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Four Good Things to Say About Israel After the Election

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie
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Likud party supporters wave flags bearing the face of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, last week.
Likud party supporters wave flags bearing the face of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, last week.Credit: MENAHEM KAHANA - AFP
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

As Passover comes to an end, the challenge is to offer some good news about the Jewish state.

At my family’s Passover seders, the most frequently asked question not related to the rituals of the holiday was: What is going on in Israel?

It ain't over yet for Bibi, and we may meet here again. LISTEN to Election Overdose podcast

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My relatives and friends, utterly befuddled like most American Jews by the fourth Israeli election in two years, wanted to know many things: What did the results mean? Who would form the next government? Would there be another election? Had Israel’s system of governance imploded?

And their other question, stated or implied, was: Amidst the political chaos now reigning there, is there anything positive and optimistic that you can share with me about Israel?

American-Jewish interest in the Israeli election process had fallen off considerably by the second or third round of voting. Coverage of the elections in the Anglo-Jewish press, usually lengthy and detailed, had become sporadic and perfunctory. (The same thing had happened in America’s general press.) By the fourth round, even the most fervent American Jewish advocacy groups for Israel could not muster much enthusiasm for the major contenders or for the issues that they were supposedly debating.

And then there is the Netanyahu problem.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaking on Election Night.Credit: Emil Salman

American Jews, most of whom are liberals, Biden voters and Democrats, have little use for Bibi. For years, they have watched him thumb his nose at the Democratic Party and suck up shamelessly to Donald Trump, the most reviled political figure in American life. For even longer, they have watched Netanyahu dismiss the religious concerns of American Jews, preferring the embrace of American Evangelicals to the bonds of peoplehood and religion that tie Diaspora Jewry to the Jewish state.

More than half of Israel’s citizens desperately want him gone, and an even larger majority of American Jews do, too. And yet there he is, indicted and facing trial, and holding the entire country hostage to his personal needs and interests. And after yet another election that he did not win, he is again manipulating Israel’s political system like a puppet on a string.

Still, despite everything, ties between American Jews and their Israeli cousins remain remarkably strong. One recent survey of American Jewry found that 80 percent of American Jews consider themselves pro-Israel and 67 percent feel an emotional attachment to Israel. We may not agree with Israel very much in the seemingly endless Netanyahu era, but we are obsessed with it nonetheless, and worry about its welfare and security. And that being so, my guests wondered, what might I say that would make them feel better about Israel at this joyous holiday of freedom and family, and of redemption and battling injustice?

I began by noting that I could not predict with certainty what government, if any, would emerge from the negotiations now underway; that I was distraught by Netanyahu’s despicable but successful effort to broker a merger among racist and fascist parties – a merger that produced the “Religious Zionism” party that won six seats in the Knesset and has been promised a place in his coalition; and that, ironically, this very success gave me a measure of confidence that Netanyahu has finally reached the end of the road, and that he will not survive the current coalition bargaining.

Netanyahu is not without accomplishments and political skills, and his sins have been forgiven, again and again. But, I believe, not this time. Engineering an ultra-nationalist, racist, neo-Kahanist party, and inviting it into the coalition – and probably into the government – is simply a step too far, even for him.

If Bibi succeeds, the Biden administration will take note and adjust its policies accordingly, whether it says anything in public or not. (In dealing with the Iran issue, for example, it will not build a relationship of trust with an Israeli government that includes Bezalel Smotrich.) The pro-Israel mainstream of the Democratic party will feel deeply shaken and betrayed. And Diaspora Jewry will be disgusted and infuriated.

Labor's Gilad Kariv on Election Night.Credit: Moti Milrod

But, most importantly, the Zionist parties of Israel already know what Bibi is too desperate and frightened to see: that there is no such thing as a “good Kahanist” or “respectable Kahanist.” They know Bibi thinks he can tame the Smotriches and Ben Gvirs when he cannot, and that once the fanatics walk through the front door of your house, it is impossible to get them out.

My conclusion: whatever happens, the Likud and the rest of the Israeli right, either now or very soon, will push Bibi aside, and leave him to this fate.

I am naïve, I am told. It will not happen, I am told. I am being unrealistic about the good sense of the right, I am told. But I stick by my prediction.

If Bibi forms a government, the Kahanists will extort him on every issue, and he will capitulate again and again. And the Likud and the right, as timorous as they are, already understand that they cannot accept what Zionism abhors. In other words, what Bennett, Sa’ar, and Lieberman have begun, what remains of the Likud will finish.

