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The Difference Between Netanyahu and Trump

A missive to my progressive friends in the United States who dislike Israel’s elected leadership
Leon Wiener Dow is a former research fellow and faculty member at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He received his BA from Princeton University, his MA in Jewish thought from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, private rabbinic ordination from Rabbi Professor David Hartman, and a PhD in philosophy from Bar-Ilan University. His book U’vlekhtekha Va’derekh (Hebrew, Bar Ilan University Press, 2017) constructs an approach to halakha based on the thought of Franz Rosenzweig. His book The

First published by Times of Israel


The Trump phenomenon has provided me with a fair share of amusement, a bit of unease, and – most unexpectedly – enormous complacency, as I watch him surprise pundits on the left and the right, and consolidate power as each primary brings him another convincing victory.

As scary and offensive as Donald Trump is, I have found myself following his success with jaw agape, but also with a smile on my face. Though it took me a while, I finally understood the source of my happiness: I’m hoping that my progressive friends in the United States (and perhaps elsewhere, too), will understand the difference between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Donald Trump.

Both Netanyahu and Trump are masterful political manipulators, and both have figured out how to use the antagonism of their critics to bolster their support. Both soar in popularity when they find themselves in mud-slinging contests with the media. Both seem on the verge of foundering, and then not only maintain their status but strengthen it. Both disparage the stupidity of those who think otherwise than they do. Both take extreme, offensive positions and then ride the waves of hatred and xenophobia they have stirred to garner political gain. Both stake their careers – and build them – on an aesthetic of power.

There is, however, a difference between Netanyahu and Trump – and I’m not talking about the disparate rhetorical styles of the two (Surprisingly, Netanyahu, the Israeli, is the polished one.); that’s merely tactical. The difference is that Netanyahu is in Israel, while Trump is in the U.S. – and that means three things.

First, it means that if we place their politics of fear side-by-side, only one of them is situated in a geopolitical reality of genuine existential threat. That doesn’t justify Netanyahu’s positions, but it does serve to highlight just how extreme Trump’s are. It also makes the groundswell of support for Netanyahu that much more understandable – as well as the landslide support for Trump all the more astounding. And embarrassing.

Second, it means that those of us who are disaffected with Netanyahu can’t afford to joke (or be serious) about crossing our northern border into the next country over, as my American friends are doing as you gaze at the stark possibility that Donald Trump may well be the 45th President of the United States. This is not merely because Lebanon doesn’t beckon us in quite the same way that Canada does you. It is also because the reality of Israel makes the nature of collective political existence abundantly clear: to be committed to a vision of how my country ought to be, means that after I’ve lost at the ballot box, I must dig in my heels in protest and in committed opposition, mindful that the very existence of the country is a gift that hoists upon me the heavy burden of citizenship.

The United States and Israel are both experiments; only for one of them would a misstep possibly result not only in a failure of the experiment, but in the closing of the laboratory – lights out, doors sealed.

Third, it means that should Trump be elected, your fate and mine, as members of dissenting minorities in our respective countries, will be fundamentally divergent. When you travel abroad, I’m guessing, you won’t often encounter heaps of strident, personal antipathy for you based on your country’s leadership. You won’t risk boycott, or be lumped in with Trump and his policies by a syllogism that equates you, your country, and “your” elected leadership, denying you the very possibility of opposing your highest elected officials’ positions and policies, while still being a proud, loyal member of your country.

So, while I hope for the sake of the United States (and the rest of the world) that Trump is not your next president, and that he does not win the Republican nomination, the very fact that he has made it this far gives me reason to smile nervously, in the hope that you will come to understand the magnitude of that one, significant difference between Netanyahu and Trump.

You care about Israel, peoplehood, and vibrant, ethical Jewish communities. We do too.

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