As Arab-hating Fundamentalists Take Center Stage in Israeli Politics, U.S. Jews Must Step In
Religious Jews in Israel and the U.S. must recognize and stand up to the danger that Ben-Gvir and Smotrich constitute to Israel’s democracy and society.
Israeli Orthodoxy is descending into depravity. In both the religious-Zionist and Haredi wings of Orthodoxy, the Kahanists are taking center stage, presenting themselves as the true voice of Jewish religion in the Jewish state.
But the established rabbinical leaders in both camps sit silent. They are afraid to confront head-on the fanatic duo of Kahanist Itamar Ben-Gvir and extremist Bezalel Smotrich. These two, and the kooks, freaks, hooligans and aspiring fascists who stand with them, are nothing less than a poison in the lifeblood of Israel and the Jewish world.
And American Jews, it should be noted, have been far too passive as well. To them, the threat is not yet completely apparent.
At the moment, Ben-Gvir and Smotrich lead separate, small parties. But they are likely to unite once again, under the banner of the Religious Zionism party, for the upcoming election. According to one recent poll, if their joint list is headed by Ben-Gvir, a disciple of the late radical terrorist Rabbi Meir Kahane, it will win 13 seats and become the third-largest party in the Knesset.
And how exactly will Ben-Gvir – along with the bullying thugs who make up his base – pull this off? He will do it by following the lead of Kahane, his teacher and mentor, who dreamed of Israel as a halakhic state with biblical borders, and preached a message of Jewish superiority.
Like Kahane, Ben-Gvir offers Arabs in the Land of Israel a choice between expulsion and servitude, with threats of extermination thrown in from time to time. Like Kahane, he searches the Torah for odes to violence, and then ignores the rabbinical commentaries that offer the opposite message. Like Kahane, he embraces messianism and Judaism’s darkest side, inciting Jews against Arabs at every opportunity.
And his target group is not only the kippa-wearing settler extremists of the national-religious camp, but also the ultra-Orthodox community.
Once, the Haredim were immune to such arguments. But no longer.
Meir Kahane was a pariah in the 1980s, not only for secular Jews, but for most Orthodox ones as well.
But Ben-Gvir, today’s Kahanist, is a rock star among the Orthodox. This raging, racist Jew with a mob stands astride Israel’s Orthodox religious world, basking in the adoration of the religious masses. And for Judaism and Torah, this is nothing less than an abomination.
And yet, at precisely the moment when they are needed most, the Orthodox rabbinical leaders who should be sounding the alarm are nowhere to be found. Some agree with Ben-Gvir and cheer him on. Some are somewhat sympathetic, with reservations. And many oppose him, but have been intimidated into silence, afraid to offend their own supporters who back him.
Take the case of Rabbi Meir Eliyahu, a Shas spiritual leader who preaches a weekly Torah lesson at the Yazdim synagogue in Jerusalem.
As reported last month by Amihai Attali of Yedioth Ahronoth, Eliyahu offered comments that included a harsh attack on Naftali Bennett, who at the time was still serving as Prime Minister. He then said that for those who had voted for Bennett, atonement might be found by voting next time for Ben-Gvir. At that moment, his audience broke into thunderous applause. The rabbi appeared to be surprised, but continued heaping praise on Ben-Gvir, wishing him success and God’s blessing.
Seizing the opportunity, Ben-Gvir appeared at Eliyahu’s next lecture. Those in attendance surrounded and embraced him, and many took pictures with him. These photos and videos of the event were quickly shared on social media by hundreds of thousands of Ben-Gvir’s followers.
Let us be clear about what is happening here: An Arab-despising Jewish fundamentalist, who has latched onto a perverse reading of Torah that supports faith-based violence, has become the rising star of Israel’s Haredi community. Simultaneously, he is the most popular politician among the settler-dominated religious Zionist movement. He, perhaps more than any other individual, now represents Israeli Orthodoxy to the world.
It is true that Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, fearful of losses Shas might suffer to Ben-Gvir’s party, publicly attacked him at his own weekly lecture at the Yazdim synagogue. But his attack was focused entirely on ritual matters related to the Temple Mount. Not a word was uttered about the entire toxic traveling circus that Ben-Gvir and his ultra-Orthodox hangers-on have become. Not a single reference was made to Ben-Gvir’s contempt for Arabs, his incessant incitement, and his rush to jettison the fundamental principles at the heart of Torah and religious Zionism.
What good is a “chief rabbi” who is prepared to silence his conscience on matters so central to Judaism’s sacred teachings? Why does such a “chief rabbi” even exist?
Some Israelis tell me that I am exaggerating the danger. Ben-Gvir, they say, is a minor figure, a “neo-Kahanist” who lacks the fire and the passion of the original version. Benjamin Netanyahu, they say, is aware of the risks, and will distance himself from Ben-Gvir. And Smotrich, however bad he may be, is basically an establishment politician and no Kahanist at all.
I am not reassured. I would submit that a “neo-Kahanist” is simply a Kahanist acting with guile, in the hope that he won’t be banned from the election for inciting racism.
