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Analysis

However the election shakes out, US Jewry will have to deal with Israel’s far-right

American Jewish groups will likely face calls from inside their organizations to denounce nationalist politicians and face an uphill battle in defending Israel

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

L-R: MKs Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich at a rally of their Religious Zionism party in the southern city of Sderot on October 26, 2022. (Gil Cohen-Magen / AFP)
L-R: MKs Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich at a rally of their Religious Zionism party in the southern city of Sderot on October 26, 2022. (Gil Cohen-Magen / AFP)

The already difficult task of advocating for Israel is poised to get significantly more difficult for American Jews, as they will likely be forced to either defend and excuse politicians whose beliefs are anathema to them or publicly criticize Israeli elected officials, neither of which is a particularly enticing option.

While the votes in Tuesday’s election have yet to be fully tallied and there may be plenty of political jockeying before a government is sworn in, one thing is already clear: The third-largest party in the next Knesset will be the Religious Zionism Party, representing some 10 percent of the Israeli electorate.

That party is led by Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, two politicians set to become ministers in a Benjamin Netanyahu-led coalition whose rhetoric and political views put them squarely at odds with the vast majority of American Jews, as well as the US Democratic Party.

In addition to providing financial support to many key Israeli initiatives — buying ambulances for Magen David Adom, donating to Israeli universities and hospitals, providing funding to ease the integration of new immigrants — American Jews have historically served as unofficial ambassadors for the State of Israel, advocating on its behalf in public forums and with their local governments.

In recent years, that latter role has become increasingly significant as the efforts of the Israeli Foreign Ministry on this front have been dramatically reduced, due in part to a lengthy and ongoing labor dispute between the office and its workers’ union.

“With the issues in the Foreign Ministry and diplomatic complacency, the issue of Diaspora Jewry as a resource for establishing legitimacy becomes more and more central,” said Naama Klar, a long-time researcher of the Israel-Diaspora relationship and the director of the Koret International School for Jewish Peoplehood at Tel Aviv’s ANU: Museum of the Jewish People.

While there have certainly been right-wing Israeli cabinet ministers before whose beliefs clashed with those of more liberal American Jews — the late far-right Rehavam Zeevi is an obvious example — as well as ultra-Orthodox politicians with scathing views of progressive Jewish denominations, never before have there been figures with the toxic reputations of Smotrich and Ben Gvir, both within the Jewish community and in broader international circles.

It’s important for them that someone like Smotrich not be an elected official because it’s more difficult for them to defend their Jewish and Zionist standing when he is elected.

Though they have moderated their language over the past two years, both Smotrich and Ben Gvir have a well-documented history of speaking out against and at times taking direct action against LGBT people, Arabs, and non-Orthodox Jews. They both call for Israel’s annexation of the West Bank and subsequent denial of basic civil rights to the Palestinians living there. Ben Gvir is also a proud disciple of the American-born Jewish supremacist Meir Kahane, whose history of domestic terrorism in the United States and racism in Israel through the 1970s and 1980s will be personally remembered by many current leaders of American Jewish groups.

Within the Jewish community, major organizations like the lobbying group AIPAC — which is technically not a Jewish group — the American Jewish Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations and its constituent groups, the Jewish Federations of North America, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and more will face calls from their own members to speak out against these far-right Israeli politicians.

And in the already deeply polarized political climate in the United States, both in general and as it relates specifically to Israel, these organizations would face an uphill battle defending Israel against accusations of racism and discrimination should its government, as is now likely, include as a core member Ben Gvir, who until very recently kept a picture of a mass murderer — Baruch Goldstein who massacred 29 Palestinians — on the wall of his living room or Smotrich, who called for Jewish-Arab segregation in maternity wards.

“Israeli politicians can be a burden on Diaspora Jews. It’s important for them that someone like Smotrich not be an elected official because it’s more difficult for them to defend their Jewish and Zionist standing when he is elected. And that’s not hypothetical, that is already the case. And that’s why it troubles them,” Klar told The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: Local Jewish communities in the Bay Area show their support for the LGBTQ community at the San Francisco pride parade. (Daniel Dreifuss/Flash 90/File)

“Even though [Diaspora Jews] aren’t voters here, the people who are elected here are something they have to deal with,” she told The Times of Israel on the eve of the election.

