What explains the hysterical reaction, not least among some American Jews, to the victory of Israel’s new coalition government in the elections held there in November 2022?
To ask this question is not to express support for the winners, to exult in their victory over the opposing coalition, or to deny grave doubts about some of the people and parties in the government formed by Benjamin Netanyahu. In Israel’s election, the Religious Zionist Party won only 14 seats in the Knesset (out of 120) and just under 11 percent of the popular vote. This means that the vast majority of Israelis voted against the party of the firebrands Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, who have taken many highly incendiary positions. Not only are doubts and concerns to be expected; opposition to them and criticism of them will be an entirely appropriate feature of the new Israeli political moment.
But the reactions have gone far beyond what is normal even in Israel. Former prime minister Ehud Barak, speaking one day after the new government had been sworn in and before it had actually done anything, detected “signs of fascism” and said the government was “clearly acting illegitimately,” “carrying out a coup,” and “bringing down democracy.” He was not alone. Outgoing prime minister Yair Lapid, speaking before the coalition had taken power, said the new government “is not committed to democracy.” Former president of the Supreme Court Aharon Barak, father of the “judicial revolution” that has given that court so much power in Israel, spoke of a “coup with tanks.” Outgoing defense minister Benny Gantz spoke of “civil war” and urged mass demonstrations, saying, “It’s time to make the country tremble.”
The brilliant writer and translator Hillel Halkin, writing bitterly in English for the Jewish Review of Books, told of a former neighbor of his who had abandoned the country:
He was the one person in our all-Jewish town to cast his ballots for Arab parties in elections, a professed anti-Zionist whose dire predictions for Israel’s future led to stormy arguments between us. Ten years ago he and his wife moved to Portugal, from where he now wrote, “I think I can safely say I’ve been proven right.” I wrote back: You’ve won the argument. For years now, Israel has seemed to me like a man sleepwalking toward a cliff. Now we’ve fallen from it.
All this is remarkable rhetoric even by Israeli standards, and it led President Isaac Herzog to tell them all to cool it. “No one has the privilege to behave or talk as if ‘the country is doomed’ or search for their passport,” said Herzog, himself the former head of the leftist Labor Party and leader of the opposition to Netanyahu from 2013 to 2018. “Israeli democracy is long-standing and stable. The world of values of Israeli society is not easy to challenge.”
It was predictable that the tone of the attacks being heard in Israel—exactly what Herzog is trying to change—would be sounded as well in the United States, and so it has been. As we will see, there are deeper reasons for this than mere parroting of Israeli voices. In all too many corners of the American Jewish community, extreme rhetoric and extreme positions have indeed been repeated—sometimes recklessly, but sometimes to express long- and deeply held positions.
A notable example is the voice of Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky of Congregation Ansche Chesed, a Conservative synagogue on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Rabbi Kalmanofsky saw in the new Israeli coalition “fascists,” and in his blog on the synagogue’s website wrote that “This is about the Klan, a Jewish Klan. This is about areas of the occupied territories that already resemble Philadelphia, Mississippi, 1963.” (Presumably he meant 1964, when three civil-rights workers were murdered there.)
Rabbi Kalmanofsky therefore decreed that the standard prayer for the State of Israel, a staple of synagogue Shabbat services, no longer be recited.
More than 330 rabbis wrote an open letter attacking the new government and saying they would not invite anyone—not just Ben-Gvir and Smotrich—from the Religious Zionism Party to their synagogues because they all “deny our rights, our heritage, and the rights of the most vulnerable among us.” (It is noteworthy that not one Orthodox rabbi signed this petition.)
And then there was Abe Foxman, now retired after decades as head of the Anti-Defamation League. “I never thought that I would reach that point where I would say that my support of Israel is conditional,” Foxman told the Jerusalem Post. “I’ve always said that [my support of Israel] is unconditional, but it’s conditional. I don’t think that it’s a horrific condition to say: ‘I love Israel and I want to love Israel as a Jewish and democratic state that respects pluralism.’” He added: “If Israel ceases to be an open democracy, I won’t be able to support it,” And, in another interview: “It’s not one thing. It’s a whole package of things, which is bringing us back to the Middle Ages.”
