How long can Israel keep insulting its benefactors

Mitchell Plitnick

Mondoweiss  /  June 16, 2023

Amichai Chikli’s crude insults against American Jews personify Israel’s hubris in biting the American hand that feeds it. The White House is reportedly unhappy but continues to turn the other cheek. This won’t last forever.

It’s been clear for a long time that there is a growing split about Israel in several sectors that are key to the ongoing lock-step support for a state that is, with each passing day, dropping its masks and revealing its basic authoritarian, supremacist structure. Those divisions are not only widening but are growing more acute and pointed. 

Take, for example, the conference earlier this week of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), which took place in Tel Aviv. It included a panel discussion on whether U.S. Jews “should have a say in Israeli affairs.” This navel-gazing question has been debated for decades, yet it never comes up in the context of American Jews’ massive support for the far-right settlement movement, be it in their financial support or their political advocacy. Even less does it come up in the context of the massive influence of money and political agitation from right-wing Christian organizations. No, it is only mentioned when Americans might want to see their donations spent in slightly more humane ways.

Most telling about the AJC conference was the closing, remote appearance of Israel’s Minister of Diaspora Affairs, Amichai Chikli, who has been going out of his way to anger and alienate American Jews. He told the crowd that Israelis protesting the current far-right government’s attempt to neuter Israel’s judiciary were comparable to the “spies who spoke badly about the Land of Israel,” in the Bible, whose negative reports about the land of Canaan discouraged the Israelites and led to God commanding that they wander in the desert until the doubting generation died out. 

This came on the heels of Chikli giving the finger to demonstrators for the same cause in New York the previous week, and saying that the liberal Zionist J Street is hostile to Israel, accusing it of sabotaging him in the United States and of being responsible for violent attacks and harassment against members of the Knesset. Unsurprisingly, no one, regardless of their position on Palestine, bought into this nonsense, save perhaps for those who are as radically fascist as Chikli himself.

But none of this should be surprising. This is who Chikli is and who he has always been known to be. The fact that the Israeli Prime Minister thought it appropriate to make this outspoken racist his Minister of Diaspora Affairs — a position which would necessarily bring him into extensive contact not only with the more liberal Jewish communities around the world but also with governments in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere that he would undoubtedly discomfit — is a clear example of Netanyahu extending his own middle finger at those governments and communities. And, thus far, they have simply come back for more.

How, for instance, did the State Department respond to Chikli defending antisemitic conspiracy theories about George Soros and those who spread them, like Elon Musk? Why, by bringing its envoy to combat antisemitism, Deborah Lipstadt, fresh off once again trying to peddle the lie that BDS and anti-Zionism are, by definition, antisemitism, to have a nice chat with him? This occurred in the wake of a reportedly warm clandestine meeting of two prominent leaders of the so-called “mainstream Jewish community” —Eric Fingerhut of the Jewish Federations of North America, and William Daroff of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations — with the annexationist minister, Bezalel Smotrich, a man even AIPAC shunned when he came to the U.S. 

Chikli is the personification of Israel’s hubris in biting the American hand that feeds it.

But Smotrich is a reflection of Israel and its ideological push to negate the history and existence of Palestinians. Chikli is something else: he is the personification of Israel’s hubris in biting the American hand that feeds it with an endless flow of economic support and political shielding. When Smotrich was given the Finance portfolio, it was seen as a way to at least try to minimize his contact with foreign leaders who would find his presence noxious. But Chikli was intentionally put in a position where he would constantly interact with key foreign and Jewish leaders. And it wasn’t only him. 

Netanyahu recently appointed a media adviser, Gilad Zwick, who had infamously said that Joe Biden was “slowly but surely ruining America,” repeated many of Donald Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election, and said that “The media is doing everything to hide Biden’s incompetence, yet the Chinese, Russians and Iranians are not stupid, they understand well that there is no leadership in Washington.”

Even Netanyahu’s Foreign Minister Eli Cohen attacked Vice President Kamala Harris, whose myopic support of Israel and thorough indifference to Palestinians is well-documented because she noted her support for Israel’s “independent judiciary.” 

Israel continues to reap the financial, political, military, and diplomatic benefits of American largesse while repeatedly spitting in the face of its benefactor. 

While AJC distracts with bogus debates about whether Americans have the right to say anything about Israeli policies (funny, they don’t seem to have the same qualms about Americans speaking out about Russian, Chinese, Venezuelan, Saudi, Iraqi, Yemeni, Mexican, Colombian, Iranian, German, or any other country’s policy), Israel continues to reap the financial, political, military, and diplomatic benefits of American largesse while repeatedly spitting in the face of its benefactor. 

