Earlier this week, Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich—a man who only a few short years ago was seen as the radical fringe of Israeli politics but whose outrageous comments now seem both common and commonplace—predicted that his past and present political partner, ultranationalist Meir Kahane acolyte Itamar Ben Gvir, was destined for the upper echelon of Israeli politics. Ben Gvir, said Smotrich, will be a senior minister in the next Israeli government, since his own Religious Zionism party’s rocket-like trajectory in the polls is in large part attributable to Ben Gvir’s popularity and the electoral contributions of his Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) faction. Unlike many who view Ben Gvir’s newfound popularity as a stain on Israeli politics and Israeli society given his past criminal conviction for racist incitement, his threats against Yitzhak Rabin prior to the prime minister’s assassination, his role in fueling riots in Sheikh Jarrah during May 2021, and his consistent anti-Arab views, Smotrich views it as a sign that things are moving in the right direction. For Smotrich, Ben Gvir’s rise is a sign that Israeli society is recovering its healthy instincts, and is a reminder that “we are the bosses here.”
Lest one think that Ben Gvir’s lionization is confined to his own Jewish supremacist corner of Israeli politics, Likud figures too have gone out of their way to jump on the bigoted Ben Gvir bandwagon. Binyamin Netanyahu made sure to increase Ben Gvir’s political strength and post-vote leverage in any potential coalition formation by once again brokering a merger between Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit—as he did prior to the March 2021 election—reportedly resting on a promise to give Ben Gvir a cabinet post in a future Netanyahu government. Likud MK Miki Zohar, who is 10th on the new party list and one of the Likud members closest to Netanyahu, gave an interview to the religious Zionist outlet Srugim last week in which he announced his determination to do everything to include Ben Gvir in the next government, said that Ben Gvir and the Likud share many of the same principles and beliefs, and declared that “anyone who thinks Ben Gvir is a terrible person, a person who contributes nothing to Israel, is making a bitter mistake and is also telling a bald-faced lie.”
It is easy to look at this corrosive rot and view it as an indictment of Israel and a growing strain of Jewish nationalism that views ethnic ties as a higher-order priority than democracy or any other principle. But it is not only about Israel; it is about us American Jews as well. We have treated Ben Gvir as an aberration when there is growing evidence that suggests that he is not, and we have quietly sat back as the Israeli political system normalized his inclusion and growing clout. We have tacitly accepted Ben Gvir as a price of doing business, and the more that we do so, the more the rest of American politics and society will come to the same conclusion, which will be detrimental to Israel and to the well-being of American Jews.
When Netanyahu pulled the gambit for the first time a year and a half ago of facilitating a Religious Zionism-Otzma Yehudit merger and paving the way for Ben Gvir’s entry into the Knesset, it sparked wall-to-wall American Jewish condemnation, including from groups that are more reluctant to criticize the Israeli government and that never wade into commenting on Israeli domestic politics. It conveyed a clear message that this was beyond the pale, and that Ben Gvir should be treated as a Knesset member the same way that his intellectual mentor and forebear, Kahane, was treated as a Knesset member—shunned by all and subject to Prime Minister Shamir and other MKs leaving the plenum when he rose to speak. Unfortunately, this did not happen. Ben Gvir was initially viewed with outrage, and then people eventually moved on. He was viewed as extreme, but within the bounds of legitimate political actors, and his compatriot Smotrich—a man who in 2016 said that Arabs are his enemies and he doesn’t enjoy being next to them, and who this week said that all existing Arab political parties and their MKs should be banned—has enjoyed the fruits of the shifting Overton window even more. When the Board of Deputies of British Jews tweeted that Smotrich should get back on a plane to Israel and be remembered as a disgrace forever during his visit to the United Kingdom in February, Israeli President Yitzhak Herzog reprimanded them and said that all Israeli leaders must be treated with respect in the Diaspora. Left unsaid was that if this standard applies to Smotrich, there is no good argument for lifting it when it comes to even more odious members of his own “well-known right-wing party, which has support in the Israeli public,” to quote Herzog directly.
When Ben Gvir set up an open-air office on the street in Sheikh Jarrah in the middle of Ramadan during the height of tensions over potential Palestinian evictions in the neighborhood in May 2021, he somehow escaped American Jewish condemnation during the subsequent pitched battles in the streets of mixed Israeli cities and fighting between the IDF and Hamas. While his party has consistently placed in the top four in every pre-election poll for months, the American Jewish community shakes its head in quiet disappointment and wishes in vain that he will go away if we just ignore him. As Netanyahu does everything in his power to make Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit not only viable members of a future coalition but necessary ones in order to make him prime minister once again, we pretend that this is something that we don’t have to address until the problem definitively materializes. We have become Israeli; yihiyeh beseder, everything will be fine.
We are on the eve of the Jewish season of introspection and repentance, a time when we do this not only as individuals but come together and pack synagogues as a community, recognizing the power of collective action and collective responsibility. Israelis will treat Ben Gvir and his ilk as they see fit, but we have to make it clear—now, and not later—that we see things differently and that we will also act as we see fit. We have to make it clear that Ben Gvir will not be welcome among American Jews, that a government that includes him will not be treated as one that had to make a difficult but necessary choice, that someone who used to proudly feature a portrait of notorious Jewish terrorist and murderer Baruch Goldstein above his mantelpiece and who last week referred to him as “Dr. Goldstein” as if he is still deserving of honor should not be welcome in any Jewish government that wants to be welcomed by American Jews. There have to be costs for any Israeli coalition that openly embraces the ugliest form of Jewish supremacy, and if they won’t be imposed in Israel, we need to impose them ourselves. “Do you view Itamar Ben Gvir and any party that includes him as legitimate political actors” needs to be the first and last question that every Israeli politician encounters when they come here, and if it isn’t, then we should share in the moral opprobrium that will come Israel’s way if Netanyahu creates a government with Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit as we will have normalized it too.
We did not create Ben Gvir and we are not responsible for him, but imagine how much worse an environment it will be for American Jews on college campuses, in progressive political spaces, and in environments where Israel’s status as a democracy is increasingly questioned if he becomes a de facto face of the Israeli state. The fact that it is unjust to lay Israel’s sins at the feet of Jews around the world will not change the inescapable truth that it happens, and it is incumbent upon American Jewish leadership to raise the alarm now rather than bemoan the state of affairs after the storm has hit. I am under no illusions about the ability of the American Jewish community to dramatically alter the trajectory of Israeli politics, but for our own benefit, this is the time to harness our collective power in an effort to do just that. If you don’t like accusations of Israeli apartheid now, imagine what it will look like when Public Security Minister Ben Gvir is trying to enact curfews on Israeli Arabs and Interior Minister Smotrich is pushing for loyalty oaths from Israeli Arab citizens in order for them to avert having their citizenship stripped and being deported. While these are extreme examples, we are dealing with extreme politicians in extreme times. Just because Israel has normalized, justified, or brushed away this extremism does not mean that we should too.