The claim that Benjamin Netanyahu’s government will make life hard for
Diaspora Jews ignores what motivates Zionism’s foes and other antisemites.
As Benjamin Netanyahu begins forming the next Israeli government following his victory in the latest Knesset election, some on the left have begun a last-ditch effort to prevent him from forming a coalition with the parties that ran as his allies. Their argument is that anything must be done to keep the Religious Zionist Party and especially Itamar Ben-Gvir out of power.
Barring an unlikely last-minute change of heart on the part of either Yair Lapid or Benny Gantz—whose parties fell short in the election and who have pledged to go into opposition rather than serve with Netanyahu—the jeremiads about the necessity of stopping Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, the titular leader of the Religious Zionists, out of the Cabinet are falling on deaf ears among those who could actually do something about it.
Yet while Israeli politicians are ignoring these arguments, that won’t be the last we’ll hear of them. That’s because they will provide the foundation for renewed efforts to delegitimize Israel’s government abroad.
While the supposedly substantive reasons for excluding the Religious Zionists don’t withstand serious scrutiny, this discussion matters because of the claim that Israel’s leaders will be undermining and even endangering Jews in the Diaspora.
As the leader of the Conservative movement of Judaism in Israel put it in Haaretz, having Smotrich and Ben-Gvir around the cabinet table won’t just impact life in Israel. It will also hurt Jews elsewhere. Citing a much-discussed New York Times column by Thomas Friedman, Yizhar Hess claimed that a right-wing government will mean that Jewish students, already under siege by anti-Zionists, will no longer be able to credibly speak up on behalf of the Jewish state.
That’s because the presence of these so-called “fascists” in Netanyahu’s cabinet will, in this telling, mean that the “good Israel,” that nice Jews feel comfortable about defending, is now either gone or about to be legislated out of existence. In its place will be a different country, run by extremists and horrible people who oppose peace and want to oppress minorities. Even if the people in this new, bad Israel will be Jews, they will be the sort of Jews no self-respecting American Jew will want to be associated with.
In this scenario, the new government will mean that Jewish kids as well as the activists who have formed the backbone of organized Jewish life will be effectively silenced. And those who continue to advocate for Israel will be increasingly regarded as outliers who will themselves deserve to be shunned.
Those who will try to preserve the U.S.-Israel relationship as well as the one between American Jews and the Jewish state will now be forced to become part of a new “resistance” to Netanyahu’s government, in which they will advocate for American pressure that will help resurrect the “good” Israel.
The main problem with this gloomy scenario is that everything that the doomsayers are claiming that the new government will mean for Israel in America is already true about the Jewish state’s critics.
Everything that can be alleged about Smotrich and Ben-Gvir has already been aired out endlessly by left-wing critics of Israel in their efforts to undermine and delegitimize past Israeli governments including those run by the Israeli left.
For decades, left-wingers have been falsely claiming that Israel’s governments didn’t want peace and that the decisions of Israel’s voters should be either ignored or overridden by American governments that took up the cause of “saving Israel from itself.”
Let’s remember that J Street, the left-wing lobby which has dedicated itself to that dubious cause, came into existence in 2007. Netanyahu’s Likud was in the opposition and a government led by Ehud Olmert was engaged in yet another futile attempt to trade land for peace with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas.
When Netanyahu became prime minister again in 2009 and in the 12 years that followed, when there was no thought of Ben-Gvir being a minister, the same arguments about Israeli policies being oppressive and alienating American Jews were heard over and over again.
During this time, as the antisemitic BDS movement gained footholds on American college campuses and on the left wing of the Democratic Party, there was no talk about Ben-Gvir or the evils of Israel being governed by right-wing and religious parties.
To the contrary, the so-called centrists of Israeli politics—Lapid and Gantz—were just as reviled by those who spread the “apartheid state” smear as Smotrich and Ben-Gvir are today. The same claims about a mythical, old “good” Israel being destroyed were made by those who opposed Netanyahu.
Those who think one Jewish state on the planet is one too many didn’t need Religious Zionists in Israel’s cabinet to be convinced that Israel shouldn’t exist. American Jews who are embarrassed by Ben-Gvir and Smotrich were already embarrassed by Netanyahu and even some of his left-leaning opponents in the Knesset. Their failure to magically make the conflict with the Palestinians disappear has been cited by those who note a decline in support for Israel in the years since the collapse of the Oslo peace process, and even before that while the delusion that it might succeed was still alive.
This goes beyond the fact that the claims that Smotrich and Ben-Gvir are fascists is without real substance. As I’ve noted previously, the talk about the winners of last week’s election being enemies of democracy is just an echo of the Democratic Party talking points about Republicans in the U.S. and just as specious. Whatever one may think of either man, their party doesn’t oppose democracy.
None of that matters because this discussion isn’t rooted in the facts about Israel or those who will make up its next government. Rather, it is an expression of unease with the reality of a Jewish state that must deal with a messy and insoluble conflict with the Palestinians as well as one where the majority of its Jews don’t think or look like your typical liberal Jewish Democrat.
Israel-haters will work for its destruction no matter who is its prime minister or the composition of the government. As has always been the case, the antisemites don’t need any new excuses for their efforts to besmirch and delegitimize the Jewish state.
One needn’t support Netanyahu or his partners to understand any of this.
Rather than apologizing for Ben-Gvir or the other aspects of Israeli reality that make readers of The New York Times cringe, those who care about the Jewish state and its people need to stop longing for an Israel which looks like them and embrace the one that actually exists. By buying into the disingenuous claims that this government will be less worthy of their support than its predecessors, they are merely falling into a trap set for them by antisemites.
Those who support the right of a Jewish state to exist should stop apologizing for it not conforming to some idealized liberal vision of Zionism, and understand that the people who voted for Netanyahu and Ben-Gvir are just as deserving of respect and representation as they are.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.