Mondoweiss / November 28, 2022
For decades Netanyahu has gotten away with behavior that would have taken down any other politician worldwide. Where does Netanyahu’s impunity and immunity come from? How could he name the outspokenly racist Itamar Ben-Gvir as police commissioner without a Jewish earthquake in response? What makes Netanyahu different from every Israeli politician who has come before him?
In his memoir, Barack Obama wrote about Netanyahu that his “vision of himself as the chief defender of the Jewish people against calamity allowed him to justify almost anything that would keep him in power.”
The Haaretz writer Carolina Landsmann described Netanyahu’s unique motto as “The future is dangerous to the Jews. Only Bibi is good for them.”
“Bibi is good for the Jews” is what Netanyahu has successfully sold to the Jewish and Israeli public.
This article will explore what it means to be a “good Jew” to Netanyahu. And the ideas that he expounded over his career to differentiate himself from “bad for the Jews” politicians. It is part of my exploration of “hasbara culture,” the highly successful form of Israeli propaganda which holds that anti-Semitism is a unique hatred in a different category from other hatreds.
In 1996 after losing to Netanyahu, Shimon Peres famously remarked, “The Jews have defeated the Israelis.” And this theme of the Jews vs. the “Israelis” or “leftists” has been the main feature of Netanyahu’s politics and rhetoric. “Bibi is good for the Jews” was the Likud’s slogan in 1996.
Netanyahu explained the difference between the Jews and the “Israelis” in 1997, when he was famously caught on an open mike whispering to Rabbi Yitzhak Kaduri, a Sephardic kabbalist, that “on the left, they’ve forgotten what it means to be Jewish.”
What does Netanyahu think is un-Jewish about the left? What is it that Netanyahu believes they have forgotten? Netanyahu continued:
“They believe they can trust our security in the hands of the Arabs.”
What Netanyahu is claiming is that if the left were Jewish, they would know from (Jewish) experience that “the Arabs” (or any other enemy of the Jewish state) can’t be trusted.
Netanyahu has successfully proselytized that being a good Jew means believing that the Jewish people face the threat of elimination.
In a 2012 Haaretz article: called “Netanyahu: Israel Must Prevent the Elimination of the Jewish People”, Netanyahu expounded on his “Jewish” ideas:
“There is no lack of bitter enemies today. The will to destroy the Jewish people has not changed. What has changed is our ability to defend ourselves and our determination to do so.”
While ideas like this have been present in politicians’ rhetoric before him, Netanyahu has undertaken a cultural revolution with them. The ideas that “the will to destroy the Jewish people has not changed,” and that the future is dangerous to the Jews, and only Netanyahu is good for them have transformed Israel.
We need people who can see the destruction that Netanyahu himself—not the right, not Likud, not his voters, all of whom are his victims no less than the “left”—wreaked here. We need Israelis who detect the retreat of the modern sovereign enterprise of the Jewish people, which Netanyahu brought about when he stuck his hand into the relatively fresh Jewish-Israeli seam and unstitched it. We need Israelis who understand that Netanyahu operated like a Jewish agent from the galut [exile].
Ironically social scientists find the uber-Zionist Netanyahu’s Jewish victimhood perspective as “Un-Zionist.” Here is Ilan Peleg writing in an important new book on the “victimhood discourse” in Israel how Israel’s Jewish self-image has been transformed through time:
Zionism’s initial position was the rejection of the traditional notion of victimization as a law of history about which nothing can be done: the establishment of a Jewish nation-state was supposed to solve the “Jewish problem” and to put an end to the victimization of the Jews. Yet… it seems the establishment of the Jewish nation-state not only did not solve the Jewish problem but the Jewish state itself has become the successor of the problem and the main object of victimization.
Let’s contrast Netanyahu with what “Israeli” Prime Ministers sound like. In 1964 former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin said this about hostility towards Israel:
“Arab hostility is not an eternal factor. Even today, when the situation looks hopeless, we have to remember that nations, hostile to each other for tens of years, found avenues to each other’s heart, when the political circumstances changed.”
And Rabin was searching for avenues into the Palestinian people’s hearts when he said in 1994:
“I appeal now to the Palestinian people and say: Our Palestinian neighbors, one hundred years of bloodshed implanted in us hostility toward one another. For one hundred years we lay in wait for you, and you lay in wait for us. We killed you, and you killed us. Today, we stretch out our hands in peace. Today, we are beginning a different reckoning.”