And if Bibi’s “bloc of the faithful” – Likud, the Religious Zionism party, and the Haredi parties – reaches 61 mandates, Ben-Gvir will be king of Israel. Could he be Defense Minister, Public Security Minister, or even Justice Minister in a Ben-Gvir-Bibi government? Yes, yes, and yes.
As for Smotrich, he could be a senior minister as well. And while he lacks Ben-Gvir’s Kahanist legacy, their views are now essentially indistinguishable. Both push to annex settlements and the Jordan Valley to sovereign Israel. Both work to normalize hatred of Arabs as a legitimate political argument. Both proclaim the legitimacy of Jewish dominance over the non-Jewish population of Israel. And on and on.
And this too: Both cloak their rhetoric of hate in a counterfeit language of Torah, desecrating God’s name in the process.
American Jews have a responsibility here.
Their ability to influence the election in Israel is minimal. They can only hope that sensible Israelis will oppose Ben-Gvir and Smotrich, and that the many Orthodox Israelis of all camps who find them abhorrent will organize against them.
But before the election on November 1, there are three things that they can and should do.
First, their representative bodies must publicly declare that Zionism and religious Judaism cannot coexist with a cult of Ben-Gvir.
With Ben-Gvir presuming to head them, religious Jews who support him have crossed a psychic barrier and plunged into new territory. What was once despicable and an affront to Torah now, somehow, no longer is. It is up to Jewish leaders in America to reassert Judaism’s moral core.
Second, they must say to Benjamin Netanyahu, and do it now, that if he becomes Prime Minister and appoints Ben-Gvir or Smotrich a minister in his government, neither one will be received by American Jews. No meetings with the Conference of Presidents, AIPAC, Jewish federations, religious bodies, or the major defense organizations. And American Jews must make clear that they will ask their government to boycott them as well.
Their model should be the Board of Deputies of British Jews, an organization with an august history and one recognized by the British government, which responded to Smotrich’s arrival in London in February with an unprecedented statement: “We reject Smotrich’s abominable views and hateful ideology. Get back on the plane, Bezalel, and be remembered as a disgrace forever. You are not welcome here.”
At the time, Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, scolded the Board for its “deeply inappropriate” actions, forgetting that when Kahane would rise to speak in the Knesset, virtually the entire body, led by Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, would walk out of the chamber. If Israel’s most conservative prime minister refused to be in the room for Kahane’s vile diatribes, then surely American Jews have no obligation to “come together and talk,” as Herzog suggested, with Kahane’s spiritual heirs.
And, finally, American Jewish leaders must reject the revisionist efforts now underway to present Meir Kahane as an admirable Jew gone astray. A good example is a review-essay by political scientist Samuel Goldman in Mosaic magazine, published on July 5, that deals in part with Kahane. Goldman acknowledges Kahane’s extremism and his ultimate turn to terror, but does so in a way that maximizes his supposed virtues – in Goldman’s words, he was “a genuinely right-wing Jew,” an admirable proponent of “hadar” (Jewish pride), an insightful thinker with enduring appeal to the young who posed important theological questions, a defender of Jews whose political instincts are still relevant, etc., etc. – and minimizes his failings.
A reader of the article lacking knowledge of context and of history might reasonably assume that Kahane was a fine fellow with valuable and well-meaning thoughts, who, alas, at some point lost his way. In fact, Kahane was a moral monster, who proposed Nazi-like laws in the Knesset – which ultimately expelled him, in 1988 – and asserted that the Torah endorses genocide. Surely there is no greater test of our integrity as Jews than our ability to see Kahane for exactly what he was.
Thank you, Eric. Ben Gvir and Smotrich are very dangerous people. They represent the dark underside of Israeli politics. Do I fault the so-called chief rabbis for not speaking out? Sure. But as you pointed out – many members of the Knesset are also very reluctant to speak out today – unlike in the dark days of Kahane. The parallel in the United States is starkly clear. In the presence of clear and present danger, there is silence. Silence from so-called leaders and silence from those who would be expected to know better. The enemy is that silence, not just the chief rabbis. The silence eloquently describes our future.
As the pundit said “Jews are like everyone else, only more so”. Everything you said could, mutatis mutandis , be said about the almost universal silence and considerable support of republicans to the depredations of Trump and his fellow travelers. More and more we see once fringe ideas becoming normalized. No surprise to see the same in Israel.
Your post of July 28th, for me, is one of the most important of any that I have read in these many years that I follow you. To say thank you is not enough. I will make an effort to divulge this to all my contacts in the Jewish Community. In the last two years, I have become a virtual member of “The Neighborhood” of Central Synagogue in Manhattan. It truly is my spiritual home. I am sure that many of its Rabbis have already seen it. But, I will check!
Hope this finds you well.
Thank you for this. This may be clear, but is not the rise of neo-Kahanism in Israel similar to the repeat rise of Christian nationalism in the United States, where I live and, hopefully, continue to live a free Jewish life?! Our response to the prejudices there and here must be the same, as you state: When we disagree with others, we might do so rationally and respectfully. But when the other side denies the very humanity of their opponents, they have crossed the line and their bigotry should place them in herem, out of the camp.