Netanyahu likes to speak for Jews — but he doesn’t stand up for them

Bibi is sacrificing the Jewish community to serve his own interests

September 28, 2023 12:14

Since the very beginning, some 75 years ago, an unspoken bargain has existed between the state of Israel and the Jews of the diaspora. Communities in New York, Buenos Aires or London would stand with Israel against its enemies, and Israel would do the same for them. At least that was the mutually understood pact between leaders on both sides. Now, however, that pact has been destroyed, torn up by Benjamin Netanyahu — even if diaspora leaders are yet to absorb that it’s happened.

Fresh evidence came from Netanyahu’s trip last week to the US. Denied a White House meeting with the most powerful man in the world, Joe Biden, the Israeli prime minister travelled instead to San Francisco for a summit with the richest: Elon Musk.

Netanyahu’s motive was clear enough. As Anshel Pfeffer explained on these pages, the prime minister is keen to project Israel as a world centre for artificial intelligence and Musk is a leader in that field. What’s more, a Silicon Valley photo-op neatly counters the narrative of Netanyahu at odds with Israel’s tech folk, many of whom have joined the protests against his government and its plan to gut the judiciary.

As for why Musk wanted to meet Bibi, that was even less mysterious. In recent weeks, Musk has been in a battle with the Anti-Defamation League, the organisation that leads the American Jewish fight against antisemitism. On X, the beleaguered social media platform formerly known as Twitter, that he owns, Musk said that the ADL “seems to be responsible for most of our revenue loss”. He accused the body of “secret censorship” and of “trying to kill this platform.”

Musk’s beef with the ADL is that it’s drawn attention to the uncomfortable fact that X is a sewer of hate speech, including antisemitism of the most florid variety — and that it has got worse since Musk has been in charge. According to one study, the volume of English-language antisemitic tweets has more than doubled since October 2022, when Musk took over. The ADL has not remained silent about that, including to companies who advertise on the platform.

That’s enraged Musk, who earlier this month asked his 155m followers whether he should “run a poll” to ban the ADL from X altogether. Immediately, the hashtag #BantheADL became the number one trending topic on the platform — its reach magnified yet further when Musk “liked” a tweet by a white nationalist who proudly describes himself as a “raging anti-semite”. In a direct reply to this man, Musk said that the ADL had “tried very hard to strangle X/Twitter.”

Of course, accusing a Jewish group of singlehandedly plotting to tank X/Twitter’s value — a task in which Musk, thanks to his own comically bad handling of the site, needed no help — draws itself on antisemitic myths of shadowy Jewish power. The many racists and white supremacists who responded to the #BantheADL hashtag as if it were a call to arms certainly understood the connection. Instantly they were posting the full familiar range of Jew-hating calumnies, casting the ADL as part of a Jewish conspiracy aimed at global domination.

Given how often Netanyahu likes to speak on behalf of the Jewish people, you might imagine he would have stood instantly and vocally at the ADL’s side — that he would see the threat to US Jews, the largest Jewish community outside Israel, posed by a figure of Musk’s power and reach flirting with such hoary and poisonous ideas about Jews. But no. Netanyahu decided his place was standing with his wife Sara alongside Musk in front of a new Tesla prototype, giving the Twitter king a defensive shield against accusations of amplifying antisemitism.

You can only be surprised by that decision if you’ve not been paying attention. Time and again, when Netanyahu has to choose between Jewish communities and those who have hurt them, Netanyahu does not hesitate to side with the latter — so long as they serve his own interests.

Take his recent, widely reported attempt to remove Dani Dayan as the chair of Yad Vashem. To be clear, Dayan is no leftist. On the contrary, he is a trenchant voice of the Israeli right, an opponent of a two-state solution and a former chair of the Yesha council which represents Jewish settlers on the West Bank. He is a settler himself. But there are some lines he is not prepared to cross.

As chair, Dayan has sided with the scholars of Yad Vashem in their opposition to the Netanyahu government’s tendency to cosy up to far-right European parties — in Romania, Sweden, Finland and Germany — even when those parties have bleak records on antisemitism and Holocaust denial. The trade-off for Netanyahu is quite simple. He’ll shake hands with these parties, so long as they issue a lip-service statement opposing antisemitism — even one that does not fully reckon with the truth of the Holocaust — thereby handing them the prize of Israeli-sanctioned public legitimacy. In return, as Ha’aretz reported, “these parties support Israeli settlements in the West Bank.”

Yad Vashem has stood in the way of the policy, insisting on defending the historical facts of the Shoah and the memory of those who were murdered, as its mission demands. Dayan backed the institution — one that is cherished by diaspora Jews — and for that Netanyahu wanted him out.

Again, none of this is new to those who have been watching Netanyahu in power. It’s not that long ago that he received Viktor Orban in Jerusalem, waving aside the objections of the Hungarian Jewish community pained by Orban’s praise for Miklos Horthy, the country’s wartime leader and Nazi ally who looked on as some 437,000 Jews were deported to their deaths, and by Orban’s targeting of George Soros, which rang all the old antisemitic bells.
In each instance, the story is the same. When a diaspora Jewish community finds itself under attack, it turns to Netanyahu — only to see the prime minister of Israel and self-styled leader of the Jewish people palling around with the very people hurling the stones.

It happens too often to write off as a coincidence. Instead, it requires an adjustment. Jewish communities may insist that they will always be there for Israel, but they need to face facts — in the Netanyahu era, Israel’s leader will not always be there for them.

Jonathan Freedland is a columnist for the Guardian

September 28, 2023 12:14

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