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Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s far-right, Jewish nationalist, ultra-conservative coalition government threatens to put the Jewish state on a collision course with Diaspora Jewry and could weaken or undermine a pillar of Israeli national security: unquestioned US support.
The looming crisis with two of Israel’s crucial constituencies, the United States and Diaspora Jewry, stems from Mr. Netanyahu’s embrace of the far-right and willingness to sidestep the rise of anti-Semitism among Christian nationalists and Evangelicals, two groups that constitute the mainstay of US grassroots support for Israel.
The Israel that was
Details, leaked to Israeli media, of the coalition agreement between Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party and five ultra-nationalist and ultra-conservative religious parties provide a roadmap to multiple potential crises Israel and the new government could encounter. The agreement entails policies that would legitmise racism, impinge on the secular nature of the state, curtail democratic checks and balances, and pursue annexation of occupied territory and Judaisation of Palestinian-populated areas of Israel proper.
Under the agreement, the parties intend to pass legislation that will end a ban on individuals who incite racism from serving in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. They also plan to extend exemptions for the teaching of core subjects like English and mathematics in ultra-conservative religious schools, increase the funding of ultra-conservative religious schools, legalise public funding of gender-segregated events, and grant parliament the right to override Supreme Court decisions.
The coalition partners also agreed to introduce the death penalty for perpetrators of political violence and legalise wildcat settlements hitherto described by Israeli governments as illegal. The accord further involves a vague consensus to move towards annexation of parts of the West Bank occupied by Israel during the 1967 Middle East war and draft plans to Judaise the Galilee and Negev, areas within Israel’s pre-1967 borders that are home to significant Palestinian communities.
Critics will take heart from potential timebombs that could blow the coalition apart at any point after it takes office even though it is a far more cohesive alliance than the unwieldy partnership of its predecessor that was led by Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett.
The timebombs include legal obstacles to passing a law that would fortify exempting religious seminary students from military service, definitions of the authority over the police of the incoming national security minister and of another hardliner’s powers in managing the occupation’s civil administration of the West Bank, the level of increased funding for religious seminaries, and Mr. Netanyahu’s hesitancy to move ahead with understandings that would curtail the rights of non-Orthodox Jews because of the virulent response from American Jews and potential opposition to the measures by Russian Jewish segment of his electoral base.
With the announcement of his government, Mr. Netanyahu rejected suggestions by prominent Israelis and American Jews, including Dan Kurtzer, a former US ambassador to Israel and Egypt, to form a coalition of centre-left parties. The alliance would cancel the prime minister’s trial on corruption charges to keep the far right out of power.
Some Israeli analysts argue that was never an option because Mr. Netanyahu is a changed man. “The 73-year-old Likud leader is no longer the ‘responsible adult’ in the room that he was perhaps a decade ago when he rejected calls from within his own party to weaken Israel’s judiciary. He has adopted a conspiratorial worldview, leads a party that has shifted dramatically to the right, and is completely beholden to Israel’s ultra-Orthodox politicians, who have grand plans to turn Israel into a more fundamentalist and less democratic society,” said Haaretz columnist Amir Tibon.
Seven years ago, Mr. Netanyahu was outraged when police discovered a video of an Orthodox wedding on which attendees celebrated by stabbing a picture of a Palestinian baby was murdered in a firebombing by an ultra-nationalist.
At the time, Mr. Netanyahu condemned the revelers as “the real face of a group that poses danger to Israeli society and security.” Today, Mr. Netanyahu has nominated one of the wedding’s attendees, Jewish Power leader Itamar Ben-Gvir, as national security minister, in his newly announced government.
Mr. Netanyahu is betting that his pledge not to govern based on Jewish religious law and tighten Israeli cooperation with the United States against China will appease the Biden administration and his Jewish critics. That is likely a slippery slope at best.
Moreover, compounding potential upsets in Israel’s foreign relations is a potential crisis in dealings with Egypt and Jordan, the two Arab states that initially concluded peace treaties with the Jewish state, if members of the new government act on their promises.
Mr. Ben-Gvir, the incoming national security minister, promised that one of his first acts would be to visit Jerusalem’s Temple Mount or Haram ash-Sharif and authorize Jewish prayer on the site. Such moves would infuriate Jordan, the custodian of the Muslim holy sites. At the same time, Avi Maoz, the minister in charge of shaping Jewish identity, has described Egypt as an “enemy state.”
“Over the years, the power of the Palestinians to motivate Arab public opinion has greatly eroded. The only place that perhaps can still produce protest is the Temple Mount …. It is also Jordan’s weak spot, and when ties between Netanyahu and the (Jordanian) king are far from friendly, the king will have to rely on other Arab leaders and the United States to calm the Israeli government,” said a Jordanian-Palestinian newspaper editor.
