Column: Fearing A Collision Course Between Bibi and American Jews

When Eric Goldstein speaks, Benjamin Netanyahu must listen. Even more so than when others speak, such as U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler, Israeli business executive Eynat Guez, 100,000-plus protesters in Tel Aviv and Israeli expats in New York and Los Angeles.

What Goldstein tells Israel’s prime minister can be readily taken as a veiled threat even if he insists that that is not so. Goldstein is CEO of UJA-Federation of New York, the umbrella Jewish charity organization serving New York City and Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester counties, home to most of New York state’s 1.5 million Jews. Goldstein’s agency is the largest of North America’s Jewish Federations, which contribute funds to the Israeli government’s social service sector.

As New York Jewish Week reports, Goldstein reflects the worries of many American Jews that the newly-formed right-wing Israeli government’s policies will harm Israel and most Jews. That specially covers proposed legislation to override Supreme Court rulings and further politicize the appointment of its justices.

“It eviscerates the role of the judiciary by allowing Supreme Court decisions to be struck down by the barest majority of the Knesset – undermining the very foundations of Israel’s democracy and subjecting all minority groups to the tyranny of the majority,” Goldstein wrote the other week in an email to supporters in New York’s Federation. “I respectfully implore” Netanyahu to follow through on pledges to block such laws, he added.

Since I first became familiar with Federations, I understood that a substantial portion of our contributions are spent on Israeli social programs, as they should be. No doubt that donors to Goldstein’s agency – as well as to other Federations – have threatened to withdraw contributions, and Goldstein probably issued his email more than a week ago to head ‘em off at the pass, before the Federations are saturated with complaints about Israel.

Though many Jews at times dispute Israeli policies, I wondered how the Jewish community here would respond if the Israeli government went too far. When I briefly worked for Philadelphia’s Federation long ago, I was exposed to concerns that local Jews might cease making contributions because of Israel’s military actions in Lebanon. Very likely, we will not need to find out, but the prospect now hovers above us more than ever, which Goldstein addresses in the email.

“(T)here’s an instinct among some in our community to turn their back on Israel in moments of serious disagreement,” he writes. “But cutting ties or support for Israel is precisely the wrong response. To the contrary, this is the moment to engage even more, using all the means at our disposal to help sustain a Jewish and democratic Israel.”

This is how dangerous it gets since Netanyahu, who is nicknamed Bibi, welcomed right-wingers Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich and their respective parties to his coalition and appointed them to ministerial jobs with collective power over police, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem and Jewish communities in the West Bank. Their inclusion translates into plans to weaken the judiciary; annex the West Bank; discriminate against homosexuals; and reduce religious freedoms for anyone who does not worship in the Orthodox stream.

American Jews have played a pivotal role in Israel’s existence even before it became a sovereign nation. A Jewish businessman named Eddie Jacobson persuaded his close friend and fellow Kansan Harry Truman to consider support for Israel’s creation, which our 33rd president did. American Jews have stood behind Israel with contributions through Federations and other organizations, and lobbying of Congress and future presidents.

Netanyahu should know better that American Jews will not stand for these new hard-right policies. He spent many of his formative years in America. He attended Cheltenham High School a few miles from where I grew up in Philadelphia; he lived in Boston when his brother, Yonatan, was killed during the raid on Entebbe in 1976; and he served in diplomatic posts in Washington and New York City.

He was likely not surprised when Goldstein and other American Jews warned him that his coalitions’s policies jeopardize relations between Israel and America.

“I now fear deeply for the U.S.-Israel relationship,” Rep. Jerry Nadler writes in Haaretz, an Israeli daily, according to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “These proposals dismantle the vital separation of powers and protections of civil rights and liberties, which Israel’s judiciary has courageously defended, from LGBTQ protections to women’s rights.”

Sen. Jacky Rosen of Nevada, apprehensive about the annexation plan, urged the coalition government to maintain the “status quo.” Brad Sherman, congressman to such stars as Barbra Streisand and Steven Spielberg, told a Haaretz reporter, “They need the United States. They need us in international forums, they need us for so many reasons. Those who risk U.S. support should know what they’re doing.”

All three are Jewish Democrats who have long been staunch supporters of Israel. Nadler and Sherman represent two of the most heavily Jewish congressional districts in the country, respectively parts of Manhattan and Brooklyn, and Malibu and much of the San Fernando Valley around Los Angeles. Rosen, who grew up in Chicago, served three years as president of Congregation Ner Tamid, reported to be the largest synagogue in the Las Vegas area.

Do their thoughts need any elaboration? Surely their words speak for themselves.

If none of this makes a dent, Netanyahu should hear out Eynat Guez, who announced last week that she will move her company’s money out of Israel. As a leader within Israel’s tech sector, Guez is a co-founder and CEO of Papaya Global, an international payroll company which was valued at $3.7 billion in 2021, according to JTA.

“Following…Netanyahu’s statements that he is determined to pass reforms that will harm democracy and the economy, we made a business decision…to withdraw all of the company’s funds from Israel,” she said. “In the emerging reform, there is no certainty that we can conduct international economic activity from Israel.”

Netanyahu should also pay attention to the protests staged by more than 100,000 of his citizens in Tel Aviv on recent Saturday nights and related demonstrations that Israeli expats have held in American cities.

The prime minister faces a very taut conflict. All these forces are squeezing Netanyahu. He already capitulated a week ago when the Supreme Court ordered him to fire a minister. He obeyed the order after a few days of hesitation. What will his coalition partners do if he fails to do what they expect?

Ben-Gvir and Smotrich could drop out of the coalition, leaving Netanyahu without a clear majority. That in turn might trigger a sixth election in four or five years. The electorate has been so split that past coalitions broke up, forcing five parliamentary elections. Netanyahu survived the first three elections, and the fourth election produced a more liberal coalition, forcing Netanyahu from his longtime post as prime minister. When that coalition collapsed, Netanyahu returned to power with the next election. Because Netanyahu faces a corruption trial, moderates refuse to share power with him as prime minister.

The pressure from local Federations, Jewish members of Congress and Israeli businesses alone spells trouble for Netanyahu in the near future. Our worry now is less Netanyahu’s political fate but the fate of Israel and the people who love it.

About Bruce Ticker

Bruce S. Ticker, who writes from Philadelphia, also blogs for The San Diego Jewish World and Smirking Chimp and previously for the suspended Philadelphia Jewish Voice. He was previously a reporter and copy editor for daily newspapers in eastern Pennsylvania.

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One comment

  1. If Diaspora America Jews wish to have a say in Israel's day-to-day affairs then they are free to make aliyah.