Will a right-wing government in Israel further alienate US Jewry?

US-ISRAELI AFFAIRS: Leaders of US Jewish organizations have different opinions about the future of relations with the Jewish state.

 Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu takes the stage to speak at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, in 2018. (photo credit: REUTERS/BRIAN SNYDER)
Then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu takes the stage to speak at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, in 2018.
(photo credit: REUTERS/BRIAN SNYDER)

Forty-five days after the elections in Israel, prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu is finalizing the agreements with his future coalition partners: Shas, UTJ, the Religious Zionist Party, Otzma Yehudit and Noam.

US Jewish organizations are closely following the formation of the right-wing government, wondering how the future coalition will act on issues that world Jewry cares deeply about, from the Law of Return and the grandfather clause, to Kotel arrangements, to other civil issues, as some of the future coalition partners have reportedly raised demands to halt electricity generation across Israel on Shabbat and expand the number of separate beaches, while Netanyahu has promised, in media interviews and in Knesset speeches, that there will not be a halachic state, and the incoming government will lead “in the way of the national Right and liberal Right.”

Many are waiting for the formation of the government

So far, most organizations have released polite statements on Israel’s high voting turnout and congratulated the presumptive prime minister, but many of them are waiting for the formation of the government before making any statements on policy matters.

“Until there’s a government in place, until we know which individuals will be in which ministries, until that government starts to introduce and debate and implement policies, I believe it’s premature to have a public discussion in the news media about issues that may or may not be relevant,” said William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “We are certainly expressing ourselves in private to key government officials and to the incoming government. But at this point, much of the discussion is based on speculation, and I’m very content to work with this new government as we worked with previous governments and to engage with them in productive dialogue for the furtherance of the US-Israel relations and the relations between Israel and American Jewry.

 United Torah Judaism MKs Yitzchak Goldknopf and Moshe Gafni sign a coalition agreement with Likud, December 6, 2022. (credit: UNITED TORAH JUDAISM) United Torah Judaism MKs Yitzchak Goldknopf and Moshe Gafni sign a coalition agreement with Likud, December 6, 2022. (credit: UNITED TORAH JUDAISM)

“American Jewish organizations look forward to working with the incoming Israeli government, as we have worked with previous governments in a productive and constructive way,” said Daroff. “Prime minister[-designate] Netanyahu knows the American Jewish community well, and the American Jewish community knows him well,” he said. “And our very productive relationship is something that I am certain will be called upon over the days and months ahead, as the government has yet to form. We don’t know precisely who will be in which of the key positions that are important for American Jewry. But we look forward to working with those individuals as they come into office.”

He went on to say that there are always issues that are important for American Jewry.

“For 75 years, there has been an ongoing conversation between the Israeli government and American Jewry, and that relationship and conversation continues today,” he said. “I anticipate that there will be many issues that we see eye to eye on. And there will be some issues where there’s a discussion necessary, and I look forward to that conversation.

ERIC FINGERHUT, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), said that Jewish Federations’ commitment to strengthening the ties between Israel and North American Jewry “is an eternal one, and the bonds that unite our two communities are unbreakable.

“Our love and commitment to Israel transcends any one government, any one point in time, and any particular policy or statement,” he said. “We will always make clear how proposed policies will affect the Jewish community of North America, and we will continue to advocate for policies that make Israel welcoming, inclusive and pluralistic.”

The incoming government will lead “in the way of the national Right and liberal Right.”

Benjamin Netanyahu

Fingerhut also penned a statement together with Julie Platt, chairwoman of the board of trustees at JFNA, last month. “We can be encouraged, by the news reporting and by private conversations, that both President [Isaac] Herzog and prime minister-designate Netanyahu are taking the appropriate steps within their respective authorities to build a government that reflects the will of the voters and considers the impact of these decisions on the Jewish world as a whole,” the text reads.

The American Jewish Committee, on the other hand, has not commented on the makeup of the new government, “and we will not until we know who is actually going to be a part of it,” said an AJC official.

The group released a congratulatory message for Netanyahu shortly after the elections. “AJC looks forward to again working closely with Mr. Netanyahu to strengthen Israel’s security and place in the world, enhance the deep bonds between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, and amplify the shared values that unite Israel, the United States and our democratic allies,” AJC CEO Ted Deutch said then.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) also noted that “throughout various governments and political alignments, both in the US and Israel, there remains an enduring continuity in the alliance between the two democracies because of shared values and interests.”

Marshall Wittmann, the group’s spokesman, said that in the new Congress, “we will continue our work to further strengthen the bipartisan bonds of cooperation between the United States and Israel in many areas, including security, health, technology and economic development.

 THEN-PRIME minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the AIPAC Conference in Washington in 2018. (credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO) THEN-PRIME minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the AIPAC Conference in Washington in 2018. (credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)

“Importantly, Israel continues to face security challenges from the Iranian regime and its terrorist proxies,” he said. “In the months ahead, we will be working with the administration and Congress to ensure that Israel has the necessary resources to defend itself against an Iranian threat that has only grown more ominous, as it deepens its military alliance with Russia and accelerates its efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon.”

Similarly, B’nai B’rith International CEO Daniel Mariaschin said that the organization had worked for the past nearly 75 years with a host of Israeli governments, “focusing on issues where we feel we can make the most impact.”

