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Analysis

3 years after sounding off against Ben Gvir, US Jewish groups go mum on far-right MK

AIPAC, AJC, Conference of Presidents and JCPA say they won’t wade into Israeli politics, though they weren’t so shy when the prospect of the Kahanist joining Knesset first surfaced

MK Itamar Ben Gvir seen during a plenum session in the Knesset on June 20, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
MK Itamar Ben Gvir seen during a plenum session in the Knesset on June 20, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — In 2019, when then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in talks with an extremist party to coordinate election tactics, the message from the US Jewish community was clear: Don’t.

That’s no longer the case now that the former prime minister is once again working with Otzma Yehudit and its leader, Itamar Ben Gvir, to work out an agreement that would get him back into the prime minister’s seat.

At least four of the major Jewish groups that spoke out in 2019 say they will not get involved this time around: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the American Jewish Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. The latter two represent a broad array of national and Jewish groups.

Ahead of the November 1 election, Netanyahu is coordinating campaign tactics with Otzma Yehudit, Israel’s Channel 12 news reported on Wednesday; Ben Gvir and Netanyahu met and agreed not to campaign among what each sees as his party’s natural constituents. Earlier, Netanyahu brokered an agreement between Otzma Yehudit and other far-right parties to ensure that they will meet the election threshold in Israel’s proportional representation system.

At least two prominent pro-Israel Democrats, Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Rep. Brad Sherman of California, have warned Netanyahu how damaging it would be to relations with the party if Netanyahu brings Ben-Gvir into the government. Two groups that spoke up in 2019, the Anti-Defamation League and the Reform movement, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in remarks solicited in recent days, that they were just as alarmed now as they were then.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said a failure by the organized Jewish community to present a solid wall of opposition to allowing into government a party based on the teachings of the racist late rabbi Meir Kahane would have far-reaching consequences not just for the US-Israel relationship, but for Israel’s relationship with US Jews.

“For those who identify with Israel because of shared values, shared democratic values, shared Jewish values, what Jewish or democratic values are not compromised by racism, by the kind of hate-filled politics that [Ben Gvir] has espoused? So I think it definitely will cause a distancing and a disaffection of many, many people who feel very, very committed and very strongly supportive of Israel,” Jacobs said in an interview.

President of the Union for Reform Judaism Rabbi Rick Jacobs at the JFNA’s General Assembly in Tel Aviv, on October 24, 2018. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

“That this would be the next political iteration, I think would certainly test those bonds,” he said.

The wall-to-wall condemnation in 2019 was a factor in Netanyahu keeping Otzma Yehudit out of his government once he won reelection, Jacobs said. Absent that consensus, Netanyahu may be emboldened to bring into government Ben Gvir, who has a history of racist provocation and alignment with Kahane and Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 Muslims in Hebron in 1994.

“I would remind all of us that when we all spoke up so loudly and clearly in 2019, the prime minister backed away from the idea of so closely aligning with these various extreme forces in Israeli politics,” he said. “Absent that today, I don’t see that there’ll be any red lines.”

Carole Nuriel, the director of ADL’s Israel office, also said bringing Ben Gvir into government would erode support for Israel.

“ADL has long been deeply concerned with the mainstreaming of extremist and Kahane-inspired extremist ideologies in Israeli society,” she said in an emailed statement. “While we do not get involved in Israel’s electoral politics, we are disturbed by reports that individuals who espouse such views have been promised by Israeli political leaders a role in a future coalition government. As an organization deeply committed to Israel’s security and well-being as a Jewish and democratic state, we believe such a development would be corrosive to Israel’s founding principles, and its standing among its strongest supporters.”

Far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir gestures to a Palestinian protester during a news conference at the Damascus Gate to Jerusalem’s Old City, June 10, 2021. (AP/Maya Alleruzzo)

Three of the four groups, the AJC, the JCPA, and the Presidents’ Conference, claimed that it is their policy not to take a position on Israeli elections — even though that is precisely what they did over three years ago.

In 2019, Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said Netanyahu’s parley with Otzma Yehudit was “very disturbing.” Although he said he understood that Netanyahu had political considerations, he said “politics can’t dictate everything. You have to take into consideration all of the ramifications and all of the concerns.”

Last week, responding to a JTA request for comment, William Daroff, the group’s CEO, said, “The Conference of Presidents has a long-standing policy of not opining on Israeli elections, other than to celebrate the vibrant democratic process underway in the only democracy in the region.”

In 2019, the American Jewish Committee released a statement saying: “Historically, the views of extremist parties, reflecting the extreme left or the extreme right, have been firmly rejected by mainstream parties, even if the electoral process of Israel’s robust democracy has enabled their presence, however small, in the Knesset.” The views of Otzma Yehudit, the AJC said, were “reprehensible.”

In an interview with JTA on Wednesday, Ted Deutch, the Democrat from Florida who left Congress recently to lead the AJC, would not be pinned down to a statement on Otzma Yehudit, except to say AJC was committed to “shared democratic values” with Israel.

“Number one, Israel’s a democracy, and they’re going to have elections that will take place in a few weeks, elections that AJC does not participate in,” Deutch said. “But the second thing is that AJC is committed to the democratic values that we’ve spoken out on historically and our commitment hasn’t waned, and we’ll continue to speak out directly with the Israelis.”

Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., speaks as the House Judiciary Committee hears investigative findings in the impeachment inquiry of US President Donald Trump, Dec. 9, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Pressed as to what the use was of potentially speaking out after the fact against Otzma Yehudit joining the government, Deutch doubled down. “I’m not going to speculate what the government is going to look like because it’s not my role to be involved in Israeli elections,” he said.

In 2019, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the umbrella body for public policy groups, urged Netanyahu in a private letter obtained by JTA to condemn Otzma Yehudit. A JCPA official on Thursday told JTA that the umbrella body does not speak out on “internal Israeli political issues.”

AIPAC, which in 2019 quoted the AJC statement and said “we agree,” this year declined to comment without explanation. None of the groups would say whether they were reaching out privately to Netanyahu.

It’s not clear what’s behind the reluctance to speak out, but pro-Israel groups place a premium on access to government, and Netanyahu, who has a more than even chance of returning to office, stopped caring about what most American Jews thought during his 12 years in office.

Netanyahu, usually solicitous of powerful American visitors, did not hide that he was “pissed off” with Menendez’s rebuke, according to Axios, which broke the story.

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu delivers an election campaign speech from inside a modified delivery truck protected with bulletproof glass, in the Kiryat Yovel neighborhood of Jerusalem, September 11, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Scott Lasensky, a professor of Israel and Jewish studies at the University of Maryland, said the failure of Jewish organizations to speak out could be attributable to a number of factors, including one that plagues Israelis as well — election fatigue.

This is the fifth election since 2019, he noted, and the organizations may figure that it is wiser to wait and see how the election plays out before weighing in.

“Given the fatigue and the uncertainty of what a coalition would look like, some groups are hedging and waiting for the post-election opportunity,” when parties negotiate to set up a coalition, to voice any objections, he said.

Another factor, Lasensky said, is the crises that have beset Americans since 2019 — the coronavirus pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, inflation, and the January 6, 2021, insurrection. Jewish groups may lack the bandwidth to worry too much about Israel’s coalition politics.

Lasensky also said Jewish groups adhere to a “norm of deference” when it comes to Israel, and break it only under extraordinary circumstances. While the prospect of Otzma Yehudit in government was extraordinary in 2019, it no longer is, as the party has been normalized among Israelis.

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