Author, Lecturer, Ethicist

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Is Bibi "Your Prime Minister?"

Trump+Kippah.jpg

This past Saturday evening, on his way back from an event at the California-Mexico border, ‘45 made a brief stop in Las Vegas, where he spoke at the annual meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition. Throughout the crowd one could see many men - and a few women as well - wearing red kippot (yarmulkes) emblazoned with “Trump” in white. This isn’t a dig; truth to tell, I’ve owned a L.A. Dodger kippa for more years than I can count. ‘45 began his nearly hour-long speech with a dig at Rep. Ilhan Omar, who came under fire earlier this year for comments appearing to accuse American Jews of dual loyalty to Israel, spurring the president to claim last month that Democrats “hate” Jews.” (Gee, I’m a Democrat, as are my mom and sister, my wife and kids, as well as our machatunim (Hebrew for “our children’s spouses’ parents”) and none - so far as I am aware - can be accused of hating Jews.)

In going after Rep. Omar, ‘45 mockingly “thanked her” by adding “Oh, I forgot. She doesn’t like Israel, I forgot, I’m sorry. No, she doesn’t like Israel, does she? Please, I apologize.” Predictably, this got a roar of laughter and a prolonged bit of clapping from the assembled crowd of adoring acolytes. He then seemed to confuse the Republican group with US Jews in general when he asked how they could have supported his predecessor Barack Obama. “How the hell did you support President Obama?” he asked the audience. “How did you do it?” he asked, to which several of the attendees yelled back “we didn’t.”

The president got the crowd going by reminding them that in keeping his campaign pledge to move the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and developing such a strong relationship with Israeli P.M. Bibi Netanyahu, he had proven himself to be the “best friend Israel ever had in the White House.” He then went off the rails when he proclaimed “I stood with your prime minister at the White House to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights,” and then, speaking of the Democrats added “If implemented, the Democrats' radical agenda would destroy our economy, cripple our country, and very well could leave Israel out there all by yourselves. Can't do that." [Emphasis added]

Whether or not ‘45 was engaging in misstatement by referring to Bibi as “your prime minister,” he was unknowingly agreeing with both Rep. Omar and every Neo-Nazi in the Land of the Free - that American Jews are guilty of “dual loyalty.” It didn’t take long for Trump’s inanity to be called out on Twitter by the head of the American Jewish Committee, who Tweeted Mr. President, the Prime Minister of Israel is the leader of his [or her] country, not ours. Statements to the contrary, from staunch friends or harsh critics, feed bigotry'; by the head of the Anti-Defamation League :Mr. President, words matter. As with all elected officials, it's critical for you to avoid language that leads people to believe Jews aren’t loyal Americans.; and by Rep. Eliot Engel, the Jewish chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee: I somehow doubt the president would say 'Your Taoiseach' to a roomful of Irish-Americans." ) (n.b. Taoiseach - pronounced Tea-schock - is Irish for “Prime Minister”).

It just so happens that today, April 9, 2019, the Israelis go to the polls to elect another government. Because they have a parliamentary form of government, voters cast ballots not for candidates, but rather for parties. As such, it can take several weeks to figure out who won, who lost, and who will be the next P.M. Most of the intervening time is spent not in counting votes, but rather in the political chess moves required to put a coalition together. In other words, Israeli voters aren’t choosing between Bibi Netanyanu and former Israeli Chief of Staff Benny Gantz but rather between Likud (Netanyahu’s party, which itself is a coalition) and Kachol Lavan (“Blue and White”), Gantz’s party which includes both Labor, Meretz (“vigor”), which is both leftist and green and the centrist Yesh Atid (“There is a future”) parties.

So if, as ‘45 says, Benyamin Netanyahu is “our” prime minister, does that mean he would be the overwhelming choice of American Jews . . . if we were voting?

Highly, highly unlikely.

