Rosh Hashanah 2019: The Year Racism Divided the Jewish People

Never in Israel’s history has the struggle for the nation’s soul mirrored so completely the political divides in the countries where the Jews live around the world

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Signs hang on a fence surrounding the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on September 17, 2019.
Signs hang on a fence surrounding the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on September 17, 2019.Credit: Gene J. Puskar,AP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

When the history of the Jews from the start of the last exile to the 21st century is written, 5779 will be remembered as the year when the split between the two Jewish peoples was imminent. If we’re fortunate, the events of the last two weeks will have proved to be a turning point when the schism was averted. But it’s far too early to say.

Each of the two greatest Jewish communities ever to exist had a dismal low point this year. Both were caused by racism.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 42

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But only Israel’s was self-inflicted. It was the creation of the Union of Right-Wing Parties seven months ago at Benjamin Netanyahu’s behest. That moment when the neo-Kahanists were included in this right-wing bloc, the normalization of Jewish racial supremacy that received the approval of nearly all the Israeli right wing and Orthodox communities, with the exception of a few tzadikim in Sodom, deserves to be remembered in infamy long after the Netanyahu era has faded from memory.

It doesn’t matter that members of neo-Kahanist Otzma Yehudit on the right-wing slate failed to enter the Knesset in the April election and then ran alone in this month’s vote, failing to cross the electoral threshold. In some ways, it would have been better if its leader, the despicable mass-murderer-admiring Itamar Ben-Gvir, had won a seat.

We would have been reminded every day of the shame. The right-wing politicians and pundits who advocated for a kosher certificate for Otzma and cheered when it was issued barely tried to keep up the pretense that this was merely a “technical bloc” formed to “prevent the loss of right-wing votes.” They had no problem bringing Ben-Gvir into their tent as a legitimate, if somewhat obtuse, partner.

Jewish supremacists

Of course, Netanyahu deserves the largest portion of blame for stopping at nothing in his frantic quest for political survival. But there were so many accomplices. Thirty-five years ago, when Meir Kahane was elected to the Knesset, every other MK, left and right, religious and secular, routinely walked out of his speeches. Now his unrepentant spawn are welcome, as long as they can muster enough racists to vote for them. They have done more than taint the members of an entire camp with overt and unabashed racism. They have outed them as being no better than the Jewish supremacists.

The line dividing those who would include Otzma Yehudit in their coalition and those who still understand the party’s reprehensibility isn’t a geographic or a religious one. There are Israelis on either side of the line. And there are plenty of Diaspora Jews who see little wrong with a heavy dose of racism in their politics.

And while it tends to be the more Orthodox who tend to the far right, there are plenty of secular Jews everywhere who buy in to the new form of Jewish nationalism that goes so well with other brands of populist nativism around the world. But there are also religious Jews who abhor the perversion of Judaism.

Unlike previous fractures that broke the Jewish people apart, this one is not about religion, at least not in the traditional sense. Or about geography. Sure the overwhelming majority of American Jews are nice liberal-minded Democrats, but in most other Diaspora communities, the trend is to the right. Go to almost any typical Jewish community in France or Russia or Latin America. Or just consider the fact that a million American Jews voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and will do so again in 2020. And how did some of those Jews react after the lowest point this year for American Jews?

In the aftermath of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the worst act of violence in the history of the American Jewish community, there were plenty of Jews, American and Israeli, some right at the very top of their organizations or government, who whitewashed the direct connection between Donald Trump’s embrace and empowerment of white supremacism and the rise in anti-Semitism. And there is a clear correlation between those who excuse and overlook Jewish racism in Israel and those who refuse to see any danger to Jews from Trumpism. If your politics and allegiance to a specific party or president override true concern for the welfare of Jews, then any protestation of solidarity with Jews is meaningless.

Echoing feelings

The split isn’t about “Zionism” or whatever term you want to use for an affinity and love of Israel or new and nebulous notions of Diasporism either. Denying the centrality of Israel to Jewish life when nearly half the Jews live there and create more Jewish culture and learning than any other place in history is flat Earthism. The Jewish world isn’t split between Israel and the Diaspora. It’s split over the question of what kind of a country Israel should be, and there are Israeli and non-Israeli Jews on both sides, but they all care. Those who don’t care are the tiny fringes of the ultra-Orthodox camp who fly to Iran and those on the far left who can’t discern any anti-Semitism in a pathological hatred of Israel.

Never in Israel’s history has the internal struggle for the nation’s soul mirrored so completely the political divides in the countries where the Jews live around the world. Ask a Jew in the Diaspora who they’re voting for in their home country and you’ll know what kind of an Israel they want to see. And vice versa. And it wasn’t always like this.

Time was when you could vote Republican – or Conservative in Britain for that matter – and still feel that Israel needed to do a lot more on civil rights, separating state and religion and ending the occupation. And you could be a Democrat or Labour voter and not see the nariest of faults in Israel, whatever government was in power. Those days are over, and chances are that the frustration, or satisfaction, with Israel is greater because it echoes feelings with one’s own government. And with the current crop of right-wing populist leaders in the West, you often hear stuff like “why can’t the Jews in America be as supportive as the president?” Some have even gone as far as calling it “betrayal.”

There is betrayal all around nowadays. After a very short moment of exhilaration following the result of the election two weeks ago, the chorus is once again building. The left is trying to get in on Arab terrorist-lovers’ votes. The election was crooked. And now a dark cabal of lawyers, judges and journalists is about to take down Netanyahu, the nation’s chosen one – the same tune being heard now on either side of the Atlantic. Societies torn apart. Two Jewish peoples drifting away from each other.