With new laws, Netanyahu is hijacking Judaism as we know it

The leader of the largest Jewish population in the world is consciously abandoning modern Jewish identity in order to usher in a new Judaism. What kind? Just look to the Jewish Nation-State and Holocaust law.

By David Sarna Galdi

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen in the Knesset plenum ahead of the vote on the Jewish Nation-State Law, July 18, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen in the Knesset plenum ahead of the vote on the Jewish Nation-State Law, July 18, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu raised the ire of the Jewish world earlier this month when he went on national television to announce his support for an amended version of the controversial Polish Holocaust Law, a gimmick invented by Poland’s anti-democratic government to gain favor with its right-wing base.

The law effectively endangers free discussion about the Holocaust and presents a white-washed narrative of Polish behavior during World War II: that Polish authorities and most civilians went out of their way to save Jews, and that the betrayal of a Jew by a Pole was a rare anomaly.

Politicians from across the Israeli spectrum hurled attacks at the prime minister. Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum, voiced official dissent, while Israel-Prize winning Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer delivered the most biting indictment, calling the law a “betrayal,” and a “complete lie.”

Just weeks later, Netanyahu pushed the controversial Jewish Nation-State Law through the Knesset, despite tremendous public and institutional backlash. The law is common sense on its surface, re-stating Israel’s Jewish character. It deviously leaves out, however, any commitment to equal rights, legalizes preferential settlement-building for Jews, and downgrades Arabic’s status as an official language of the state.

Put simply, it is a gratuitous ultranationalist attack — a racial law institutionalizing discrimination against Israel’s minorities, specifically Arabs, who make up 20 percent of the population. Before it passed, thousands of demonstrators gathered in Tel Aviv to protest. An alliance of 14 American Jewish organizations officially voiced their disapproval and political figures on all sides opposed the law.

The timing of these two seemingly-unrelated pieces of legislation exposes Netanyahu’s quiet coup: a calculated, radical revision of what it means to be Jewish.

Abandoning Judaism

Jewish identity has drastically changed twice in history. First, when exile turned the Hebrew nation into a displaced, scattered minority susceptible to both anti-Semitism and successful assimilation in the diaspora. Jews began to look, speak and think differently, based on their host culture. Eventually, Yemenite Jews looked like Yemenites and Polish Jews like Poles.

The Zionist project redefined Judaism once again. It stamped out the image of the Jew as a weak, hunched victim of the ghetto — corrupted by exile. It sought to transform drastically diverse, far-flung Jews into a powerful nation of robust worker/fighters speaking a single language.

Kibbutz members march in a 1951 ceremony. (photo: אביבה שני בית חרות/CC BY 2.5)
Kibbutz members march in a 1951 ceremony. (photo: אביבה שני בית חרות/CC BY 2.5)

After the Holocaust, Israel was naturally assumed to be the guarantor of Jewish safety and a reflection of Jewish values. Diaspora-born Israeli leaders like Moshe Dayan, an iconic general and minister put it quite plainly when they argued that their government “should not only represent the people of Israel, but the interests of all Jews.”

But with Netanyahu at the helm, Israel has repeatedly and purposefully spit on world Jewry and its sensibilities. The result? Fifty years since the euphoria that followed the Six Day War, the idealistic, long-distance Zionism of diaspora Jews hobbles like a three-legged dog. A recent Pew Research Center Study found that only 35 percent of American Jews between 18-50 identified Israel as a core part of their Jewish identity.

A mutated identity

It’s not coincidental. Netanyahu has thrown the dice and made a calculated decision to abandon not only American Jews at odds with Israel’s ascendant populist agenda, but Judaism itself.

That is, Judaism as we know it: progressive, scholarly Judaism in dialogue with the outside world for thousands of years. The Judaism whose greatest works and innovations developed in Babylon, Spain, and Poland. Intellectual Judaism that absorbed and pollinated the Enlightenment (Mendelssohn); philosophy (Buber, Scholem, Marx, Frankl, Arendt); American equal rights movements (Steinem, Friedan, Milk); and culture (Gershwin, Berlin, Streisand, Mailer, Allen, Marx, Polanski). Tolerant Judaism with an outsider’s sensibility that “loves the stranger,” as commanded 36 times in the Torah. 

Netanyahu wants to throw all that in history’s trash bin. He wants to mutate Jewish identity into Jewish hubris and turn Israel into a walled fortress of illiberal ethnocracy.

How else can one explain Netanyahu’s endorsement of a malevolent Polish law that desecrates the Holocaust? How to understand Netanyahu’s betrayal of Reform and Conservative Jews at Judaism’s holiest communal space? How to explain Netanyahu’s ignoring President Trump’s praise of American neo-Nazis and the more than 190 anti-Semitic threats and attacks in the U.S. back in 2016? These questions became increasingly relevant this week when Netanyahu welcomed Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban for an official visit, despite the latter’s thinly-veiled anti-Semitic rhetoric and adulation of Nazi-allied politicians.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban seen at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site on the last day of his two-day official state visit to Israel, Jerusalem, July 20, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban seen at the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site on the last day of his two-day official state visit to Israel, Jerusalem, July 20, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Only Netanyahu’s Alt-Judaism can explain the new phenomenon of leaders like John Hagee, Richard Spencer or indeed, Orban, who are are pro-Israel yet simultaneously denounced as anti-Semites.

There are rumors that Netanyahu’s surrender on the Holocaust Law is part of a quid-pro-quo designed to relocate Eastern European embassies to Jerusalem. There are diplomatic and political excuses for all of Netanyahu’s actions — but there is a bigger picture as well. The leader of the largest Jewish population in the world is consciously abandoning — if not attacking — modern Jewish identity in order to usher in a new Judaism. What kind? Look to the Jewish Nation-State and Holocaust laws.

Netanyahu’s Alt-Judaism legalizes the theft of land, restricts the free speech of its own people, mistreats African refugees, demolishes Israeli-Bedouin communities, discriminates against same-sex couples, bars left-wing Jews from entering Israel, and lionizes a soldier convicted of manslaughter. It disrespects the language of its native minorities because it is racist. It demonizes the press because it fears the truth. It funds the Judaization of East Jerusalem and the West Bank because it’s greedy and must erase the traces of any competing narrative. It resists LGBT or any civil marriage because it is ruled by an intolerant Orthodox hegemony.

Netanyahu envisions Judaism’s future not as a marketplace with many flavors, influences and debates but rather a rare, vicious bird surviving in a cage and extinct everywhere outside of it.

David Sarna Galdi is a former editor at Haaretz newspaper. He works for a nonprofit organization in Tel Aviv.