In an opinion piece published yesterday in Haaretz, writer Jonathan S. Tobin noted that “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s critics are right to argue that the cheers he always gets at AIPAC conferences shouldn’t mislead us. If American Jews could vote in Israel’s election, most of them wouldn’t think of casting a ballot for the Likud or its allies.” Bibi has his fans on the American Jewish right as well as within the Orthodox community. But there is no question that among the overwhelming majority of those U.S. Jews who identify as liberals, as well as with those who are affiliated with the non-Orthodox denominations or consider themselves unaffiliated ("Jews of no religion"), the prime minister and the right wing and religious parties that back him have precious little support. For a large majority of American Jews, Netanyahu - like every Likudnik P.M. since Menachem Begin was elected in 1977 - has always been considered out of touch with the liberal sensibilities of the majority of Democrat-voting American Jews. The unabashed Jewish nationalism of Begin and his successors has never gone down well among Americans who conform to writer Cynthia Ozick’s quip that "universalism is the parochialism of the Jews."

Then too, Netanyahu’s openly antagonistic relationship with former President Barack Obama and his close friendship with Donald Trump puts him at odds with American Jews, who loyally supported the former and despise the latter - exactly the opposite of Israeli opinion about the two American leaders. This is perhaps best born out by how American Jews responded to ‘45 calling Netanyahu “your Prime Minister.” People who attended the Republican Jewish Coalition in Las Vegas applauded the statement with great gusto; a clear majority of the American Jewish public was deeply shocked and troubled at what sounded like the age-old canard about “dual loyalty.” When such a charge - made either tacitly or directly - comes out of the mouth of a person like Rep. Omar, it is the height of Antisemitism; when coming from the mouth of the President of the United States, it is a laudable truism.

I just don’t get it.

Benjamin Netanyahu is not my Prime Minister. My country has no P.M. It is Israel, which I love, admire and support (והוא יכול להתמודד עם מימין לשמאל או משמאל לימין) despite whatever disagreements I may have with its current administration - that is the country with a Prime Minister.

Shame on you Mr. President. Whether knowingly or not, you have sent out a message which is both dangerous and impolitic . . . and all for the sake of your political future.

575 days until the next election.

Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone

How Do You Say "Witch Hunt" in Hebrew?

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Without question, there has been a budding “bromance” between between Israeli P.M. Bibi Netanyahu and President Donald Trump for quite some time. Netanyahu greatly admires the current American president, and sees him as a bipolar improvement on his predecessor, Barack Obama. We all remember Netanyahu’s unique, distinctly partisan political address to Congress, in which he warned against the Iranian anti-nuke deal, as well as his hyper partisan support of Trump over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. We all are aware of his praise for the American president’s executive decision to move our Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem - which convinced many American Jews to label ‘45 “the greatest friend Israel ever had in the White House.” But this was just the beginning. With every passing week, Bibi Netanyahu has become more and more a Trump clone, and less and less a political scion of Ben Gurion, Meir, Peres or Rabin. Unlike Trump, Netanyahu is a totally political animal; unlike his American counterpart, he has spent virtually his entire adult life engaged in this singularly ego-laden pursuit - sometimes masterfully, other times maladroitly. Where ‘45 has shown himself to have a particular fondness for “autocrats” (a cleaned-and-pressed synonym for “dictator”), Netanyahu has a fancy for living a life of luxury. For much of his business and now political career, ‘45 has been hounded by the legal system; now suing or declaring bankruptcy, now being sued or staring down the barrel of indictment. Likewise Netanyahu who, throughout much of his political career, has been dogged with scandals involving such emoluments as pink champagne, Cuban cigars, jewelry and even tickets to a Mariah Carey concert — in exchange for political favors to billionaires. The latest charges against the Israeli P.M., his wife Sarah and son Yair - which will likely end with multiple indictments - concerns their receiving gifts worth more than $280,000 in return for promoting policies that benefited powerful allies. To Trump, $280,000 is mere chump change (or at least is until Congress gets a handle on his real net worth); to Bibi, it’s a vast fortune. Like the POTUS - whose position pays $400,000 a year plus a rather large residence - the Israeli P.M. - whose job pays $168,210 per annum, plus a residence and expenses - has been spending an increasing amount of time dealing with both the legal and political ramifications of all the scandals hovering over their heads.  Both have charged ad nauseum that they are piteous victims of a “witch hunt” (that’s ציד מכשפות - pronounced tzayed m’kashefote in Hebrew). Unlike the vast American public, which to a large extent is politically illiterate, sadly gullible and sees things in black and white, the Israeli public is deeply political and loves nothing more than engaging in full-throated debate. Nonetheless, despite this generalized differences, both ‘45 and Bibi abide by pretty much the same political/campaign strategy: keeping their base happy while denigrating and designating the opposition as members of a vast, unpatriotic conspiracy. For Trump, this involves equal measures of fear and flattery, of outrageous boasts and outlandish lies, and slogans to beat the band. Unlike Trump, who operates in a two-party (though somewhat fragmented) political system in which Democrats control the House, and Republicans both the Senate and White House, Bibi is faced with a semi-parliamentary, multi-party system in which even the tiniest faction has a shot at becoming part of a coalition government. As a result of the incredible אַנְדְרָלָמוּסִיָה (ahndra-lamoosia - “utter chaos”) which is threatening to destroy Netanyahu’s governing coalition, he has been making concessions with - and promises to - some pretty unsavory elements in the world of Israeli  politics .Facing national elections next month (April 9), Netanyahu has given his הַסכָּמָה (hahs-kahma  - approval) for a far-right party, עוצמה יהודית (Otzma Yehudit - “Jewish Power”) to be part of a mainstream list.  This is an obvious political sop to the most nativist element in Israeli Society . . . pretty much like ‘45 dog whistling and offering political cover to white nationalists, neo-Nazis and racists, as he did after Charlottesville.

