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In rare plea, Conservative Jewry tells Netanyahu: Don’t make Ben Gvir a minister

Mercaz Olami, the Zionist umbrella arm of Conservative-Masorti Judaism, warns appointing far-right lawmaker to a cabinet post would threaten Israel-Diaspora ties

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

Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir speaks to supporters at the far-right party's campaign headquarters after the results of exit polls are announced, November 1, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir speaks to supporters at the far-right party's campaign headquarters after the results of exit polls are announced, November 1, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The official Zionist arm of the Conservative Movement on Tuesday issued a demand to Benjamin Netanyahu, the presumed incoming prime minister, calling on him not to give far-right politician Itamar Ben Gvir a cabinet post, in light of the latter’s checkered legal past and history of support for Jewish terrorism.

“We have always been proud of Israel and plan to continue to be so forever (every day, every moment, every hour),” Mercaz Olami, which represents all parts of Conservative-Masorti Jewry in official Zionist fora, wrote in an open letter to the Likud party leader.

“This very eternal pride causes us to firmly turn to the next prime minister of Israel with a request not to appoint Itamar Ben Gvir to a ministerial position in the new government. He has been convicted of criminal acts including incitement of racism, possession of propaganda material of a terrorist organization and support of a terrorist organization.”

This demand represented a major escalation in the rhetoric between international Jewish organizations and the presumed next government of Israel over its likely inclusion of far-right politicians, who have a history of anti-Arab, anti-LGBT and anti-progressive Judaism comments and actions.

Until now, most international Jewish groups — including the US Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly — have kept themselves to, at most, raising concerns about the rise of the far-right following last week’s election, rather than directly trying to affect the formation of the government, as Mercaz Olami has done.

“We are very concerned about the composition of the next government,” Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal, the CEO of the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, told The Times of Israel.

Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu (left) speaks to Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir (second from right) for informal coalition talks at a Likud party office in Tel Aviv on November 7, 2022. (Courtesy)

Blumenthal said his organization, through Mercaz Olami, felt compelled to act as it believes that the inclusion of far-right politicians in general, and Ben Gvir specifically, poses a serious threat to the Israel-Diaspora relationship.

“The relationship between America and Israel… is founded on shared values, including a commitment to democracy and human rights and the fight against racism and antisemitism. To have a person in the government who has made racist statements and supported violence in the past is very concerning,” Blumenthal said.

“The strength of the relationship between Diaspora Jews and the Jews of Israel is based on common values. We expect the Israeli government to uphold those values in order to maintain that relationship,” he said.

Asked how Ben Gvir was different than other former Israeli politicians who have a history of anti-Arab rhetoric and support for political violence, the US Jewish leader said that he was part of a broad trend in Israel that his movement felt demanded a firm response.

“Our perception is that this is at a different level and that this represents a change in Israel’s overall society and approach, and that needs to be addressed,” he said.

Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal (Rabbinical Assembly via JTA)

In the statement, which was shared with The Times of Israel before being issued publicly, Mercaz Olami noted Ben Gvir and others’ stated views on issues of LGBT rights and civil rights, as well as their views on Jewish topics, including the rights of progressive Jews to hold egalitarian prayer services at the Western Wall and other issues.

“It is impossible to ignore the fact that the coalition which appears to be in the making will include politicians whose positions regarding basic elements of democracy and diversity (such as Jewish pluralism, LGBTQ and vulnerable minorities) significantly differ from the values which have guided Zionism since its inception,” the organization wrote in its statement.

“The bridges between Israel and world Jewry could be severely damaged if a step back will be taken on sensitive issues like the Egalitarian Western Wall, conversion, and who is a Jew.”

The Likud party did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Israeli lawmakers, including Netanyahu, have spurned such pleas from international Jewish groups, describing them as inappropriate foreign intervention in Israeli domestic politics.

Blumenthal said he and his organization believes that the State of Israel represents not only the homeland of the people living there but of all Jewish people, and thus its politics and political direction are of significance to all Jews around the world.

“Netanyahu himself has often talked about the idea that Israel is not just a state for Israelis but is a state for the entire Jewish people. And the entire Jewish people is concerned about what the Israeli government stands for, and when we have concerns, it is important for Jews from around the world to express those concerns,” he said.

The missive was signed by the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, Women’s League for Conservative Judaism, Cantors Assembly, Seminario Rabínico Latinoamericano, Marom Olami, Masorti Olami, Mercaz USA, Schechter Institutes, Inc., Masorti Foundation, Jewish Educators Assembly, and North American Association of Synagogue Executives.

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