Inside Story'I thought that it must've been Netanyahu who said that'

Prominent Zionists laud Biden’s remark that no Jew anywhere is safe without Israel

Abe Foxman, Natan Sharansky and Dani Dayan say president’s unprecedented statement shows understanding of how most Jews feel, though it angers some Jews more critical of Israel

Canaan Lidor

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

US President Joe Biden meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York, September 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
US President Joe Biden meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York, September 20, 2023. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

US President Joe Biden on Wednesday uttered a remark that few expected to hear from the leader of a country where close to half of the world’s Jewish population lives: He said that without Israel, no Jew anywhere is safe.

“Because even where we have some differences, my commitment to Israel, as you know, is ironclad. I think without Israel, there’s not a Jew in the world who’s secure. I think Israel is essential,” Biden told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York, in their first meeting since Netanyahu returned to serving as prime minister in January. The meeting was focused on geopolitics, not the security of world Jewry.

When speaking about Israel, previous US presidents, including Biden, have stressed the United States’ commitment to Israel’s safety, citing shared values and the Jewish state’s significance as a geopolitical ally. But none had tied Israel’s security to the safety of Jews abroad and, by implication, also those in the United States, according to the former head of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman.

The remark may afford an insight into how Biden, who often reminds listeners that he’s met every Israeli prime minister since Golda Meir, thinks about the Jewish state. But it also touches on one of the most sensitive issues of Jewish communities outside Israel: their own governments’ commitment to their security and religious needs regardless of Israel.

“I think it’s absolutely magnificent for him to understand it and articulate what many of us feel and believe,” Foxman said, referring to Zionist Jews. “It’s the most Zionist thing I’ve ever heard a US president say.”

Usually, Foxman added, “it’s what Israeli leaders are saying, and when they say it, this makes some American Jews uncomfortable.”

Abraham Foxman, national director emeritus for the Anti-Defamation League, speaks at the Israeli American Council’s eighth annual summit in Austin, Texas, on January 20, 2023. (David Finkel photography)

Biden’s remark quickly raised the ire of Jews who are more critical of Israel.
“When you recognize it’s the forces of white supremacy Biden perpetuated his entire career that keep Jews as a perpetual ‘other,’ this comment is an anti/philosemitic death threat,” Em Cohen, an anti-Israel blogger from New York who has called Israel a “Jewish Zionist settler-colony,” wrote on X.

Antony Loewenstein, a Jewish Australian-German journalist who accused Israel of “exporting the technology of occupation,” wrote on X about Biden’s remark: “This statement is simply untrue as Israel and its endless occupation of Palestine has undeniably increased insecurity for Jews across the globe.”

The Biden remark also made Ben Friedman, policy director at Defense Priorities, an American foreign policy think tank based in Washington, DC, raise an eyebrow. “Biden here implies that the US can’t keep Jews safe?” Friedman wondered on X.

Full text: Biden and Netanyahu’s public remarks at their New York meeting

The quote does not, however, appear to have been interpreted by American Jews as transferring responsibility for the security of American Jews from the United States to Israel.

When asked about this potential aspect of Biden’s remark, Foxman dismissed out of hand the notion of the president shaking off responsibility for the security of American Jews and attributed any security fears to the actions of former president Donald Trump.

“No, it wasn’t meant like that,” Foxman said of Biden’s remark. “Our vision is very much that America is a safe place for a lot of people. But also remember after Trump, America closed its borders,” Foxman said.

Natan Sharansky speaks during a conference of the Jewish Agency, at the Orient Hotel in Jerusalem, on June 24, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Natan Sharansky, a former head of the Jewish Agency, had an explanation for why Biden’s remark was not widely seen as othering American Jews.

“Biden’s remark, which was made in passing and not in some speech, makes the most sense if you add one word, which is ‘feel,’” Sharansky said.

“I believe Biden meant to say that no Jew in the world can feel secure without Israel, which captures how most of the Jewish world, in my opinion, feels about Israel. It’s a shelter. But it’s also the focus of an identity, and for the religious the fulfillment of a divine commitment. It’s very good that we have a US president who gets it,” Sharansky said.

Sharansky initially did not believe that Biden had made the remark.

“I didn’t watch the exchange, I only read the transcript and at first I thought the transcript must have gotten mixed up and that it was Netanyahu who said this. Israeli leaders say this all the time. I used to say it. But now we’re hearing it from an American president,” Sharansky said.

US President Joe Biden (R) embraces President Isaac Herzog (L) during the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah Games at Teddy Stadium in Jerusalem on July 14, 2022. (RONEN ZVULUN / POOL / AFP)

Yet Biden’s remarks, Sharansky said, do not line up with his administration’s attempts to negotiate a deal with Iran that would allow that country some nuclear capabilities.

“Biden’s Iran policy is incompatible with that of someone who both wants Jews to be secure and believes Israel guarantees it,” Sharansky said. But, he added, “there are many committed, dyed-in-the-wool liberal Zionists who want to believe that a deal can be reached. There is a sharp divide over this issue.”

Proponents of resuming the US-led nuclear deal with Iran, which former president Barack Obama finalized but which his successor Trump withdrew from, say that it blocks Iran’s path to nuclear weapons because it forces the Islamic Republic to abandon this project in exchange for sanctions relief and trade.

US former president Barack Obama, accompanied by former secretary of state John Kerry, meets with veterans and Gold Star Mothers to discuss the Iran Nuclear deal, Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015, in the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Critics of the deal, which was limited to a period of 10 years, say it legitimized a future nuclear Iranian after the deal’s expiration and ignored Iran’s sponsoring of international terrorism and threats to annihilate Israel.

Yad Vashem chief Dani Dayan in the Hall of Names at the Jerusalem museum, undated. (Alex Kolomoisky)

Dani Dayan, the chairman of Yad Vashem, Israel’s state museum for the Holocaust, said that Biden’s remark reflects a sentiment shared across the Jewish world and by Israel’s friends who are not Jewish.

“Israel is the guarantee that as long as we exist as an independent Jewish state, there will be no more St. Louises – the ship that departed from Germany in 1938 full of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi Germany only to be denied entry by American countries – in the oceans of this world and if God forbid there is, it will have a safe haven to dock in — the State of Israel,” said Dayan, a former Israeli consul general in New York.

Rafael Medoff, director of the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies in Washington, DC, said that Biden’s remark was merely an expression of common sense.

“President Biden was simply reiterating the obvious fact that it’s good there is an Israel to which persecuted Jews can flee. We all know what happened in the 1930s and 1940s when there was no Jewish state. Acknowledging that does not make one a Zionist; it’s just recognizing reality,” Medoff said.

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