How Can American Jews Confront Israel’s Horrific New Government?
American Jews are desperate for a plan on how to respond to the Team Crazy nightmare of Israel’s new government. From Homeland Security bans to telling the truth to our political allies, this is what I suggest.
Benjamin Netanyahu is putting the finishing touches on his new government, and American Jews are sickened and horrified by what they see.
Until now, some of us have been in desperate denial, hoping for a miracle. Others have been distracted, for good reason, by America’s own tempestuous and often terrible politics.
But now the reality of Israel’s nightmare must be confronted: Netanyahu is about to form the worst government in Israel’s history.
This is a government whose roster contains the names of soon-to-be ministers Itamar Ben-Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich, and Avi Maoz. And there is no mistaking who these characters are. Taken together, they are an existential threat to the state of Israel.
They are avowed enemies of the rule of law. They have no fidelity to the moral ideals of Zionism. They bring racism, homophobia, and religious primitivism to the government of the Jewish state. And they are likely to put a terrible dent in Israeli democracy.
And despite what the excuse-makers try to tell us, the fact is that Herzl would revile them, Ben-Gurion would detest them, and Menachem Begin would abhor them.
As recently as a year ago, there was a consensus across the political spectrum that these men were unfit for high office. Yet now they await their appointments and dominate the public square. And they shape the public perception of Israel, in the media and throughout the world.
How did this happen, American Jews are asking? They are desperate for a plan on how to respond, and in a moment, I will propose one.
But first, let us consider the threat that this trio presents.
If there is good news here, it is that the majority of Israelis did not support what these men advocate. Yes, they voted for a conservative government, but only 11 percent of Israeli voters backed the extremists and bullies that make up the Ben-Gvir/Smotrich/Maoz bloc.
In a saner system of government, a bloc of three parties winning 11 percent of the vote would have only modest clout. But Netanyahu outsmarted himself. He stitched the bloc together himself, afraid that otherwise the parties would disappear. He then kept his distance during the election, hoping to escape the taint of their racism and bigotry. But when he could not form a government without them, he put their extremism aside and caved in to their outrageous demands.
Whatever else may happen, the first paragraph of Netanyahu’s obituary has now been written. I wish Netanyahu a long life, but when the time comes, he will be identified as the prime minister who invited Kahanists, Jewish supremacists, and convicted criminals into the cabinet that he had painstakingly assembled.
How much damage can this government do? A great deal.
Itamar Ben-Gvir, the most anti-police and anti-Arab member of the Knesset, will be responsible for the ministry that controls the police and supervises the most difficult interactions between Arab and Jewish Israelis. Ben-Gvir’s appointment by Netanyahu is an act of pure idiocy.
Should a man who attends memorial services for Meir Kahane be entrusted with responsibility for the police? How can the lives and property of Israel’s Arab citizens be truly secure with the police under his control? And it is likely, even if Netanyahu discourages him, that Ben-Gvir will begin making official “tours” of the Temple Mount — visits that will provoke the entire Muslim world and could set the Middle East ablaze.
As for Smotrich, a ferocious advocate of settlements, he has been granted significant control of government activity in the territories. His messianist agenda includes settlement expansion and legalizing illegal outposts.
And this too: There exists in the territories a small number of true Jewish zealots—the hill-top youth, the renegade settlers, the would-be Jewish terrorists. Eradicating their illegal activity is difficult under the best of circumstances. But now that Netanyahu has put Ben-Gvir and the rest of Team Crazy into his government, these zealots may decide that they have a green light to go crazy themselves.
And then, of course, there is Avi Maoz, best known for his profound hatred of LGBTQ people and of non-Orthodox Judaism, who has been given authority over much of the curricula that are taught to the 800,000 children in the secular school system.
In short, the Ben-Gvir team might cause not only unrest and disruptions but chaos. And if that happens, they and their radical friends will welcome it.
And then there is the issue of the new government’s relationship with Diaspora Jewry.
Ben-Gvir, Smotrich, and Maoz have pledged to join with the ultra-Orthodox parties to pass laws invalidating Reform conversions and limiting the right of Diaspora Jews to immigrate to Israel and receive citizenship under the Law of Return. Further limitations on non-Orthodox prayer at the Kotel are also on the agenda.
For decades, Orthodox parties have been attempting to pass such laws. But until recently, all Israeli prime ministers found ways to avoid new legislation. This time, however, the proposed laws might actually pass.
Netanyahu shows no inclination to restrain his political partners; indeed, since 2017, when he abandoned the “Western Wall compromise,” he has been utterly indifferent to Diaspora Jewry’s religious concerns.
