Traumatized by Trump, U.S. Jews Are About to Get Battered by Israel, Too

If and when American Jews emerge from their own country’s horror show and pay attention to Israel’s upcoming election, they won't like what they'll see. As Trump exits the White House stage, more right-wing nationalists are surging towards power in Israel

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An anti-Netanyahu demonstrator holds the Israeli flag as he is being shot by a water cannon during a demonstration outside the prime minister residence in Jerusalem, in July.
An anti-Netanyahu demonstrator holds the Israeli flag as he faces a water cannon during a demonstration outside the prime minister residence in Jerusalem, in July.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

For obvious reasons, American Jews are not thinking very much about the Israeli elections on March 26. They are rightly overwhelmed with the attempted pro-Trump coup in the Capitol. But for those who are otherwise engaged, Israel’s  elections could lead to major changes,  and not for the better.

American Jews, mostly moderate and Democratic, are caught up in the horror show being orchestrated by their con man President, whose autocratic and fascistic tendencies are currently on full display. Outraged by Donald Trump’s attempts to maintain power, and stunned by the cynicism of his Republican enablers, Jewish Americans are naturally focusing on their own problems and putting aside other concerns.  

But even without the Trump catastrophe, there’s another reason for American Jews’ disengagement: a certain weariness and fatalism that have taken hold among American Jews about Israeli elections. That’s also understandable.

The March election will be the fourth in two years. In the first three, Benjamin Netanyahu did not win a single convincing victory, but he has remained prime minister nonetheless.  He has now been in office for more than 11 consecutive years.  

Most American Jews, centrist and sensible as noted above, have little use for Bibi, but they are also skeptical that any challenger can oust him. Furthermore, the political opposition that is emerging — Saar, Bennett, Huldai, Lapid, Shelah, Nissenkorn, Elkin — is made up of either unknowns or long-time wannabees, and it is not easy to see a future premier among them.  

A demonstration in support of Benjamin Netanyahu, with one sign reading 'leftists are traitors,' October 29, 2020.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

It is also true that issues that are inflaming Israeli politics are poorly understood by Jews in America, and that’s to a great extent thanks to the considerations of the U.S. media and the incomparable Bibi spin machine.   

As the opening of his criminal trial approaches and as the pandemic rages, throwing a million Israelis out of work, Bibi’s political control at home has finally faltered. A newly vulnerable Netanyahu, increasingly desperate, has been striking out in all directions. 

The result: a majority of Israelis on both the right and left have tired of his high-handed ways, his dismissive contempt for allies and enemies alike, his zigzagging on lockdown issues, his efforts to suspend or even cancel his trial, and worst of all, his politicization of policy on both the pandemic and judicial reform.  

Yet still the headlines about Netanyahu in America are mostly positive. Not long ago he was lavishly praised for his role in the normalization process with Arab states, and more recently he has been given credit in all major media outlets for Israel’s high rate of vaccinations against COVID-19 (for which he deserves only partial credit.)

But the American media have mostly missed the larger story, which is the collapse of the Netanyahu political magic, the disgust that so many Israelis feel for him, and the splintering of his political base. As a result, the attention of American Jews has drifted and the significance of the moment has escaped them. 

This is unfortunate, and a mistake, despite the important competing calls on our attention. 

For the first time in a decade, this is an election that is actually competitive and in which any of three or four candidates could conceivably emerge on top. At the same time, It could also produce results that the moderate-leaning Jewish center, which is the great majority of the American Jewish community, would find deeply distressing, and a challenge to their pro-Israel instincts and values.  

Consider the following two reasons for American Jewish concern.

First: The strongest challenger to Netanyahu is Gideon Sa'ar, who has left Likud to form a new party, "New Hope." On issues of settlements and the Palestinians, Sa'ar could be worse—and potentially much worse—than Bibi.

Sa'ar attends the Knesset's legislative committee in Jerusalem, 2020Credit: Knesset Spokesperson / Adina Walman

Sa'ar, a former Knesset member and Likud leader, is a smart, quietly charismatic, professional politician. He has strong support on the Israeli right, including in Likud circles, and is also polling well on the center-left, largely because his chances of beating Bibi are good. He knows the political system, gets things done, is a straight talker, and keeps promises that he makes.  

I still remember sitting with him when he was minister of education in Netanyahu’s first government. He was actually interested in Jewish education, talked knowledgeably about his own approach to education, and asked hard but good questions about Jewish education in the Diaspora. The meeting was a surprise and a delight.

The problem is that he is an ideological right-winger on all matters related to settlements. Bibi is a right-winger too, of course, who plays to his right-wing base and has been dancing an on-again-off-again dance with the settlement movement for decades. 

But the difference is that, in the final analysis, Bibi believes in nothing but himself, and his right-wing rhetoric is as much a matter of style as substance. Sa'ar, on the other hand, actually believes in a Jewish state from the Jordan to the sea, and would likely be more supportive than Bibi has ever been of the right wing’s vision of a single state in Eretz Israel.

