By Ian Wendrow
Listen Up, Lansing
LANSING– Earlier this month, the world was abuzz as Benjamin Netanyahu secured his fourth term as prime minister of Israel after delivering a dramatic speech in front of the U.S. Congress.
The speech was controversial well before it began. Political experts critiqued the timing of the speech, the impact it could have on nuclear negotiations with Iran, and fraying relations between Israel and the United States. But another controversy was brewing among those who Netanyahu claimed to represent, political leanings irrelevant.
He referred to his visit to Congress as a “historic mission” in which he acted as an “emissary of all Israelis, even those who disagree with me, of the entire Jewish people,” the Washington Post reported.
“I take offense at that statement. He doesn’t speak for me or many of the people in our congregation,” said David Weiner, president of the board of directors at the Kehillat Israel synagogue in Lansing.
As a member of Kehillat Israel’s congregation for over 40 years, Weiner’s views reflect not only his own but that of the synagogue and others among the reconstructionist branch of Judaism, an American-based Jewish movement that emphasizes modernity and adapting Jewish principles to secular lifestyles.
“We [Kehillat Israel] don’t have an official statement but we’ve had lots of informal conversation and most of our members found the statement out of order. He creates a potential negative reaction not just on the part of the administration but other Americans whether they be elected officials or not,” Weiner said during a phone interview.
On the other end of the spectrum are those like Rabbi Hendel Weingarten, head of the Chabad house in Lansing. Chabad is another movement among the Jewish faith that sends rabbis around the world to establish synagogues and help Jews reconnect with their faith.
Weingarten sees Netanyahu’s visit as a necessary display of solidarity and strength among the Jewish people.
“He’s just defending the Jewish state. There hasn’t been an opportunity like this for people to hear the voice of the Jewish people in such a strong tone,” Weingarten said.
When asked about whether Netanyahu had the authority to speak for Jews, Weingarten insisted that current political realities made it so that Netanyahu had to be that authority figure.
“When Jews are in danger, there has to be a leader. We need to have a strong leader with the willpower to be able to overcome all the enemies of the Jews,” he said.
Weingarten then produced a clip of a younger Netanyahu speaking to the Rebbe, the founder of the Chabad movement and a significant spiritual leader among all Jews.
In the clip, the Rebbe is seen speaking positively on Netanyahu’s recent election to the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) and granting him advice for the future, to which Netanyahu thanks the Rebbe for his spiritual guidance.
Weingarten insisted on showing the video to illustrate the point that Netanyahu must act not only as the political head of Israel but also as a religious representative.
“By having a strong nation through Israel we have a strong Jewish faith,” Weingarten said.
In between the two extremes, there are the younger generation of Jews who took a more diplomatic approach to Netanyahu’s claim.
“I was pretty surprised to hear that,” said Nate Strauss, a junior in James Madison College studying comparative cultures and politics and president of the Jewish Student Union at Michigan State University.
“I think his statement on representing Jews worldwide was not the best choice of words. While I am Jewish and support Israel, I know that there are some people that identify as Jewish and disagree with the concept of Israel or have many problems with the country,” he said.
At the very least, the response from the Jewish community to Netanyahu’s visit has been anything but unified. In between those who boycotted the speech or supported it outright, there are those who assessed where Netanyahu was coming from and whether there was some truth to be found in his polarizing speech.
“I think that he really believes even more so that he’s looking out for and protecting, as the Israeli president, Jews from around the world,” said associate professor Yael Aronoff, chair of Israeli Studies and Director of the Jewish Studies Program at Michigan State University.
Amid the media circus surrounding Netanyahu’s visit, Aronoff believes that a calm and collected response to the prime minister’s speech would be beneficial to both American Jews and Israelis.
“Even though he [Netanyahu] has made plenty of exaggerated statements about Iran’s nuclear capabilities or foreign policy in general in the Middle East, that doesn’t mean all of his opinions should be discarded. There is some level of caution that’s needed with Iran and the ongoing civil war in Syria…to do otherwise would be irresponsible,” she said.