Israel’s Right-Wing Ambassador to the U.S. Plays to the Trump Crowd in New York City
Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer is a virtuoso of propaganda. As he sat in Shmuley Boteach’s Upper West Side townhouse on Thursday trading stories and jokes with the occasional rabbi and full-time Republican political operative, he made whitewashing Israeli crimes look easy. The intimate gathering was Dermer’s effort to endear himself to the Trump crowd, of which Shmuley is undoubtedly a part. Netanyahu has become a persona non grata to liberal Jewry, so instead Dermer regaled an aging right-wing crowd that represents the only remaining Jewish communal bastion for whom unapologetic atrocities can be defended without objection.
Nicknamed “Bibi’s brain,” Dermer grew up in Miami Beach, where his father served as the Republican mayor, helping to elect George W. Bush as president in 2000. He has longstanding ties to both Israeli politics (his mother is Israeli and he is a protege of Likudnik Israeli politician Natan Sharansky) and the Republican Party establishment. Dermer recently helped orchestrate Netanyahu’s bellicose speech in Congress advocating against the Obama administration’s Iran deal and inspiring a boycott by 58 Democratic lawmakers.
Dermer’s right-wing bona fides dovetail nicely with Shmuley’s resume. Shmuley ran a failed campaign for congress as a Republican New Jersey and has consistently supported the most reactionary elements in Israeli politics while forging ties with right-wing American politicians like Ted Cruz and, most recently, Donald Trump.
After palling around with Trump and praising his foreign policy, Shmuley has backpedaled in recent weeks, publically criticizing Trump’s ban on Muslims and racist comments about Judge Gonzalo Curiel. He stopped short of a full condemnation, however, proclaiming that “his vote is now up in the air.” So far, Shmuley has stayed mum on the recent controversy over Trump tweeting an anti-Hillary meme from a white supremacist website, which used a Star of David as an anti-semitic dog whistle. Shmuley maintains his column at the New York Observer -- the house organ of the Trump campaign owned by Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner -- despite the recent protest by the Observer’s Dana Schwartz, a Jewish entertainment writer, over the anti-Semitic tone the Trump campaign has taken.
In a practical sense, the event did not serve any particular purpose other than to raise a few dollars for Shmuley, and from my vantage point – sitting at the bottom of a mahogany staircase, directly under a chandelier – this didn’t seem like much of a reason at all. But anyone familiar with Shmuley’s M.O. could tell you that for him it’s as good an excuse as any.
The question of why Dermer agreed to be part of the event is more unclear. He and Shmuley are close friends, to be sure, but that’s been true for many years. And of course the Israeli propaganda machine never shies away from an opportunity, though based on the small audience and the event’s two-digit view count on YouTube, his wasn’t exactly this best way to get the word out -- in a Freudian slip, Shmuley posted the video under the “comedy” category.
Rows of chairs were set up in the second floor of the opulent townhouse, which like Shmuley’s previous home appeared to serve a dual purpose as both his personal residence and the headquarters of The World Values Network from which he draws his salary. Lining the walls were framed copies of his provocative -- and extremely expensive -- New York Times ads attacking everyone from Samantha Power to President Obama as insidious anti-Semites throwing the Jewish people to the wolves. Though several of Shmuley’s children were present, there were no pictures of them in sight.
Shmuley began by introducing himself as the “Rabbi at Oxford” -- a non-existent title -- and mentioning how his relationship with Dermer dates back to their time as classmates in Miami. Dermer was also president of Shmuley’s infamous L’Chaim society at Oxford. Shmuley even referred to Dermer as his “student” even though Shmuley never worked at the university. He went on to describe Dermer’s mother Yaffa as a “ferocious lioness,” which he apparently meant as a compliment.
Dermer began with a long, discursive statement in which he blamed the conflict on Palestinian intransigence and praised right-wing Zionist granddaddy Ze'ev Jabotinsky’s militaristic “Iron Wall” doctrine, implicitly cementing his allegiance to the Israeli far-right. The crux of the issue, Dermer alleged, was “the refusal of the Palestinians to recognize the right of a nation-state for the Jewish people in any boundary.” It was telling that to Dermer, the validity of a state based on ethnic identity (something many Jews reject) should not even be up for debate.
There was a constant tension in Dermer’s spiel between extolling Israel’s supposed self-reliance and strength with a half-hearted attempted to give thanks for the U.S. government’s billions of dollars in aid. “We are grateful for the support we get from the United States,” said Dermer, “we get considerable military assistance from the United States.” The depiction of Israel as both an independent stronghold of the Jewish people as well as a country dependent on American assistance pointed to a cognitive dissonance that supporters of Israel can never seem to acknowledge.
The rest of the discussion proceeded along the same lines as most right-wing pro-Israel events, with a few particularly inflammatory lines thrown in, such as when Dermer claimed that the Palestinian leadership wanted their state to be “Judenrein,” or free of Jews. As the Likudnik buddy team rattled off talking points I scanned the room to see how the crowd was holding up. The attendees were well-dressed and stoic for the most part, apart from a woman in a red Target t-shirt who nodded in agreement while excitedly scribbling in a black-and-white composition notebook.
As the crowd filed out of the event, I waited in line to use a bathroom with gold-plated fixtures that looked like the product of an interior design collaboration between Marie Antoinette and Tony Montana. The man in front of me leaned over and said, “nice place, huh?” I smiled politely and nodded in agreement. “Cost a few sheckles, this place, eh? If you know New York real estate you know what I mean.” Just then, Shmuley strode by. “You’re the man, Shmuley!” the guy in front of me bellowed. The rabbi was too busy yelling at his young daughter to get off her phone to pay him any mind. “You’re the best!” the man continued.
The small crowd packed into Shmuley’s townhouse embodied the increasingly hermetic world that mainstream Zionism occupies. There were no black or brown faces, no dissenting opinions, and no doubt that the outrageous claims of Israel’s chief mouthpiece should be taken as gospel. Trump wasn’t mentioned much, but it was clear from the tone of the discussion that his bigotry would be just as welcomed in this rarified slice of the Upper West Side as it was in the D.C. stadium that hosted his AIPAC speech. So what happens when people look past the level-headed facade of Israeli propaganda and see the Trump-like hatred lurking underneath? Dermer may be slick, but if his ideal audience is an aging crowd of myopic bigots and his interlocutor a far-right grifter who only plays a rabbi on TV, he and the country he represents are in very deep trouble.