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Like the Democrats who went into the streets in their millions the weekend Donald Trump was inaugurated president in January 2017, Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu’s foes clearly intend to act as a “resistance,” rather than a loyal opposition.
Netanyahu and his right-wing and religious coalition partners won a clear majority in the 120-seat Knesset, with 64 seats over the collection of left-wing, formerly right-wing and Arab political parties that ran Israel for the last 18 months. Yet, as is the case in the United States, politics in Israel has become a tribal culture war.
But even if everyone has become inured to a situation in which two sides view each other as not merely wrong, but enemies of decency and democracy, with Netanyahu’s new government set to be sworn in on Thursday, his opponents are playing with fire.
Ever since their defeat became apparent, the “anybody but Bibi” opposition led by interim Prime Minister Yair Lapid has been doing its best to label his successors as “dangerous, extremist and irresponsible.” Taking a page out of the Democrats’ playbook, his camp is claiming that the victors of the country’s democratic elections are intent on destroying democracy.
Following their cues, many in the Israeli media, such as The Times of Israel’s David Horovitz, are sounding some of the same themes of, and being echoed by, those sources—like the editorial page of The New York Times—which can always be relied upon to paint the Jewish state in the worst possible light, if not altogether demonize it.
The latest escalation of this effort came from a group of more than 330 American rabbis. They’ve signed an open letter denouncing Netanyahu and his partners and vowing not to allow members of the Bezalel Smotrich-led Religious Zionist Party bloc—which includes Itamar Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit Party and the much smaller, anti-LGBTQ faction, Noam, headed by Avi Maoz—speak at their synagogues or organizations.
For anyone who actually knows how American-Jewish life operates, this planned boycott of the 14 Knesset members who were elected under the banner of religious Zionism is nothing new. In fact, many of the synagogues in question never welcomed representatives of right-of-center Israeli parties, including Netanyahu’s Likud.
Nor have many invited a politically conservative American-Jewish speaker, unless he or she was accompanied by a liberal counterpart. And even that practice has largely been abandoned in recent years, with the rise of liberal intolerance for conservatives.
Meanwhile, Jewish institutions, including those that are supposed to be non-partisan, are often just as reluctant to facilitate an actual debate about important issues as they are hostile to free speech—in the way that non-leftist views on college campuses are canceled rather than argued with.
The ban on the incoming Israeli leadership, then, should be seen in this light. And whether Smotrich, Ben-Gvir or other Orthodox politicians have speaking engagements when they visit the U.S. is not the crucial issue.
What does matter is the sustained propaganda campaign to paint Netanyahu’s government as the moral equivalent of the Iranian regime—an effort that is hurting Israel in ways that its perpetrators and fellow travelers don’t seem to comprehend.
The talking points about the new coalition’s supposed extremism, when looked at seriously, are not persuasive.
The idea that the right’s proposed reforms of an out-of-control, left-leaning Israeli Supreme Court are anti-democratic is absurd. Such reforms would restore a measure of accountability to a system in which the judiciary can overrule any measure passed by the legislature, without reference to constitutional principles—other than the ones the judges make up out of whole cloth.
No American, on the right or the left, would tolerate justices, rather than representatives elected by the people, choosing their successors. Yet this is the very practice being defended by those who claim changing it would be undemocratic.
Other supposedly extremist proposals, when seen in context, are also not as radical as portrayed. For instance, the claim by Netanyahu’s critics that his government is about to legalize discrimination against gays, or allow doctors to refuse to treat patients on religious grounds, is simply false.
The actual aim is to enable private individuals and businesses the right—as that granted by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution—not to be compelled, under certain circumstances, to take part in practices that run counter to their faith.
Furthermore, contrary to the rabbis’ petition, Netanyahu isn’t planning on annexing all of Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) without giving Palestinians the right to vote. Up for debate is extending Israeli law to the Oslo Accord-designated Area C, where Israeli communities exist and aren’t going to be abandoned, even if the remote possibility of a peace deal with the Palestinians becomes a reality.
