During my first election campaign I had to go around with a security detail because of death threats from Otzma Yehudit activists. It began when I petitioned against Itamar Ben-Gvir and his cohorts to prevent them from running for Knesset. The petition, which was based on their sickening racist statements and evidence that some of them are involved in terrorist activity, led to most of the party’s leaders being banned from parliament, except for Ben-Gvir, who was spared on the grounds that his involvement in terror was not proven. When he saw that the threats weren’t working, he also sued me for libel for a million shekels. If violence wasn’t working, maybe money would.
At the time, the AIPAC convention was being held in Washington, and I used the opportunity to speak about the petition and about other Israelis like me who are trying to combat racists like Ben-Gvir, who harm democracy and the sensitive relations between Jews and Arabs. A majority of us share the liberal values of most American Jews, I stressed. This is a central, winning argument in the fight against the BDS boycott movement – that the partnership between Israel and the United States is not only about interests, but about values.
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It is also the reason why AIPAC, which generally refrains from making statements on domestic Israeli matters, took the exceptional step of issuing a serious condemnation of Otzma Yehudit, saying that its positions “do not reflect the fundamental values upon which Israel was founded.” For many in the organization, which often criticized by the progressive flank, the letter brought a sense of relief. It is difficult for American Jews to defend Israel when people like Ben-Gvir receive official support. The legacy of Meir Kahane, an American-born Israeli who sought to establish a state based on Jewish law, remains a glaring symbol of the rift between Israeli Jews and America.
The Israeli government has spent tens of millions over the past decade “combating BDS.” The Ministry for Strategic Affairs, which was entirely dedicated to this purpose, showered funds on organizations like the Committee of Samaria Settlers and Yeshivat Aish Hatorah, which only help to strengthen the boycott supporters’ arguments.
The right’s efforts to amass domestic political capital heightened the damage: From Benjamin Netanyahu’s comments in the 2015 election campaign against Arabs voting, which were reported in every American newspaper, to Ayelet Shaked’s ad for “fascism perfume,” to Bezalel Smotrich, who said his wife shouldn’t have to give birth next to Arab women in a hospital room.
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Every statement like this is a knife in the back of our democracy, but also in the heart of the Israeli-American partnership, because it causes many to wonder if Israel is still a liberal democracy. But while all of this could perhaps be described as mere talk, with Ben-Gvir the intentions are very real. Just as he has no problem representing Jewish terrorists in court, he clearly would not be ashamed to put their positions into legislation.
Despite the Bibi-ist campaign against them, the mainstream of the Democratic Party is currently still empathetic toward Israel. But if Joe Biden has already waited a month to phone Netanyahu, imagine how long it will take him to do so after a year in which Ben-Gvir is at the speakers’ podium in the Knesset, backed by parliamentary immunity.
This is damaging for Israel. Besides the issue of American financial aid, which will again be on the table, the potential achievements with economic and security advantages, for instance a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia, could get stuck. With Trump’s departure, the American government is rightly returning to its commitments to democratic values and human rights, which could alter its relationships in the Middle East. We need to be on the right side of this equation.