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1. Rabbis are Speaking Out
In a midnight phone call to Israeli president Isaac Herzog, Benjamin Netanyahu formally informed him that he had succeeded in forming a new government based on a coalition made up of his own Likud party, two ultra-Orthodox parties and the Religious Zionist bloc—a joint list consisting of three far-right political parties. On Thursday, he will present his new government to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and upon approval, Netanyahu’s sixth government will be sworn in, heralding the most extreme ruling coalition in Israel’s history.
Bibi’s partners haven’t made this final stretch of negotiations any easier for him. As the presumptive prime minister made his rounds in the American media trying to convince an overseas audience that despite his seemingly far-right coalition, he will make sure that Israel remains committed to democracy and equality, members of the coalition parties sent out quite the opposite message. Some of their statements included support for refusing medical treatment for LGBTQ Israelis, elimination of laws ensuring equality, and even putting an end to the production of electricity on Shabbat. Most of these initiatives will likely go nowhere, but for liberal American Jews watching from afar, they highlighted the alarming direction in which Israel is heading.
For some, the moment of action has already arrived.
Several hundred prominent U.S. rabbis have reportedly signed a pledge not to allow members of the Religious Zionist bloc to speak in their communities. “When those who tout racism and bigotry claim to speak in the name of Israel, but deny our rights, our heritage, and the rights of the most vulnerable among us, we must take action,” the letter stated.
Does Itamar Ben-Gvir really care if he doesn’t receive an invitation to speak at a liberal shul in Chicago? Probably not. It’s also a safe bet that Betzalel Smotrich will not lose any sleep over the refusal of Reform congregations in New York or Los Angeles to host him for Shabbat services. It is quite unlikely that the two leaders of the largest factions within the Religious Zionist bloc would even consider going to these synagogues if invited.
But it does set the bar for further engagement with members of these parties. And more important, it makes engagement with them a sensitive issue for Jewish Americans. Leaders, donors and activists from AIPAC, from the Conference of Presidents or from any other mainstream Jewish communal groups may still attend meetings and briefings with Religious Zionist members who hold public office in Israel, but by doing so they’ll be making a calculated decision that could lead to criticism from within their communities.
2. Real Impact, or a Feel-Good Gesture?
To make a difference, American Jews who oppose the new Israeli government, or some of its members, will have to do more than sign a boycott letter banning them from their synagogues.
But the options are extremely limited.
Jewish Americans do not have a chief rabbi, are not organized in any communal structure and do not abide by any policy guidelines handed down from their leaders. Most have nothing to do with organized Jewish life and couldn’t care less about comments, statements and open letters from prominent Jewish Americans. Former Anti-Defamation League chief Abraham Foxman, arguably the most prominent communal voice in American Jewish life, made waves earlier this month when he stated that “if Israel ceases to be an open democracy, I won’t be able to support it.” But even a clear message like this from a well-known Jewish leader has not registered with the Israeli public as an indication that Israel is facing a real problem with American Jews.
3. Using Political Leverage in the United States Against the Israeli Government
How can American Jews make Israel notice their concerns?
The only effective way is the one most communal leaders will never really consider: using the political power of Jewish Americans to advocate against the government of Israel.
Sure, Jewish organizations from the left have been doing this for years. Groups like Americans for Peace Now have openly called on the United States to pressure Israel on issues relating to its treatment of Palestinians and the future of a two-state solution. But for most in the American Jewish community, the rule of thumb has always been to keep whatever differences they might have with Israel behind closed doors. It’s a family issue, not something you want to air in public.
But is advocating for Biden to pressure Israel even a reasonable option? Could Jewish Americans successfully sway the Biden administration into pressuring Netanyahu to change course and assemble a different coalition?
Shortly after Israeli election results became clear, the Biden administration came up with a formula, which states that the Netanyahu government will be judged by its actions, not by its members and their beliefs. In practical terms, this means that the United States will deal primarily with Netanyahu and Likud members and that as long as Bibi keeps his coalition under control and prevents racist and extremist views of its members from becoming policy, relations with Washington will be just fine.
This is a standard that Jewish mainstream groups can feel comfortable with and are unlikely to challenge. After all, if Biden is okay with Bibi and his new government, why should pro-Israel Jews in America try to convince him otherwise?
Last week, Biden hosted hundreds of Jewish Americans at the White House for his Hanukkah reception. The president spoke passionately about fighting antisemitism and warmly about the Jewish community, and made no mention of Israel. Everyone seemed to be okay with that.
4. Friction Points
Where might tensions between U.S. Jews and the Israeli new government erupt?
Look for legislative actions that could be put forward by the coalition, including laws ending equality requirements, easing restrictions barring racist parties from running in the elections or enhancing the role of the Orthodox as the sole Jewish religious authorities in Israel. Most won’t materialize, at least if Netanyahu gets his way, but if they do, it will be significant. Legislation makes a real difference, comments and statements much less.
Assuming that the American Jewish community adheres to the unwritten Biden doctrine of judging Israel solely by its actions, there will be a lot of noise Jewish Americans will have to ignore: offensive statements by high-level government officials, engagement with extremists and a whole bunch of disparaging comments toward Palestinians and Palestinian citizens of Israel. Choosing not to respond will be challenging.
5. Will Israeli Hasbarah Be the First Victim of Netanyahu’s Government?
As supporters of the Jewish state, American Jews have always played a key role in Israeli national PR, known in Hebrew as hasbarah. And Israel has always been an easy sell: the only true democracy in the Middle East, the most LGBTQ-friendly country in the region, a model for integration of Jews and Arabs (well, that was always a bit of a stretch) and, of course, a modern hub of innovation and technology.
Comments made by future cabinet members in recent days and legislation being discussed by Netanyahu’s partners could put many of these points in question.
Opening Image: Tiia Monto via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0) / Mike Mozart via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0) / U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Jack Sanders via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)