A thought experiment: Israel is attacked tomorrow by Hezbollah, and a major war ensues, with severe casualties to the IDF and among Israeli civilians. Or Israel is attacked in another wave of over 4,300 rockets and missiles from Hamas in Gaza, aimed at Jerusalem and other cities, as happened in May 2021. Will Rabbi Kalmanofsky’s congregation be neutral—still refusing to recite the prayer for the State of Israel? Will Foxman’s support still be “conditional” because of his worries about “pluralism?” If not (as I hope and believe), their current reactions to Israel’s new government should be an embarrassment to them.
So we return to the question posed at the top: What explains all of this? In Israel, one can at least partly attribute the rhetoric to politics. Only 30,000 votes separated the winning and losing coalitions in the popular vote. The losers want to bring the government down as soon as they can and replace it. They want to be winners. But here in the United States, there are deeper explanations.
The first is ignorance. Take, for example, the debate over the powers of Israel’s Supreme Court, which the new government will limit. What percentage of American Jews, including those most emotionally uncontrolled about Israel’s new government and its policies, knows how the Israeli system actually works? In America, our Supreme Court justices are chosen by politicians: the president and the senators. But in Israel, they are chosen by the sitting justices themselves and lawyers from the bar association. What percentage of American Jews knows that Israel has no written constitution, a fact that has left hanging in thin air the juridical and moral basis for Supreme Court rulings declaring Knesset decisions “unconstitutional”?
It is possible to speak carefully about this, and Alan Dershowitz has tried. He recently said that “Israel’s democracy is not in danger” from the proposed changes. “Indeed, the reforms are designed to improve democracy: majority rule,” he added. But he warned that “there’s a direct conflict between pure democracy, where the Knesset rules because it represents the majority of people, and the rights of minorities.” Dershowitz is a realist: “It’s in the nature of democracies that compromises are made,” he said. “I think it’s a tragedy that the compromises do weaken the Supreme Court. That’s a mistaken place to make a compromise. I wish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would not allow his right wing to dictate to him what the appropriate balance should be.”
In speaking of compromises and appropriate balances, Dershowitz is avoiding the tone too many Jewish “leaders” have adopted—where any legislation regarding Israel’s Supreme Court, arguably the most powerful and intrusive in the world, is deemed inherently anti-democratic and immoral. But even Dershowitz speaks critically of legislation that would “weaken the Supreme Court”—as if weakening it were not exactly what is required to attain the “appropriate balance” of powers in a democracy.
The position that the current powers of the Israeli Supreme Court are perfect and that any “tampering” with them is wrong is so widespread among American Jews as to be nearly beyond debate. The Reform Movement’s statement issued after Israel’s election said it was “profoundly concerned” that the new coalition would “curtail the authority of Israel’s Supreme Court,” as if all men and women of good will would of course understand this is an evil. But one wonders: How many of those who read the statement, or even of those who wrote it, really understand why so many Israelis have found the Court to be a deeply undemocratic and imperious institution?
Halkin, in his gloomy screed, quite usefully demonstrated two further and more significant explanations for the reactions to Israel’s new government. The first is the unending Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Halkin wrote, “The more the conflict with the Palestinians is exacerbated, the more the Right-religious bloc is strengthened; the more it is strengthened, the more exacerbated the conflict becomes. The cycle can be broken only by ending the conflict, and the conflict now seems, after the last elections, more incapable of being ended than ever.” It’s extraordinary that after years, indeed decades, of Palestinian refusal to make peace with Israel—after Arafat’s refusal to accept Ehud Barak’s peace offer in 2000, Abbas’s refusal to accept the even more generous offer from Ehud Olmert in 2008, and Abbas’s refusal even to give an answer to President Obama’s peace proposals—that any Israeli could write such a line.
Most other Israelis have accepted a truth that still eludes most American Jews: The old thinking about the “two-state solution” is dead. The political power of the Israeli left and Israel’s “peace movement” was ended by those repeated refusals to make peace and even more so by the intifadas—that is to say, by Palestinian terrorism. No one has a serious answer to the question of how Hamas and other terrorists would be kept from power in the West Bank if the IDF withdrew in favor of “Palestinian statehood.” Until that question can be answered, a sovereign Palestinian state is an unacceptable danger to Israel—and, for that matter, to Jordan as well.