To position itself as the Arab country with the most influence in Israel and a potential facilitator between the Netanyahu government, Palestinians, and other Arab countries, the United Arab Emirates, the Arab state that spearheaded the recognition in 2020 by Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan, took a different tack. It became, together with Bahrain, the first nation to legitimise Mr. Ben-Gvir by inviting him, even before the formation of the Netanyahu government, to attend a national day celebration at its embassy in Tel Aviv. Days later, UAE ambassador Mohamed Al Khaja visited Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich, another far-right Netanyahu coalition partner, in his office in Jerusalem.
The outreach signalled that it would be business as usual after the UAE had initially unsuccessfully sought to convince Mr. Netanyahu not to include Mr. Ben-Gvir in his Cabinet.
Changing tacks, the UAE has opted to bet on sustaining its past accomplishment of stopping Mr. Netanyahu from implementing some of his most provocative policies. In 2020, the UAE successfully made its recognition of Israel conditional on Mr. Netanyahu dropping plans to annex parts of the West Bank.
The UAE and Bahrain’s engagement with the Israeli far-right acknowledges Israeli political trends but sits uncomfortably with the divergence in attitudes of Diaspora Jews and Israelis towards Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and Palestinians and non-Israeli Jews’ concerns about the new Israeli government. Ties to Diaspora Jewry is a pillar of Emirati soft power.
Apartheid in the making
American Jews expressed a critical view of Israel in a poll on the eve of the November 2022 US midterm elections. Sixty-eight per cent supported placing restrictions on US aid to Israel to prevent it from being used to expand Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
The poll contrasted starkly with a hardening of attitudes towards Palestinians and an increasing rejection of a two-state solution by Israeli Jews.
Instead, Israeli Jews, according to Yuval Noah Harari, one of Israel’s most prominent public intellectuals, embrace the notion of a three-tiered class system with Jews on top of the societal pyramid in a swath of land that stretches from the Mediterranean coast to the Jordan River.
The three tiers are “Jews, who have all the rights; some Arabs, who have some rights; and other Arabs, who have very little or no rights. And this is increasingly the situation on the ground. And this is increasingly also the aspiration or the mindset of even people in government,” Mr. Harari said.
Mr. Hariri’s assessment would legitimise assertions by Israeli and international human rights groups that Israel is embracing a system of apartheid that is borne out by the ambitions of Netanyahu’s coalition partners.
Finance Minister Smotrich’s Religious Zionist Party, for example, aims to impose Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank and for Israel to be governed by the laws of the Torah. In addition, the party of Mr. Smotrich, who will be responsible for the civil administration of the West Bank, calls for disbanding the Palestinian Authority and expelling Palestinians “disloyal to Israel” in what would amount to ethnic cleansing.
Mr. Ben-Gvir has expressed support for Rabbi Meir Kahane, an American-born, ultra-nationalist writer, and politician who founded the Jewish Defence League that called for expelling Israel’s Palestinian citizens and banning sex between Jews and non-Jews.
Mr. Kahane was sentenced to five years in prison in the United States on terrorism charges. He was assassinated in 1990 while speaking to an Orthodox audience in Brooklyn by an Egyptian-born American citizen.
Mr. Ben-Gvir, who in 2007 was convicted on charges of incitement to violence and support of a terrorist organisation, also spoke positively about Baruch Goldstein, a West Bank settler who killed 29 Palestinians and wounded 125 more when he attacked a mosque in 1994. A picture of Mr. Goldstein long adorned Mr. Ben-Gvir’s living room.
Mr. Ben Gvir has clearly defined his vision of policing. He has proposed new rules of engagement with potential perpetrators of violence. Police and security forces would be authorised to shoot on sight anyone they spot holding a rock or a Molotov cocktail if that person “hate(s) Israel,” a definition to be applied to Palestinians rather than Israeli Jews. In other words, Mr. Ben-Gvir’s reforms were likely to reinforce rather than tackle racism in police ranks and the police’s failure to address crime in Israeli Palestinian communities that is spiralling out of control.
Mr. Tibor, the journalist, noted that Mr. Ben-Gvir was pushing a law in parliament that would make him the de facto commissioner of police rather than just the politician responsible for law enforcement. “This means that a man with a rich past as a suspect and defendant will have (the) final say on criminal investigations and indictments. Israel’s attorney general issued a rare public warning against this legislation, but Netanyahu and his allies couldn’t care less,” Mr. Tibor said.
The 13th tribe
For a majority of Jews, Mr. Netanyahu’s swing to the right amounts to turning Israel into a Jewish state that emphasizes relationships with far-right groups irrespective of their attitudes towards Jews rather than with Jewish communities regardless of their political leanings.
