A Cautionary Tale

Perhaps this should serve as a cautionary tale for the United States and American Jewry.

Israel’s election was November 1 and while they still need to sort out who will be in the next government, some things are crystal clear.

The man who will lead the nation is the scandal-plagued former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  He has pulled off a political “next act” by running a campaign which played on the anti-Arab fears of the public. What is worse is that he will form a government with far-right wing extremists, Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich of the Religious Zionism party and both will probably be picked as ministers. Ben Gvir reportedly is interested in the Public Security Ministry, even though he has been previously convicted on numerous counts, and wants the Ministry of Education for his party.  Smotrich has demanded the Finance or Defense Ministry.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu is still facing criminal charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Ben Gvir is a self-described disciple of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who founded Israel’s outlawed Kach Party after having first created the Jewish Defense League, or JDL in the US. Ben Gvir campaigned to expel “disloyal” Israeli (Arab) citizens, institute the death penalty for terrorists and ease the rules of engagement for Israel’s military, enabling them to more easily “shoot-to-kill” Palestinian suspects. He also called for aggressively settling and annexing the West Bank, which he referred to by the Biblical names “Judea” and “Samaria.” If his party also gets the Ministry of Education the secular schools will probably see an increase in Jewish subjects added to the curriculum. In his celebratory remarks after the polls closed, he thanked his former political partner Benzie Gopstein, whose Lehava organization is blatantly racist, opposes all LGBTQ rights and seeks to stop non-Jewish activity in Israel, as well as outlaw intermarriage for Jews.

Smotrich campaigned for legal reforms that would ultimately cancel Netanyahu’s criminal trial. He considers non-Orthodox Jewish movements to be “fake religion,” does not accept Reform conversions and is opposed to the use of public mikvehs for non-Orthodox ceremonies. He says that Arabs are in Israel “by mistake” and bemoans that Ben Gurion did not throw them out in 1948. Smotrich also wants Jewish and Arab women to be segregated in the nation’s maternity wards and speaks of restoring the “Torah justice system,” in order to run the country as he perceives it was in the days of King David.  He also wishes it were possible for Israel “to be run according to the Torah and Jewish law.”

Of course, both the US and Israel have different issues, however with US midterm elections next week I believe the parallels for Americans are very clear and frightening. Tuesday’s US election has many extreme right-wing candidates on the ballots and there is a scandal-plagued former head of state seeking his own next act.  Donald Trump is saying he may declare his run for the 2024 Republican Presidential nomination in the coming weeks despite facing investigations over his alleged mishandling of secure documents, a criminal inquiry that he attempted to alter election results in Georgia and possibly other states in 2020 and a civil case in New York examining whether his family’s real estate company fraudulently inflated the value of numerous properties in order to receive better loan rates.

The expected coalition that will govern the country is also at odds with American national interests and positions and can endanger US support for Israel.

For American Jews, there is concern that views held by Israel’s next government toward non-Orthodox Jews will reignite the issue of “Who is a Jew” and raise concerns for access to the Western Wall and its egalitarian space.  Obviously, Jews who aren’t Israeli citizens can’t vote in their elections, however all issues concerning pluralism, Jewish identity and freedom of religion for all Jewish communities. are of vital importance to them.

There is also fear that the new government will permit Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount. Should this happen, it will undoubtedly unleash a furious response from Palestinians and the entire Muslim world.

In an Op-Ed in The New York Times on November 4, 2022 – “The Israel We Knew is Gone” – Thomas Friedman wrote, “Israeli political trends are often a harbinger of wider trends in Western democracies … Lord save us if this is what’s coming our way.”

Times of Israel Founding Editor David Horowitz, observed that “Tuesday’s vote is the elevation of the foundational principle of Israel as a Jewish state above that other foundational principle of Israel as a democratic state.” As a serious Jew, I have to counter that the extreme right-wing policies held by Israel’s election winners are anathema to what I know to be Jewish and absolutely do not reflect the morals and lessons I’ve learned throughout my life.

In a warning to voters before the election, David wrote, “the rise of Smotrich and Ben Gvir to potential positions of significant power, under Netanyahu’s aegis, risks undoing the principles we stood for then and largely still stand for, risks weakening ourselves and our international viability, with a catastrophic, self-defeating lurch to the political extremes.”

Looking back 27 years ago to the tragic assassination of Prime Minster Yitzchak Rabin, and seeing these election results, I am sickened by the thought that his killer ultimately achieved his goal. Incredibly, at a ceremony marking Rabin’s assassination, Bezalel Smotrich suggested that the Shin Bet was responsible!

Nonetheless, I will always be a staunch supporter of Israel and a Zionist. It is my oxygen and crucial to my very existence. However, hatred (not only hatred but Sinat Hinam) and racism are wrong and always will be wrong, whether wrapped in a tallit or flag.

About the Author
Robert L. Kern has served as Director of Marketing & Communications for several "American Friends," Zionist and Jewish organizations. He is a former President of the American Jewish Public Relations Society and a member of the Executive Committee of the American Jewish Press Association. The views and opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author.