But the “two-state solution” remains the stated policy of the United States, the European Union, and the United Nations—and of American Jewry taken as a whole. Thus there will be great sympathy among American Jews toward Halkin’s lament that this recent election and the “Right-religious bloc,” rather than Palestinian reality, explains the failure to achieve peace between Israel and the Palestinians. But in Israel, the left-wing Meretz Party did not receive enough votes even to get one seat in the Knesset, and the Labor Party—which ruled Israel for decades—received a paltry four. So while Israelis have moved on, one explanation for the hysteria among some American Jews is their belief that the nirvana of peace through Palestinian statehood remains possible but will now disappear due to the power of Israel’s right.
The second and more important explanation that Halkin demonstrates relates to the role of religion. Here is Halkin:
To my friend in Portugal, I wrote:
If there is still a difference between us, it is that you take satisfaction (though I hope not just that) in what has happened and I feel only pain. And there is another difference, too. You put the blame on Zionism, and I put it on Judaism, of whose fantasies and delusions Zionism sought to cure us only to become infected with them itself.
Now Halkin is a very old-fashioned secular Zionist, and he is honest enough to state his views very clearly. Judaism is the problem, and secular Zionism is, or was supposed to be, the solution. Such views help explain why the vote went the way it did in Israel. Yossi Klein Halevi recently wrote that this is why Netanyahu won: “The real reason is that he managed to portray the outgoing coalition as an existential threat to Israel’s Jewish identity, and himself as its last line of defense.” Halkin’s line is simply not a winner in Israeli elections. Klein Halevi goes on:
While a majority of Israeli Jews are committed to maintaining Israel as both a Jewish and democratic state, if forced to choose between them, most would almost certainly opt for its Jewish identity—because, more than its democratic identity, the survival of Israel depends on maintaining its Jewishness….An Israel stripped of its Jewishness would lose its reason for being, its internal cohesion and the vitality that has enabled it to survive against the odds. Many of those who voted for Netanyahu did so not to support the wholesale dismantling of Israeli institutions but to save Israel as a Jewish state.
This is the struggle, if you will, between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, between those who go to the beach on Shabbat and those who go to synagogue. Klein Halevi has a warning for the left in Israel: As long as you seem indifferent to (or like Halkin at war with) Judaism in Israel, you will lose: “To win over the ambivalent Netanyahu voters of the post-election polls, then, the political center must vigorously affirm its commitment to a Jewish state.” Israel’s Jewish identity is the issue, and centrist voters, or voters on the left, must convince their fellow citizens they do not view Judaism and halacha as outmoded tribal customs that should be jettisoned as soon as public opinion permits.
In his response to Halkin in the Jewish Review of Books, Ze’v Maghen rebutted the sour view Halkin takes of what he called the “hypernationalist and Jewish supremacist” parties and of the role of religion in the Jewish state. Halkin called this the “knit-skullcap electorate” and said “these are the forces dragging us into the abyss.” Maghen respectfully disagreed:
If by these epithets Halkin means that their members and supporters care more for Jews—their national family—than they do for the enemies of the Jews; that they are hell-bent on putting a stop to the weekly slaughter of innocent Jewish civilians by Arab terrorists; and that they believe that the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish People, and oppose the erection of a jihadist Palestinian polity controlled by Hamas, then this is just classical Zionism. Ben-Gurion would affix his signature to these propositions as quickly and unhesitatingly as Ben-Gvir.
This Judaism/Zionism debate is one thing among Israelis today, whose necks are always on the line and where there is a clear center-and-right-of-center majority. It is quite another matter among American Jews, where there is an equal majority that is to the left of center (always excluding the Orthodox).