“If Israel ceases to be an open democracy, I won’t be able to support it. If Israel becomes a fundamentalist religious state, a theocratic nationalism state, it will cut Israel off from 70 percent of world Jewry, who won’t qualify into their definition of ‘who is a Jew’… I never thought…I would reach that point where I would say that my support of Israel is conditional. I’ve always said that (my support) is unconditional, but it’s conditional,’” warned former director of the Anti-Defamation League Abe Foxman.
“I don’t need to tell you how politically, and strategically American Jewry is critical as a cement to the relationship between the two countries, and therefore it is critical that this new government not do damage to relationships; not tamper with Israel’s democracy, its institutions, its legal systems, its civil rights of Arab minorities; not tamper with the Law of Return and the status of Christians and Muslims,” Mr. Foxman added.
Mr. Foxman was voicing a more deeply rooted rot in Israel’s relationship to Diaspora Jewry, particularly Jews in the United States, who, together with Israeli Jews, account for 80 percent of Jews worldwide.
The rot dates to the days before the creation of the Jewish state. It stems from a sense of superiority among those who immigrated or made aliyah, the Hebrew word for ascent or going up, to Israel or were born in Palestine/Israel. Israeli Jews perceive Diaspora Jewry as sheep who, in World War Two, allowed themselves to be led to the Nazi’s gas chambers as opposed to muscular Israelis who respond to threats and attacks with a sledgehammer. Many Jews embraced the notion of the muscular Jew and the Israeli political, scientific, and military successes it produced, even if they disagreed with how that translated into policy toward the Palestinians.
- D Gordon, an influential Ukrainian-born 19th and early 20th century Labour Zionist thinker, described Jews as “a parasitic people…not only in an economic sense, but in spirit, in thought, in poetry, in literature, and in our virtues, our ideals, our higher human aspirations” because they had no roots in Jewish soil.
Similarly, A. B. Yehoshua, widely seen as one of Israel’s greatest writers, echoed Revisionist Zionist ideologue Ze’ev Jabotinsky when he dismissed American Jews as “playing with Jewishness,” unlike Israelis for whom Judaism was part of their daily life.
“The painful truth for American Jews is that while they have tended to worship Israeli Jews, their “cousins” have, historically, returned this feeling with a combination of amusement and contempt,” said Eric Alterman, author of ‘We Are Not One: A History of America’s Fight Over Israel,’ a recently published book.
To be sure, Israel remains a central plank of American Jewish identity. Some 80 per cent of respondents in a 2021 Pew Research Center study said Israel was an essential or substantial part of what being Jewish means to them. However, 27 per cent between 18 and 29 said Israel was not an essential part of their Jewish identity. Fifty-one per cent said they felt little or no connection with Israel.
Nevertheless, the divergence in perspectives on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the rise of an Israeli far-right that feels more comfortable with ideologically like-minded forces irrespective of their attitude towards Jews rather than with Jews, no matter their worldview, highlights the ultimate failure of Zionism. Rather than creating Israel as a haven for Jews, Zionism has produced the 13th Jewish tribe with aspirations of its own that differ from those of its Jewish brethren elsewhere.
In a fictional Thanksgiving epistle, Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli consul general in New York, cautioned American Jews that “as you must have agonizingly realized by now, Israel no longer cares about you. You served your purpose – as we did for you – and now Israel isn’t interested in you. In Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel, you’ve become obsolete…. You’ve outlived your usefulness; you’ve exhausted the goodwill.”
Mr. Pinkas went on to say that “Israeli-Jewish society and culture and American-Jewish society and culture have evolved so differently that you can no longer cover it up with pro-Israel and fundraising platitudes… The majority of evangelical Christians will replace the vast majority of American Jews. Since it’s all about numbers, the evangelicals are the preferred ally…. When Netanyahu reversed course and aligned Israel with the right wing of the Republican Party, it was a clear message to most American Jews. He essentially said: I can do without you; I choose to ignore you. My political considerations with the ultra-Orthodox and my affinity with the far right greatly override your interests and concerns.”
Similarly, American Jewish fundraisers expect it will be increasingly difficult to persuade skeptics to open their wallets to support Israel. “I’m worried this new government is going to take steps that will bring American Jews to the point where they ask: ‘Why even bother with Israel? What’s the use? It’s a racist place, and they don’t respect our form of Judaism. Why should we give any of them anything?'” said Larry Katz, a Rhode Island-based fundraiser who prides himself on a stellar record in convincing critics of Israel to open their pocketbooks for causes in the Jewish state that speak to their values.
