Israel’s Start-Down Government

“We seek to strengthen every citizen’s freedoms and the country’s democratic institutions and to bring Israel more closely in line with the liberal American model.”

These soothing words were not those of Ben-Gurion or of Begin in the past, expressing their admiration for the values of the American Revolution of 1776, but were part of a surprising op-ed by Bezalel Smotrich last week in the Wall Street Journal. The leader of the ‘Religious Zionism’ party made it clear that he felt very hard-done-by, indeed outraged, that he should have been labelled an extremist and vilified in the US media.

Once any disbelief had wafted away into the ether, many observers asked why Smotrich had written such an article, which was at total variance with his well-publicised incendiary views. It was written perhaps not so much as a response to a critical New York Times editorial in mid-December, but due to a deep-seated fear that Netanyahu’s broad coalition of support in the US — Republicans, evangelicals, acquiescent Jewish organisations and Haredi Jews — was beginning to fragment.

With the appointment of the trio of Smotrich, Ben-Gvir and Maoz to government, the comfort of stability that Netanyahu had previously exuded had been thrown to the winds.

When revered US establishment figures such as Abe Foxman and Alan Dershowitz murmured sentiments of concern about the incoming Israeli government, Netanyahu must have become increasingly worried that his conservative base of supporters in the US was about to defect.

Smotrich was viewed as the more acceptable face of this controversial trio — representing religious Zionists, promoting high-tech and private enterprise while bashing American antisemites and Left-wing enemies of Israel.

Clearly the ascent of the radical Right from the fringes to the heart of government has unnerved many Right-wing US Jews. While the “usual suspects” on the Left have indeed been vocal, they have been joined by others who hitherto have remained silent.

Rabbi Ohad Teharlev, the head of the highly regarded Midreshet Lindenbaum, an institute for Torah study for women, spoke about a “chillul hashem” — the desecration of God’s name.

In a public letter, Teharlev and his colleagues stated: “The attempts to reduce equality in the State of Israel, to allow institutionalised discrimination of minorities, to give the government unbridled power and to legitimise racism — all of these are very dangerous in our eyes, especially when they are presented as if they originated in the Torah of Israel.”

Even editorials in the Jerusalem Post, aimed traditionally at Diaspora Jews, have become increasingly critical. Netanyahu has had to respond and to state that “this is not the end of democracy”.

President Herzog’s appeal to Ben-Gvir for calm fell on deaf ears. His 13-minute visit to the Temple Mount this week will be seen as an unnecessary provocation. Arik Sharon’s visit over two decades ago was certainly a factor in the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada. In the past, Ben-Gvir has commented that mosques on the Temple Mount are little more than a passing phase.

Noam’s Avi Maoz however seemed happily moored in medieval madness, singing the Chanukah song, Banu hoshech l’garesh — “We have come to expel the darkness” — from the Knesset podium. He now has 70 million shekels to construct his “Department of Jewish State Consciousness”.

Dousing any accusation that Netanyahu’s sixth government is beholden to zealots has become the basis of the official response to criticism. Spokespeople comment that it will be “business as usual with Netanyahu at the helm — no need to worry!” This comment is usually followed by a declaration that the recent election was a prime example of democracy at its best.

Yet less than a quarter of the Israeli electorate voted for Netanyahu’s Likud — such are the vagaries of the electoral system that Ben-Gurion wished to change. For many Diaspora Jews, the cri de coeur will be “Yes, a fair election certainly but the result is not democracy as we know it”.

Many Diaspora Jews will shudder at the thought that the minister now in charge of Nativ — popularly known in the 1950s as “the office with no name” given its work in the shadows – which instigated a global Diaspora campaign for Soviet Jews over half a century ago, will be Avi Maoz, whose party won one solitary seat in the 2022 election.

It is no exaggeration to state that Shaul Avigur, the legendary founder of Mossad Le-Aliyah Bet, which brought survivors of the Shoah from Eastern Europe to the Land of Israel after 1945, and Nativ, would be astounded at this turn of events.

The prime issue that has beset the new government in its infancy is neither the annexation of the West Bank and the proliferation of settlements nor the Iranian dictatorship’s proclivity for nuclear advance — but Israeli gays.

While Haredi MKs hid their faces when the openly gay Amir Ohana, Netanyahu’s close confidante, addressed the Knesset as Speaker, some prominent rabbis labelled homosexuality “an abomination” and “a disease”. Other Haredi figures have conversely attempted to quell the publicity around the issue for fear that it will interest inquisitive followers to investigate further.

The new Minister for the Diaspora, Amichai Chikli, originally a Masorti Jew from Kibbutz Hanaton, has attempted to row back from his past comments on homosexuality. He prefers “a subdued sexuality”. Like Maoz, he doesn’t mind gays, but abhors all the public noise that surrounds it. Chikli previously attempted to link the gay rights issue in Israel with the anti-Zionist far Left abroad.

Maoz similarly opposes “LGBTQism” but has nothing against individual gays. This, ironically, has a whiff of the attitude of Clermont-Tonnerre towards Jews at the outset of the French Revolution: “To the Jews as individuals, everything; to the Jews as a nation, nothing.” The success of Zionism and the establishment of a Hebrew Republic in 1948 proved Clermont-Tonnerre’s ideas to be completely wrong.

Netanyahu has positioned himself to be seen as a bulwark against discriminatory statements. After all, he appointed his loyal colleague, Ohana — and nothing untoward, so the argument goes, will happen on his watch. Netanyahu has become the defender of secular faith against the zealots on the one hand, while on the other collaborating with them as honoured members of his government.

There has also been an adjunct to this debate in the suggestion by the Religious Zionism MK, Orit Strock, that “doctors should refuse to provide treatments that contravene religious beliefs”. Is this the first attempt to abandon the Hippocratic Oath and to negate Maimonides’ invocation that “I will only see the human in a sick person”?

David Grossman wrote in a recent article in Ha’aretz that the proposed new laws by the Netanyahu government are “about a deeper, more fateful change, a change in our identity, a change in the character of the state”. He further argued that this was not the issue on which voters cast their votes.

Smotrich, Ben-Gvir and Maoz, in essence, reject the meaning of the Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment). For them, it was little more than a blip. They believe that Zionism emanated from the Bible per se millennia ago — rather than from European nationalism in the aftermath of the French Revolution with the Bible as a backdrop. The revolutionary Zionism of Ben-Gurion and Jabotinsky to change the course of Jewish history was but a transient episode. Their task today is to set Zionism back on its true trajectory.

It is for this reason that religious seminaries, high-tech firms and financial institutions have all spoken out. Many are not aligned with the Left but they see Netanyahu’s government as manipulating their understanding of Jewishness and placing them outside Ben-Gvir’s definition of “the Jewish people”.

Diaspora Jewish organisations have in general uttered only vague words of “concern”. Some have preferred to deflect the problem by focussing instead on BDS and far-Left anti-Zionism. Yet the vexed subject of how to defend Israel in the Diaspora despite its government has become a topic of deep debate within closed rooms. They have chosen to remain silent about Ben-Gvir’s short sojourn on the Temple Mount — and preferred others to express anger.

They well understand David Grossman’s quote from the Book of Isaiah: “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, those who see darkness for light and light for darkness, those who taste bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.”

As the resignation in protest by the Israeli Ambassador to France, demonstrated, it is one thing for Jewish leadership to understand and another to act. Handwringing in private is not an option in these troubled times.

Plus61j 6 January 2023

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