“[Diaspora Jews] don’t want [Israel to adopt] policies that harm minorities because they are minorities. They don’t want things that don’t match their Jewish values and standards because it damages their Jewish identities outside of Israel. That’s the situation that causes a lot of the frustration for Diaspora Jews about the elections in Israel.”

Harder to dismiss

Some Jewish organizations — particularly those with more clearly defined political views like the Anti-Defamation League, Israel Policy Forum, the Reform Movement, the UK Jewish Labour movement, the LGBT group A Wider Bridge, and others — have already come out publicly against Smotrich and Ben Gvir. But most, including ones that previously denounced the pair, have been mum on the issue, adopting a wait-and-see approach until the final election results are in.

CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations William Daroff on Tuesday night refused to comment about the implications of a far-right party serving in a future Israeli government.

“When that coalition comes together — and we won’t know that tonight or tomorrow — we’ll engage at that time,” he told the English-language i24 news channel from election results watch party in Washington, DC, adding: “I do think it’s important that the concerns of the Diaspora are in the mix.”

This hesitancy wasn’t in place in 2019, when Ben Gvir first appeared on the scene as a potential parliamentarian. At that time, the Conference of Presidents acknowledged that Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party was “very disturbing” to American Jews and that its potential inclusion in a government would have “ramifications.”

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations executive vice president Malcolm Hoenlein (R) and CEO William Daroff at The Times of Israel offices in Jerusalem, February 6, 2020. (Times of Israel)

The pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC in 2019 also said it had a “longstanding policy” to not meet with members of Ben Gvir’s “racist and reprehensible party” Otzma Yehudit, one of the three constituents of the Religious Zionism Party.

Just last year, when Smotrich, then a member of the opposition, traveled to the United Kingdom, the British Board of Deputies umbrella Jewish group greeted him with a furious public denunciation in Hebrew, saying his opinions were “despicable” and calling on British Jewry to “show him the door.”

But in 2019 Ben Gvir was at most poised to be just another Knesset member in a coalition and last year Smotrich was still a relative back-bencher in Israeli politics. Jewish groups could more easily dismiss them as representing only the far-right fringes of Israeli society, even denounce them.

Now the party represents a significant percentage of the Israeli public. It will likely be the second-largest in the coalition, and as a result both Smotrich and Ben Gvir could reasonably demand top ministerial posts. Ben Gvir, for instance, has publicly stated his interest in the Public Security Ministry, which would give him control over the Israel Police and paramilitary Border Police. Smotrich has set his eyes yet higher, on the Defense Ministry, arguably the second-most important position in the cabinet. (Netanyahu has insisted that the defense portfolio, along with foreign affairs and finance, will remain in Likud hands, but has not ruled out the public security portfolio for Ben Gvir.)

Head of the Religious Zionist party Bezalel Smotrich at the party’s campaign headquarters on November 1, 2022. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Merely by dint of now controlling one of the largest parties in the Knesset, Ben Gvir and Smotrich cannot be so quickly written off by Jewish groups as marginal and not representative.

AIPAC has pointedly issued no declaration against Otzma Yehudit this time around and refused to comment when asked if it stood by its “longstanding policy” following the release of the exit polls on Tuesday night.

When asked on Wednesday if the Board of Deputies stood by its assessment of Smotrich as “despicable,” the chief executive of the organization, Michael Wegier, who was one of the most vocal critics of the Religious Zionist leader last year, refused to comment.

As time goes on, these organizations will have to come up with answers if only for their own constituents and members, namely on how they plan to balance supporting the State of Israel while potentially having deep misgivings about the people running it.

How that will play out in practice is unclear.

“World Jewry has a couple of mechanisms to mitigate these issues. One is potentially to disassociate with Israeli officials. But they have other ways that they’ve tried in the past. They have to work this tension off somehow,” Klar said.

US President Joe Biden (right) and President Isaac Herzog, during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House, Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

Speaking to American Jewish leaders a day before the polls opened, President Isaac Herzog asked them to respect the results of the election despite the fact that they “may or may not be to your liking.”

While some larger, less specifically political organizations, like the Conference of Presidents, may strive to toe this line, others are unlikely to heed Herzog’s request.