In an early shot across the bow, several hundred rabbis and cantors signed an open letter entitled, ‘A call to action for clergy in protest of Israeli government extremists,’ that calls for a Jewish community boycott of far-right members of the Netanyahu government. “When those who tout racism and bigotry claim to speak in the name of Israel but deny our rights, our heritage, and the rights of the most vulnerable among us, we must take action,” the letter read.
The schism widens
The divide between Israel and American Jewry will likely widen with the potential hollowing out of Israeli democracy by Mr. Netanyahu’s far-right coalition. The prime minister’s partners want the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, to adopt an “override clause” that would give the smallest possible majority of 61 seats in the assembly the power to overrule Supreme Court decisions. The clause, if legislated, would grant unchecked power to the government, with no mechanism to balance it or place limits on its choices.
Moreover, moves to limit eligibility for Jewish immigration to Israel and citizenship envisioned by Mr. Netanyahu’s partners could further exasperate Israeli-Jewish Diaspora relations. To do so, the religious parties want the Knesset to cancel the “grandchild clause” in the Law of Return, which governs eligibility for immigration and automatic citizenship.
Removal of the provision would disqualify people with only one Jewish grandparent and endorse only individuals with at least one Jewish parent. The law would affect an estimated three million Diaspora Jews, most of whom live in the United States.
Moreover, Mr. Ben-Gvir, the national security minister, also wants to withdraw recognition of converts to Judaism whose conversion was performed by Reform or Conservative rabbis in Israel in a vaguely defined “recognized Jewish community.” rather than abroad. A majority of American Jews adhere to Reform and Conservative rather than Orthodox Judaism.
Adding fuel to the fire, Mr. Netanyahu appointed far-right, homophobic Noam party leader Avi Maoz as a deputy prime minister in charge of forging a national Jewish identity and defining Jewish values. Mr. Maoz is a disciple of Rabbi Zvi Thau, a nationalist cleric who believes that progressive ideologues are destroying Israel’s Jewish character and subverting family values.
Mr. Maoz will supervise some 8,000 extracurricular educational programs in thousands of secular schools. These include life skills classes and courses on religion; the Bible; Jewish culture, identity and thought; army preparation, and human rights.
“There are currently 3,000 educational programs written by progressive, far-left NGOs, funded by foreign foundations and the European Union. Are they there to strengthen the Jewish state? Of course not. They want to make Israel a state like all states. Who will make sure that Jewish identity programs be written instead of ‘state-of-all-its-citizens’ programs? That’s my job,” Mr. Maoz said on the eve of his appointment.
A proponent of ‘the normative family,’ who views sexually and gender diverse people as perverts, pedophiles, and freaks, Mr. Maoz has railed against supporting transgender youths and Israel’s ban on conversion therapy. He has also targetted the rights of Reform Jews and an alleged foreign-backed, post-modernist deep state that supposedly controls the judiciary and the education ministry and undermines Jewish mores. Furthermore, Mr. Maoz has advocated restricting the rights of women whose “greatest contribution…is to marry and raise an honorable family.”
Mr. Netanyahu hopes that his likely appointment as foreign minister of Amir Ohana, the only openly gay lawmaker in the 64-seat pro-Netanyahu parliamentary bloc, will serve as a fig leaf for diehard supporters of the Jewish state, who desperately want evidence that the Netanyahu government won’t destroy Israel’s democracy.
It’s a gesture that is unlikely to persuade a majority of American Jews or Democrats.
Former Israeli Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai warned that Mr. Netanyahu’s alliances “would be a strategic mistake second to none. The American-Jewish community has always been our bridge to the US administration. Move(s) like this could cause that bridge to become very shaky.”
Shortly after Mr. Netanyahu won a sixth term as prime minister in the November 2022 elections, Brooklyn Rabbi Rachel Timoner cautioned in a Sabbath service that the polls “have brought in the most racist and farthest-right leadership Israel has ever seen.” Comparing the Israeli swing to the right to similar trends in the United States, Italy, Sweden, and Hungary, Ms. Timoner noted that “periodically, a kind of authoritarian, nationalist, fascist insanity grips many countries in the world simultaneously.”
Similarly, Rabbi Rolando Matalon told his B’nai Jeshurun congregation on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that Jewish Power was a “racist, Jewish-supremacist” party that promoted “hateful and violent ideas.” In a separate interview, Mr. Matalon added, “my most dominant emotion is fear. “I’m afraid about the erosion of what was a liberal democracy, democratic values, of the judicial system.”
A safe haven no more
Mr. Netanyahu’s turn to the right calls into question the status of Israel as a haven for Jews at a time when some American Jews have begun to ask whether they still have a future in a United States in which anti-Semitism has been mainstreamed.
