(March 25, 2021 / JNS) Is Israel’s reputation indelibly tainted by the presence of two new members of the Knesset with hateful views? That’s the fear that many American Jewish liberal groups are expressing in the wake of round four of the ongoing Israeli election stalemate. But those Americans who are quick to condemn Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for his role in smoothing the path of that pair should think about the indirect connections between their own political heroes and some of their unsavory political associates.
American Jews are also cheering the fact that Rabbi Gilad Kariv was elected to the Knesset this week on the Labor Party slate. Kariv, a member of the Reform movement, is the first non-Orthodox rabbi to sit in the Knesset, a singular victory for those who rightly lament the non-recognition of any but Orthodox clergy in a country where there is no formal separation between religion and state. While he won’t be able to do much about that problem—or implement his left-wing views about security issues—his is nonetheless a symbolic victory for the majority of American Jews who regard the pluralism issue as one that alienates them from Israel.
Most of the commentary from American groups, however, is about their horror at the strength of the old Religious Zionist Party and the fact that the 24th Knesset will have two members whose beliefs are particularly repugnant to American Jewish sensibilities.
Though its name conjures memories of the National Religious Party or Mafdal—a generally moderate group that represented Modern Orthodox Jews in the Knesset for the first few decades of Israel’s history—this group is an amalgam of several hard-right parties. It’s also interesting that it appealed to ultra-Orthodox Jews and seems to have drained support worth a seat or two away from the haredi United Torah Judaism Party.
Its success is due in no small measure to the support it got from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who it pledged to support. He did his best to ensure that some of its disparate elements didn’t run on their own and wind up “wasting” votes for parties that couldn’t pass the 3.25 percent of the vote threshold needed to gain entry to the Knesset.
That was good for Netanyahu’s right-wing-religious alliance, but it also generated anger since the occupants of the seats the party won can be attributed to the prime minister’s help. And that means that the presence of both Itamar Ben-Gvir and Avi Moaz in the new Knesset is seen as Netanyahu’s doing.
Ben-Gvir is head of the Otzma Yehudit Party that merged with the Religious Zionist Party for this election. An advocate for expelling Arab citizens from Israel, his group has also been labeled, with good reason, as successor to the late Rabbi Meir Kahane’s openly racist Kach movement. Indeed, Ben-Gvir was excoriated for having a picture in his home of Dr. Baruch Goldstein, the Kahane follower who murdered 29 Arabs in 1994 at Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs.
Alongside Ben-Gvir will be Avi Maoz, the head of the Noam faction, an avowedly homophobic group. Maoz has made a name for himself with incendiary rhetoric in which he has attacked Israeli gays, as well as the Reform movement—at one point likening them to the Nazis and Palestinian suicide bombers for wanting to “destroy” Jews.
Netanyahu made it clear that neither man would be considered for any responsible post or cabinet position in his next government (assuming he is able to somehow form one after the country’s fourth consecutive electoral stalemate). While he stands fairly accused of an act of staggering cynicism in being willing to use the votes of their supporters in order to stay in power, he shrugs off such criticism as having no significance since all’s fair in love, war and politics.
Ben-Gvir’s beliefs are at odds with those of most Israelis, and that of the founding fathers of Zionism, including Ze’ev Jabotinsky, from whom Netanyahu’s Likud Party still supposedly draws inspiration. Jabotinsky was a hardliner about the territorial dimensions of the Jewish state and the author of the influential essay “The Iron Wall.” In it, he wrote that in contrast to the foolish optimism of his Labor Zionist opponents, the Arabs would never accept the permanence of a Jewish state until they had been completely defeated. But he also advocated for full and equal rights for non-Jews, even to the point of believing it would be desirable if the deputy prime minister of a Jewish state were an Arab.
Maoz’s hostility to gays is equally out of touch with the beliefs of the overwhelming majority of Israelis. Israel is the sole Middle East country where the LGBTQ community has equal rights and is a tourism destination for gay men and women. Indeed, leading Netanyahu loyalist and current Minister of Public Security Amir Ohana is the first openly gay member of the Israeli cabinet.
Once sworn into the Knesset, both Ben-Gvir and Maoz will be nuisances that Netanyahu will do his best to ignore. Still, as long as they are there, their antics will be blamed on him.
This prospect has led to angry press releases from groups like the Reform movement, the Democratic Majority for Israel and the American Jewish Committee. The left-wing rabbinic group T’ruah called for the pair to be banned from the Knesset as Kahane was after he won election to it in the 1980s.
A couple of Jewish members of Congress, Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) and Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) also denounced Ben-Gvir and Maoz.
While both Israeli extremists are fair game for condemnation, it’s equally fair to ask liberal Jews about their own comfort in making common cause with extremists. After all, Cohen and Schakowsky sit in Congress alongside Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), who are not only supporters of the anti-Semitic BDS movement but who have trafficked in anti-Semitic tropes. Both have continued to run interference for them, and liberal Jewish groups like the Reform movement are equally guilty of either winking at or turning a blind eye to the open anti-Semitism of some of their ideological allies in the Black Lives Matter movement and other advocates of critical race theory and intersectionalism.
Does their hypocrisy excuse Netanyahu’s cynical attitude towards Ben-Gvir and Maoz? Not at all.
Netanyahu was dead-wrong for his role in allowing their entry into the Knesset, and all the excuses in the world about politics making strange bedfellows won’t excuse it.
Nevertheless, it is not “whataboutism” to point out that he isn’t the only one guilty of such cynicism or for being willing to profit from connections to indefensible political allies. After all, President Joe Biden doesn’t repudiate Omar and Tlaib, and treats race-baiters on the left with the sort of deference that Netanyahu pays to his unsavory allies.
Israel’s proportional electoral system rewards extremism of all kinds, including from the ultra-Orthodox sector and the Arab community. It is to the American Jewish Committee’s credit that while condemning Ben-Gvir and Maoz, they also noted that it was equally concerning that there are members of the Knesset who don’t recognize Israel’s right to exist and support terrorist groups like Hamas, as is the case with members of the two Arab parties who are in the Knesset.
Just like American democracy, which sometimes elevates extremists from both the left and the right into the corridors of power, Israel’s system also produces electoral outliers that are an embarrassment to the country along with those worthy of respect. But it’s equally true that they are a tiny minority, and that their views will have no impact on the nation’s policies. This is a time when BDS supporters oppose the existence of a Jewish state in any borders. That’s why those who exaggerate the significance of these radicals and treat their presence in the Knesset as uniquely awful and delegitimizing Israel’s government are doing the Jewish state, its democratic system and its people a profound disservice.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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