There were so many fictions and distortions in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech to the US Congress on 24 May, so many demagogic assertions and flourishes, so much self-aggrandisement and self-promotion and so much that insulted and demeaned Palestinian hopes and aspirations that the flagrant denial of the autonomy and diversity of Jews worldwide could easily be missed. Among his last words was this:
I speak on behalf of the Jewish people and the Jewish state when I say to you, representatives of America, thank you.
It should be blindingly obvious that the prime minister of Israel has no mandate or right to speak ‘on behalf of the Jewish people’.
Less than 50 per cent of the world’s Jewish population lives in Israel. Among those who live elsewhere and are practising Jews, approximately 10 per cent are strictly Orthodox and don’t recognize Israel as a ‘Jewish state’. Between 30 and 40 per cent of Diaspora Jews are unaffiliated to any Jewish organization and therefore while we cannot be absolutely sure whether their feelings about Israel and its government are such that they would be happy to have Netanyahu speak on their behalf, it’s almost certainly the case that the vast majority of such Jews would not like it t all. Even among the affiliated, non-strictly Orthodox who declare themselves to be close to Israel when responding to opinion surveys, many would balk at Netanyahu’s claim.
Netanyahu is by no means the first Israeli prime minister to speak in this way and therefore exploit the transnationality of Jews for Israeli political aims. It’s a fundamental tenet of modern Zionism to see Israel as the centre of the Jewish world and therefore as having donned the mantle of world Jewish leadership. From David Ben Gurion – Israel’s first prime minister – onwards, Israeli leaders have regarded the interests of Diaspora Jews as secondary to those of Jews living in Israel. And, when it suits them, they sweep up Jews worldwide into their rhetoric in support of policies they choose to follow.
The use of this rhetoric follows a clear pattern. When Israeli governments feel isolated and threatened internationally and the ruling coalition is politically unstable, they tend both to exaggerate the external threats and claim that their battle against such threats is being waged on behalf of Jews worldwide. When they feel in a strong position internationally, they lay much less emphasis on claims to speak for Jews everywhere. The last time this situation prevailed was after the Oslo Accords in 1993 when Prime Minster Yitzchak Rabin, who was following a peace strategy that proved, at the time, internationally popular and also produced domestic benefits, deliberately began to distance Israel from the Jewish Diaspora. Today, for all his bluff and bluster, Netanyahu cannot hide the fact that Israel is being severely challenged on many fronts. These problems are being ratcheted up with spurious claims that Israel is being ‘delegitimized’ and faces murderous worldwide antisemitism. So when better than to play the card of world Jewish support framed as willing cannon-fodder under the leadership of Israel’s prime minister.
Ultimately, this shows just how bankrupt are the policies Netanyahu is following and how little he and most of his coalition partners truly care about the negative impact these policies have on the position and interests of Jews worldwide.