Equally unsubstantial are the rabbis’ complaints about a proposal to expel terrorists, which their petition falsely claims is an attempt to silence Arab critics of the government.
Then there’s the hysteria over giving Smotrich more power, as finance minister, to fund settlements, or Minister of Public Security Ben-Gvir to have authority over the police. Neither is unreasonable.
The former would simply strengthen Jewish communities in the territories, a move supported by the majority of the Israeli electorate. The latter has a mandate to act, as the outgoing government manifestly did not, to halt the surge in Palestinian terrorism and severe crime rate in the Arab-Israel sector.
Worries about whether Ben-Gvir, a former supporter of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, and veteran right-wing activist Smotrich will act responsibly once in power, are understandable. But both figures are eager to prove themselves, and deeming them ineligible for high office due to their past, rather than present, beliefs and behavior is a principle that few would apply across the political spectrum.
Indeed, almost all of those screaming about the pair threatening democracy were perfectly happy to cheer the participation in the outgoing government of Mansour Abbas, the leader of anti-Zionist Islamist party that’s even more hostile to gay rights and religious freedom than anyone on the Israeli right.
Once you remember that inconvenient fact, most of the pearl-clutching on the left about the new government is exposed as rank partisan hypocrisy.
Still, some proposals—like one about amending the Law of Return—are controversial. The law was drafted as a way to give shelter in Israel to all those who might have been targeted for death by the Nazis, which is to say, anyone with a Jewish grandparent. This has led to the influx of a great many immigrants, especially from the former Soviet Union, who are neither Jewish nor identify as such.
The question of whether the “grandparent clause” is still necessary decades after the Holocaust or is harming the country demographically (and economically, with many of those immigrants accepting state benefits and then leaving the country) is debatable. But, given the opposition of Netanyahu and most of the Likud to the amendment, it’s not likely to pass.
The same applies to not recognizing non-Orthodox conversions for the purpose of aliyah, rightly resented by the majority of liberal American Jews, despite the fact that very few of move to Israel. Indeed, most Americans who make Israel their home are Orthodox. Here again, however, Netanyahu will ensure this doesn’t become law.
Aiding anti-Zionists, not just Bibi–critics
The anti-Bibi resistance’s smearing of the incoming cabinet is more than a matter of presenting unfair arguments. Lapid knows his charges—typical of those that Israeli politicians of all stripes regularly fling at one another—are, at best, hyperbole.
But he’s seeking to worsen relations between the new coalition and Washington, and create circumstances under which the government will fall apart, even if his own chances of winning the next election are negligible. In the process, though, what he and the rabbis are forgetting is that their arguments, meant only to discredit Netanyahu and his partners, are being heard and used by those who oppose Israel’s existence, no matter who’s at the helm of the Jewish state.
The lie that Israel will not be a democracy under Netanyahu provides ammunition for the antisemitic BDS movement and its Jewish fellow travelers in Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow. It also contributes to the hostile atmosphere toward Zionism in some sectors where, influenced by intersectional ideology and critical race theory, Israel is already being vilified as an embodiment of white colonialism and “apartheid.”
Perhaps it was inevitable that, like so much else in American culture imported to Israel, the delegitimization of political opponents as authoritarians bent on destroying the liberty of their fellow citizens would follow. Maybe, too, once Netanyahu is back in office and his government is behaving in much the same way as its predecessors, the smear campaign will abate. But, as we saw with Trump’s administration, once the notion of a government’s illegitimacy is established in the eyes of Washington and the American-Jewish public, it will be difficult to debunk.
This is why those who are letting their frustrations over the right’s victory in the Nov. 1 Knesset elections get the better of their judgment must stop. They need to recognize that in their attempt to demonize Bibi, they’re inflicting potentially irrevocable harm on Israel and the Jewish people.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.