Just thinking about the government that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is forming fills me with a deep sense of dread. To call on Alan Paton’s unforgettable book about South Africa, I am crying for my beloved country.
I know that many, if not most, of the American Jewish community feels the same.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won the election. He won the votes he needs for a record fifth term in office using the strategies and tactics he knows best: fear mongering; casting himself as both victim and protector by inventing a “deep state” that is out to get him; mobilizing loathing and ethnic and class conflict; and engaging in the politics of resentment against the liberal elites.
We can read the data about the results of these elections in different ways and look for silver linings: Clearly, the majority of the Israeli public rejected the radicals and a reassuring majority voted for the center. But still, Netanyahu is Israel’s once-and-future (and seemingly forever) prime minister.
To save himself from criminal prosecution, Netanyahu will form the most right-wing coalition in Israel’s history. We can already be sure that this coalition will foment extremist nationalism and ethnocentrism, openly show contempt for the rule of law and attack civil society organizations. It will mercilessly attack the institutions of liberal democracy, which, as historian Robert Paxton warns, is the hallmark of fascism.
This government will not offer the American Jewish community very much to hold on to. According to a 2018 American Jewish Committee survey, American Jews favor a mixed-prayer area near the Western Wall as well as granting non-Orthodox rabbis the power to perform life-cycle events and conversions, civil marriage and divorce.
Netanyahu’s government, dependent on the ultra-Orthodox parties and the settlers, is hardly likely to support reform of the rabbinate, promote religious pluralism or provide American Jews with the prayer spaces they want and deserve. The coalition will blur the divisions between state and religion even further, and American Jews will feel even more marginalized than they already do.
A majority of American Jews favor the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state and believe that some or all of the West Bank settlements should be dismantled as part of a peace agreement. But in the last days of the elections, fearing that he might be losing his right flank to even-more-extreme rightists, Netanyahu promised to annex parts of the West Bank, thus squashing, possibly with the active support of United States President Donald Trump, any hope for a just solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the foreseeable future.
In response, we read about how disaffected and disconnected liberal American Jews feel, how they have lost hope and even interest in Israel.
And yet, despite everything I’ve written to this point, I am going to, humbly and respectfully, ask you to not to break away.
Firstly, because Netanyahu and his ilk are not Israel, just as Trump and his cronies are not America. As you do in the United States, do not confuse elected leaders with the people, not even with the people who elected those leaders. Neither Netanyahu nor Trump represent the best that our countries can be.
Second, because if you break with Israel, you will be removing yourself from participating in one of the greatest collective historical experiences of the Jewish people. The Zionist experiment isn’t complete and certainly hasn’t failed. Zionism is more than an ideological assertion and political plan about Jewish national determination. It is a quest to create a better society based on the teachings of our prophets and those who came after them. Zionism led to the founding of the State, and now its mission is to apply Jewish self-determination as a force for good.
Yes, in the hands of the evil and the greedy, nationalism can become fascist. Netanyahu and his legions have appropriated Zionism into a paranoid, power-driven movement that glorifies the rule over another people and rejects compromise, compassion and justice. But theirs is not the only Zionism. For many of us here, Zionism refers to inclusive, peaceful, liberal Jewish nationalism. It refers to the just use of power, a balance between real politik and ethical foreign policies, and a quest for peace.
There are hundreds of civil society groups, and even some politicians, who believe in these values and are working towards them. And we aren’t dead—we need your support, not your eulogies. As our governments betray us, we need to support NGO’s and non-formal education programs and to come together to talk, argue and take a stand.
Today, Zionism providers a litmus test for the world. Is nationalism inherently wrong? Can a national ethnic state coexist with a genuine civic democracy in the 21st century? I don’t know. I do know, however, that Israel is one of the few places in the world where we can empirically test our beliefs, and that I’m not about to let Netanyahu answer the questions for me.
Finally, you will be deluding yourself if you think that by avoiding Israel, you can avoid the problems it presents. Not only because Trump and Netanyahu are frighteningly alike, but because the forces that threaten us are not to be found only in Israel and the United States.
For once, Israel was merely ahead of world-wide trends, as the growth of illiberal democracies throughout the world proves. Economic crises leading to the humiliation of status anxiety, the destabilization brought on by mass migrations, unease about the loss of national identity—all these have led to populist politics that use tribalism, racism and religiosity to provide false senses of security. Throughout the world, voters are increasingly using their democratic rights to vote in illiberal leaders that will take away those same rights.
And these leaders all help each other in their missions. Both Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin made significant contributions to Netanyahu’s re-election campaign—by moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, by recognizing the Golan Heights as Israeli territory, by returning the remains of American-born Israeli soldier Yehuda Baumel just days before the election. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro timed his visit to Israel as an election stump for Netanyahu, and even Voktor Orban’s Hungary inaugurated new trade initiatives in Jerusalem.
So yes, Netanyahu won, and he will put together a coalition, and we will abhor most of what he and his coalition do. But the struggle to make Israel into a better society isn’t over. It’s time for Israelis and Jews—and progressives throughout the world—to work even harder to create better societies.