Skip to main content

Netanyahu: The unelected 'King of the Jews'

While pretending to be the leader of the Jewish people, as Israel’s prime minister Netanyahu has no authority whatever vis-à-vis the rest of the world’s Jews

Benjamin Netanyahu was elected, by a plurality of Israeli citizens voting, to serve for a time as prime minister of Israel. The Jewish people have never chosen him as anything, and in the job for which he was elected, as Israel’s prime minister, he has no authority whatever vis-à-vis the rest of the world’s Jews. Yet Netanyahu pretends. He pretends to be the leader of the Jewish people: King of the Jews. He isn’t.

The day after the recent attack on the Copenhagen synagogue, Netanyahu hastened to urge the Jews of the Diaspora to relocate to Israel. He did likewise the day after the attack on the kosher grocery in Paris a few weeks earlier. Jews belong in Israel, said Netanyahu - to the justifiable irritation of the president of France, prime minister of Denmark and other European leaders. These statements also displeased a number of leaders from European Jewish communities, and rightly so.

It is not the Israeli prime minister’s job to rebuke, or direct, the Jews. He ought instead to be addressing the problems in his own country, which is the job he was elected to do, making it a better and more just place - attracting, perhaps, a greater inflow of Jews from abroad. In the meantime, it is worth remembering that more than half the Jews of the world have chosen of their own free will not to live in the State of the Jews. They surely have their reasons. Theirs is a personal, individual choice, not a collective choice - which is how it ought to be.

Israel was established as a national home for the Jewish people and has been a refuge for many Jews, including of course Holocaust survivors. Alas, as fate would have it, that national home has become the most dangerous place in the world for Jews today: since its founding, three years after the end of World War II and the Holocaust, more Jews have been killed in Israel than anywhere else in the world, in wars or terrorism. Thus the call to Jews abroad to immigrate to Israel for their own safety is disingenuous.

Moreover, Netanyahu’s Israel puts world Jewry at risk. Some of the hatred toward Jews elsewhere in the world - emphatically, only some and not all of it - is fed by the policies of the state of Israel and especially by its continuing occupation and abuse, decade after decade, of the Palestinian people.

In many countries, the identification of the local Jewish establishment with the state of Israel and with the policies of its government makes the Jews in those places targets of anti-Israel criticism. Things happen that are just plain anti-Semitism, too, of course, but Israel ought to stop supplying perpetrators with excuses to justify what they do.

People may, and perhaps should, immigrate to Israel out of a sense of identification, of belonging, of mission, of persecution; out of a desire to live amongst Jews, or to better themselves economically, or for all kinds of other reasons. To find refuge is simply not a rational reason. It’s more dangerous for a Jew to live in Israel today than in Paris. More Jews are attacked in Jerusalem.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has done too little, if he has done anything, to diminish dangers faced by the Jews of Jerusalem and the rest of the country of which he has charge. Hence he has no right to urge the Jews of the world to save themselves by coming to Israel. And let us bear in mind that no Jewish community in the world finds itself today facing an authentic or immediate existential threat.

But Netanyahu’s call to Jews abroad is outrageous for other reasons, too. Today’s Israel has precious little to offer Jews looking for a just, egalitarian, democratic place to live. On the contrary, Israel can offer only a place that is deteriorating, not just in terms of personal safety, but first and foremost in terms of the values on which it was founded.

Occupation, discrimination against minorities, racism, violence, humiliating policies toward African asylum seekers, and anti-democratic nationalist legislation - all make it hard for enlightened Jews to choose Israel as their new homeland. Nor does its ostracism by the world make Israel a more attractive destination for immigrants. Netanyahu himself is responsible for some of these dynamics of deterioration. But meanwhile, his call to Jews to immigrate to Israel actually does them harm.

The Jews of Europe, like Jews elsewhere, are not guests in their home countries. Some have been there for generations, and most are well integrated in their nation’s society, economy and culture. Most see themselves as an inseparable part of their country. Only some, perhaps even a minority, take much interest in Israel and its future.

Now here comes Netanyahu, trying to decouple this connection between the world’s Jews and their countries and to impugn it - to the detriment of those same Jews. If they belong in Israel as Netanyahu alleges, then they are but transient guests in their respective countries. If they belong in Israel, their loyalty elsewhere is partial, giving rise to serious questions and weighty doubts. If they belong in Israel, then their affiliation is divided and so is their loyalty.

Most of Europe’s Jews do not wish to view things that way nor are they viewed that way in Europe. Netanyahu endangers this status quo, in which Jews are full citizens with equal rights in their various countries.

Israel is already an established fact. Its existence is less in dispute than Israel’s propaganda of paranoia would have us believe. If Jews want to immigrate to Israel, they will be received gladly - in abominable contrast to native-born Palestinians who were exiled and cannot return, and to African asylum seekers against whom Israel is hermetically sealed. But it’s a long and unacceptable stretch from there to urging Jews abroad to immigrate to Israel. The attempt by Netanyahu, the so-called Zionist, to bridge the distance is crude and clumsy.

Gideon Levy is a Haaretz columnist and a member of the newspaper's editorial board. Levy joined Haaretz in 1982, and spent four years as the newspaper's deputy editor. He was the recipient of the Euro-Med Journalist Prize for 2008; the Leipzig Freedom Prize in 2001; the Israeli Journalists’ Union Prize in 1997; and The Association of Human Rights in Israel Award for 1996. His new book, The Punishment of Gaza, has just been published by Verso. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Israeli Prime Minister and Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech to his supporters during an election campaign meeting on 8 February (AFP)

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked

Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.