Bibi and the President: New York’s Jewish Community is Divided

Benjamin Netnyahu's congressional address has caused a rift among Jewish New Yorkers.

Benjamin Netnyahu’s congressional address has caused a rift among Jewish New Yorkers.

Update made on April 20th.

As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu works to form a government before his April 22
deadline, and as the Iran nuclear talks continue to unfold, tensions between Israel and the
U.S. are still running high. And few feel the impact of this rift more than New York
City’s Jewish population.

The terms of President Obama’s preliminary nuclear pact with Iran; Netanyahu’s
opposition to those terms; Netanyahu’s decision to align with conservatives in the U.S.
Congress and to criticize the deal in front of Congress; as well as his remarks about
Israeli Arabs just before his narrow election victory—all of these issues have spiked
tension and discussion here, a city with a Jewish population larger than anywhere except Israel.

Thus the rift affects New York’s politicians, too. In a somewhat surprising move, Senator
Charles Schumer said in a statement to Politico last week that “Congress should have the
right to disapprove any agreement”—putting the powerful Democrat’s weight behind a
bill that Obama initially said he would veto. The president later agreed to a compromise
version of the bill, which gives Congress 30 days to weigh in on the terms of the Iran deal before economic sanctions can be lifted.

Schumer has the support of some Jewish leaders in the city. Rabbi Shlomo Cohen of the
Chabad Lubavitch of Sheepshead Bay, for example, was pleased to hear of Schumer’s
decision to support the bill. “That’s good news,” Cohen said. “It seems like our president
is not grasping the severity of the situation.”

Rabbi Cohen, who left Israel in 1987 and has been a rabbi for the Sheepshead Bay
Chabad since 1992, said he found that almost everyone in his community was fearful of
the impending deal with Iran. “There was one Holocaust and people did not pay any
attention to the warning signs,” Rabbi Cohen said, a few days before Yom Hasoah, a day
of remembrance. “And we should not repeat this mistake.”

Many, he said, also felt the criticism of Netanyahu that ensued after his speech to the U.S.
Congress was an “attempt by the president to influence the elections in Israel.”

Rabbi Gamliel Shmalo, educational director for the NYU chapter of MEOR, an
organization that provides Jewish learning on college campuses, pointed to a negotiating
point raised on Monday by Florida Senator Marco Rubio. The senator, who
announced later that day that he will be running for president in 2016, said Congress
should not support a deal unless Iran recognizes Israel as a state. It is a point that the
Jewish Week refers to as the “Bibi amendment.”

“You don’t have to be a wild Bibi supporter to appreciate his responsibility as the leader
of the state of Israel to advocate on behalf of his county’s existence,” Rabbi Shmalo said.
“But it is interesting that something that should be so axiomatic is subject to some
controversy in some parts of the world.”

He added, “President Obama has over and over again assured Israelis that he has the back
of Israel, that he supports Israel and will make sure to defend Israel,” said Shmalo, “and
yet all Netanyahu had to do was speak to Congress, where he had been invited by
Congress, to raise the wrath and ire of the White House.” Shmalo said he has agreed with
many of the president’s platforms on the domestic front. “I think his domestic policies are
wonderful and I appreciate his idealism,” Shmalo said, but added, “I think he may be
overreaching in this deal with Iran. And that would be okay if the existence of the state of Israel was not in jeopardy.”

Still, other Jewish New Yorkers are critical of the manner in which Netanyahu voiced his
disapproval. Among the prime minister’s critics is Rabbi Andrew Bachman, senior rabbi
for the Beth Elohim congregation in Park Slope. He expressed strong disappointment
with the course of action taken by Netanyahu and the Israeli Ambassador, Ron Dermer,
often credited with arranging Netanyahu’s speech.

“President Obama knew how Bibi felt. He had conveyed it through the appropriate
diplomatic channels,” Bachman said. “Bibi accomplished nothing except his own
reelection, and making Israel a partisan issue in 2016 elections.” Also, he said he
believed that Boehner was using the speech as a stunt—political theater, staged as a
means to mobilize Jewish voters for the GOP.

“It upset me as a very strong Zionist and strong supporter of Israel,” said Bachman, “to
watch the prime minister’s office go down that road.” Bachman said that members of his
congregation and others had expressed consternation to him over the prime minister’s
address because of the strains it places on Israel’s relationship with its “greatest ally” at a
critical time. Still, Bachman also said he felt that President Obama’s concession to
Congress to review the negotiations with Iran was ultimately a good thing.

Nationally, J-street, a liberal pro-Israel advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., has
voiced vehement criticism of Netanyahu’s address to Congress. J-Street’s vice president
for communications, Alan Elsner, said the Boehner invitation was unwarranted.“American Jews are citizens of the United States and take part in the democratic systems and they do not need the prime minister coming here to represent them,” Elsner said. “We thought it was a very cynical play.”

Among conservatives, Dov Hikind, the prominent New York State Assemblyman,
speaking to Newsmax TV in early February, decried “This determination to undermine
the prime minister on an issue that involves an existential threat to the people of Israel, to
the state of Israel. It’s real,” he said. “This is not a minor detail, a minor issue. I mean
what are they afraid of in the White House that the prime minster is going to do when
he’s in Washington? Crazy”

Some experts argue that the perceived political machinations by speaker John Boehner could
overshadow Netanyahu’s message. “People who are on the fence are going to look at this
and, rather than look at Netanyahu’s substantive message, will be more perturbed and
say, ‘here comes this foreign leader interfering with a president who is engaged in
sensitive negotiations,’” said Martin Flaherty, professor at both the Princeton Woodrow
Wilson school of Public and International Affairs and Fordham Law School.

Although it is not expressly prohibited, nor is it the first time that this has occurred,
Flaherty said, inviting a foreign leader to address the legislative branch violates a basic
interpretation of the constitution, which recognizes the president as the “sole organ of
foreign relations” with the authority to “receive foreign leaders.”

According to a Gallup Poll taken shortly after his March 3rd speech, Netanyahu’s
approval rating in America went down seven percentage points after the speech, falling
from 45 percent to 38 percent. In a similar light, a CNN/ORC poll (ORC International is
a company that explores, navigates synthesizes data) showed that 63 percent of
Americans disapproved of Speaker Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu. But in another
survey conducted by Paragon Insights, a surprising 45 percent felt that it was imperative
that Netanyahu makes his case and “address congress.”

Iranian officials have previously issued threats against Israel, including threats to
annihilate the Jewish state if the United States were to attack Iran. Israel, meanwhile, is
widely considered to be a nuclear power, although it has never said so.