Frogs in the Pot?

Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu’s edgy move a few weeks ago to loop the far-right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party into his planned right-wing bulwark against the burgeoning center-left was back in the news last week.  On March 6, the Central Elections Committee granted Michael Ben Ari, the chairman of the party, approval to run for the Knesset, in the face of Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit’s arguments for his disqualification on the grounds of incitement to racism.  Advocating for Ben Ari was lawyer and Jewish Power member Itamar Ben-Gvir, whose living room is decorated with a photo of Baruch Goldstein, the man who slaughtered 29 Palestinians at prayer in Hebron 25 years ago.  Ben Ari and Ben-Gvir prevailed, and as of now the ethno-nationalist party leader will be allowed to run.

Netanyahu’s courtship of Otzma Yehudit met with a well-reported firestorm of disapproval on this side of the Atlantic.  Even the American Jewish Committee, after initially balking, uncharacteristically voiced its concern, tweeting that Otzma Yehudit’s views are “reprehensible.” This was followed by a retweet from an even more unlikely source, the unwaveringly pro-Israeli government AIPAC, that noted its “longstanding policy not to meet with members of this racist and reprehensible party,” while carefully avoiding mention of the Prime Minister who engineered the deal.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of American Jewish Organizations, a longtime supporter and political ally of Mr. Netanyahu, then entered the fray – tepidly — calling the new developments “very disturbing.”  In fact, unlike the other Jewish organizations that were unambiguous in calling out Otzma Yehudit’s policies as odious, Hoenlein worried only about how the move “is perceived and understood in the United States,” since “we have to be very careful because it feeds certain tendencies that are very concerning to us.”

“Tendencies”?  Does he refer to the recent willingness to bring candid assessment of Israeli policies, and the Palestinians’ plight, out into the open, in places like the U.S. Congress and the New York Times?  And, perhaps, to the increasing disenchantment, especially among younger Jews, with the Israeli government’s steady rightward, annexationist tilt?  And, maybe, to the number of U.S. Senators who in recent days voted against strongly-lobbied-for anti-BDS legislation?

Hoenlein evidently isn’t disturbed because the Jewish Power party’s platform is, as even AIPAC recognizes, reprehensible.  It’s not because Otzma Yehudit legitimizes violence against Palestinians, advocates expelling Arab citizens from Israel, and promotes a ban on intermarriage between Jews and Arabs.  No.  It’s because Jewish Power’s inclusion in the Netanyahu bloc makes manifest that as Bibi struggles to maintain control, anything goes – including unabashed racism.   That doesn’t play well with progressive Americans, and it doesn’t play well with most U.S. Jews, even those who traditionally bite their tongues rather than criticize Israeli government policies.

So, what does all this mean for U.S. Jews and the organizations that lay claim to representing them?

First:  By blindsiding the Conference of Presidents, AIPAC, AJC, and others with this recent maneuver – or maybe after they delivered warnings to not go down this rabbit hole, and those warnings went unheeded — Bibi seems to be telling some of Israel’s staunchest defenders that their views just don’t matter much any more.  Apparently, when he has support from the likes of Donald Trump, Viktor Orban, and John Hagee, the millions of American Jews who abhor his cozying up to overt racists are better ignored as nuisances.  So what if Rep. Jerry Nadler, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, decried his move as a “betrayal of Israeli democracy and of Israel’s friends and supporters”?  Could Bibi care?

Second:  A number of pundits in this country — when reflecting on the condition of the U.S. in the age of Trump — have invoked the fable of the boiling frog.  The premise is that if a frog is suddenly immersed in boiling water, it will jump out, but if it’s put in tepid water that’s slowly brought to a boil, it won’t recognize the danger and will be cooked to death.  As applied to the political situation in the U.S., it’s intended to warn against any of the many incremental assaults Mr. Trump has unleashed against values and institutions we cherish (a free press, a fair judicial system, voting rights, science, truth – one could go on and on).  One day, will we wake up to find that our democracy has been gradually boiled to death, as we stood obliviously by?

And what about Israel in the age of Bibi?  With each attack on dissident voices, with each ethnocentric piece of legislation, culminating in the nation-state law, might we not conclude that its aspiration to be a democracy for all its people, regardless of race or religion, is being cooked to a boil?  And with each home demolition, eviction, land expropriation, and settlement built, doesn’t the temperature of the water in the pot rise, and the vision of two states living side by side in peace and security come that much closer to evaporating?

Now, let’s apply the fable to the American Jewish establishment: Did we really need Bibi’s rash courtship of Jewish Power to bring us around to realizing that the dream of a fair, democratic, just and righteous Israel is in very hot water?

In fact, if it’s any solace, it turns out that the fable of the frog in the pot isn’t scientifically accurate after all.  A frog will get out of gradually heating water once it gets too uncomfortable.  So, we’ll be watching, anxiously, what happens in Israel’s upcoming election.  But regardless of the outcome, here in the U.S., Jewish establishment institutions need to be uncomfortable, and to act accordingly – not only because Bibi’s now allied with overt racists, but also because Israeli government policies that stifle free speech, suppress democracy and equal rights for all, sustain the Occupation, and obstruct Palestinian statehood, cry out to be challenged, especially by leaders in the American Jewish community.  Surely, we shouldn’t need a pot of water, or a thermometer, to teach us that lesson.

About the Author
Michael Felsen's op-eds on Israel/Palestine, American Jewish-Muslim relations, and secular humanism have been published in Haaretz, The Jerusalem Post, the Boston Globe, The Forward, Common Ground News Service, and elsewhere around the world. He is an attorney who recently retired after four decades in government, and is a past president of the Boston chapter of Workmen’s Circle, an almost 120-year old communal organization dedicated to secular Jewish education, culture, and social justice.