The leaders of Otzma Yehudit are self-identified disciples of U.S.-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, who preached a radical form of Jewish nationalism that promoted unabashed and virulent anti-Arab racism, violence and political extremism. While he was alive, ADL and the vast majority of American Jewish organizations and leaders roundly condemned Kahane and the organizations he founded including the Jewish Defense League (JDL) and Kach, seeing his extremism and hate as anathema to Judaism and democratic values. 

Gen. Benny Ganz

Gen. Benny Ganz

It was the same in Israel. For example, upon Kahane’s election to the Knesset, Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and his Likud party rejected Kahane’s bigotry and made it a point to leave the parliament hall when Kahane rose to speak. Ultimately, Kahane’s racist activities led to the banning of his Kach Party from the Knesset and it was made illegal under Israeli law, which remains in effect to this day.  Already, a member of the current Knesset, the Meretz Party and Labor MK Stav Shaffir (one of my favorite Israeli politicians) petitioned the Central Elections Committee to disqualify Otzma Yehudit from running in the upcoming election. Then too, as an additional move on Israel’s  political chessboard, Benny Ganz, the 20th Chief of Staff of the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) announced the formation of a new centrist political party - “Blue and White” - after the colors of the Israel flag.  In his first press conference, Ganz thanked Netanyahu for his “10 years of service” stating “No Israeli leader is king . . . . We will continue from here.”  Army Chief of Staff is the probably one of the most important, if not the most important, public positions.  According to a leading Israeli think-tank, 78% of the public trust the IDF, while only 30% trust the government to the same extent. Although many of his policies remain a mystery, Ganz is already polling a couple of points ahead of Netanyahu. 

At the moment, no one knows for certain what the forthcoming indictments of the Netanyahus will mean for the upcoming Israeli elections — in much the same way that no one truly knows what the Mueller report will mean to America’s 2020  presidential election.  If the political parallels between Netanyahu and Trump carry any meaning, both men should watch their backs . . . for, to misquote Donne: No man is an island/entire of himself . . . send not to know for whom the bell tolls/it tolls for thee.

611 days until the next election.

Copyright©2019 Kurt F. Stone


The House at 18 Rehov Agron

                             18 Rehov Agron, Jerusalem

                            18 Rehov Agron, Jerusalem

Despite the fact that more than 70% of American Jews voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump continues receiving the strong support of about a quarter of that community.  And for two reasons: 1) he is perceived as being "the best friend Israel ever had in the White House," and 2) he is neither Barack Obama nor HIllary Clinton, whom a strong majority of those polled continue believing are profoundly anti-Israel. Indeed, so absolutely central is Israel to the politics of Trump's Jewish supporters that they are more than willing to overlook '45's questionable ethics, personal boorishness and relationship with the truth in exchange for what they perceive as his unfaltering support for the Jewish State.  Throughout the 2016 presidential primary and general election, the one-time television star promised that if elected, his very first day in office would see him officially move America's embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  It should be noted that just about every Republican who ran in the 2016 primary made the exact same promise.  And although '45 did not announce the move on his very first day in office, he did eventually make it official - on December 6, 2017.  

