America Responds to Bibi

Jewish politics and power

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1. Jewish Americans express their dismay with Israel

On a rare sunny January morning last Monday, a group of some 50 liberal Jewish pro-Israel activists showed up outside the Israeli embassy in Washington, DC.

It was an orderly act of protest organized by Americans for Peace Now (APN). The participants, many of whom have known each other for years, have been long involved in the fight for reaching a two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. The tone last Monday morning, however, was a bit different.

These activists have never shied away from speaking out against the Israeli governments’ actions, while remaining within the pro-Israel camp. But showing up with signs outside the Israeli embassy seems to mark a new stage in their battle, a new sense of urgency.

“This is a different day,” said Hadar Susskind, the group’s CEO. “It’s a new year. It’s a new government. We need new responses.” His call was directed at the organized Jewish American community, urging them to step outside their comfort zones and take action. He’d like to see them protest and speak out to persuade the U.S. government to pressure Israel.

Zooming out from the sidewalk scene outside the Israeli embassy, this protest provides a useful opportunity to map the Jewish communal response in the U.S. to Netanyahu’s new government. 

Within the pro-Israel camp, it is clear that only a tiny minority is about to take action; APN, a small organization, has taken its message to the street, but the larger and more influential J Street limited itself to statements and critical talking points sent out to members. Meanwhile, Reform and Conservative leaders have spoken out, given angry soundbites to the press and put out harsh statements. Moving from the left to the center, most mainstream Jewish groups are still AWOL, sticking to their policy of not criticizing Israel publicly and praying that Netanyahu’s new government doesn’t take actions extreme enough to force them out of hiding.

And then there are the unaffiliated and uninterested younger members of the Jewish community. Many of them have already distanced themselves from the issue of Israel. Many more will do so now.

The APN protest wrapped up with singing “A Song for Peace” in Hebrew, the official anthem of Israel’s peace camp. They then parted ways, carrying their signs calling for peace and democracy, and knowing that in the coming years they’ll probably meet again in similar circumstances, carrying the same signs, singing the same song with the same small crowd.

The Israeli embassy, which was empty during the protest due to the New Year’s holiday, did not comment on the protest.

2. Biden administration draws red lines on Israel

Recent events in Israel also provided an opportunity to map the Biden administration’s red lines regarding Netanyahu’s new government. Biden may have preferred to take more time and discuss policies with Netanyahu and his team before making policy statements (National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan will do so soon on his upcoming trip to Israel), but the flurry of activity by members of Netanyahu’s newly minted government has forced the administration to respond.

Here’s how the Biden administration responded to Israel’s activity:

  • On Jerusalem: The message is clear: Don’t pull off any other Temple Mount provocations, you’re playing with fire.
  • On a two-state solution: The administration is opposed to Israeli actions that extend settlements or make irreversible changes on the ground, but it is limiting its outrage to specific actions that Netanyahu may take, such as legalizing outposts or repealing the disengagement law.
  • On human rights: Sure, the Biden administration doesn’t love comments made by Netanyahu’s ministers about advancing anti-LGBTQ legislation or other human rights issues, but for now the White House and State Department are maintaining a wait-and-see approach, leaving any criticism on these matters to The New York Times editorial board.
  • On the Judiciary system: The recent announcement by Israel’s new Justice Minister Yariv Levin about his plan to “reform” the legal system forced the Biden administration to respond. But the response was extremely mild, stating only the need to preserve Israel’s “independent institutions.”

These responses offer the Netanyahu government a roadmap to understanding Biden’s expectations. Washington is basically telling the new Israeli government: Don’t do anything that can blow up the region, and try not to act too egregiously in the West Bank. America doesn’t like what’s going on but won’t go to war with Bibi over these issues.

3. A new Congress: Who’s who and who’s a Jew? 

The 118th Congress has been sworn in (after finally electing Kevin McCarthy as Speaker, and on Shabbat!), and, as always, the Pew Research Center is ready with its data on the religious makeup of our lawmakers.

There are 33 Jewish members of Congress now, one less than in the previous Congress but still a pretty impressive figure. Jewish Americans, who are 2 percent of the nation’s population, make up 5.5 percent of the House and 9 percent of the Senate. In fact, Jews are the largest non-Christian minority in Congress, more than Muslims (three members,) Hindus (two members) and Buddhists (two members).

In the Senate, eight of the nine Jewish members are Democrats (Bernie Sanders, an Independent, caucuses with the Dems). And in the House, there are 26 Jewish Democrats and three Republicans. (Actually, two Republican Jews + George Santos who now refers to himself as “Jew-ish.”)

4. A new Congress: Jewish priorities

The old joke about “two Jews, three opinions” is true for Jewish legislative priorities as well. The Jewish wish list is long and differs depending on the Jewish interest group behind it.

AIPAC and centrist pro-Israel groups want to see U.S. military aid for Israel flowing freely without too many questions asked, tough sanctions against Iran and anti-BDS legislation. J Street, to the left, would like Congress to practice more scrutiny over arms sales to Israel.

Most Jewish groups and denominations want to continue—and increase—funding from the Homeland Security budget for security of synagogues and Jewish institutions as part of the Nonprofit Security Grants Program.

On domestic issues, most centrist and liberal Jewish groups would love to see Congress take action to ensure abortion rights, to increase LGBTQ equality and to advance immigration reform. Those on the Orthodox end of the Jewish political spectrum are hoping that a conservative-led House will make sure this liberal agenda is blocked.

5. Santos goes from ridiculous to outrageous

There are many things we know by now about the freshman Republican congressman from New York, George Santos, and they can be summed up in one sentence: He lied about pretty much every detail in his biography.

Santos, who ran for Congress claiming he was Jewish and was inspired by the persecution of his Jewish grandparents, went on, once exposed, to argue he was Catholic with a Jewish heritage, and ended up describing himself as “Jew-ish.” This short video illustrates Santos’s evolution.

On Thursday, as the House voted on yet another attempt to elect a chairman,  Santos took the final step: In the photo taken during the vote, he is seen flashing the white power sign with his left hand. The symbol has been adopted by many white supremacist groups and is considered highly offensive for many, including Jews and even those who are “Jew-ish.”

Opening Image:Martin Falbisoner (CC BY-SA 3.0) / Matty STERN/U.S. Embassy Jerusalem/Roman Kubanskiy (CC BY 2.0) / The White House (CC BY 3.0 US)

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