Whatever one’s opinion about the Oslo accords, it’s crucial to recognize that Rabin was being genuine here:
“The new hope which we take with us from here is boundless. There is no limit to our goodwill, to our desire to see a historic conciliation between two peoples who have until now lived by the sword in the alleyways of Khan Yunis and the streets of Ramat Gan, in the houses of Gaza and the plazas of Hadera, in Rafah and Afula.
Now look at another Israeli PM with the Israeli/”Leftist” perspective. “Former Israeli PM Ehud Barak reiterated to me last week that he’d likely have become a terrorist if he had been born Palestinian. He explained how important it is for peace for us to try to put ourselves in the shoes of our enemies,” the political scientist Ian Bremmer wrote four years ago.
This ideological disagreement is what is dividing Israel and the Jewish world.
Because if like Netanyahu you believe that Israel’s present foes are the same pathological Jew haters from the Jewish past, then it is suicidal for Jews “to try to put ourselves in the shoes of our enemies.” The Jew haters’ perspective is just that they want to kill Jews. So, naturally those Jews who try to see the Palestinian perspective are not only suicidal but traitors to the Jewish people as well.
This is the hatred Netanyahu has unleashed on the left. This is why the left has been decimated in Israel. Netanyahu has made the left taboo. This ideology is behind the vicious hatred we recently saw from an Israeli occupying soldier toward a Breaking the Silence member who dared to criticize the occupation.
That’s why these days to be a successful politician in mainstream Israeli politics it’s necessary to show deference to Netanyahu’s worldview. There is nothing politicians in Israeli politics want to avoid more than to be thought a leftist.
Ehud Barak was the last Israeli politician who confronted Netanyahu’s a-historical “Jewish” ideological agenda.
The most critical division in Israel and the Jewish world is those living in the real world and those living out a Jewish fantasy. Or as Barak said: Netanyahu sounds less like a Prime Minister and more like a “fearful rabbi in a shtetl.”
“[I]n a dark nationalist regime, there’s use made of existential threats from without and traitors from within. To incite and divide, to sow internal hatred to ensure (the government’s) existence…Bibi is an expert at it, in creating this week’s or this year’s Hitler. Every time there’s a Hitler-de-jour who threatens us with a new Holocaust,”
Barak further accused Netanyahu of the “Hitlerization of the conflict” with Iran. The Israeli and Jewish discourses surrounding the Iran deal are very instructive. The “leftist” and “Jewish” perspective could not be more different.
(Now readers might wonder, wasn’t it Barak who infamously uttered “there is no partner for peace.” That sounds exactly like Netanyahu. That doesn’t sound like someone putting themselves in the “shoes of our enemies.” But Barak wasn’t making an ideological statement, he was trying to deflect blame for the Camp David failure. That doesn’t make “there is no partner” less pernicious and insidious. But seeing the damage it’s done I’m convinced Barak if he could, would take it back.)
In “A Military Coup Coming to Replace Netanyahu,” Carolina Landsmann spells out why the “entire Israeli security establishment” has come out against Netanyahu on Iran. She wrote:
“And not only the IDF. In recent years it seems the entire security establishment has become a greenhouse for growing Netanyahu opponents. Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan and Shin Bet chief Yuval Diskin came out publicly against Netanyahu, especially over the “Iran” fixation, at the price of becoming “traitors” in the eyes of the right.”
Real-world experts on Iran don’t use the (supposed) lessons of Jewish history to understanding the Iranian present. They reject that the idea that the “will to destroy the Jewish people hasn’t changed.”
“David Bitan [a Likud politician] couldn’t have said it better: “Something happens to those who serve as heads of the Mossad and the Shin Bet. Along the years they become leftists.” Well, perhaps that “something” is called Benjamin Netanyahu. Maybe it isn’t surprising that a system whose task is to fight real enemies rebels against Netanyahu, the expert in inventing imaginary foes.” (My italics.)
But Netanyahu “knows” that Iran’s number one national and ideological priority is to annihilate Israel and the Jewish people. And that’s what makes the security officials above “leftists” and “traitors.”
Former Mossad chief Tamir Pardo explained, “In Israel today, if you don’t think and speak like the prime minister, you are automatically branded a traitor.”