Even before the December announcement, '45 had drawn praise from Israeli P.M. Benyamin Netanyahu for delivering what he termed "the most bold and courageous  and forthright speech" delivered by an American President at the United Nations. In that September speech, '45 roundly and loudly called the Iranian nuclear deal the worst, most disgraceful pact ever signed by an American president.  Coupled with his officially recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital, '45's stock with his Jewish supporters became even stronger.  It should be noted that 23 years ago - during Bill Clinton's first term in office - Congress passed the "Jerusalem Embassy Act," (Public Law 104-45) which officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and called for the relocation of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.  Every six months from November 1995 (when the law was enacted) until December 2017 (when '45 made his announcement) presidents Clinton, G.W. Bush and Obama signed waivers putting off the relocation, fearing that it would be an impediment to Middle East peace talks.  

The United States has had a diplomatic presence in Israel - and before that, Palestine - since 1844. From 1857 to the late 19th century, the American diplomatic "mission" was located in a building just inside the Jaffa Gate in the Old City.  In 1912, the mission relocated to its present location on 18 Rehov Agron, a substantial home built by a German Lutheran missionary in 1866. The mission was officially designated a consulate in 1928. The United States, along with 85 other countries currently, have their embassies in Tel Aviv.  (Before 1980, a number of countries, including the Netherlands and Costa Rica, maintained embassies in Jerusalem; for the past 37 years, that number has been zero.) In 1989, Israel began leasing to the US a plot of land in Jerusalem for a new embassy. The 99-year lease cost $1 per year. To this day, the plot has not been developed, and remains an empty field.  If, when and for how much the new embassy will be built is still a matter of gross speculation - despite the December 6 announcement. (The other day, speaking with P.M. Netanyahu, '45 boasted that the cost of a new facility would be $250,000.  Actually, he was citing a ballpark figure for renovating and adding to an existing facility at 14 David Flusser to use as a temporary embassy.  Cost of a newly-constructed embassy has been estimated at anywhere between $500 million and $1 billion.)

What is definitely not a matter of speculation is the monkey wrench the president's announcement has thrown into the future of any and all future peace talks.  As a result of taking this preemptive, unilateral step, the United States has lost its diplomatic edge.  It will be increasingly difficult - if not impossible - for America to bring opposing factions to the table for serious discussions.  To the rest of the world, America has already cast a major point of contention - the status of Jerusalem - in case-hardened concrete, so why even negotiate? '45 once described the prospect of a peace pact between Israelis and Palestinians as the “ultimate deal,” a foundational diplomatic breakthrough that could burnish his presidency and help restore America’s standing in the world. With the December announcement, the United States has become diplomatically isolated and toothless, the president something approaching a sideshow oddity.

While from a point of pure idealism it is both proper and fitting that the United States should be the first country to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital; one democracy standing in support of another. From a point of realpolitik it creates an international path underlain with political IEDs.  America's decades-long role as the undisputed, evenhanded, leader in Middle East mediation efforts has been dangerously and significantly undercut. Already, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has turned to other world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Jordan's King Abdullah, to help pressure Trump to change his mind. The chances of their having any influence over the American president are slim to none. The fact that the President's unilateral action has made Israel into even more of a pariah nation will likely have little if any effect on Donald Trump; so long as he is lionized by the likes of Netanyahu, Sheldon Adelson, as well as his hardcore Jewish and evangelical Christian supporters  that should be sufficient.

One of the most maddening aspects of all this is the ever-widening gap being created within the American Jewish community itself.  For in the opinion of many of the most vocal, even the slightest disagreement over how Israel carries out its political mission is tantamount to an excommunicable  offense (חֵרֶם - cherem).   In a time in which antisemitism is growing at an alarming pace, it is indeed disgusting that some of it should be coming from the Jewish community itself.  Just because an individual does not agree with, say, the Israeli government increasing the number of settlements, does not make them a self-hating Jew or worse, a traitor.  But that is what many of us are being accused of with regards to the latest disagreement over moving the American embassy to Jerusalem.

If there will ever be a workable solution to the crisis between Israel and the Palestinians, it will take a strong, steady hand at the helm.  Ever since the December 6, 2017 announcement, just whose hand that will be has become anyone's guess. 

Please Mr. President: you've made a steady habit of changing your position on a whole host of issues.  Why not keep up your record?

415 days down, 1,142 days to go.

Copyright©2018 Kurt F. Stone