By this I mean more than just the left–right political division, though that is a plain fact. American Jews vote Democratic in nearly every election, and younger American Jews are to the left of their parents and grandparents. It is obvious that they will be unhappy watching Israel move further to the right, and many of their leaders will say so. If one thinks of the leaders of major American Jewish organizations, and of the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist rabbinate, is there any question which coalition they favored in the Israeli election—the one led by Lapid or the one led by Netanyahu?
The problem, however, and the explanation for the tone of many comments about that election, is that this isn’t just about Democratic voters favoring Lapid and his party while criticizing Netanyahu and his. It is about what American Jews see in Israel—and want to see in Israel.
American Jews (and above all American Jewish leaders) were not enthusiastic Zionists, to say the least, until the 1930s, when it became obvious that a refuge for European Jews had become necessary. The level of interest in and commitment to the new Jewish state fell off rapidly after 1948 and stayed low until the 1967 and 1973 wars. But even after those wars, even this community was not nearly as “Zionist” as the other major Diaspora communities—in France, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom. Judged by a simple calculation such as the percentage who had ever once set foot in Israel for a visit, American Jews were way behind. American “Zionism” was, for most of the community, at best a philanthropic project.
And the Israel that the American Jewish community imagined and idealized was in many ways a copy of the left/liberal society Jews in America sought. They were not far off the mark in some ways: Israel was a democracy and the only one in the Middle East, and it was led by the Labor Party. The socialism of the Labor Party fit nicely with the FDR/New Deal/liberal consensus among American Jews. Ben Gurion, Golda Meir, and Yitzhak Rabin were comfortable heroes.
But Israel began to change, starting at least with Menachem Begin’s victory in 1977. In the nearly 50 years since, left-of-center prime ministers have been in office for fewer than ten. So Israel has had mostly right-wing governments while American Jews remained on the left. Begin and Jimmy Carter, like Netanyahu and Obama, had a fractious relationship; on issues from settlement activity to the Iran nuclear deal, there have been severe conflicts. And Israeli society moved from the socialism and secularism of the Labor leaders, with which American Jews were entirely comfortable, to an increasing presence of religious Israelis and greater influence for religious parties.
This new Israel was not what American Jews had expected, and very often they did not like it. They did not like having to choose between Obama and Israel on the Iran nuclear deal, but they did so—and came down pretty resoundingly on the side of Obama against both Netanyahu and a broad Israeli consensus. The faith of American Jews was liberalism, but increasingly the faith of Israeli Jews was—to the chagrin of Halkin and many others in Israel—Judaism.
As Naomi Cohen wrote:
Justifying Jewish nationalism to Americans, Zionists projected their American liberal values onto their ideal Jewish state…. After 1948 the image of Israel as a microcosm of America or the extension of American liberal values took on a pragmatic dimension…. Envisioning Israel as an ideological extension of American liberalism was an obvious reinforcement of both American and American Jewish commitment to the Jewish state.
And Cohen then added a logical caveat: that basis for backing Israel “had its weakness too. In the first place, were Israel to deviate from the accepted canons of liberalism, it ran the risk of alienating American Jewish support.” We are seeing that today.
Many American Jews wince at Israel’s constant use of force, and they dislike the need to defend it week after week. They denounce restrictions on non-Orthodox worship that most Israeli Jews find to be second-tier issues at most. They cannot support restrictions on Palestinian movement in the West Bank and into Israel that critics of Israel call apartheid. They regret the divisions on the left that the issue of Israel often creates and the criticism from places they long admired—the New York Times, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International, for example. They do not live with the threats to safety and even life that face Israelis.
It is an obvious principle to American Jews that all people should be treated alike, while most Israelis would find it simple madness to apply that principle to Israelis and Palestinians. Americans on the left (including many American Jews) increasingly see the conflict with the Palestinians as a human-rights issue, Daniel Gordis has written, while “for Israelis, even Israelis on the political left, it is first and foremost about security and survival.” Gordis concludes that “the world’s two largest Jewish communities are therefore divided by radically different instincts about universalism versus particularism as well as by their opposing attitudes toward Jews’ involvement in the messiness of history.”
