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I’m an American Jew and Ben Gvir is my business

Friends don't let friends go down a path that weakens Israeli democracy, weakens the US-Israel bond, and weakens ties between Israel and US Jewry
MK Itamar Ben Gvir visits Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar October 6, 2022. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)
MK Itamar Ben Gvir visits Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar October 6, 2022. (Michael Giladi/Flash90)

On November 1, Israeli voters are going to send one of their most noxious politicians – Itamar Ben Gvir, an unrepentant Jewish supremacist who is the Israeli equivalent of David Duke – back to the Knesset. But this time, Ben Gvir will be entering the Israeli parliament as part of what polls predict to be the third or fourth largest party and with the very real prospect of being appointed as a cabinet minister. Ben Gvir’s inclusion in a government will be a mark of shame for Israel and a stressor in US-Israel relations. It will also present an unprecedented challenge to American Jews, who will be placed in the untenable position of either employing tortured logic to explain why Ben Gvir should not be seen as representative of a country in whose government he sits or disavowing the world’s only Jewish state.

There are those on both sides of the ocean who believe that none of this is American Jews’ business. Their argument is that it is a matter of Israeli domestic politics and that any outside interference is inappropriate. Yet speaking up against an impending disaster is not interference, and the growing strength of Ben Gvir and his ilk is absolutely our business.

The idea that we should silently observe Ben Gvir’s rise from afar and deal with whatever emerges is at odds with the concerns expressed by our Israeli friends about American Jewish distancing from Israel. It also perpetuates the outdated notion that to be pro-Israel is to support anything and everything that emanates from the Jewish state and that to do otherwise shows no respect for Israeli democracy. The stake that we have in Israel’s future, in its success, and in its robustness as a US ally driven by shared values makes Ben Gvir a problem not only for Israelis but for us, too.

In the US, American Jews are at the forefront of combating bigotry and white supremacy because we are often the first and primary targets of such hatred and because standing up to bigotry is essential to core Jewish values. It is difficult for us to watch Ben Gvir and his Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party and not see echoes in Israel of what we so resolutely fight against in our own country.

Ben Gvir is the recalcitrant, unrepentant owner of a conviction for racist incitement who continues to generically refer to Israeli Arab parties and politicians as terrorists, has a history of venerating the Jewish supremacist Meir Kahane and the Jewish terrorist Baruch Goldstein, and seizes every opportunity to inflame relations between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs through provocative public displays of Jewish strength and control. It takes an excessive measure of cognitive dissonance to condemn displays of racist supremacy at home as American citizens while dismissing similar displays as irrelevant or beyond our legitimate concerns when they so prominently occur in the Jewish state that is our historical homeland.

To be repeatedly told that the prospect of a coalition that includes Otzma Yehudit and a government that includes Ben Gvir is solely an Israeli concern contradicts another Israeli concern, namely the growing gap between American Jews and the Jewish state. While polls demonstrate a resilient American Jewish affinity toward Israel, they also show that younger American Jews are increasingly opting to disengage, either because of their own disillusionment with Israel or because it is easier to ignore Israel altogether. Ben Gvir’s rise is a force multiplier for this trend, and not only among younger American Jews.

For the overwhelming majority of American Jews, Ben Gvir is indefensible, as are the trends that he personifies. His increasing influence and the prospect of his attaining a measure of formal governmental power will make it easier for many American Jews not only to disavow him in disgust but to apathetically turn away from Israel altogether. Unlike Israelis, American Jews do not have the option of impacting the situation by voting Ben Gvir out of relevance, which makes turning our backs on the entire mess a seemingly more viable option. This will be to the detriment of both Israel and American Jews, and sounding the alarm now is an effort to avert such a tragic outcome by making the stakes clear.

It is not pro-Israel to sit back and watch while Israel potentially goes down a path that will lead to a weaker Israeli democracy, a weaker US-Israel bond, and a weaker relationship between Israel and American Jewry. It is not our place as American Jews to dictate to Israel what it must or should do, but it is absolutely our place to let Israelis know, from a place of love and friendship, that there are some actions that will bring with them predictable consequences and to ask them to prevent these consequences from being realized when the situation is warranted. The elevation of Ben Gvir is such a situation, and no one should mistakenly view this as only an internal Israeli issue. The threat presented by Ben Gvir, Otzma Yehudit, and the rise of Israeli neo-Kahanism is felt acutely by American Jews, and the true pro-Israel approach is to express concern in a way that befits the stake we have in Israel and its future.

About the Author
Susie Gelman is board chair of Israel Policy Forum.