Phil Cohen

On the New Gang on the Hill

I’ve attempted writing several blog posts since the Israeli elections with Bibi and his new gang  mounting the hill.  But each attempt has been dumped in the digital hopper. I’m the sort who’s slow of mind, which means it took a long while for me to come to anything like a conclusion as to the new Israeli reality, and even at this point I’m so incredulous, I’m not sure I believe what my eyes see and my ears hear.

I’ve listened several times to Prime Minister Netanyahu as he sweet talked well-known podcast hosts with his elegant, quiet English, as he assure the English-speaking world of his strength as the PM, a man who single-handedly can prevent nutty things from happening on his watch. I’ve watched Itamar Ben Gvir as he simultaneously speaks bellicosely and administers incompetently. I’ve shuddered at the large after-school education budget entrusted to Mr. Maoz and shuddered considerably more as the promised “reform” of the judicial system began to take legislative form. I’ve heard about Smotrich’s standoff with the IDF and wondered about future situations regarding illegal settlements.

I’ve read and listened to journalists and legal experts clarify the danger inherent to Israeli democracy by the proposed legislation to alter the Israeli judicial system, especially the terms of the override clause, which to my non-lawyerly eyes do appear to neuter elements of the Israeli judicial system in a political system with few checks and balances. I’m especially chastened by the many Israeli voices I generally think of as moderate speaking out loudly against the many things this government proposes, from altering the terms of the Jewish presence of the Temple Mount, to threats to annex parts or all of the West Bank, to granting police greater authority on the West Bank ,to shutting down the possibility of non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall, to shutting down LGBTQ rights, to passing a law to execute terrorists, to formalizing Haredi education without insisting on skills that help them move out of the 47% unemployment for men, to excusing Haredim from any form of national service. Most of this seems like religious far-right ideas run amok. Others just seem corrupt, things Bibi surrendered for support to skirt his legal problems.

I am amused at Bibi’s claim of a right-wing electoral triumph with 48% of the vote and a four-seat majority (surely a better Knesset majority than anything in the recent past, but hardly decisive and nowhere near that of earlier governments with majorities in the seventies).

On top of those matters, I realized that the four big named players in the government have legal troubles: Bibi, Ben Gvir, Smotrich, and, until his dismissal from the government, Deri, and I wonder why Israel isn’t the laughing stock of the world, Israel being an obvious hotbed of corruption with accused and convicted criminals running the show. This part of my rumination is in a way so laughable that I can’t believe the coalition partners received even 48% of the votes, but this is part of another weary story.

I see the protests, the petitions, lately a large one from American Jewish leaders, another on the Times of Israel website on the day this is being written co-written by Matti Friedman, Yossi Klein Halevy, and Daniel Gordis, three writers I greatly admire. I have read many (maybe too many, but obsessive is my middle name) of the articles by respected intellectuals expressing deep worry. I have come to one realization I haven’t heard elsewhere: This new government has gone too far, so far that its negative reception out in the world has been far louder and stonger than Bibi and the gang imagined when Bibi suggested to Ben Gvir, Smotrich, and Maoz that they buddy up for the joyride of their lives. It probably wouldn’t have mattered to Bibi, however; having alienated a slew of like-minded more secular rightists, these were the last of the gang left standing. But the powerful, adverse reception this coalition has received  matters to me: it seems at this moment, still at the beginning of this new, wild, and wooly Israeli government, that the Jewish world and the world at large aren’t welcoming this new posse with open arms. With a four-seat majority, this new Netanyahu government is free to try to pull off its large and ugly agenda. But we’ll see how everyone else reacts once unpleasant ideas actually become law.

About the Author
Phil Cohen is a Reform rabbi, a scholar of Jewish thought, who writes on Israel, theology, bioethics, and parshanut. He is also an author of fiction, with many online publications and two forthcoming books, a sci-fi novel and a book of very short stories. He lives in Greensboro, NC with Betsy Gamburg and their rescued greyhound Maggy. They are the proud parents of Elly and Talia and, as of the end of 2017, Ava Ruth. He serves as rabbi of Temple B'nai Israel, Albany, GA.
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