The victory of the right-religious bloc in last week’s Israeli election has aroused considerable consternation in the Diaspora, and there are some fairly good reasons for this.
First among them is the rise of the far-right Religious Zionist Party and particularly Itamar Ben-Gvir, the former disciple of Meir Kahane who leads the party’s Otzma Yehudit faction. Most Diaspora Jews, especially in America, are of liberal sensibilities, and Ben-Gvir’s ethnic and religious chauvinism are at best off-putting and at worst anathema to them.
But from what I have seen over the past week, Diaspora Jews are worried about Ben-Gvir not only because they find him repugnant, but also because of the potential reaction to his rise by the non-Jewish world. These Jews, whose dedication to the cause of Zionism and the Jewish state is not in question and should not be questioned, have spent decades defending Israel as a liberal, democratic country that shares Western values. The rise of an Israeli politician who seems to reject those values makes this struggle, which is dear to their hearts, difficult if not impossible.
How, they ask, can they explain Ben-Gvir?
Ben-Gvir may or may not prove to be a monster. In my view, he certainly has the makings of one. Nonetheless, it is unclear how much influence he will have in the next government and whether returning Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will be able to contain his excesses. Still, his rise unquestionably presents a challenge for Israel’s Diaspora defenders, and they are right to be concerned.
There are prosaic answers to the questions Diaspora Jews will now be asked. First among them is that most of the people who voted for Ben-Gvir—and probably for Netanyahu as well—did so out of fear. Their vote was a kind of delayed reaction to the May 2021 anti-Semitic Israeli-Arab riots, which reinforced and magnified the fear that the Arabs in our midst will rise up and murder us in our beds. The Israeli public discourse has failed to address this fear, and however ugly his rhetoric, Ben-Gvir at least did so. Many Israelis thought, “Well, at least he’s willing to talk about it.”
That, combined with the recent rise in terror attacks in Judea and Samaria, is likely the reason for Ben-Gvir’s meteoric rise. This is, at least, something like an explanation.
The problem with this explanation, however, is that a great many non-Jews simply do not care about Israeli fears. To them, Israel is either at fault for or outright deserves whatever violence the Palestinians and Israeli Arabs commit. Such violence, in their view, is something like a phenomenon of theoretical physics, an equal and opposite reaction, an “understandable result of…” with no moral weight whatsoever. This is, of course, pure nihilism and a vaguely racist erasure of Arab agency, but many non-Jews passionately believe it and will not listen to any other explanation.
Diaspora Jews, then, must look for another answer. It is, I think, to be found in a question: “Why are you asking me this?” That is, Diaspora Jews should request their own explanation.
What I mean was perhaps best elucidated by the great American black writer and activist James Baldwin, who once said, “One of the great things that the white world does not know, but I think I do know, is that black people are just like everybody else. One has used the myth of Negro and the myth of color to pretend and to assume that you were dealing with, essentially, something exotic, bizarre and practically, according to human laws, unknown. Alas, it is not true. We’re also mercenaries, dictators, murderers, liars. We are human too.”
Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that Ben-Gvir is indeed the monster many believe him to be. If so, then Baldwin’s observation applies just as strongly to the Jews and the State of Israel as it does to black people. We are permitted to say, if for no other reason than that it is true, that we are just like everybody else. We too have our monsters, our racists, our theocrats, our thugs, our fiends. We are human too. We are not a people of plaster saints, and no one has the right to demand otherwise.
It is perfectly possible, then, for Diaspora Jews to “explain” Ben-Gvir. They should simply say that Ben-Gvir needs no explanation. The history of the non-Jewish world is replete with monsters. There is no reason to think that our history should be any different, because on the most fundamental level, there is no difference between Jews and non-Jews. We are human and so are you. Nothing human is alien to either of us, and the human is often profoundly ugly.
What is astonishing is that, even in the 21st century, long after the non-Jewish world should have learned this lesson, anyone should expect otherwise. They do so, as Baldwin said, because they consider us unknown to human laws. But this is absurd. The task for Diaspora Jews seeking to explain a political trend that they themselves often find deplorable is to simply point out this absurdity and be done with it.
Benjamin Kerstein is a writer and editor living in Tel Aviv. Read more of his writing on Substack and his website. Follow him on Twitter @benj_kerstein.
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