“I will not respect the results, whatever that means; I reserve the right to be furious about them and to fight harder, from afar, and in partnership with Israelis and Palestinians, towards a future that is more democratic, more passionate about pluralism and human rights and safety and dignity for all people and not for some at the expense of the other,” said Yehuda Kurtzer, the head of the liberal Zionist Shalom Hartman Institute – North America.

“That is what I want to be asked for by Israeli officials: not that we ‘respect’ the outcome but that we stay with them and pursue something better together. Respect is the stuff of the sidelines,” he wrote in a Facebook post in response to Herzog’s speech.

A silver lining?

The new Israeli government-Diaspora friction is poised to come after a relatively high point in Israel-Diaspora relations. Following years of strained ties and even open animosity in the preceding years, the outgoing government represented “a breath of fresh air for most American Jews,” who saw in it a group that was more in line with its own politics and that was more open to its input and feedback, according to Avi Gil, a fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute and long-time Israeli diplomat.

Though many issues remained unresolved — specifically the lack of implementation of the Western Wall compromise, which would give official standing to non-Orthodox Jews in the management of the holy site — the outgoing coalition was seen as being far more receptive and welcoming than previous governments led by presumed prime minister-elect Netanyahu.

Representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements of Judaism from North America and Israel stand outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem before a meeting on February 28, 2022. (Reform Movement in Israel)

But Klar, a long-time advocate of Jewish peoplehood, said the broader situation vis-à-vis the Israel-Diaspora relationship is actually rosier than it may appear.

While she said Diaspora Jewry’s concerns are well-founded, there is growing understanding in Israel — even among the far-right parties — that the relationship with Jewish communities abroad, particularly America’s, is important.

“In every political party, people understand that being part of the larger Jewish people is critical to Israelis in the State of Israel. And that wasn’t the case just five years ago,” Klar said.

Blue and White MK Alon Tal speaks during an election event on Israel-Diaspora ties at Tel Aviv’s ANU Museum of the Jewish People on October 19, 2022. (Barak Sela/Reut Group/courtesy)

Indeed, the Religious Zionism Party included in its official platform a section on Israel-Diaspora ties. While Diaspora Jewry would take issue with many aspects of the platform — for one thing, it is focused entirely on teaching Diaspora Jews about Israel and completely neglects educating Israelis about world Jewry — the fact that the party felt obligated to write the proposal, which it had never done before, shows the rising importance of that relationship.

This can also be seen in the more moderate rhetoric recently adopted by members of the party. In 2016 Smotrich dismissed Reform Judaism as a “fake religion” that he refused to recognize, but earlier this year he struck a far different tone. “There are many things I disagree about with Reform and Conservative Jewry. But I understand that we are brothers. We need to speak and have a dialogue and look for common ground,” he said in an interview with the religious Zionist World Mizrachi movement.

For a number of reasons, positioning the Reform Movement as your enemy wouldn’t reward anyone politically in Israel today

More generously, this can be seen as an outcome of Smotrich’s encounters with Reform and Conservative Jews in the United States in recent years. More cynically, it can be interpreted as a result of cold political calculus indicating that publicly denigrating Reform Jews is more of a liability than a benefit.

“For a number of reasons, positioning the Reform Movement as your enemy wouldn’t reward anyone politically in Israel today,” Klar said.

How that translates to practical changes on the ground that the Reform Movement would welcome and appreciate remains to be seen.

The Reform Movement, for its part, is calling for greater engagement with Israel, not less, in light of the rise of far-right parties.

Rabbi Josh Weinberg, a vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism and the executive director of the Association of Reform Zionists of America, called for Reform Jewry to massively expand its Israel programs.

“While some will see the incendiary rise of bigoted and racist politicians elected through the democratic process as a reason to distance themselves from Israel, the opposite is necessary. Let’s start by flooding the country with our young people. Instead of 80-120 students a year on our flagship semester URJ Heller High program, we should have 1,000. We should be sending thousands each summer and even more on MASA Gap Year and post-graduate programs,” Weinberg wrote ahead of Tuesday’s election.

“Imagine a world in which, even if we don’t all live our lives in Israel, we contributed to the Jewish state by spending a year or two, learning Hebrew, and helping to right the course of Jewish history by rejecting the vitriol and vile of those who are dragging it down.”

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