Jewish Journal

Bibi’s Boo-boo

by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin

December 10, 2013 | 11:45 am

If you believe that the Jews are a small people and a large family, then consider the various familial roles that Israeli prime ministers have played in our global mishpacha.

There was Golda Meir, the ultimate Jewish grandmother.

There was Menachem Begin, our pugnacious great-uncle who sometimes embarrassed us.

And then, there's Benjamin Netanyahu. Interesting to note that, of all Israeli prime ministers, he's the only one who has an endearing, even childlike, nickname -- Bibi. That's the way we feel about him. In our family drama, Bibi is the cousin who sometimes behaves as a boor, the cousin who has elevated the faux pas into a form of ballet.

Oh, like, let's see -- skipping Nelson Mandela's memorial because of a cash flow issue.

It’s not as if Netanyahu does not admire Mandela – this, despite Mr. Mandela’s often-conflicted relationship with the State of Israel. "Nelson Mandela was one of the outstanding figures of our time," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. "He was the father of his nation, a man of vision, a fighter for freedom who avoided violence. He was a humble man who provided a personal example for his nation during the long years he spent in prison."

Far be it for me to lecture the Prime Minister of the state of Israel on social and political niceties, but here are a few things that Mr. Netanyahu should have considered when thinking about his travel plans.

Israel is the most isolated country in the world. Don’t add to it. In the book of Numbers, the pagan prophet, Balaam, called the Jews a "people that dwells alone." But that was not supposed to be a blessing. I have never appreciated the bellicosity of some Israeli leaders (and others) who seem to relish our pariah status. For every other important world leader to have been at the memorial, and for the prime minister of the Jewish state to sit it out, is both bad form and bad public relations. 

The Prime Minister of the state of Israel represents all Jews. Yes -- like it or not. Here's why. The State of Israel is the Jewish state; ergo, the head of the government of the Jewish state is perceived to be the “king of the Jews.” Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decisions in such matters of state, and as a representative of the State of Israel, reflect on all Jews. You can't say "we are one" without knowing that. 

Appearing to “boycott” the memorial service of the most important black person in the world looks racist. It's not, of course -- but tell that to Israel's critics, who form a line to micromanage everything that Israel does or appears to do.  Woody Allen said: "Ninety percent of life is just showing up." Appearances matter. 

And now, for me, the most important reason – and the most overlooked.

Prime Minister Netanyahu should have gone to South Africa for Nelson Mandela’s memorial – simply because it is in South Africa.

Let’s remember the role that a certain place in South Africa has in contemporary Jewish consciousness. I am referring to the United Nations anti-racism conferences in Durban. The Durban conference in 2001 seemed to have one purpose – to brand Israel and the Jewish people as being racist. Jewish delegates faced vulgar anti-semitic intimidation. Some hid their badges out of fear of being attacked. There were exhibits of anti-semitic hate literature. There were pamphlets that caricatured Jews and posters in which the Star of David was overlapped with the swastika. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was available for purchase.

In the words of Robert Wistrich: “Durban became the tipping point for the coalescence of a new, virulent, globalizing anti-Jewishness reminiscent of the atmospherics that pervaded Europe in the 1930s.”

Durban was the Woodstock of contemporary Jew hatred.

That is precisely why Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu should have attended the memorial. It would have been its own statement: “In a country whose doors have been open to those who would make the Jews into the ultimate Other, this Jewish leader, representing the only Jewish state that exists in the world, is here to say that you will no longer demonize us. We are part of the world. We are part of the coalition of the decent.”

If only Bibi had gone.

He would have been carrying the reputation of the Jewish people with him in his suitcase. 

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Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin is one of America’s most prolific and most-quoted rabbis, whose colleagues have called him an “activist for Jewish ideas.” An award-winning writer...

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