Unity, AIPAC, Bayit Hayehudi and Otzma Yehudit

We all love unity, but at what cost?  There has been much outrage in the Israeli political landscape with the recent joining of the Otzma Yehudit party to the Bayit Hayehudi list, with the accusation that Bayit Hayehudi sold out its ethical principles by aligning itself with a party that, in the words of Rav Moshe Lichtenstein, “worships power, overlooks violence [and] honors a mass murderer,” in the likes of Baruch Goldstein.  The purpose of this new political merger is so that Otzma Yehudit’s votes, which are worth two to three Knesset seats but do not reach the 3.25% electoral threshold, expand the right-wing bloc in the elections. Many are understandably concerned about Prime Minister Netanyahu aligning himself with this group for the sake of political gain, and article after article have been written criticizing the Prime Minister and Bayit Hayehudi for the merger.

In my own shul, my membership has been expressing their own concerns.  Two people who regularly attend the AIPAC policy conference have questioned whether we should attend this year, over their concerns about with whom AIPAC is associating.  One person told me that he may not attend if AIPAC invites Senator Corey Booker to the policy conference because he recently voted against an anti-BDS bill, one that authorizes state and local governments to demand that contractors declare that they do not support boycotts of Israel or its settlements in the West Bank.  Another person questioned whether we should attend considering that AIPAC slammed Prime Minister Netanyahu for forming a right-wing coalition, when in fact, AIPAC did not complain when the left-wing parties in Israel joined with anti-Israel Palestinian parties. We all know that sometimes common cause makes strange bedfellows.  As a case in point, Israel itself recently participated in a conference with several Arab nations who have poor human rights records and who officially are at war with Israel with the goal being to isolate Iran. We must always ask ourselves: What are we willing to do for the sake of unity? When do the gains made by coming together outweigh the concern that we are supporting those with whom we may vociferously disagree?  When do the benefits justify the cost?

I can understand how Prime Minister Netanyahu would make alliances with the Arab states that officially are sworn enemies of Israel in order to form a strong alliance against Iran.  After all, Iran is Israel’s greatest threat. I believe that everyone understands that in forming an alliance with other Arab states, Israel does not support their values, beliefs or way of life, but seeks only a strengthened front again Iran.

I agree with Yaakov Katz’s sentiments regarding AIPAC criticizing Prime Minister Netanyahu’s alliance with Otzma Yehudit.  He wrote the following in a Facebook post: “AIPAC did not mention Netanyahu by name. It also did not issue an official press release. What it did do was retweet a tweet by the American Jewish Committee, which had put out a statement calling Otzma “reprehensible” for holding views that “do not reflect the core values that are the very foundation of the State of Israel.”  This is important to keep in mind since there were other ways for AIPAC to potentially get its point across. It could have, for example, decided to send Netanyahu a private letter without any publicity. That might have been a way to vent, but it would not have gotten the message out to the public which was important for AIPAC. It needed publicity since the next time it goes to meet a senator or congressman to lobby for additional funding for Israeli missile defense projects, it might be asked about Otzma. It needed to take a moral stand now.  In short, if AIPAC really wanted to escalate the situation, there were ways to do that. It purposely chose the above route so it could make sure its moral stance is heard, but at the same time not cause a rupture with the government in Israel, currently led by Netanyahu.”

In response to this criticism, Prime Minister Netanyahu wrote on Facebook, “What hypocrisy and double standards by the left… They’re condemning [the formation of] a right-wing majority bloc with right-wing parties, while the left acted to bring extreme Islamists into the Knesset to create a majority bloc.” It is interesting that he did not mention AIPAC by name and I believe that both he and AIPAC’s leadership wanted to clarify their positions on this issue and move on without escalating the situation between the Prime Minister and this pro-Israel organization.

In evaluating the Prime Minister’s behavior here, we must be consistent.  If we call out Prime Minister Netanyahu and right-wing parties for making alliances with those parties that advocate violence, then we must do the same with regard to left-wing parties who act similarly.  Furthermore, I disagree with Rabbi Benny Lau’s comment that a vote for the Otzma Yehudit party in Israel’s upcoming parliamentary elections is akin to backing Nazi Germany’s anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws.  We demean and belittle the immensity and sheer horror of the Holocaust when we make comparisons between the Holocaust and anything else.

Additionally, I would not boycott the AIPAC policy conference even if Senator Corey Booker is invited to the conference.  I certainly disagree with his vote in the anti-BDS bill. However, AIPAC invites all politicians to its conference and it is understood that an invitation does not mean endorsement of the politican’s political views.  Furthermore, it’s important for Senator Booker to know that 18,000 plus people at the policy conference disagree with his vote in the anti-BDS bill, because there will be other legislation regarding Israel in the future and it’s important to maintain a relationship and continue lobbying for his support in the future.

In making the calculus of balancing the value of unity with the perception of legitimizing someone else’s position, I am deeply pained with Bayit Hayehudi’s agreement to run together with Otzma Yehudit, specifically because both parties are religious parties.  Bayit Hayehudi may not currently have enough support to reach its electoral threshold, but as a religious Jew, the message to take from this reality should not be for a religious party to lend support and grant legitimacy to a party that honors Baruch Goldstein. Quite the opposite; the message should be that we need to engage in soul searching.  It should be that we need to consider why our traditional religious Zionist party does not resonate with the religious Zionist community. Not having seats in the next Knesset is not the end all be all for Bayit HaYehudi – it can actually serve as a wakeup call for reflection. And the price of unity here is too high, specifically because Bayit HaYehudi is a religious party.  The Talmudic doctrine of “Elu va’elu divrei Elokim chayyim” – “these and these are the words of the living Torah,” means that there are often multiple legitimate approaches to leading a religious life, but there are limits. Not every position advocated by a religious Jew is legitimate and joining with this party creates the perception of “Elu va’elu” – that Otzma Yehudit’s violent values and ideology are legitimate.

At times, we must epitomize the Biblical description of “hakol kol Yaakov v’ha’yadayim ydei Esav” – “the voice is the voice of Yaakov and the hands are the hands of Esav.”  Sometimes we must don the hands of Esav and engage in violence to defend the State of Israel, but we must always maintain the voice, the conscience of Yaakov – that all we truly want is peace and not revenge.  When we fail to unambiguously live this message, we cause a tremendous Chillul Hashem, a desecration of God’s Name. In this instance, clarity from a religious party like Bayit HaYehudi which stands for Torah values through a lack of unity with Otzma Yehudit is sorely needed.

About the Author
Jonathan Muskat is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Oceanside.