“Hostility to Jews, in both word and deed, is now a growing presence within the public sphere and has been moving from the fringes, where it has long existed, into the mainstream,” warned Alvin Rosenfield, director of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University.
Mr. Rosenfeld argued that rising hostility was fuelled by an amalgam of Christian anti-Semitism and militant white nationalism, “two deeply hostile, anti-Jewish ideologies” into “racially and religiously inspired white supremacist, Christian neo-nationalism.”
The Anti-Defamation League, an anti-hate group, focused on protecting Jewish communities, counted 2,717 anti-Semitic incidents in the US in 2021, up 34 per cent from 2020 and the highest number in its records dating to 1979.
Attacks and threats at synagogues, including the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh, which killed 11 people in 2018, and a hostage standoff during Sabbath services in 2022 in Colleyville, Texas, have added to the sense of insecurity. In November 2022, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued a broad warning of security threats to New Jersey synagogues and later arrested a man in connection with the matter.
That same month, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified to Congress that American Jews account for 2.4% of the US population but were the target of about 63% of religious-hate crimes. “Anti-Semitism and violence that comes out of it is a persistent and present fact,” he said.
The rise of anti-Semitism contrasts starkly with the pro-Jewish sentiment expressed by Americans in opinion polls. A 2019 Pew poll showed that Americans liked Jews more than any other religious group.
Even so, Yizhar Hess, deputy chairman of the World Zionist Organisation, warned that ‘The impact of (the) Israeli election result on Diaspora Jewry could be devastating, perhaps even fatal.”
Far-right wingers of the world unite
There are precedents for Israel either joining the Christian nationalist and Republican fray or looking the other way when anti-Semitism is in play.
Mr. Netanyahu had no compunction about acting hand in hand with the American right and Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, who campaigned with anti-Semitic overtones against George Soros, the Hungarian-born American Jewish billionaire, philanthropist and Holocaust survivor.
Mr. Netanyahu also remained silent about Mr. Orban’s rewriting of Hungary’s World War Two history, which included rehabilitating anti-Semitic, pro-Nazi wartime figures as anti-communist icons.
Mr. Netanyahu’s willingness to opportunistically back a tainted attack on someone of Jewish descent because of a political disagreement raises tantalising questions about how he will deal with, for example, Sweden’s new government that a party with roots in neo-Nazism supports.
The Sweden Democrats, who helped the country’s new conservative government secure a majority in parliament without being rewarded with Cabinet representation, have insisted that the party has put its past behind it.
But In September 2022, Rebecka Fallenkvist, the 26-year-old head of the party’s television programming, called Anne Frank “immoral” and “horniness itself” in an Instagram post that was later deleted.
Ms. Frank was an acclaimed Dutch Jewess, who documented in a diary life in hiding under Nazi persecution until the Germans killed her in 1944,
Days later, Ms. Fallenkvist celebrated her party’s electoral success in Swedish with the words “Helg Seger’ which means weekend victory but sounds like ‘Sieg Heil,’ the Nazi greeting.
The party quickly moved Ms. Fallenkvist from her publicly visible job to its administrative office in parliament, likely to play a role in the mechanics of the Sweden Democrats’ parliamentary support for the new conservative government.
Israel’s ambassador to Sweden, Ziv Nevo Kulman, condemned Ms. Fallenkvist’s remarks. He warned that “unfortunately, there are many more bad weeds that must be uprooted.” It was unclear if he was referring to the Sweden Democrats or anti-Semitism in general.
There is little indication that Mr. Kulman’s condemnation will have political consequences.
Two months later, members of Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party attended a conference hosted by the Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR). This anti-Semitic political party denies the Holocaust and dreams of returning Romania to its ‘glorious’ past during World War Two when it collaborated with Nazi Germany. The Israeli embassy in Bucharest has refused to deal with the alliance.
Michael Kleiner, the head of Likud’s internal court and a former member of parliament, defended the party members’ engagement with the Romanian group.
“I checked the whole issue myself. I visited Romania three months ago and met with the representatives of the party. AUR is a conservative party that advocates family values, tradition, social equality of opportunity, and, above all, the fight against corruption. I am convinced that they are not antisemitic. The claims against them are a blood libel, and we Jews know what a blood libel means,” Mr. Kleiner said.
Responding to Likud’s engagement, Ephraim Zuroff, director general of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Jerusalem, took Mr. Netanyahu’s party and past government to task for “legitimis(ing) anti-Semitic parties and organizations and Holocaust deniers.” Mr. Zuroff said, “this is a process that has lasted for years, in which Israel’s governments and its official political institutions are prepared in the name of such security or diplomatic interests or others to turn a blind eye to the disgrace.”
