Israel’s ties to the Jewish American community, one of its closest and most important allies, are about to be put to the test, with Israel’s emerging far-right government on a collision course with Jews in the United States.
Major Jewish American organizations, traditionally a bedrock of support for Israel, have expressed alarm over the far-right character of the presumptive government led by conservative Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Given American Jews’ predominantly liberal political views and affinity for the Democratic Party, these misgivings could have a ripple effect in Washington and further widen what has become a partisan divide over support for Israel.
“This is a very significant crossroads,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a liberal, pro-Israel group in Washington. “The potential for specific actions that could be taken by this government, these are the moments when the relationship between the bulk of American Jews and the state of Israel begins to really fray. So I’m very afraid.”
Jewish-American leaders appear especially worried about the prominent role expected to be played by a trio of hard-line, religious lawmakers. The three have made racist anti-Arab statements, denigrated the LGBTQ community, attacked Israel’s legal system and demonized the liberal, non-Orthodox streams of Judaism popular in the U.S. All vehemently oppose Palestinian independence.
“These are among the most extreme voices in Israeli politics,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish movement in the U.S. “What will be the trajectory of a new Israeli government with such voices in such key leadership roles is of deep, deep concern.” More centrist organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League, which fights antisemitism and other forms of hatred, and the Jewish Federations of North America, an umbrella group that supports hundreds of Jewish communities, have also spoken out. Though these groups, like J Street and the Reform movement, support a two-state solution with the Palestinians, their recent statements have focused on Israel’s democratic ideals. The Anti-Defamation League said that including the three far-right lawmakers in a government “runs counter to Israel’s founding principles.” The Federations called for “inclusive and pluralistic” policies.
For decades, American Jews have played a key role in promoting close ties between the U.S. and Israel. They have raised millions of dollars for Israeli causes, spoken out in Israel’s defense and strengthened strong bipartisan support for Israel in Washington.
But this longstanding relationship has come under strain in recent years — especially during Netanyahu’s 2009-2021 rule.
Netanyahu’s hard-line policies toward the Palestinians, his public spats with Barack Obama over peacemaking and the Iranian nuclear issue and his close ties with Donald Trump put him at odds with many in the American Jewish community.
Opinion polls show that roughly three-quarters of American Jews lean toward the Democratic Party. They tend to be more critical of the Israeli government and more sympathetic to the Palestinians than their Republican counterparts, with these divisions even wider among younger Jews in their 20s. These trends appear set to go into hyper-drive as Netanyahu prepares to return to power after a year and a half as opposition leader, this time flanked by some of the country’s most extremist politicians.
After winning elections last month, Netanyahu and his allies are still forming their coalition. But he already has reached a number of deals that are setting off alarm bells overseas.
Itamar Ben-Gvir, a lawmaker known for his anti-Arab vitriol and provocative stunts, has been offered the job of national security minister, a powerful position that will put him in charge of Israel’s national police force. This includes the paramilitary border police, a unit on the front lines of much of the fighting with Palestinians in east Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.
Ben-Gvir has labeled Arab lawmakers “terrorists” and called for deporting them. He wants to impose the death penalty on Palestinian attackers and grant soldiers immunity from prosecution.
Netanyahu also has agreed to appoint the lawmaker Avi Maoz as a deputy minister overseeing a new authority in charge of “Jewish identity” and giving him responsibilities over Israel’s educational system.
Maoz is known for his outspoken anti-LGBTQ positions and disparaging remarks about the Reform movement and other non-Orthodox Jews.
He wants a ban on Pride parades, has compared gays to pedophiles and wants to allow some forms of conversion therapy, a discredited practice that tries to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of LGBTQ children.
Maoz hopes to change Israel’s “Law of Return,” which allows anyone with a single Jewish grandparent to immigrate to Israel, and replace it with a much stricter definition of who is a Jew. He also opposes non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism. This is an affront to liberal Jewish groups, which have less rigid views on Jewish identity.
Bezalel Smotrich, a settler leader with a history of anti-gay and anti-Palestinian comments, has been granted widespread authority over settlement construction and Palestinian civilian life in the occupied West Bank.
Netanyahu has been generous toward his allies because they support major legal reforms that could freeze or dismiss his corruption trial. Critics say such moves will imperil Israel’s democratic foundations.
Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Netanyahu tried to play down such concerns as he vowed to safeguard democracy and LGBTQ rights. “I ultimately decide policy,” he said.
Hailey Soifer, chief executive of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, said it is premature to judge a government that hasn’t yet taken office. But she acknowledged the concerns about issues like LGBTQ rights, Palestinian rights and respect for democracy – particularly with memories of the Trump administration still fresh.
“Many of those concerns are based on our own experience with an administration that didn’t share our values,” said Soifer.
Whether U.S. policy will be affected is unclear. The Biden administration has said it will wait to see policies, not personalities, of the new government.
But Eric Alterman, author of “We Are Not One,” a new book about relations between Israel and American Jews, says the sides are moving in opposite directions.
Progressive Democrats already have pushed for a tougher approach to Israel because of its treatment of the Palestinians.
“It may come suddenly. It may come in pieces. But there’s simply a break coming between American Jews and Israeli Jews,” Alterman said.