Some of that “messiness” is the result of two millennia without a state of their own. In Israel, Jews have been forced to make decisions that American Jews have been able to escape—not only by living in America but by being a very small minority within it. In Israel, the Jewish army, the Jewish internal security service, and the Jewish spy agency have faced (and in the Iranian nuclear program, still face) violent efforts to eliminate the Jewish state—and every day engage in activities American Jews need not undertake themselves as American citizens and may instead comfortably protest. As Yossi Shain has put it, “the hope that a state, which must always operate under raison d’état, might successfully operate by universal and non-territorial principles was doomed to failure—especially in the jungle that is the Middle East.” Robert Kagan famously once wrote that “on major strategic and international question today, Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus.’’ Whether after Russia’s war on Ukraine this aphorism remains accurate today with regard to Europe may be unclear, but it often seems that American Jews are from Venus while Israelis are from Mars—not least when dealing with the issue of Palestinian nationalism and the “peace process.”
We are seeing today in politics, in the “peace process,” and in religion and state issues, an Israel that rejects many of the tenets of American Jewish liberalism. This should not be such a terrible shock. As Gordis has explained: “The United States and Israel were created for entirely different purposes, and as a result, they are fundamentally different experiments in how to enable humans to flourish.” For an increasing number of Israelis today, such flourishing involves religious faith and practice; American-style “separation of church and state” is not at all what they seek or will accept. Yossi Klein Halevi is right. They want a Jewish state, and they see no point in an Israel that is just another liberal democracy like Canada or Norway or the United States.
Will American Jews support such a state, where all religions are not actually equal? Where Jews are permitted to visit the Temple Mount? Where, as Ze’ev Maghen put it, people “care more for Jews—their national family—than they do for the enemies of the Jews” and “believe that the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish People?” The 1950s or 1960s Israel of Labor socialism may have resembled the Upper West Side, but the Israel that is developing before our eyes does not. It is truly a Jewish state, increasingly peopled—and in part now governed—by Jews who believe in the God of the Hebrew Bible and for whom the practice of the religion of Judaism is the most important aspect of their daily lives. Can American Jews accept this Israel, or will it alienate all but the Orthodox—who practice that same religion?
The hysterical rhetoric of some Jewish leaders suggests that the increasingly clear replacement of “their” Israel, an imaginary paradise of liberalism, is unacceptable, at least to them. Some will describe and denounce the real Israel as fascist, undemocratic, repressive, and illegitimate; to others, it would be deserving only of our “conditional” support.
To end where we began, accepting the actual, existing Israel does not mean applauding the new government or approving the Religious Zionist Party’s leaders or policies. The new government will make many mistakes, and some of them may be egregious. Officials like Ben-Gvir and Smotrich may surprise us and may learn in office about governing, or they may prove the fears about them to be accurate. But opposition to the policies of this government is not the issue. The real issue is whether American Jews care more about their own illusions or about the Jewish state that actually exists and still struggles each day against enemies who seek every day to kill Jews.
Yossi Klein Halevi’s advice to Israeli opponents of this new government should help us understand that a majority of Israelis want a state that is not simply democratic but more importantly is Jewish. That is the raison d’etre for the state. To repeat what he wrote: “An Israel stripped of its Jewishness would lose its reason for being, its internal cohesion and the vitality that has enabled it to survive against the odds.”
It is easy to be pessimistic about the relationship between the American Jewish community and Israel. More and more Jews are what the Pew survey of Jewish Americans in 2020 called “Jews of No Religion,” and increasing numbers are drifting away from the Jewish community and any sense of Jewish identity. As Israel becomes an increasingly Jewish state—which has actually been happening for decades—the distance between the two communities may grow. Some American Jews will certainly fall away, offended as is Hillel Halkin by what they see as too much Judaism.
But American Jews should reject “leaders” (including rabbis) whose facile arguments “privilege” (to use today’s locution) their own ideologies over the realities of the Jewish state, and over the desire of the majority of its people to live in an identifiably Jewish state. As Israel’s president reminded newly elected officials and all Israelis recently: “We have only one State of Israel.” To slander and disparage it, to speak wildly and carelessly when every word spoken may become a weapon in the hands of Israel’s enemies, is a sin that American Jews should avoid at all costs.
Photo: James Emery
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