Subscribe To our E-Newsletter
From Father to Son, the Netanyahu Legacy in Washington
The response that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received when he addressed Congress last month came from both sides of the aisle. Democrats and Republicans took part in the numerous standing ovations. Afterward, both parties made statements criticizing President Barack Obama's positions and supporting Israel's.
But perhaps it's not so surprising that the prime minister attracted such bipartisan support since his father accomplished something similar 67 years ago.
In the summer of 1944, 34-year-old Benzion Netanyahu was the executive director of the American wing of Ze'ev Jabotinsky's Revisionist Zionist movement.
Benzion's task was to mobilize support in Washington for free Jewish immigration to Palestine and the creation of a Jewish state. That was no small job at a time when the British opposed both, and Roosevelt preferred not to intervene.
The Revisionists often used tactics that mainstream Zionists considered too aggressive. Netanyahu and his colleagues placed large advertisements in The New York Times and other papers with headlines such as "The White Paper Must Be Smashed, if Millions of Jews Are to Be Saved!" and "Is America to Be a Party to the Palestine Betrayal?"
These challenges to Allied policy did not sit well with Jewish leaders such as Rabbi Stephen Wise, who was loyal to President Roosevelt and the Democrats.
Much to the Jewish establishment's chagrin, Netanyahu cultivated relationships with Republicans in Congress. For Wise, building relations with FDR's foes was inconceivable. For Netanyahu, it was common sense. Roosevelt had no incentive to address Jewish concerns if he believed Jewish votes were in his pocket.
Only if there was a threat of Jews voting Republican would FDR reconsider his cold policy toward Jewish refugees.
In the months leading up to the June 1944 Republican National Convention, Netanyahu and his colleagues began "a systematic campaign of enlightenment." They met with former President Herbert Hoover, 1936 GOP presidential candidate Alf Landon and influential Republicans in Congress such as Rep. Clare Booth Luce (wife of the publisher of Time and Life). At a Revisionist dinner that spring, Luce said Great Britain's blockade of Jewish refugee ships bound for Palestine was to blame for the fact that "Jewish blood stains the blue Mediterranean red."
In their meetings, the Revisionists asked the Republicans to include a pro-Zionist plank in their 1944 platform. Neither party had ever formally endorsed the cause of statehood, but the GOP leaders clearly were sympathetic.
Meanwhile, an additional lobbying effort was begun by Abba Hillel Silver, the Cleveland rabbi who in 1943 had been elevated to co-chairmanship of the American Zionist movement with Wise.
The GOP's final platform not only endorsed Jewish statehood in Palestine, as Silver wanted, but also criticized Roosevelt, as Netanyahu wanted. It declared: "We condemn the failure of the President to insist that the mandatory of Palestine carry out the provisions of the Balfour Declaration and of the mandate while he pretends to support them."
Furious, Wise dashed off a letter to Roosevelt declaring that he was "deeply ashamed" of the "utterly unjust" wording of the Republican plank. In the pages of the Revisionist journal Zionews, Netanyahu commented: "It seems that to Dr. Wise and his friends, partisan politics are more important than truth and the interests of their people and their country."
The Republican Party's move had consequences: It compelled the Democrats to compete for Jewish support. The Democratic National Convention in July 1944 for the first time endorsed "unrestricted Jewish immigration and colonization" of Palestine and the establishment of "a free and democratic Jewish commonwealth."
All this helped ensure that support for Zionism, and later for Israel, became part of our politics. Subsequent party conventions have adopted planks supporting Israel. To do less was unthinkable.
The bipartisan support for Israel on Capitol Hill last month represented the continuation of a tradition in foreign policy. The seeds sown by the father in 1944 were reaped by the son nearly seven decades later.