Pointing the finger at Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Zuroff asserted that the prime minister had embraced right-wing leaders in Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Lithuania, and other countries and “turn(s) a blind eye to the fact that they rely on radical right-wing parties with anti-Semitic roots.”
Mr. Netanyahu did speak out when a Polish law made it illegal to accuse the Polish nation or state of complicity in Nazi German crimes.
No longer on the fringe
Nevertheless, the Israeli reluctance takes on added significance given that Christian nationalism is no longer a fringe movement within the Republican Party. On the contrary, a recent poll suggested that a majority of Republicans believe that the United States should break with its constitutionally mandated secularism to declare itself a Christian nation. Christian nationalists will be prominent in the next US Congress.
The Republicans’ Christian nationalist sentiment contrasts starkly with other results of the poll that showed that more than 60 percent of Americans favour religious pluralism and oppose the United States identifying itself as a Christian nation.
In contrast to a majority of American, Israel’s problem is not Christian nationalism as such but the anti-Semitism of many of its proponents.
One Israeli litmus test may be what happens if Christian nationalists are flagged in a proposed joint Israeli-European project that would monitor anti-Semitism on social networks as part of a global coalition against anti-Semitism.
“We are not necessarily speaking about a structured coalition with defined criteria and a legal framework… We would rather unite all interested partners in a looser coalition committed to the same values of battling anti-Semitism in all its forms,” said Shuli Davidovich, the head of the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Bureau for World Jewish Affairs and World Religions.
Even so, Israel may find it increasingly difficult to reconcile the Jewish state’s raison d’etre as the protector of Jews and a safe haven with giving a pass to a Republican Party that tolerates anti-Semitic expression.
American Jewish leaders raised alarm bells about rising anti-Semitism long before the US midterm elections in November 2022 and responded to its mainstreaming in the pre-poll electioneering.
“It is disgraceful. Shame on you, America: you let it grow in this petri dish,” said Rabbi Jeffrey Myers. “There is a moral decay occurring in the body of America. Anti-Semitism is just the beginning; it moves beyond anti-Semitism to cover other minority groups.”
In 2018, Mr. Myers lead services at his Pittsburgh synagogue when a white nationalist gunman burst in and murdered 11 Jewish worshippers in the deadliest antisemitic attack in US history.
“If the leaders are not explicit and right out front against (anti-Semitism), it can grow,” warned former senator John Lieberman, the first Jewish candidate on a vice-presidential ticket.
American Jewish Congress president Jack Rosen noted that “on the right…we don’t see the kind of leadership it’s going to take to stop the growth of this kind of anti-Semitic hatred.”
The number of anti-Semitic incidents has only increased since the Pittsburgh attack. They include an assault by a gunman on a synagogue in Poway, California, a town some 32 kilometres north of San Diego; a shooting at a kosher grocery store in New Jersey, antisemitic comments from public figures such as Mr. Trump and members of Congress, and conspiracy theories related to the Pittsburgh shooting itself.
Going soft on Mr. Trump
Mr. Trump repeatedly drew a vociferous backlash for remarks perceived as anti-Semitic, including his assertion that some American Jews did not love Israel enough and that Jews who vote for Democrats were disloyal. In the run-up to the 2022 midterm elections, Mr. Trump charged that American Jews had heaped insufficient praise on his policies toward Israel and warned that they need to “get their act together” before “it is too late!”
Rather than taking to task Mr. Ye, a rapper previously known as Kanye West, who threatened he would go “death on con 3 on Jewish people,” Mr. Trump invited him for dinner at the former president’s Florida resort days before he launched his 2024 presidential election campaign. “He was really nice to me,” Mr. Trump said. Mr. Trump used the opportunity to contrast Jews unfavorably to “our wonderful Evangelicals.”
Mr. Trump also had no compunction about entertaining Mr. Ye’s companion, Nick Fuentes, a 24-year-old pro-Russian trafficker in Holocaust denial and white supremacism.
Echoing the kind of supremacism advocated by Mr. Netanyahu’s coalition partners, Mr. Fuentes asserted after the dinner that “Jews have too much power in our society. Christians should have all the power, everyone else very little,” Meanwhile, Mr. Ye’s campaign manager, Milo Yannopoulos, announced that “we’re done putting Jewish interests first.”
In early 2022, Republican leaders, including House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, took to task Paul Gosar and Marjorie Taylor Greene, two members of the House Republican Conference, for speaking at a conference organised by Mr. Fuentes. But that is unlikely to stop a Republican Speaker from giving them important House committee assignments when the assembly reconvenes with a Republican majority in January 2023 on the back of the midterm elections.
