By Mike Wagenheim
As the results of the Israeli general election became clearer on Wednesday, American Jewish organizations issued a range of reactions.
Some continued with the message consistently disseminated by mainstream American Jewry—that Israel’s democracy was to be celebrated, the results respected, and that the U.S.-Israel relationship would remain strong regardless of the results. Others, though, began sounding the alarm over the effect that a government inclusive of hard-right elements could have on diaspora ties.
“The Jewish Federations of North America respect and salute Israel’s vibrant democratic process, which allows all Israelis a voice and vote in forming their government,” read a statement from JFNA, which was first in line with a message on Wednesday. “We look forward to working with the government selected by the Israeli people, as we always have, to support Jews around the world and strengthen the relationships between Israel, the North American Jewish community, and our government leaders.”
B’nai B’rith International said in a brief statement that “Israel proudly exemplifies what it means to be an engaged, participatory democracy,” and that it looked forward to working with the next government on “issues critical to the future of global Jewry and the Jewish state.”
The American Jewish Committee, while praising Israel’s “vibrant democracy” and wide political spectrum, noted that for it and “for many Jews in America, Israel, and around the world, past statements of some potential members of the governing coalition raise serious concerns about issues we prioritize: pluralism, inclusion, and increased opportunities for peace and normalization.” The AJC, now led by former Democratic congressman Ted Deutch, stated that it would work with any governing coalition that is “committed to advancing democracy, inclusion, and peace, and to combating efforts to undermine these values.”
The AJC statement referred to the head of the Religious Zionism party, Bezalel Smotrich, and the party’s second-in-command, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who are both assured high-profile ministerial roles should opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu form a government, which seems likely based on current election returns. Critics of Smotrich and Ben-Gvir say that their past inflammatory statements regarding Arabs and other minority groups could challenge the “shared interest and values” often touted by American Jewry and the U.S. government when citing their strong relationships with Israel.
The AJC, under then-CEO David Harris, warned against Ben-Gvir during the 2019 election when Netanyahu brokered an arrangement to facilitate Ben-Gvir’s entry into the Knesset. The AJC remained silent on the matter this campaign, claiming it did not want to interfere in the election process.
Democratic Majority for Israel, led by Mark Mellman, a pollster for Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, said in a statement that it was “filled with respect and admiration for Israel’s robust democracy,” yet at the same time “deeply troubled by the fact that an anti-democratic and extremist party led by Kahanist Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich will gain a larger foothold in the Knesset.”
The DMFI release claimed that “most Israelis find [Smotrich’s and Ben-Gvir’s] views abhorrent as they conflict with the country’s founding principles and the shared values that undergird the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
AIPAC, which also spoke out against Ben-Gvir in 2019, was silent on the matter on Wednesday. In its statement, it said, “It is clear that the Knesset–like the U.S. Congress–will include leaders of a wide range of different political, ideological, economic, racial, and religious identities and perspectives.” The release added that “the Jewish state is a robust democracy that shares America’s interests and values. We look forward to working with the U.S. administration and Democrats and Republicans in Congress to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
The Zionist Organization of America, among the furthest to the right of American Jewish groups, issued a statement congratulating Netanyahu and “the entire pro-Zionist bloc.” ZOA chided the American and Israeli left for “falsely call[ing] the Religious Zionism Party ‘extreme,’” noting Ben-Gvir’s tempering of past remarks and the U.S. administration’s eagerness to work with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, who has supported terrorists and made several racist comments about Jews.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Union for Reform Judaism said it was “profoundly concerned” over the likely ascension of Smotrich and Ben-Gvir to the cabinet and the risk that will entail to Israel’s democracy. URJ hammered at the two during the election campaign, and its Wednesday statement claimed, “their platforms and past actions indicate that they would curtail the authority of Israel’s Supreme Court and inhibit the rights of Israeli Arabs, Palestinians, members of the LGBTQ+ community and large segments of Jews who are non-Orthodox.”
Jeremy Ben-Ami, the head of the left-wing J Street lobby, which involves itself in Israeli matters, called the election results “deeply troubling for all who care about Israel and about liberal democracy globally.” Ben-Ami wrote that “the likely formation of an ultra-right Netanyahu government should force a moment of serious reckoning for all Americans who care about the nature of the U.S.-Israel relationship and a just, equal, and democratic future for both Israelis and Palestinians.”
The hard-left Americans for Peace Now issued the most aggressive response to the election results, stating it “will not meet with Ben-Gvir. We will not meet with Smotrich. We will not meet with representatives of a government in which they serve. We are saying it loud and clear because now is not the time to pretend that everything is ok and this government will be fine.”
Notably, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations did not issue remarks on Wednesday. The umbrella organization of American Jewry was also critical of Ben-Gvir in 2019. As exit polls were released on Tuesday night, William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents, told JNS that “I’ll go to Prime Minister Netanyahu and we will work with him. The American government will work with him. But I think it’s early in the process and we’ll see how this plays out.”
David Israel added:
Americans for Peace Now’s Yosse Alpher sent out an email to APN subscribers that read:
Q. Can we assume that Netanyahu will now assemble Israel’s must extreme right-wing government?
A. Yes, because Netanyahu finally is able, with his extremist political allies, to manipulate the legal system in order to escape his corruption trial. That is his highest priority and his first order of business. How far he will then bend to accommodate the coalition’s extremists is an open question. Netanyahu is usually a smart and cautious politician, but he is maneuvering the Likud into partnership with a very dark and reactionary set of partners.
Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich of Religious Zionism have Jewish-extremist and anti-democratic agendas (they also do not get along, and may split back into two parties that negotiate their ministerial portfolios separately with Netanyahu). They are anti-LGBT and want to constrain the rule of law and subordinate the High Court of Justice to an extreme right-wing Knesset majority. They have extremist allies in the Likud and among the Haredim. They want senior security portfolios even though both have a problematic history with the Shin Bet General Security Service and the Israel Police.
Wait until they actually take office…