There is an old Jewish joke about a religious man shipwrecked on a desert island. When his rescuers arrive a couple of years later, they discover he has built three huts during his isolation. One is his home. The other two? “This is the synagogue I go to,” he explained, “and that is the one I don’t go to.”
The joke is supposed to reflect the disputatious nature of Jews — you can’t put two in the same room without expecting an argument, you can’t even put one alone without the same argument. Since a joke makes you laugh, this one is supposed to reflect the lighthearted nature of the disputes — they never cause lasting pain. Jews argue with each other but, in the end, always love each other.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came to Washington last week in a scripted performance based on the mood of the old joke. He barely mentioned the bitter debate over the Iran nuclear agreement that had embroiled Washington and upset many American Jews a couple of months ago. Instead, he declaimed that he had come to discuss the future (especially more military assistance to Israel), not fret about the past. He came forth with all the correct and non-controversial public pronouncements: Israel needed the support of both American political parties, he wanted a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem. Although he did not display his usual truculence, he certainly did not show up as a defeated figure.
It was just what the Prime Minister’s supporters had promised during the debate. They had assured American Jews that the dispute would not only fail to instill lasting enmity between Jews but, in fact, would not even cause lasting enmity between Jews and American officials.
By all accounts, President Barack Obama and Netanyahu look on each other with utter disdain. But there was none of that in public this time. Obama played along with the Israeli script when he welcomed Netanyahu to the White House on Monday, November 9th. The President, alluding to the Iran dispute only once in public, told reporters that “it’s no secret that the Prime Minister and I had a strong disagreement on this narrow issue.” In short, compared to the enormity of the close relations between the two countries, the bitter fight over the Iran nuclear agreement did not even amount now to a hill of beans.
We have the coolest of presidents. Even if he is seething, he knows how to hide his feelings, if it makes political sense to do so. But I am not so cool. I was never an admirer of Netanyahu and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the main Israeli lobby in the United States. But their campaign still shocked and infuriated me, and my anger has not eased since. To use a favorite image of the Israeli leader, red lines were crossed in this debate, and I cannot foresee any repair to my feelings as an Ameican Jew toward Netanyahu and his boosters.
I was upset by three aspects of the Israeli orchestrated campaign. First of all, there was a dispiriting use of historical hyperbole. This, of course, is a favorite rhetorical trick of Netanyahu. He likes to draw exaggerated comparisons out of Jewish history to bolster his arguments.
There are many examples. Angered by the recent European demand that goods produced in the West Bank settlements be labeled as manufactured there rather than in Israel itself, the Prime Minister said, “We have historical memory of what happened when Europe labeled Jewish products.” He was comparing the new labels to the painting of the word “Jude” across windows in Germany in the 1930s before the Nazis obliterated the Jewish shops. Netanyahu also likes to cry out “blood libel” whenever he feels Israelis have been falsely accused of some crime, likening the accusation to the medieval slander that Jews kill a Christian baby every year to make matzoh for Passover.
An inexcusable historical allusion was the keynote of the Israeli campaign against the Iran agreement. In its fund-raising letter to Jews, AIPAC claimed that a delegation of American rabbis, armed “with irrefutable proof that the Nazis were conducting a wholesale annihilation of European Jews,” was turned away by the White House in 1943. Now, because of AIPAC, the letter went on, Jews were not turned away from the White House and the Congress as they presented the case against Iran. AIPAC found a parallel between the threat in 1943 and the threat now. “In a distant place across the globe,” the letter said, “another fanatical regime, this time Iran, is vowing to wipe out the Jews and is methodically pursuing the weapons it needs to do just that.”
This rhetoric demeaned the Holocaust, a horror that Jews regard as sacred, an evil without parallel in world history, when a despicable state decided to wipe out an entire defenseless people in systematic cold cruelty. People had never been slaughtered that way before or since. Jews and Israelis, in fact, protest when outsiders describe the ethnic cleansing of the Balkans or the tribal warfare of Africa as similar to the Holocaust of the Jews. Our Holocaust is unique, they insist.
Yet AIPAC somehow found a parallel between the Nazi Germans and the militant Iranians. I am sure that the leaders of AIPAC know that threats by extremists against an Israel that is fully armed with nuclear weapons is not the equivalent of packing the gas chambers of Auschwitz with naked Jews. But AIPAC’s leaders were willing to whip up emotions with a false historic parallel in their zeal to defeat President Obama.
