Benjamin Netanyahu’s main opponents have tried to use an unusual weapon against the longtime prime minister ahead of a defining Israeli election set for Tuesday: They’ve argued that he has damaged the relationship between Israel and diaspora Jews.
For some American Jews, the strong alliance between Netanyahu and Donald Trump of the past few years has added stress to their relationship with Israel, which has become especially fraught in the years since the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in the early 2000s. While some Jews in the U.S. appreciate Trump’s positions on Israel, many detest the American president’s domestic politics and believe that he has enabled anti-Semitism and xenophobia. And while segments of the self-identified pro-Israel community in the U.S. resolutely support anything that the Israeli prime minister does, some have been wary of Netanyahu’s alliance with right-wing forces, and disappointed by what they see as his failure to facilitate religious pluralism. Tuesday’s major election in Israel marks a high point of strain in the relationship between at least some American Jews and Israel, which has changed radically in the past generation.
To understand the American Jewish relationship with Israel, it’s helpful to divide American Jews into three rough categories. On the right lies the self-described pro-Israel crowd, many of whom are Republicans, and many of whom are deeply religious. For the most part, this group would cheer another round of Netanyahu. Among modern-Orthodox Jews, for example, “the relationship is incredibly strong—it’s as strong as ever,” Nathan Diament, the executive director of the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, told me. Part of this connection is sociological; these Jews often travel to Israel, have family there, and send their children there to study. Some in this group don’t believe it’s their place to criticize Israeli policy. “We should be deferential to the decisions that the democratically elected leaders in Israel make about Israel’s security,” Diament said. “They’re the ones whose lives are on the line, and they’re the ones whose kids are serving in the [Israel Defense Forces].”
Then there’s the left: Jewish activists and organizations somewhere on the spectrum between critical and skeptical of Israel, who have pushed back on Israel’s policies toward Palestinians and abhor the close relationship between Netanyahu and Trump. The activists who interrupted Trump’s appearance at the Republican Jewish Coalition event in Las Vegas this weekend are part of this set, with a group called IfNotNow. “The reality of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian people and land is … something that younger Americans and younger American Jews have come of age, politically, into,” Libby Lenkinski, the vice president of public engagement at the New Israel Fund, an organization that advocates for progressive policies in Israel, said in an interview. For Jews who primarily developed their relationship with Israel before or directly after 1967, when the country’s continued existence was still in doubt, unquestioning support for Israel’s government is the default, Lenkinski said. But for Jews decades younger—especially those who have largely come into adulthood under Netanyahu’s right-leaning government—Israel’s contested relationship with the Palestinian population is the “defining aspect of their perception of and relationship to Israel, in a way that is really generational,” she said.
And then there are the American Jews who are somewhere in the middle, those who might self-describe as pro-Israel or occasionally attend the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s (AIPAC) annual conference on Israel, but who might feel uncomfortable with the direction of Israeli policy, especially under Netanyahu. Major conflicts over religious pluralism in recent years have exacerbated their uneasiness. Netanyahu’s government has been unable to secure a deal to create egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, a sacred Jewish site in Jerusalem that is currently under Orthodox control, and Israeli rabbinical authorities have refused to recognize marriages or conversions conducted by even some Orthodox American rabbis.
These are the American Jews “for whom the continuation of a Netanyahu government is squeamish,” Yehuda Kurtzer, the head of the North American division of the Shalom Hartman Institute, which advocates for pluralism in Israel and the U.S., told me. Especially under Netanyahu and Trump, this middle-of-the-road community has been unsure of how to navigate its political discomfort, “because there’s been such a strong hegemony for a long time that … we’re allowed to criticize Israeli policy,” but usually on “religion and state more than … security policy, foreign policy, occupation, etc.,” he said.