And now, three other points of hope and optimism that I shared with my family on Passover:

First, Knesset member Rabbi Gilad Kariv will drive the Haredi parties crazy.

Ra'am leader Mansour Abbas last Week.Credit: Gil Eliahu

Kariv, a Reform rabbi and the former head of Israel’s Reform movement, is a member of the Labor Party delegation in the 24th Knesset. Tough, articulate, and politically savvy, Kariv represents what the Haredim fear most: flesh-and-blood proof that there is more than one way to be Jewish in Israel, and that a Judaism of Torah, tradition, justice, and gender equality is a reality in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem.

True, Kariv is only one person, but he will be a constant presence. He will answer Haredi abuse not with name-calling or anti-Haredi attacks, but with calls for a Judaism that embraces all of Israel’s Jews, welcoming their diversity and meeting their needs. And he will speak with eloquence of the small but growing Reform and Conservative presence, which has impacted the lives of millions of Israelis.

The Haredim, of course, have threatened to boycott Kariv: to walk out when he speaks, to avoid his committee meetings, and to refuse to pray with him. And I am delighted.

The more they make a fuss over his presence, the more they will give him legitimacy and visibility. The more they attack the Judaism that he practices, the more his inclusive version of tradition will compare favorably with their inward-looking, budget-seeking version. And the more they deny him a place in their minyanim, the more their self-serving pettiness will be apparent.

Can you imagine? A Jew, elected to the Knesset by the voters of the Jewish state, is denied by other so-called “religious Jews” the right to join them in prayer? What Jewish sources will they offer to justify that?

What Rabbi Kariv’s election means is that the Knesset members of the Haredi parties will, from this day forward, be held accountable for their actions – and their sins.

A crowd celebrating Purim in Tel Aviv last month.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Second, Mansour Abbas, head of the new four-member United Arab List (Ra’am) delegation in the Knesset, offers some degree of hope for Israel’s Arab citizens and for the Jewish state itself.

Abbas is a conservative Islamist with ties to Hamas. There is more than ample room for suspicion. I despise his fundamentalist views on LGBTQ rights, and, for that matter, on many other things.

Still, it seems to me that the Joint List, the major Arab party that he left to run separately, has a pathetic record of accomplishment. Instead of turning its legitimate grievances against Israel’s government into a legislative program to combat poverty and crime, it again and again immersed itself in internecine battles and empty ideological warfare. Sensing the anger and alienation of Israel’s Arabs, Abbas offered them a pragmatic agenda of change and reform, and a willingness to support any government of the right or left that would support his proposals. He was rewarded with four seats.

Abbas seems to have atoned for his past sins and seems committed now to a dialogue with the Jewish majority for the sake of advancing his constituents’ needs and interests. Netanyahu undoubtedly reached out to him for all the wrong reasons, and I would be distressed if Abbas were to choose an alliance with Bibi. But the fact that Jewish parties across the political spectrum see him as a potential partner, when Arab parties have always been rejected in the past, is surely a blessing.

We do not know what will be. But if Israel’s Arabs get a champion and if a Zionist party gets an Israeli Arab partner, both sides will be benefit.

Third and finally, the 2021 World Happiness Report has been issued, and Israel ranks number 12 out of 149 countries. (Canada is 14th and the United States is 19th.) The report is a serious effort, measuring happiness by using extensive data on life expectancy, medical services, and economic well-being in the countries surveyed.

Israel has always performed impressively in this study. What is remarkable is that it continues to do so, despite a year of constant COVID lockdowns, political instability, and election after election.

How does this happen? It is hard to know. But one possibility is that despite the often-noted tribal nature of Israeli society, the civil war that everyone forecasts never seems to happen, and the various groupings of Israelis – Jews and Arabs, secular and religious, Muslims and Christians, ultra-Orthodox and national religious, Reform and Conservative, Bedouins and Druze, etc., etc. – somehow manage to co-exist and get along a little bit better every year.

The politicians are constantly battling each other, of course, but regular Israelis are doing not so badly. And the Abraham Accords have provided peace with more of Israel’s neighbors, and by drawing the Sunni-dominated states into the political equation, even offer the faint hope of some movement on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

If only Bibi really goes – see above – there might be some real hope for the future.

Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie

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