” Israelis are weaned on American pop culture, educated to think of the U.S. as their strongest (and sometimes sole) ally in the world, and follow U.S. politics closely.
The local media has covered the Donald Trump experience in minute detail, often pushing legitimate domestic news farther down the agenda. More insidious still is the way U.S. and Israeli politics have begun to mirror each other. Both Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak of vast conspiracies to unseat them. The left, the judicial authorities, the media – all are incipient enemies. Any negative responses, from serious corruption allegations to basic objective facts, are dismissed as “fake news.” Social cohesion has frayed, internal divisions have widened.
Yet for all that, prior to the events in Charlottesville this past weekend, no one could quite imagine how deep the resemblance would run. The sight of Nazi flags on the streets of a U.S. city, and an armed rabble chanting “Jews will not replace us,” should have triggered a kind of reverse “Godwin Law,” with all equivocations and debate coming to a halt. Yet it took the leader of the Jewish State three long days to find the words to condemn the disgrace.
“Outraged by expressions of anti-Semitism, neo-Nazism and racism. Everyone should oppose this hatred,” Netanyahu finally tweeted on Tuesday. For the self-ascribed “prime minister of all Jews” the delay was conspicuous, as was the lack of any additional concrete references. Indeed, as The Washington Post pointed out, the tweet was issued by the official Prime Minister of Israel Twitter account, and not Netanyahu’s vastly more popular personal handle.
Pundits speculated that Netanyahu was waiting on his close ally Trump to issue his own condemnation first (something that came on Monday and by the next day was shamefully undone). Yet such base political calculations didn’t stop other Israeli leaders from speaking out quickly and forcefully. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, a champion of the settlers and no stranger to cynical political games, was actually the first.
“The unhindered waving of Nazi flags and symbols in the U.S. is not only offensive towards the Jewish community and other minorities, it also disrespects the millions of American soldiers who sacrificed their lives in order to protect the US and entire world from the Nazis,” he said over the weekend in a statement. “The leaders of the US must condemn and denounce the displays of anti-Semitism seen over the past few days.” Clear. Expansive. Unequivocal. All the things that Netanyahu’s solitary tweet was not.
There were some who wondered whether Netanyahu simply didn’t want to inject himself into the domestic politics of a foreign state (a charge many Israelis level at meddlesome outsiders and their constant harping over things like “peace” and “Palestinians”). Yet Netanyahu has never shied from opining about matters across the seas.
He is the same Israeli prime minister who, in 2015, chose to inject himself into a highly partisan American debate over the Iran nuclear deal, accepting an invitation from the Republican speaker to address a Joint Session of Congress. Just this past December, Netanyahu tweeted his thanks to Donald Trump after the then-president elect blasted the Obama Administration for its “total disdain and disrespect” towards Israel. Never mind that Obama was still the president. Never mind, too, that it took Netanyahu less than an hour to issue that tweet – proving that where there’s a will, there’s a way to issue a clear statement quickly on a vital issue.
Almost as striking was the complete disregard for the death of Heather Heyer in a domestic terror attack reminiscent of many that have taken place in Israel. The car-ramming method originated in Jerusalem and in recent years has spread to Nice, Berlin, London and beyond. In the aftermath of most such attacks Netanyahu and other Israeli politicians never fail to remind/lecture the world, with reason, that they are all fighting a common terrorist scourge.
“This attack joins [other] reprehensible attacks,” Netanyahu said last December after the Berlin attack. “Terror is spreading everywhere and can be stopped only if we fight it, and we will defeat it, but we will defeat it much quicker if all free nations under attack unite.” Once again, a clear and unequivocal statement.
The difference in religion and skin tone between the perpetrators of Berlin and Charlottesville are obvious. But for real insight into Netanyahu’s mind, one need look no further than his 26-year old son, Yair. On Wednesday, Yair, by all reports now a close advisor to his father, took to Facebook to issue his own clear and unequivocal statement – in English no less, and for the entire world to see.
“To put things in perspective. I'm a Jew, I'm an Israeli, the neo nazis scums in Virginia hate me and my country. But they belong to the past. Their breed is dying out,” he wrote. “However the thugs of Antifa and BLM who hate my country (and America too in my view) just as much are getting stronger and stronger and becoming super dominant in American universities and public life.”
The rabbi of Charlottesville’s Congregation Beth Israel would beg to differ with the younger Netanyahu’s warped moral equivalence. Last Sabbath morning, with congregants praying inside the synagogue, fatigue-clad men toting assault rifles stood outside, while “parades of Nazis passed... shouting, ‘There’s the synagogue!’ followed by chants of ‘Sieg Heil!’” the rabbi recounted. In the year 2017, in America, Jewish worshippers were advised to leave their own synagogue through the back door, and to please go in groups.
The sheer depths of Benjamin Netanyahu’s cynicism in silence were put into stark relief by the letter Israeli President Reuven Rivlin wrote yesterday to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Expressing his support and solidarity on behalf of all Israelis, Rivlin stated that, “In the face of such evil, we stand now as we did [in the past]. With faith. With faith in humanity, with faith in democracy, and with faith in justice. I know that the great nation of the United States of America and its leaders will know how to face this difficult challenge, and prove to the world the robustness and strength of democracy and freedom.”
Whether that robustness and strength of democracy and freedom is still alive in America today remains to be seen. The events of the last few days were a new nadir in Trump’s stewardship of the experiment.
Netanyahu’s shameful delay and minimalism surrounding the events at Charlottesville may not be the lowest moment of his premiership, but it will likely prove fatal to the Israeli prime minister’s claim for moral leadership in the Jewish world. If condemning Nazis is beholden to politics, then nothing is sacred.