Sa'ar’s one-state credentials are disturbingly comprehensive. He began his political career as an activist for the pro-settler Tehiya party. He has warned American Jews against a two-state solution and has spoken openly of his intention to annex territory.

His political platform rejects withdrawals of any kind, and the number two on his party list is Zeev Elkin, an unbending settler and Land of Israel extremist who was chairman of the Likud bureau, which is the Likud’s ideological body.

Former Minister for Higher Education Ze'ev Elkin at a Knesset Education Committee meeting, May 2020. Credit: Adina Walman / Knesset Spokesperson

As prime minister, Sa'ar would face constraints, to be sure, from the Biden administration and from Morocco, the UAE, and the other partners to the recently signed normalization agreements. But at the very least, Sa'ar would likely ratchet up Land of Israel rhetoric, build as many settlements as he could get away with, and in the process inflame relations with every country in the region and with allies of every stripe.

Second: Whatever the election results, the most likely scenario is that Haredi political strength will increase, perhaps significantly.

If Bibi manages to be tasked wih forming a government, he will give the ultra-Orthodox parties whatever they ask, no matter the price. But if Saar forms the government, he almost certainly will do the same. It is possible that a government could be formed without the Haredim, but it is not likely, and Sa'ar, like Bibi, appears intent on including them.  

Sa'ar was once seen as demonstratively secular and was a prominent presence in the Tel Aviv singles scene. Today, he is usually defined as "newly Orthodox" or "traditionally oriented."

Perhaps this is entirely sincere; perhaps it is an attempt to draw voters from the religious nationalist camp to his new party; or perhaps it is a signal to the Haredim that he is one of them — although, in fact, as we know from Netanyahu, they rarely care whether their right-wing allies are personally Orthodox or not.  

In any case, both Sa'ar and Elkin appear committed to developing close political ties with the ultra-Orthodox parties; and these ties will likely translate into massive giveaways on every issue of consequence to the aging, corrupt, barely-Zionist Haredi establishment.

And does this really matter? It does indeed, now more than ever.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews attend the funeral for Rabbi Mordechai Leiferm, violating lockdown, Oct. 5, 2020Credit: Tsafrir Abayov/AP

There are about one million Haredim, who constitute 11-12 percent of the Israeli population. They are entitled to live their religious lives as they see fit, as long as doing so does not come the expense of everyone else.  

But, tragically and outrageously, it does come at the expense of others. For decades, the Haredi leadership has looked after their own while ignoring the common good. 

Haredim receive enormous sums of money for a separatist ultra-Orthodox school system. Their young people overwhelming avoid military service and national service, creating a national security burden that others must bear. Their rate of male employment is a fraction of what it is in the general Israeli population, and of what it used to be in Haredi ranks as recently as 40 years ago.

And they insist on laws that govern and restrict Jewish marriage, conversion and what's open and operates on Shabbat, leading to anger and resentment among all other Jews in Israel.  

And as bad as all of this is, the pandemic has made the situation a hundred times worse.

Haredim have reacted to COVID-19 in a variety of ways, of course. But it is indisputable that many in the Haredi community have defied government restrictions, praying in large groups and refusing to close their schools. Yet given Haredi political influence, the government has chosen to ignore the sky-high infection rates that resulted. And then, with an election coming, Bibi has imposed sweeping lockdowns throughout Israel rather than targeting the Haredi towns where the infection numbers are highest.

How can this happen? It can happen because in the Haredi sector, people are subordinate to their rabbis and not to the authority of the state. It can happen because in a crisis, the rabbis cannot be counted on to obey the law, while they can be counted on to expertly wield their power and get their way. It can happen because cowardly political leaders, like  Netanyahu, surrender to Haredi extortion again and again, never mustering the courage to do what is right.

And what this means is many more sick and dead than there should be in the Haredi sector; flagrant disregard by its leaders of Jewish teachings on the sacredness of life; unnecessary business closures throughout Israel, leading to bankruptcies and terrible economic hardship for many; and widespread fury and resentment by Israelis of every sort, directed against a self-absorbed ultra-Orthodox-controlled rabbinate.

Hundreds of Israelis march in protest againt Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Jerusalem, January 1, 2021Credit: Emil Salman

And yet instead of paying a price for their disregard of fundamental societal norms, the Haredim are likely to emerge from the election rewarded.  

It is a grim picture. Still, all is not lost.

Netanyahu, who has served far too long, lies about everything, ignores world Jewry, and is doing everything possible to abort his criminal trial, may actually lose his job. This is not a call that American Jewry gets to make, but if Israel’s citizens make this decision, most American Jews will rejoice.

But it is also true that if American Jews finally wake up and pay attention to Israel’s upcoming election, they are not going to like what they see. The great majority — the moderate center — loves and supports Israel, but wants policies that keep the settlers in check, leave Israel a Jewish and democratic state, and stop the never-ending capitulation to the Haredim that has become deeply embedded in Israeli politics.

As happy as American Jews may be about a possible Netanyahu defeat, on all of these fronts, they will see that they have ample reason to worry.

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