“The continuing threats posed to Israel by Iran, anti-Israel bias at the United Nations, most recently including the one-sided ‘commission of Inquiry,’ and the rise of terrorist attacks across Israel are matters that cross political lines. As advocates for a strong and viable Israel, we’ll continue to work with our interlocutors on advancing that agenda,” he said.

“Given the chaos and uncertainty that wracks the region, we will work to support all efforts to widen the circle of those countries that see Israel for the vibrant, innovative democracy that it is,” said Mariaschin.

The most combative approach

THE MOST combative approach so far has been taken by the progressive group J Street.

"It is clear that ... anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian, Jewish supremacists present a direct threat to Israel’s democratic future."

Statement on J Streets website

The organization’s website urges supporters “to publicly condemn Itamar Ben-Gvir, [Otzma Yehudit] and their political partners on the extreme Right.”

“It is clear that Itamar Ben-Gvir, [Otzma Yehudit] and other anti-Arab, anti-Palestinian, Jewish supremacists present a direct threat to Israel’s democratic future, to the safety of Palestinians, Arab-Israelis and indeed all those who live in Israel and the occupied territories,” J Street’s website states, arguing that “being pro-Israel has never, and will never, necessitate supporting or excusing extremist visions of supremacy, domination and violence.”

SCOTT LASENSKY, a visiting professor of Israel and Jewish studies at the University of Maryland and a former State Department official on Israel, said that the community as a whole “is going through a process similar to what we’re seeing with the US government, on the bilateral level, for example watching carefully, planning for various contingencies, and mostly holding back until a new government is seated and begins to manage policymaking.

“The trigger will be policy, not pronouncements,” he noted. “That said, there are signs of signaling and back-channel contacts, to try to prevent cleavages over high-profile questions, like amending the Law of Return.

“At the end of the day, North American Jewry will be hard-pressed to put forward consensus views given vast differences between major community groups, even on issues of narrow concern to Jewry, like the Kotel, to say nothing of the norm of deference and the preference of most groups to avoid public rows with the Israeli officialdom,” Lasensky said.

 PARTICIPANTS CELEBRATE at an annual Birthright event, at the Jerusalem International Convention Center in 2014. (credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Jerusalem Post) PARTICIPANTS CELEBRATE at an annual Birthright event, at the Jerusalem International Convention Center in 2014. (credit: Marc Israel Sellem/Jerusalem Post)

“The organizations best prepared to navigate rough waters are those that do both policy advocacy and are deeply enmeshed in exchange, educational and people-to-people programs,” he continued. “These organizations – federations, for example – rely heavily on their ties with Israeli civil society [and] so in some respects are insulated from the roller coaster of Knesset and coalition politics.

“As nonvoting shareholders, all of the community groups with skin in the game are likely to be relying more heavily on proxies and allies who are more deeply rooted locally, in Israel – for example, civil society partners and quasi-state allies like the Jewish Agency, plus stalwart allies of Diaspora communities who can be identified both within the emerging coalition and among the opposition,” he added. “The posture of the new government vis-à-vis US politics will also be a decisive factor shaping the responses.”

Major challenges on the horizon

According to Prof. Dov Waxman, director of the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, the new Israeli government “is likely to pose a major challenge to American Jewry’s relationship with Israel.

“For many years now, liberal American Jews have become more disillusioned with Israel and more critical of its governments’ policies and actions,” he said. “For the most part, however, they have remained emotionally attached to Israel. But many liberal, non-Orthodox American Jews could well become completely alienated from Israel, if the incoming Israeli government enacts new laws and policies that will be deeply offensive and troubling to them, such as revising the Law of Return (by scrapping the ‘grandchild’ clause); banning non-Orthodox prayer at the Western Wall; neutering the Supreme Court; undermining judicial independence; and effectively annexing most of the West Bank.

“While major Jewish establishment organizations would surely like to continue with ‘business as usual’ and prefer not to publicly criticize the Israeli government, it will be difficult for them to stay silent if the government pursues its right-wing and religious agenda,” Waxman said. “I don’t expect a fundamental rupture in the relationship between American Jewry and Israel, but it will face a major stress test.”

“I don’t expect a fundamental rupture in the relationship between American Jewry and Israel, but it will face a major stress test.”

Prof. Dov Waxman

Dr. Guy Ziv, an associate professor at American University’s School of International Service, explained that while most Israeli Jews self-identify as right-wing, a clear majority of American Jews see themselves as liberal and mostly vote for Democratic candidates.

“For example, most American Jews disdain [former US president Donald] Trump and voted for his Democratic opponent in both 2016 and 2020, while in Israel Trump has been quite popular,” said Ziv, who teaches courses on US-Israel relations.

“Most American Jews, particularly younger ones who have been inculcated with liberal values at home, in their synagogues, at their schools, and in Jewish summer camps, have a difficult time identifying with the growing nationalist-religious discourse in Israel,” Ziv said. “Now, the most radical-right figures in Israel – figures like Itamar Ben-Gvir and Avi Maoz, who were once fringe characters in Israeli society – not only have seats in parliament, thanks to Netanyahu’s political machinations, but they will be given important ministries in his new government,” he continued.

“The organized American Jewish community has been slow to react to the dramatic political developments in Israel, but unless groups like AIPAC, AJC and others are willing to lose the younger generation of American Jews, they’re going to have to deal with this harsh reality sooner rather than later,” Ziv said.