Similarly, Mr. Trump’s Senate nominee Herschel Walker refused to reject a show of support from Mr. Ye. Others favoured by the former president, like Mehmet Oz and Doug Mastriano, also failed to distance themselves from the rapper. Earlier, Mr. Walker defended one of his fundraisers who featured an image of a swastika with syringes attached to it on her Twitter profile.
Left with little choice, Mr. Netanyahu gently urged Mr. Trump to condemn Messrs. Ye and Fuentes. He praised the former president for the “great things (he did) for Israel,” including recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights and withdrawing from the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. “I hope he sees his way to stand out of it and condemns it,” Mr. Netanyahu said. Referring to the dinner, Netanyahu added that Mr. Trump “probably understands that it crosses a line.”
Following in the footsteps of Mr. Trump and Mr. Orban, the Hungarian prime minister, the Republican Party in Georgia invoked in its campaign in support of Mr. Walker tirades laced with anti-Semitism against Mr. Soros, the philanthropist and Holocaust survivor. “No one does Soros’ bidding better” than Mr. Walker’s Democratic opponent, Senator Raphael Warnock, who “has been a perfect puppet for Soros’ left-wing agenda,” the Republicans charged in the election campaign that Mr. Walker ultimately lost.
For his part, Mr. Mastriano paid US$5,000 for campaign consulting to the far-right website Gab, on which the perpetrator of the Pittsburg attack had posted anti-Semitic creeds before his assault on the synagogue.
Mr. Mastriano unsettled Jews on both sides of the political aisle with his ties to extremists and comments about his Democratic rival Josh Shapiro. In addition, Mr. Mastriano’s wife asserted during the midterm election campaign that she and her husband “probably love Israel more than a lot of Jews do.”
A battle for the soul of Christianity
Republican candidate Eli Crane encouraged his audience on a campaign stop in Casa Grande, Arizona, to watch a speech by a right-wing pastor who blamed cultural change on German Jewish philosophers. Mr. Crane warned, “if we don’t wake up, if we don’t study what they are doing…and have the courage to call it out, we’re going to lose this country.”
In a lengthy editorial, The New York Times cautioned that Mr. Trump and his political allies have “helped bring explicitly white supremacist ideas like the ‘great replacement’ into mainstream politics and popular culture. Some on the far right have asserted that Jews, including Soros, enabled the great replacement, the racist belief that secretive forces are importing nonwhite people to dilute countries’ white majorities.
“Extremists driven to murder are a tiny fraction of those who subscribe to racist ideologies, but the mainstreaming of their ideas can make the turn to violence easier for some. That’s why it is alarming to see the great replacement idea espoused by political leaders around the globe… It has been cited approvingly by Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary and darling of some American conservatives. Tucker Carlson of Fox News talks about it often,” the editorial said.
A 2022 Associated Press-NORC poll found that about one in three American adults believes that ”a group of people is trying to replace native-born Americans with immigrants for electoral gains.”
Compounding the potentially brewing crisis between a majority of American Jews, Israel, and the Christian right is a battle for the soul of Christianity in the United States between those that want to firewall it against racism and those who openly advocate a white supremacist, racist, and anti-Semitic definition of the faith.
At the core of the battle is a scandal-ridden, bestselling book, The Case for Christian Nationalism, authored by Reformed theologian and recent Princeton postdoctoral fellow Stephen Wolfe. Mr. Wolfe’s claim to academic rigour was called into question by his ties to racists like his podcast co-host Thomas Archord and the author’s rejection of interracial marriage, description of Blacks as “reliable sources for criminality,” and suggestion that heretics and non-Christians should face banishment, prison or death in his imagined Christian nation.
“What is scary about this whole affair…is that…Wolfe’s book is already being used in seminary papers and sermons across the country to justify an anti-American, anti-democratic, ethno-nationalist Christianity that is now mainstream in the United States. This is no longer a fringe theology. And that should scare us all,” said scholar Bradley Onishi, author of a just-published book entitled ‘Preparing for War: The Extremist History of White Christian Nationalism — And What Comes Next.’
Yet, for men like Mr. Trump, Mr, Netayahu, and Josh Mandel, a far-right Republican Jewish politician who uses Christian imagery to tout Judeo-Christian values and campaigned with a picture of an American flag waving in front of a church steeple topped by a cross, it’s not about theology. It’s about politics.
To them, scholars Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry’s definition of Christian nationalism as “a political theology that fuses American identity with an ultra-conservative strain of Christianity…an ethnic Christian-ism” hits the nail on the head. “Study after study shows Christian nationalism is strongly associated with attitudes concerning proper social hierarchies by religion, race, and nativity,” the scholars said. That is what allows conservative and right-wing Jews like Mr. Mandel to remain associated with a party that at the very least increasingly tolerates anti-Semitism.