World Jewry’s commitments to Israel run deep and have remained strong. But eventually, a price will be exacted for Netanyahu’s dismissive attitude and for the religious radicalism of Ben-Gvir and company.
Diaspora Jewry knows that politics are politics. But it has always believed in Israel’s ability, at times like this, to transcend narrow coalition interests for the sake of the world Jewish family. That belief will be shattered, however, if Israel’s new government passes religious legislation proclaiming, in effect, that the State of Israel is the spiritual possession of only one segment of the Jewish people.
How then should the Jews of America react to the formation of this government?
First: We must tell the truth, to ourselves and our religious and political allies.
And the truth is that elements of this government will promote a racist, hate-filled, divisive, and vindictive view of politics and Judaism. We do not know if their view will determine Israel’s direction, but the danger is real.
We will show no deference to those who enable or legitimize these voices. And we will counter their lies with truth and the values of authentic Judaism.
As to anti-Arab racism, we know that it is anti-Jewish, and we will not tolerate it in any form. And we will demand that Israel’s new government do the same, in word and deed.
Second: We should ask the American government to deny Itamar Ben-Gvir a visa if he seeks to visit the United States.
Many American Jews have suggested that Jewish groups should refuse to meet with Ben-Gvir, Smotrich, and Maoz. I agree, but more is needed.
Ben-Gvir has been convicted in Israel of inciting racism and supporting a terrorist organization (Kahane Chai). There is ample precedent in American law for refusing an individual with such a background the right to enter the country.
After Ben-Gvir’s election to the Knesset, he attended the annual memorial for Rabbi Meir Kahane. Commenting on his participation, US State Department spokesman Ned Price said that “celebrating the legacy of a terrorist organization is abhorrent; there is no other word for it.”
Ben-Gvir is clearly on the American government’s radar for his terrorist ties. If Homeland Security chooses to bar him from America’s shores, American Jews should not object. In fact, they should initiate the request.
Third: We should provide financial support to Israeli civil society, educational and cultural groups that directly impact Israel’s political process.
Since Israel’s founding, American Jews donating money to Israel have focused on social service organizations, religious institutions, and universities. In other words, they have followed a traditional philanthropic model. But with political extremism on the rise in Israel, more direct involvement in politics is needed. Contributions to political parties and candidates are limited by Israeli law, but there are many groups that work to educate voters and to combat the kind of extremism that Ben-Gvir and his camp represents.
We should use our dollars to strengthen the centrist politics in Israel that most American Jews support. This means a commitment to Jewish values and identity, dovish politics, a liberal worldview, promotion of social justice, and hard-headed realism on security.
Fourth: We must make it absolutely, unequivocally clear that an Israel beset by extremism will not receive less of our time and attention but more. We will not despair or drift away.
Ben-Gvir, Smotrich, Maoz, and the fanatics around them are focused on their own narrow goals and not on the greater good of the state of Israel and the Jewish people. Their temporary triumph is a setback, not a defeat, and our task is to be summoned to exertion by what they have cast aside: the nobility and morality of the Zionist cause.
There must be an Israel. Without Israel, we are a truncated, incomplete people. This is the key. And at this time of distress, we must come together with our Israeli brothers and sisters and find a way out.
The printed word can be tricky as we weren’t suggesting to choose between giving to Federation or other venues. Just that traditionally we as Jews have given to Israel through Federation and we wonder if giving through other pathways as Yoffie suggests can potentially reduce needed money to federations.
Thank you for your thoughtful note.
I was not suggesting that we stop supporting our Federations, which do good work in Israel–and in the United States as well.
I was suggesting that in addition to supporting Israelis in need, we have to support other groups and organizations in Israeli civil society that identify with centrist politics, oppose the kind of extremism that I discussed, and are doing concrete things that advance a moderate political agenda. I realize that I did not offer a specific list of such organizations; that is for a later article.
Yoffie’s article was an interesting perspective on the status of the current Israeli right-wing government as it relates to American Jewry and remaining a democracy, suggesting pathways to helping American Jews alleviate this moral distress. One of those pathways is financial and how we might contribute to those groups in Israel that provide educational/political information to citizens. That bucks the most traditional way of giving money to Israel; i.e., we would suggest most communities give to Israel via their federations. The latter provides money to Israel through the Jewish Agency who delegates funds to social service and educational needs. How do we change that traditional pathway and make certain that funds get to Jews in need locally and internationally? We consider ourselves stakeholders in Israel and although we are not citizens or have children in the armed services, we want to make our voices heard. We are still trying to figure out how to solve this moral distress without compromising Jewish needs.