Netanyahu claims Iran is no different than Nazi Germany in its determination to kill Jews. That’s why according to him and his Jewish ideological allies, no nuclear deal is safe. Because there is no agreement that will deter Iran from its determination to destroy the Jewish state and the Jews. The Iranians are supposedly irrational in their hatred.
“I think that the nuclear agreement improved the situation compared to what existed earlier, which is why we should have supported it instead of fighting against it. Not one of Israel’s official strategic nuclear experts that I spoke with thought that the [Barack] Obama [administration’s] agreement was a bad deal. Some thought that it might have been possible to reach an even better agreement, but they all thought that this agreement was better than what was happening before it.”
Opponents and supporters of the Iran deal are talking past each other. On one side is the recognition (from considerable evidence) that Iran is pragmatic, and in return for economic relief they’re willing to give up any nuclear ambitions. While the other side is convinced that the leaders of Iran would happily bring about the destruction of their own country and people, if only they could take the state of Israel and the Jews down with them!
Which begs the question — How much of his own rhetoric does Netanyahu believe? Where does his ideology end and ambition begin? Because as Haaretz reports, he used this discourse for more selfish and less noble reasons than “stopping a second Holocaust.” During his corruption case, it came out that:
Miriam Adelson, the publisher of free daily Israel Hayom, told police that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara repeatedly contacted her about how they were being covered in the paper . . . Adelson, the wealthiest woman in Israel and wife of American casino magnate Sheldon, said that Sara Netanyahu “once told me that if Iran gets nuclear weapons and Israel is wiped out, I’ll be to blame because I’m not defending Bibi,” referring to Benjamin Netanyahu by his nickname.
In this election we see how successful Netanyahu is in wielding the “leftist” epithet.
In a piece titled “Where Ben-Gvir won, Israel’s liberal generals failed,” the Israeli journalist Sami Peretz explains how it’s possible that the “benighted” Religious Zionism party received more votes from soldiers than the “National Union” party of Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot and Gideon Saar, which is run largely by generals and former chiefs of staff. He asked, how can it be that a “benighted, extremist party whose leaders have little to no military background do better than a party led by two former chiefs of staff?” Peretz argued that the question “requires an explanation . . . from all Israeli society.”
The answer is that Netanyahu turned them into traitors. Just look at Netanyahu’s treatment of the leader of the “National Union” party Benny Gantz. An outsider might consider Gantz and his party to be on the political and ideological right. Yet, Netanyahu accused Gantz of “endangering the lives of . . . soldiers so as not to harm Palestinians.”
Netanyahu is making the “leftist” accusation against Gantz: Gantz has forgotten what it means to be Jewish. He has more concern for the enemies of the Jews than the Jews.
Netanyahu will go down as one of the great villains of Jewish history for the dichotomy he has established between the good Jew, Netanyahu, and his self-hating Jewish opponents. This is the destruction that Landsmann was talking about.
Chaim Levinson of Haaretz reports that Netanyahu pushed for the 2018 Nation State law that gives Jews the exclusive right of self-determination in the land of Israel “not for its own sake” but in order to be able to accuse those opposing it as being leftist and traitors:
“Netanyahu embraced the nation-state law not for its own sake but to force the left wing to vote with “the Arabs.”
Now listen to Netanyahu’s invective against those courageous enough to oppose the Nation-State law:
“The attacks from the left, which calls itself Zionist, reveal how low the left has sunk,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said of the law’s critics during its passage. “The Israeli left has to do some soul-searching,” he said. “It must ask itself why a basic tenet of Zionism, a Jewish nation-state for the Jewish people in its land, has become a rude concept, a dirty word.”
Netanyahu has no compunction about tearing Israel apart by the seams if it can help him root out a few more leftists. This is why there is no “left” to speak of in Israel. Netanyahu has made the left and their ideas taboo.
Netanyahu is a genius at cultivating hate. But Netanyahu could not do this by himself. There is a group of American Jewish journalists who helped turn Netanyahu and his ideas sacred. They were Netanyahu’s allies in enforcing his “Jewish” perspective on the world.
Just as “leftist” Jews were turned into traitors in Israel so they were here too. Here too Jews were accusing other Jews of “forgetting what it means to be Jews.” Here too there was an ideological battle whether the “the will to destroy the Jewish people hasn’t changed.” And the same method used by Netanyahu to “speak for the Jews” in Israel was seen here as well.