”If Christian nationalism is really about white supremacy, then it follows that Mandel can be seen as ‘Christian’ despite his Jewish lineage and observance. This is what he means by ‘Judeo-Christian,’ a term he uses largely in opposition to what he calls ‘radical Islam,’” noteds Rabbi Avraham Bronstein, whose congregation is on New York’s Long Island.
How Israel responds to anti-Semitism, particularly in the ranks of Christian nationalists and the Republican party, could put further daylight between Israel and segments of the American Jewish community, particularly if Israel continues to give onerous Christian nationalist attitudes a pass or, even worse, supports the community despite its anti-Semitic facets.
“The way that Trump has talked by associating Jews with money, by creating a far-right base for anti-Semitism…and by making Israel a kind of model for the ethno-state that Trump wants to support in the United States, and therefore using that to turn that against Jews, I think these are all ways in which Trump has actually made…various strands of anti-Semitism much more mainstream, has amplified them,’ noted prominent Jewish public intellectual Peter Beinart.
Concern about the rise of Christian nationalism was bolstered by the right wing’s assault on the notion of minority rights.
Christian nationalists, backed by a sympathetic Supreme Court, have begun to dismantle the separation between church and state. Colorado Republican House of Representatives member Lauren Boebert echoed the assault by describing the separation of state and church as “junk that’s not in the Constitution” and asserting that “the church is supposed to direct the government.” At the same time, Republican-governed states, abetted by the Supreme Court, are rolling back minority voting rights and decades of civil rights protections.
The rise in anti-Semitic Christian nationalism coupled with anti-Israel sentiments turning anti-Semitic on the left has sparked debate among American Jews about whether the time has come to consider emigration from the United States.
“I don’t really think that I will ever have to choose between my Jewish faith and my US citizenship. But the last few years and months have chipped away at that confidence ever so slightly. Just feeling that smidgen of doubt —smaller than what is no doubt felt by more marginalized groups — is going to weigh on me for a good long while,” said international affairs scholar Daniel W. Drezner.
Wondering where Jews might move “is among the most frequently asked questions that I get,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, head of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).
Incidents of antisemitic harassment, vandalism, and assault nearly tripled between 2015 and 2021, the ADL reports, and it says 2022 attacks are on pace with last year’s record level.
Jews account for two per cent of the American population but are the targets of 55 percent of reported religiously motivated hate crimes in the United States.
A stark choice
Focus on Western Islamism, a far-right website published by Daniel Pipes, the president of the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based think tank that supports the Israeli hard right, has asserted that Republicans and Evangelicals had teamed up with alleged Islamists in America’s culture wars. The unstated implication is that such an alliance would strengthen anti-Jewish on the right.
Commenting on a recent protest by conservative Muslims and Christians against the presence of books with allegedly sexually explicit content in public schools in Dearborn, Michigan, an Arab American heartland, Matthew Deperno, the Republican candidate who lost the midterm election for the state’s attorney general, acknowledged that, “you’re probably seeing a shift in the Republican Party.”
Muslim and Christian leaders hailed the protest as conservatives uniting against liberals and leftists and abandoning what was long alleged to be a ‘Red-Green’ alliance between Islamists and the left, a reference to Democrats.
Sam Westrop, the director of the Forum’s Islamist Watch, lamented that the Muslim-Christian protest in Dearborn was not an isolated incident. “Increasingly, the Right’s approach to Islam and Islamism is changing,” Mr. Westrop said.
Mr. Westrop’s colleague, Benjamin Baird, director of the Forum’s Islamism in Politics Project, noted that Republicans and Muslim communities share similar priorities in wanting a “strong economy, minimal government involvement in their lives, religious freedom,” and their children raised with conservative moral values that contrast the liberalism of a majority of Jews.
Mr. Baird’s analysis echoed in remarks and writings of Islamic scholars.
Preacher, theologian, and imam Abu Ammaar Yasir Qadhi tweeted, “Conservative Christians and Jews need to understand that Muslims are their allies in wanting a purer and morally upright society.”
Similarly, Zaytun College Islamic law scholar Abdullah bin Hamid Ali asserted in a lengthy paper that Trump was the lesser of evils as far as Muslims are concerned.
The California-based college’s president, Hamza Yusuf, is a prominent American Muslim leader and scholar, a member of the UAE’s Supreme Fatwa Council, and one of the main propagators of the Emirates’ autocratic form of moderate Islam. Controversially, Mr. Yusuf was a member of the Trump administration’s Commission on Unalienable Rights.
Conservatives across faiths may agree on traditional values, but that hardly justifies opportunistic associations with bigotry and prejudice whether against Jews, Muslims, or others.
Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.