The events leading up to the Israeli election have made the divisions among these three groups even more stark. Some in Israel greeted Netanyahu’s promise to annex the West Bank with skepticism, seeing it as a last-ditch bid for right-wing support in Tuesday’s election. But progressive Israeli advocacy groups took it seriously. Annexation “will keep Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza locked into an intolerable reality without basic rights and freedoms,” said Daniel Sokatch, the CEO of the New Israel Fund, in a statement. This “will destroy the dream of millions of Jewish people to achieve self-determination in a Jewish and democratic state, for which Netanyahu will have to accept responsibility.”
Over the weekend, Democratic presidential hopefuls, including Bernie Sanders, Beto O’Rourke, and Pete Buttigieg, condemned Netanyahu’s “extreme right-wing” policies, but the Trump-Netanyahu bond seemed stronger than ever. When Trump declared Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization just one day before the Israeli election, Netanyahu took credit for the American president’s decision in a tweet written in Hebrew. (The English version of the tweet was slightly less triumphant.)
Other Netanyahu moves have prompted even wider backlash. Staunchly pro-Israel groups that rarely criticize Israel, including AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee, called out the prime minister for inviting members of Otzma Yehudit, a marginal, openly anti-Arab, ultranationalist Israeli political party, to join a coalition with Netanyahu’s party, Likud. (The Israeli Supreme Court later banned Otzma’s leader, Michael Ben Ari, from running in the election.)
Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s primary opponent, has tried to use these criticisms against Netanyahu in the election. At AIPAC’s annual policy gathering in Washington in March, he vowed to support religious pluralism and create space for liberal Jews who want a mixed-gender prayer space at the Western Wall. Gantz and his political partner, Yair Lapid, have centered their campaign on criticisms of Netanyahu, accusing him of corruption, divisiveness, and unseemly partnerships with right-wing leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. Netanyahu will likely face charges of fraud, bribery, and more following an investigation by Israel’s attorney general into the prime minister’s dealings with wealthy donors and media moguls, which has given his political opponents plenty of material for attacks.
And yet, none of this might make a difference. The latest polls—which, especially in Israel’s complicated coalition politics, should be interpreted with skepticism—show Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc edging out Gantz and Lapid’s centrist coalition. Even if they were to achieve a win over the prime minister, their policies on security and diplomacy might not end up looking so different from Netanyahu’s. Earlier in the campaign, Gantz promised that Israel will retain its control over the Golan Heights, the contested territory that lies on the border with Syria. Just a few weeks later, Netanyahu claimed victory when the U.S. recognized Israeli sovereignty over the area. And although Gantz has not matched Netanyahu’s pledge to begin annexing the West Bank, he has emphasized that the Israeli military will retain its control over the Palestinian territory. To many Israelis, Netanyahu’s diplomatic and military victories over the past few years, thanks in large part to his tight relationship with Trump, are victories for Israeli security, and should be replicated by whoever holds the seat of power next.
Ultimately, the anxiety that some American Jews feel over Israel may be unreciprocated by a majority of Israeli Jews—and doesn’t have much of a role in Israeli elections. American Jews offer significant financial and political support to Israel, especially in advocating for Congress’s ongoing military aid to the country. And many Israelis, like many American Jews, see the Jewish state as a project shared among Jews in and out of Israel. But Americans also have a tendency to assign themselves an outsize place in Israeli political affairs, and to underestimate the importance of security fears in determining Israeli elections. When Tzipi Hotovely, a minister in Netanyahu’s government, controversially told a reporter last year that most American Jews don’t understand Israel, because they “don’t have children serving as soldiers” and “don’t feel how it feels to be attacked by rockets,” she might have just been stating publicly a view that many Israelis hold in private.
This Israeli election is significant for the future of the Israeli-diaspora relationship, in that it marks a pinnacle in the fracture between Israeli and American Jews. Under another Netanyahu government, discontent on the left and among middle-of-the-road Jews is likely to escalate. But in reality, that may be the case under any Israeli government that ends up forming. “The state of Israel has radically redefined what it means to be a Jew,” Kurtzer said. “The idea that it would have this centrifugal effect, that it’s … spinning us off because it’s so divisive, is deeply disappointing.”