Adam L. Silverman
I've waited about a week to write up my reaction to Netanyahu's speech to Congress because every time I'd sit down to start writing I was worried it would turn into a rant. My initial response was a combination of disgust, anger, and embarrassment. I also knew that I didn't want to simply cover many points that have been covered here and elsewhere: that Netanyahu has been predicting that Iran is anywhere from 1 to 2 to 3 to 5 years away from achieving a nuclear weapon for going on twenty-five to thirty years; that much of what he said was an echo of what he stated about Iraq when he addressed Congress in the early 00s; that the Congressional GOP leadership had reached a new low (which the Senatorial GOP surpassed yesterday and I'll write about later today); as I covered before the speech - something similar was pulled on President Reagan by Menachem Begin, and the unmitigated gall of Netanyahu to claim to speak on behalf of all members of a religion.
Instead I want to focus on two distinct themes that Prime Minister Netanyahu kept hammering: fear and victimization. These themes in his remarks were really about the fear that Israel has of its neighbors, especially Iran. And the historic victimization of the Jews, which Israel will not allow to happen ever again. Despite the Israeli/Jewish wrapper of his remarks, Netanyahu was also hitting on two themes that play very well with Americans; especially after 9-11. When I was a college student one of my professors stated something that makes a lot of sense post 9-11: "there is nothing as dangerous as a democracy when its scared." In many ways I think this is a good way to understand a lot of American behavior post 9-11. Even more so many of our elected and appointed officials, as well as the professional pundits and commentators. We allowed al Qaeda, through our over reaction and the over reaction of politicians and pundits to an unusually and unexpectedly successful terrorist attack on three targets, to be transformed in our imaginations from a terrorist group to an existential and civilizational threat. This, by the way, was what bin Laden wanted.
Netanyahu's focus on fear and victimization was no accident. He understands how we've tuned our strings and simply plucked them accordingly. My disgust and embarrassment, however, went beyond his attempts to simply play America - or at least Congress and the punditocracy - to his remarks about Judaism, fear, and victimization. There is no doubt that Jews have repeatedly faced being the societal other, discriminated against, having the force of what we now call the state directed against them, and being victimized. However, this is not the totality of the Jewish experience. While it definitely accounts for the majority of Jewish life in Europe from the fall of Rome through to World War II and the Holocaust, it fails to account for other Jewish experiences. For instance, the Golden Age of Spain, which saw a high amount of societal and political integration between the Jews, Christians, and Muslims in Spain. It ignores the completely different experiences of the Jewish communities of India and China, the latter of which was so successfully integrated into China that it essentially assimilated fully into Han Chinese culture. And it definitely doesn't account for the modern Jewish American experience.
There is no doubt that Jews in Europe were often and repeatedly attacked for being Jewish or for bizarre accusations of what Jews do ritually, such as the blood libel. This was, of course, topped off by the Holocaust. However, some Jews did try to fight back. For instance, during the Holocaust there were significant numbers of Jews who fled ahead of the NAZIs to join with the various partisan movements and fight back. There were others, like Moe Berg a Jewish American professional baseball player who undertook a number of clandestine operations against the NAZIs. Or Hannah Senesh who undertook paratrooper operations against the NAZIs until caught and eventually executed. This doesn't even account for the Jewish American and Jewish British Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines who fought against the NAZIs in Europe or against their AXIS partners/the Japanese in the Pacific. While Jewish resistance, whether to the NAZIs or to the anti-Semitism of their Christian neighbors, was not uniform, Netanyahu's equating the Jewish experience with victimization obscures a number of overtly heroic actions to counter the victimization. But it does something even worse. It fails to recognize the even harder form of resistance, the attempt to remain free within one's self when there is no immediate opportunity for external/physical resistance. By focusing on victimization and fear, Netanyahu missed the more important flip side of the coin: the mental resilience and resistance that are the basis for survival. It was to the perceived lack of this resistance among Americans that Netanyahu was playing and it demonstrates how little he thinks of his Congressional hosts, America's elected and appointed officials, and Americans in general. The only outstanding question is if we are going to prove him wrong.