There are reasons for this, of course. Some of them are strategic, and some of them are political. But when it comes down to it, none of those reasons explain why the Biden administration should quietly allow Israel to insult it so publicly. Nor do they explain why, for the second time in a year, the United States is meekly clucking its tongue and doing nothing about Israel having murdered an American citizen while refusing to take any action about it.

The case of Shireen Abu Akleh is, of course, well-known, and it was sufficiently aggravating that at least some American leaders have continued to demand answers. But Omar Asaad, also a dual Palestinian and American citizen who was callously murdered last year by IDF soldiers, has not garnered the same attention. Asaad was 80 years old and was stopped at a hastily set up checkpoint (known as a “flying checkpoint” because Israeli soldiers simply set them up randomly on a whim, often for no other reason than to be a bother to local Palestinians) in the West Bank. He didn’t immediately present his identification, so the soldiers took this elder, bound and gagged him, and left him tied up at a construction site in the middle of winter at night. As anyone would expect, when they returned to free him, he had died. The IDF this week announced there would be no charges, because, after all, what did those soldiers do wrong?

How does the United States respond to this? With words that are only too familiar. “We’re seeking more information from the Israeli government. We’re going to talk to them directly about it,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said. “We want to engage with them further about the outcome of this investigation before making any further pronouncements.”

Anyone who has followed the Shireen Abu Akleh whitewash or has any experience at State Department briefings understands the meaning behind those words. Translated, they mean “We’d like to get a better cover story from Israel and we hope we do, but in any case, we’re not going to do a thing about it because, well, Israel.”

All of this has become so familiar and normalized that it can be very discouraging. Yet we’ve seen signs of hope. We’ve seen the opinion polls that show that Democratic voters are finally beginning to value Palestinian life as much as Israeli lives, and they are also starting to recognize the oppressive nature and apartheid structure of the Israeli regime. More and more Jewish Americans are speaking out in clearer voices, even including some who still desperately cling to illusory things like a two-state solution. 

Yet, for now, too many voices are still not ready to take a moral, rather than a self-serving stance. For example, four leaders of Jewish student unions from the EU, UK/Ireland, Australia/Asia/, and South Africa made a statement at the AJC conference denouncing Chikli for his abuse of dovish Zionist groups, the LGBTQ+ community, and the Reform Jewish community as well as his promotion of antisemitic tropes involving George Soros. Absent completely was any mention of the crimes of Chikli’s government against the Palestinians or even against human rights and peace groups in Israel. 

Similarly, a Biden administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said of Chikli, “The fact that a senior Israeli official came to the United States and did not have a single public meeting with the American Jewish community, and the fact [that] his only public interaction is to flip someone off or ask them to smile is telling.” The official added that Chikli “… does not understand the American Jewish Diaspora. His comments have ramifications. The Biden administration is watching.”

So the administration is “watching,” and it clearly doesn’t like Chikli. And Biden has continued to refuse to invite Netanyahu to the White House, a move clearly intended to not only send Israel a message but to broadcast their unhappiness. Yet they will offer only the mildest public critiques, hide much of their criticism behind anonymity, and take absolutely no action regardless of Israel’s endless crimes against Palestinians and insults to its own benefactors.

Should we look at the glass as half-empty? The public voices are still displaying appalling indifference to the plight of Palestinians, an indifference that can only be explained by a view of Palestinians as less than human, and undeserving of the rights others are entitled to. There remains precious little action, whether from Western governments or influential Arab ones, aimed at promoting or protecting those rights. 

Or do we look at the glass as half full? The criticism this far-right Israeli government is bringing on itself has been unprecedented in the past 75 years. The masses of liberal observers, even in the United States, are finally starting to show genuine sympathy for the Palestinians and recognition of their humanity. Israel has increasingly allied itself with the global right, a movement which is itself unstable, antisemitic, Islamophobic—in fact, driven by hate in general—and out of step with most Western sentiments despite its current disproportionate political power. 

Whatever choice we make individually, the need to finally choose a side: either admit that supporting Israel as it exists in real life means supporting an oppressive regime that has little in common with liberal values, or support equal rights for Palestinians. Ironically, with its decision to stop pretending it is anything but an oppressive regime, Israel is helping Palestine advocates, in the BDS movement and outside of it, to bring that choice to the fore. 

Mitchell Plitnick is the president of ReThinking Foreign Policy. He is the co-author, with Marc Lamont Hill, of Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics