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How Do Diaspora Jews Grapple With Israel’s Latest Election?
Times of tension call for reflection… and empathy.
To call Israel’s election results disappointing would be an understatement. Desperate to return to power and quash his corruption charges, Benjamin Netanyahu has allied himself with extremists who until recently were confined to Israeli society’s margins, and rightly so.
The standout is Otzma Yehudit’s Itamar Ben Gvir. Let’s quickly recap the firebrand politician’s history. A disciple of the Kach party (proscribed as a terrorist organization in Israel, and until this year, the United States), as a teenager Ben Gvir was disqualified from compulsory military service due to his extremist record. He came to national attention in 1995 after threatening Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin weeks before his assassination, and until two years ago had a photo of Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 massacred 29 Muslim worshippers in Hebron, hanging on his wall. At the time, he said he removed the picture to thwart a left-wing government.
Today, he stands a real chance of becoming Israel’s next public security minister, which would hand him control over the police. And although he has vigorously attempted to disassociate from his disturbing past, one can’t help but be skeptical about his professed change. As Fathom Journal’s Calev Ben-Dor put it, “to take Ben Gvir at his word is to enter some sort of Alice in Wonderland-type universe where one believes as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
And none of this includes the problematic demands bound to come from Religious Zionism’s Bezalel Smotrich and Noam’s Avi Maoz, whose political raison d’être is reversing LGBT rights.
So yes, there are real causes for distress (which I have written about) over what is set to be an unprecedentedly right-wing government. Some experts are even warning of an accelerated disengagement between American Jewry and Israel. And while other diaspora communities are not facing the same internal divisions over support for the Jewish state, they too could be affected by such a hardline government.
But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. For one, many observers believe that Netanyahu — who has allied with extremists out of perceived political necessity rather than any affinity for their beliefs — will successfully rebuff their darkest demands for Israel. And his recent moves suggest that may be the case: he reportedly rejected out-of-hand any anti-LGBT legislation introduced by Noam. As Israeli author Yossi Klein Halevi recently wrote, “contrary to his reputation abroad,” Netanyahu is “one of Israel’s most cautious” leaders and “doesn’t want to become an international pariah.” Some have gone even further than Halevi, however, predicting that Bibi will soon abandon his far-right partners in favor of Benny Gantz’s centrist National Unity Party.
“Israel has not, and will not, become a fascist state overnight — or whatever other concocted insults its detractors throw at it.”
But beyond how this may play out in the coming months, it’s important to recall a simple fact: history did not suddenly become irrelevant because of some bigoted Israeli lawmakers. Israel has not, and will not, become a fascist state overnight — or whatever other concocted insults its detractors throw at it.
That Haj Amin al-Husseini, then-Grand Mufti of Jerusalem and a leading voice against establishing a Jewish state, allied himself with Nazi Germany during World War Two, is still relevant. So is the war (which may well have turned genocidal had they won) that Arab armies launched against Israel after its independence. The Arab world’s refusal to integrate over 700,000 Palestinian refugees from 1948, preferring to use them as political pawns with which to bash Israel, has not changed. Neither has decades of Palestinian rejectionism and anti-Jewish extremism, nor their manic suicide bombing campaign of the early 2000s that jolted Israeli society to the right and pulverized the political left.
While Israel’s next government may portend a dark future for the Jewish state, we would be foolish to dismiss decades of history that led us to this point out of fear of policies that for now are nothing more than talking points.
And few recent events have been as instrumental in Ben Gvir’s rise as the anti-Jewish riots in May last year — all of which occurred as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad rained down over 4,000 rockets from Gaza. Fathom Journal laid it out: “In little more than a week in May 2021, Arab rioters set ablaze 10 synagogues and 112 Jewish residences, looted 386 Jewish homes and damaged another 673, and set 849 Jewish cars on fire. There were also 5,018 recorded instances of Jews being stoned. Three Jews were murdered and more than 600 were hurt. Over 300 police officers were injured in disturbances in over 90 locations across the country.”
These riots — particularly for a nation that has continuously wondered whether its Arab citizens can be trusted partners in building a Jewish and democratic state — were a trauma on the Israeli Jewish psyche that should not be underestimated. Israelis are scared. Yes, some of Ben Gvir’s supporters are racists who need no excuse to chant “Death to terrorists,” but after the unprecedented trauma of last year’s riots, and daily terror attacks that go ignored by much of Israel’s media and political brass (and are receiving even less coverage in English media), many Jewish Israelis feel increasingly vulnerable. Ben Gvir and his party spoke to that.
As historian Gil Troy — himself dismayed by Ben Gvir’s rise — noted, “Zionism isn’t a two-week campaign sprint. In our state-building marathon — and Jewish history’s even longer run — we don’t cut-and-run; we double down and stretch.” Now’s the time to do exactly that. After Donald Trump won the 2016 election, discussions in many liberal and progressive circles turned to why they didn’t predict his victory, with many realizing they had not sincerely engaged with Trump supporters to try to understand their concerns. Are you shocked and embarrassed by Ben Gvir’s rise? Great. How many Ben Gvir supporters have you spoken to? Seek them out. Understand their arguments, their fears. What they have to say may surprise you. What Israelis need right now is to heal their wounds and shrink their divides; condemning them as bigots unworthy of your support helps no one.
Governments are transient. Just as this government was preceded by a coalition between right-wing, left-wing, and Islamist parties, there is no predicting how Israel’s next government will look. We may not like how Israelis voted, but now’s no time to abandon them.
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