The fact that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doesn’t command enough Knesset seats to form the right-wing government he wants has been seen by many as the beginning of the end of a decade of Israel moving away from its liberal values and the liberal policies that shaped it. One of the many consequences of the Netanyahu decade has been a marked deterioration in the relationship between the Jewish state and the Jewish Diaspora.
During the time when Netanyahu has been at the helm, he has made many alliances with right-wing regimes. Writing last month in the Washington Post, Robert Kagan, a historian and political commentator, listed some of them. They include close relations with the current illiberal governments of Hungary and Poland, embracing the right-wing presidents of Brazil and the Philippines, and seeking friendship with the dictatorial regimes of Russia, China, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Supporters have defended these moves as successful diplomatic efforts to bring security and prosperity to Israel. But many Israelis – and most Jews in the Diaspora, especially in the United States – are deeply concerned. U.S. President Donald Trump may have figured prominently on Netanyahu’s election posters, but most American Jews are Democrats and view the ostensibly close relations between the two as compromising Jewish values.
Concerns have also been expressed about Netanyahu’s declared intention to annex part of the West Bank and his repeated verbal attacks on the Arab citizens of Israel. Though both the promise of annexation and the seeming disdain for non-Jewish Israelis were spoken in the heat of the election campaign, there’s reason to believe that they reflect the convictions of Netanyahu and his coalition partners.
In addition to these fears, Reform and Conservative Jews in the United States are distressed by Netanyahu’s failure to implement an agreement that would have afforded them equality at the Western Wall.
The next government of Israel will have to decide what’s more important for the Jewish state: better relations with fickle anti-Semitic regimes around the world, or the solid support of the Jews in the Diaspora. Though, by all accounts, Netanyahu’s relationship with countries that were previously distant from, or hostile to, Israel has greatly benefited the Jewish state, the price may prove to be too high.
Kagan reflects that, “Israelis might have forgotten that their own survival and success are not due only to their own heroic efforts.” He concludes his long article by reminding the leaders of the State of Israel that, despite the tensions with, and criticisms from, liberal states, Israel’s real place is nevertheless among them – and only them.
Kagan’s contention has been challenged. For example, Mitchell Bard, the executive director of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, accuses Kagan of ignoring the fact that Israel is still the only country in the Middle East that’s committed to the liberal values held by the United States. He implies that it behooves American Jewry to celebrate Israel, irrespective of who is at its helm, not to distance itself from it.
But the distancing is real. Unless strenuous efforts are made forthwith to bridge the gap, not only may Israel lose world Jewry as its most important ally, but it will also contribute to the rupture of Jewish life in the parts of the Diaspora that remain committed to liberal Jewish values. The next government of Israel must take this into account.
At the time of writing, the shape and direction of that government are by no means clear. Netanyahu’s stated intention to continue as before has been challenged, but his opponents don’t seem to be able to muster a majority in the Knesset. Though only Israelis can and should shape the policy of their country, their decisions will have serious implications for Jews all over the world. Diaspora Jews may not have a vote in Israeli elections, but those elected must make sure that the voice of the Diaspora is heard.