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US Jewish groups sound alarm over rise of Ben Gvir, though many steer clear

American Jewish Committee, Reform Movement, J Street and others express deep concerns over likely far-right government, but other organizations avoid mentioning Otzma Yehudit head

Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir arrives to speak to supporters as the results of the Israeli elections are announced, at the party's campaign headquarters in Jerusalem, November 1, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir arrives to speak to supporters as the results of the Israeli elections are announced, at the party's campaign headquarters in Jerusalem, November 1, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Several US Jewish groups expressed distress over the results of Israel’s election Wednesday, which appeared to show major gains for far-right parties, including extremist MK Itamar Ben Gvir.

But while progressive groups sounded the alarm over the likely formation of a government headed by Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu and including the far-right Religious Zionism party as a senior partner, most mainstream organizations, including those that spoke against Ben Gvir in the past, were more cautious, expressing hopes of working with the new government.

With nearly 90% of the votes counted early Thursday, tallies showed Netanyahu cruising back into power with a majority coalition backed by Religious Zionism, which was the third highest vote-getter, and ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism.

The result will likely mean a senior ministerial post for Religious Zionism head Bezalel Smotrich, and a cabinet position for Ben Gvir, and critics worry it could also put other openly racist and homophobic politicians in positions of power.

Among the only mainstream US groups to speak out was the American Jewish Committee, which acknowledged that statements from some members of Religious Zionism “raise serious concerns about issues we prioritize: pluralism, inclusion, and increased opportunities for peace and normalization.”

“Regardless of the composition of any governing coalition, we will continue to work with those in the Israeli government and in Israeli society who are committed to advancing democracy, inclusion, and peace, and to combating efforts to undermine these values,” the statement added.

Municipality workers take off election campaign posters the day after the general elections in the northern town of Katzrin, Golan Heights on November 2, 2022. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

The group had issued a warning against Ben Gvir in 2019 when Netanyahu first brokered a deal that would have helped the firebrand follower of late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane enter the Knesset. But it had declined to speak out in the run-up to Tuesday’s election, arguing that it did not want to interfere in the Israeli democratic process.

Two other groups that spoke out against Ben Gvir in 2019 — the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs — had not offered any comment on the Israeli election as of late Wednesday.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s decision to speak out against Ben Gvir in 2019 was seen as an extraordinary sign of the worries his mainstreaming sparked among American Jews, but the pro-Israel lobby did not raise similiar concerns following Tuesday’s vote.

“It is clear that the Knesset – like the US Congress – will include leaders of a wide range of different political, ideological, economic, racial, and religious identities and perspectives,” AIPAC said Wednesday.

“The Jewish state is a robust democracy that shares America’s interests and values. We look forward to working with the US administration and Democrats and Republicans in Congress to strengthen the US-Israel relationship,” it added.

Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to address supporters at the party’s campaign headquarters in Jerusalem early on November 2, 2022. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP)

Jill Jacobs, who heads the liberal T’ruah rights organization for Jewish clergy members in North America, slammed the silence of many Jewish groups “about Ben-Gvir’s Religious Zionist slate.”

“Jewish organizations have a moral obligation to stand together against Ben-Gvir and his party and loudly declare that they do not represent Jewish interests,” Jacobs said.

In fact, several left-wing and progressive figures in the US Jewish community spoke out Wednesday.

The Union of Reform Judaism said in a statement that it was “profoundly concerned” over Netanyahu’s plans to give cabinet positions to Smotrich and Ben Gvir.

“Their platforms and past actions indicate that they would curtail the authority of Israel’s Supreme Court and inhibit the rights of Israeli Arabs, Palestinians, members of the LGBTQ+ community and large segments of Jews who are non-Orthodox. Including Ben Gvir and Smotrich in the government will likely jeopardize Israel’s democracy and will force the country to reckon with its place on the world stage,” it said.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, who heads the dovish Mideast lobby J Street, called the election results “deeply troubling for all who care about Israel and about liberal democracy globally.”

J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami addresses the liberal Zionist group’s annual conference in Washington, D.C. in October 2019 (Courtesy)

“The likely formation of an ultra-right Netanyahu government should force a moment of serious reckoning for all Americans who care about the nature of the US-Israel relationship and a just, equal and democratic future for both Israelis and Palestinians,” he said, adding that his group would respect the election outcome.

The Democratic Majority for Israel, a Democrat-linked pro-Israel organization, expressed concern over the far right, saying it believed Religious Zionism “should have no place in Israel’s governing coalition.”

“We cannot help but be deeply troubled by the fact that an anti-democratic and extremist party led by Kahanist Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich will gain a larger foothold in the Knesset,” they said, warning that the faction “may wield outsize political influence as former prime minister Netanyahu can only put together a governing coalition with its support.”

The Israel Policy Forum, which advocates for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, also warned of “grave concerns.”

“A government that may include Kahanists and ministers convicted of incitement to terrorism, and that openly espouses bigotry toward Israel’s Arab citizens is not cause for celebration,” the group said in a statement, warning that Ben Gvir may “put significant stress on US-Israel relations.”

Despite the outcry, more mainstream groups congratulated Israel on the election while steering clear of criticizing Ben Gvir or others.

The Jewish Federations of North America umbrella group said it looked “forward to working with the government selected by the Israeli people, as we always have, to support Jews around the world and strengthen the relationships between Israel, the North American Jewish community, and our government leaders.”

Asked if there were any problems working with Ben Gvir or Smotrich, a spokesperson did not indicate any specific concerns.

“We have worked with every Israeli government in the past. The makeup of this particular coalition will take weeks to finalize,” the spokesperson said.

Electoral official arrange ballots in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba during Israeli elections, Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

B’nai B’rith International, a Jewish services organization, said in a terse statement that “Israel proudly exemplifies what it means to be an engaged, participatory democracy.”

“We look forward to working with Israel’s next governing coalition on issues critical to the future of global Jewry and the Jewish state,” it said.

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