American foreign policy is now held hostage by the Jewish victimhood perspective. That’s the real power of the Israel Lobby. That’s how AIPAC can continue its poisonous and pernicious war against want-to do-good progressive Democrats. The reason AIPAC is not as taboo inside the Democratic Party as the NRA is, is because AIPAC is acting in defense of the Jews. And when it comes to defending the Jews from their enemies there are no rules.
Wannabe “spokespeople for the Jews” played the same Jewish role here that Netanyahu plays in Israel. Like Netanyahu, they insist that they speak from sacred Jewish history.
The scholar W. M. L. Finlay describes these Jewish journalists’ tactics:
“A simple dichotomy is set up between those who agree with the writer, presented as on the side of the Jews in general, and the ‘enemy,’ … In these accounts there are no legitimate differences of opinion among the Jews, there is simply a hawkish version of Zionism on the one side, representing the authentic Jewish voice, and the enemy on the other. Critics of military actions, advocates of a negotiated settlement, and those who state that the Palestinians have suffered injustice are presented as committing an act of aggression against the Jews by allying themselves with those who would kill the Jews, either the terrorists or the anti-Semites in general.
I have used “the assault on Peter Beinart” to show how “bad Jews” are confronted here. Because just like the leftists in Israel, the accusation against Beinart is that he has “forgotten what it means to be Jewish.”
In a 2010 column, Beinart described the reaction from leading journalists to his article calling on American Jewish organizations to finally take sides in Israel’s “domestic struggles between democrats and authoritarians”:
“It has been a week since my essay, “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” was published in the New York Review of Books, and the responses have largely congealed into a single critique. From Leon Wieseltier to Jonathan Chait to Jeffrey Goldberg to Jamie Kirchick to David Frum, the main complaint is that I didn’t spend enough time discussing the nastiness of Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, and extremist Muslims in general.”
Beinart was, and is, trying to speak about Israel, but his critics only want to talk about Israel’s enemies. From the Jewish victimhood perspective Beinart’s sin is that he’s ignoring how evil Israel’s enemies are, that he’s discounting their hatred of the Jews in his analysis, that he is “blaming the victim.”
“It’s a little odd . . . because my piece never claimed to offer an overview of the Israeli-Palestinian or Israeli-Iranian conflict. Rather, it was a plea for American Jewish organizations to take sides in Israel’s domestic struggle between democrats and authoritarians, and thus help save liberal Zionism in the United States. Those American Jewish organizations, of course, don’t need to be encouraged to criticize Iran and the Palestinians. It’s virtually all they do.”
Beinart told these other Jewish journalists, while you’re all mesmerized by Hamas, Netanyahu is becoming authoritarian and making a two-state solution impossible.
But the “pro-Israel” Jewish journalists who ambushed Beinart a decade ago are ignoring him and Israel now. Because he predicted the Israel of 2022 and was punished for his honesty.
The result of this war of ideas among “pro-Israel” Jews is . . . The Israel of 2022.
Because the same way the Jewish left was defeated in Israel, Beinart and J Street Jews were made taboo in this country. Ideas weren’t debated, they were “ritually defamed.” It’s the same accusation that Netanyahu makes — that these Jews are worse than kapo “stab in the back” Jews, who would rather be on the enemies of the Jews team than on the Jewish team. Being a Jewish heretic is believing the “Arabs can be trusted.” It is only “self-hating” Jews who try to put themselves in the shoes of their enemies.
The most influential American Jewish journalists are implicated in Netanyahu’s hostile takeover of Israel. They are implicated in Netanyahu’s cultural crimes. And that’s why the last thing these people want to do is call attention to the madness going on in Israel.
The formerly “Bibi”-obsessed Atlantic magazine has lost all interest in Netanyahu. And Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg, who once questioned Obama about whether he loves Jews in his “kishkes” or not — has decided that the cultural earthquake that was the last election in Israel is not newsy enough for the Atlantic. And nobody says boo. That is cultural power.
Israel is heading to a civil war and there’s nothing anybody can do about.
Because the most “pro-Israel” journalists in America would prefer Israel implode than have an “embarrassing” public debate about what’s happening in the Jewish state.
Yakov Hirsch writes for Mondoweiss