Netanyahu never contradicted the AIPAC distortions. In fact, he demonstrated a few weeks after the vote how easy it was for him to toy with the history of the Holocaust. He told the World Jewish Congress in October that Hitler planned to expel but not murder the Jews of Europe until the mufti of Jerusalem, a Palestinian religious leader, urged him to “burn them.” Netanyahu’s foray into the past was designed to encourage more contempt for Arabs, but he was forced to abandon his interpretation by the furious outcry of protests from Israeli historians.
Another awful side to the Iran campaign was the way Israel tried to foster and exploit the supposedly competing loyalties of Jewish members of Congress. They were suddenly looked on as Americans with at least a foot in another country. In fact, the Israeli campaign made no sense at all if it did not count on a good deal of support from the Jewish Democrats. That did not matter much in the House. All Republicans voted against the agreement, and the Republicans have a comfortable majority in the House. In the Senate, however, the Republicans hold a majority — 54 seats out of 100 — but, under the complex filibuster rules of that body, a majority of 60 votes is needed to shut off debate and vote on a bill. Since there are nine Jewish Democrats in the Senate and one Jewish Socialist (Bernard Sanders) who votes with the Democrats, Israel and the Israeli lobby obviously expected enough Jewish defections to complete the 60 votes needed to reject the Iran agreement.
Of course, any congressional rejection of the agreement would have been vetoed by Obama. Jewish Democratic votes, by themselves, would not have been enough to help the Republicans overturn a veto, but such a vote would have been close, and a veto, in any case, would have been looked on as an embarrassment of the President. In the end no veto was necessary because only two Jewish senators (Charles Schumer of New York and Benjamin Cardin of Maryland) joined by two other Democrats broke ranks. The bill to reject the Iran agreement died in the Senate.
All this arithmetic put Jewish members of Congress in an awkward position. They knew outsiders were speculating whether they would succumb to dual loyalty and reject their own party. Would they turn their backs on Obama and embrace Netanyahu?
This was made most clear in the attacks on Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, a congressman with a large number of Jewish voters in his district. Nadler supported President Obama and the Iran agreement, a choice that was labeled “Betrayal” in an advertisement that ran in many weekly Orthodox Jewish newspapers and magazines. The ad, sponsored by the unknown “American Parents and Grandparents Against the Iranian Deal,” urged Jews to “call Jerry Nadler and tell him that he BETRAYED our community when he made a deal to vote for the Iran nuclear deal.”
While these ads may have troubled some in the Israel lobby as too extreme, the idea of betrayal — a concept that implies a failure of loyalty — was invoked often. After Congress failed to reject the agreement, Josh Block, president of The Israel Project, a private American organization dedicated to burnishing Israel’s image, had harsh words for those Jewish Democrats who refused to vote against Obama’s agreement. “I think you may see donors withholding or not wanting to write a check for people because they feel betrayed, and there’s going to have to be some accountability here. There’s no question in my mind that people’s votes on the Iran deal are going to be an issue in the next election cycle, and the one after that, and the one after that, and they’ll be held accountable.”
Finally, Israel and the Israel lobby allowed themselves to fall into lockstep with the Republican Party and, in fact, with those elements in the party that harbor the most venom for President Obama. The campaign’s rhetoric called on American Jews to stand with Israel and America and against Iran and Obama. Where did that put Obama? Not in America. That was the obvious implication. The Israeli campaign against the agreement revived the hoary Republican canard that Obama was less American than a President should be.
This has been a constant theme in much of the Republican denigration of Obama. In the world of Obama conjured by many Republicans, he was supposedly born in Kenya, educated in a Moslem madras, nourished by the Third World genes of an absent father, and infused with socialist European ideology. At heart, as I discussed in my commentary Race and the Election (September 7, 2012), this slander is racist.
I am not trying to suggest that Israel and AIPAC are racist. But they allied themselves with the basest side of the Republican Party when they insinuated that Obama would rather stand with Iran than with the United States and Israel. Like much of the campaign by Israel and its lobby against the agreement, this left a bitter taste, and I doubt if Netanyahu’s latest visit has changed much of that.