Opinion |

The U.S. Jewish Silence on Israel's Far Right Stinks of Moral Bankruptcy

The rise of far-right extremists who could sit in Netanyahu's government is a real and present danger to Israeli democracy, and the lives of both Jews and Palestinians. So why is the American Jewish community not speaking out?

Jill Jacobs
Jill Jacobs
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Key U.S. Jewish organizations are celebrating the ascendance of a fascist party as a sign of Israel's 'vibrant democracy.' Our community deserves better
Key U.S. Jewish organizations are celebrating the ascendance of a fascist party as a sign of Israel's 'vibrant democracy.' Our community deserves betterCredit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Jill Jacobs
Jill Jacobs

As a right-wing government reliant on an extremist party’s unprecedented number of seats prepares to take power in Israel, too many of the leaders of mainstream American Jewish organizations have been noticeably silent on the real and present danger to Israeli democracy, and the lives of both Jews and Palestinians.

The Jewish Federations of North America issued a statement declaring that they “respect and salute Israel’s vibrant democratic process” and “look forward to working with the government. . . to support Jews around the world and strengthen the relationships between Israel, the North American Jewish community, and our government leaders.” William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations told a TV reporter that he was celebrating Israeli democracy.

The American Jewish Committee similarly praised Israel’s “vibrant democracy,” though with the vague qualifier that “past statements of some potential members of the governing coalition raise serious concerns about issues we prioritize.”

There have been some glimmers of hope amidst the lack of response. The Reform Movement called out the extremists by name in a statement that expressed profound concern about the possibility of them joining the governing coalition. The Conservative Movement declined to commit to working with this future government. And the members of the Progressive Israel Network (of which T’ruah, the organization I lead is a member), including J Street, New Israel Fund, Reconstructing Judaism, and Americans for Peace Now, have been strong in their denunciations.

But the majority of mainstream organizations are not going far enough to condemn the new governing coalition’s anti-democratic values, commitment to permanent occupation, and its embrace of racism, homophobia, and violence.

This silence stands in sharp contrast to the reaction of American Jewish leaders to the election of Meir Kahane, the ideological predecessor to today’s extremists, to the Knesset in 1984. Then, 12 mainstream American Jewish organizations declared, “We reject this affront to our history, to our tradition and beliefs, and to our abiding commitment to peace and brotherhood.”

American Jewish organizations must not treat the likely new government in Israel as business as usual. This is not simply a matter of political differences, or of a normal right-wing government. Rather, we are seeing the ascendance of a fascist party that has openly called for the deportation of Palestinian citizens of Israel, that promotes bigotry against LGBTQ people, and that calls for violence against Palestinians and Israeli leftists.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, the leader of the party, has dozens of indictments for incitement and violence in his past, and has even been convicted of multiple charges. Until a few years ago, he proudly displayed in his living room a picture of Baruch Goldstein, a religious extremist who carried out a massacre of Palestinian worshipers in Hebron.

Betzalel Smotrich, whose party merged with Ben-Gvir’s in advance of these elections, has advocated against selling homes to Palestinian citizens, opposes indicting Israelis who carry out violent “price tag” attacks against Palestinians, and regularly denigrates LGBTQ people and non-Orthodox Jews. It should especially alarm those who celebrate Israel’s “vibrant democracy” that Smotrich has proposed legislation that would drastically weaken Israel’s judiciary, effectively ending any system of checks and balances.

This is not a vibrant democracy; it is a threat to any semblance of democracy.

And, of course, one can hardly talk about Israeli democracy without noting that millions of Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza cannot vote for the government that has the greatest control over their lives.

Itamar Ben-Gvir delivers a speech at his party's headquarters in Jerusalem, on election night.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

For years, T’ruah, the rabbinic human rights organization I head, has been sounding the alarm on Itamar Ben Gvir, his Otzmah Yehudit party, and the constellation of violent organizations surrounding them. After an Israeli TV station found that Honenu, the organization where he long served as a lawyer, has a history of making direct cash payments to Israeli Jews indicted and convicted of terrorism — including Yigal Amir, who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin — we asked the IRS to investigate Central Fund of Israel, which funnels money to Honenu. This effort forced Honenu, at least publicly, to declare an end to such use of U.S. donations.

Some argue that American Jews should stay quiet about politics in Israel. This is nonsense.

First, the entire premise of international law is that human rights in any country are of concern to all of us. Jewish organizations are vocal about human rights abuses in Russia, China, Syria, Sudan and many other countries.

Second, such criticism levied by the Jewish right against the left is hypocritical. The ascendance of the Israeli right, the spread of right-wing ideology in Israel, and the expansion of settlements all came about, in part, as a result of the untold millions of dollars that right-wing American Jews have invested in building settlements, and in pushing right-wing policies in Israel.

Third, those of us who actually care about the safety, security and human rights of those living in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories, and of Jews around the world, have an obligation to oppose a government whose provocations, dismantling of democracy, incitement, and policies are likely to put millions of people — Jewish and Palestinian — in danger.

As a start, every Jewish organization that regularly invites Israeli political leaders to speak at their conferences and events, or that meets with Israeli elected officials during delegations, must commit to never inviting Ben-Gvir, Betzalel Smotrich, or other members of their party to address a U.S. Jewish audience. Netanyahu, with his record of incitement and plans to destroy Israeli democracy, should also be persona non grata in Jewish spaces committed to democracy, justice, and equity.

The Jewish community deserves leadership that dares to speak hard truths. The silence of most American Jewish organizations right now is nothing less than moral bankruptcy.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the CEO of T’ruah, a rabbinic human rights organization.Twitter: @rabbijilljacobs

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