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1. Stumbling through a global crisis
A huge image was projected Sunday night on the ancient wall surrounding Jerusalem’s Old City: a flag of Ukraine, alongside a Russian flag. The Jerusalem municipality issued a statement explaining that “Jerusalem is a city of peace and coexistence. We support ending the fighting and reaching an understanding between both sides.” The blatant display of insensitivity, equating the brutal Russian aggressors with Ukraine—a democracy that has been invaded and had been enduring daily deadly attacks against its citizens—was removed after several hours. Turns out that leaders of the “city of peace” had the good sense to notice the growing outrage on social media over the image and (belatedly) understood the need to remove it before further damage was done.
ברקע הלחימה באוקראינה: דגלי רוסיה ואוקראינה מוקרנים על חומות העיר העתיקה בירושלים. pic.twitter.com/nZ3gEyDLds
— סולימאן מסוודה سليمان مسودة (@SuleimanMas1) March 13, 2022
This short-lived display encapsulates, however, much of Israel’s approach to the global crisis brought upon the world by Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade neighboring Ukraine. Israel’s awkward efforts to straddle supporting Ukraine at its time of need, while not opposing Putin in order to maintain Israeli-Russian security cooperation on the Syrian border, have so far been less than successful and stand in stark contrast to the views of the U.S. administration and of the American Jewish community.
Attempts by Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to serve as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine have bore no fruit so far (although if he does manage to pull off a deal, Bennett will not only prove his critics wrong, but would also rightly ascend to an unmatched level of world leadership).
As the war enters its third week, another Israeli blunder is putting the government in Jerusalem in a difficult corner. Faced with a stream of refugees fleeing their shelled homes and besieged cities in Ukraine, Israel initially decided to accept only Jewish refugees who are entitled to immigrate to Israel based on the Law of Return (which provides the right to any person who has at least one Jewish grandparent). Others, weary of days of escape, carrying their children, pets and belongings, were forced to get back on the next flight to Europe. Some spent the night on the cold floor of Ben-Gurion Airport, putting their children to bed on empty luggage carousels.
Then came the obvious uproar, followed by an attempt by Israel’s Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked to explain that an influx of non-Jewish refugees would change Israel’s demographic makeup and threaten the state’s Jewish character.
You can probably guess what happened next:
The left cried foul, the right defended Shaked, the world watched in shock, and then, after exhausting all bad options, the Israeli government changed course and is now allowing all Ukrainians with relatives in Israel to enter on a temporary basis, in addition to all Jewish Ukrainians who can come and settle.
Israel is in a unique position. It has real security concerns that make it harder to break ties with Russia, and real demographic realities brought about by its unusual status as a nation-state of the Jewish people. And still, it is failing to understand the gravity of the moment and the need to join forces with the West against Russian aggression and in favor of the Ukrainian people. This behavior, alongside Israel’s refusal to sanction Russia or take action against Putin-affiliated oligarchs, is not going unnoticed by the Biden administration or by the Ukrainian government. In the long run, there will be a lot of explaining to do.
2. Zelensky’s appeal to Jewish Americans
Wearing his signature khaki T-shirt, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky addressed members of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations in an emotional Zoom call last Monday..
His message was clear: Ukraine needs help from the West; Putin and his regime are akin to the Nazis.
In his speech, as well as in his request to speak to the Israeli Knesset or to have his speech broadcast at Jerusalem’s Yad VaShem Holocaust memorial museum, Zelensky has demonstrated a bold and authentic way of using his own Jewish identity to advance the cause of his beleaguered country.
Zelensky may be offering the world a new type of Jewish leadership: He’s proud of his faith and of the history of his family and fellow Jews and is not afraid of applying this Jewish identity to daily political work. Claims and arguments tying Jewish history to current events, which sometimes sound hollow coming from American or Israeli Jewish politicians, work well for Zelensky, mainly because no one can doubt his sincerity. Zelensky has proven that a politician can criticize Israel (or, in his case, outright slam its policies) without losing his credibility as a Jewish leader.
When the war is over and Ukraine–hopefully–regains its peace and independence, Zelensky will become a worthy role model for Jewish political leadership in the 21st century.
3. Iron Dome funding: an end to an overhyped crisis
The U.S. Congress last week passed a huge spending bill which included the long-awaited $1 billion special funding for replenishing Israel’s Iron Dome interceptor missile stockpile, which was depleted during last year’s Gaza war.
The funding request was a perfect storm that all sides in the pro-Israel Jewish political world took advantage of:
- Republicans got to attack all Democrats for allowing anti-Israel voices in their party and having a handful of them vote against the funding in the House (an inconsequential move that did nothing to delay the bill).
- Mainstream Democrats had a chance to brandish their pro-Israel credentials and point fingers at their fellow Democrats from the progressive side who opposed the funding.
- And Democrats of all colors got to shame all Republicans for allowing one of their own, Senator Rand Paul, to singlehandedly delay the funding for nearly six months. (And no, the Senate GOP has no control over Paul’s actions in this case.)
- Israel walks away with a generous extra $1 billion funding package for its much-needed rocket defense system and gets to have both parties fight over who loves Israel more.
Now that we’re done with that, and funding is now available for more Iron Dome interceptors, it’s a good time to forget about this debate, which taught us very little about the power plays behind pro-Israeli politics.
4. AIPAC steps into the political endorsement minefield
It was bound to happen.
As soon as AIPAC announced it was getting into the business of directly endorsing political candidates, it was clear to all that the pro-Israel lobby would lose a much-needed layer of distance—and of deniability—from the dirty side of politics.
And so last week, as AIPAC rolled out its first round of endorsements, trouble soon followed.
The list of 120 endorsees includes 37 Republicans who refused to certify the 2020 presidential election results in which Biden won. Critics of the group were quick to call out AIPAC for throwing its support behind believers of the “big lie” whose actions, they claim, undermine democracy.
AIPAC came back with a rather weak response, explaining that “as a single-issue organization” it is focused solely on strengthening U.S.-Israel relations.
5. Setting boundaries
Will this AIPAC response fly?
For supporters of the lobby, this explanation will probably suffice. The list of election-denying Republicans is broad enough to allow them to make the point that these aren’t a bunch of January 6 rioters, but rather well-intentioned Israel-backing Republicans who simply had some legitimate questions about the election process.
But this won’t work with Democrats, nor will it help the lobby’s claim for bipartisanship.
At the end of the day, it is up to AIPAC to set its boundaries and decide what type of political behavior justifies removal from the “single issue organization” big tent.
It is not dissimilar to Israel’s dealing with the Ukraine conflict. Israel, too, has legitimate single-issue concerns of its own, and just like AIPAC, it is under fire for prioritizing them over what critics believe is the greater good.