Elections are not the end for Israel's struggle with extremism - opinion

Israelis should care more about giving a platform to radicalism because it is dangerous and leads to systemic persecution but we are unlikely to see that in this particular government – at least yet.

 THOUSANDS TAKE part in last year’s Pride Parade in Jerusalem.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
THOUSANDS TAKE part in last year’s Pride Parade in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

As someone in the political center who is very disappointed by the election results, I think it’s more important than ever to emphasize within Israel and to the Diaspora that this election is not the end of Israel as we know it. As distasteful as the extremism of Itamar Ben-Gvir is, he isn’t going to be able to do nearly as much damage as the rhetoric before the elections would have you believe.

Supporters of Israel must understand the difference between political rhetoric ahead of elections and the actual ability of extremists to carry out their agenda. While the looming coalition government in Israel might not be a danger to the state practically, there are still serious issues and potential repercussions of the most right-wing coalition ever. The public should understand and act responsibly now and in future elections.

The first problem with the coalition government that will likely be formed is the obvious intolerance of some of its new members. Fourteen seats went to the Religious Zionism party, which is led by Bezalel Smotrich, known for his extremist and anti-LGBTQ ideology. Also in the party (and thus now in the Knesset) are Ben-Gvir and Avi Maoz, both known for their radical views against Arabs and the LGBTQ community. Ben-Gvir has held anti-gay protests alongside racist hate group Lehava every year, and Smotrich has organized what he called the Beast March in which religious opponents of the LGBTQ community march with donkeys, mocking the Gay Pride parade.

Already, Maoz has pledged to attempt to outlaw the Gay Pride parade (also supported by fellow party member and MK Orit Strock) in Jerusalem and stated he will seek to reverse Israel’s ban on conversion therapy. In response, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu has already stated that no such harm will happen to the LGBTQ community. Nonetheless, the attempts to erode the basic rights of the LGBTQ community are alarming at best.

Ben-Gvir also has a colorful history of radicalism, having been rejected from the IDF for mandatory service due to his extremist ideology, and convicted for incitement against Arabs and support for the US-designated terrorist organization of Jewish extremists, Kach, in 2007. He also served as a lawyer defending Jewish extremists and has worked with Lehava, which harasses Israeli Arabs and Jews for interracial relationships and whose activists have been known to chant “Death to Arabs.”

 ITAMAR BEN-GVIR speaks to supporters in Jerusalem after last week’s preliminary election results were announced. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) ITAMAR BEN-GVIR speaks to supporters in Jerusalem after last week’s preliminary election results were announced. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Until recently, Ben-Gvir had a photo of Jewish terrorist Baruch Goldstein hanging in his living room. Only in recent years has Ben-Gvir publicly toned down his rhetoric to appeal to more mainstream voters. Sadly, that plan worked thus far.

Right-wing Israelis who voted for Religious Zionism out of a desire to restore or improve the security situation (particularly in the West Bank) would do well to note that among the first public promises of legislation from members of the Religious Zionism party were Maoz’ comments regarding the LGBTQ community. Does that sound like a party focused on Israel’s security above all? Or an extremist party focused on transforming Israel into a pseudo-theocracy?

Ben-Gvir, Smotrich far from the only concern for Israel

Unfortunately, the Religious Zionist party is far from the only concern in the likely coalition, which will most likely consist of Likud, Religious Zionism, and the ultra-orthodox parties of Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ). These two parties, Shas and UTJ, explicitly ban women from their party lists. With Likud’s lack of strong female representation, the result will be a coalition with only eight female members – one of the lowest ever for female representation at only 10% of the coalition. For contrast, the previous government had 24 female lawmakers and seven female ministers.

ULTRA-ORTHODOX parties banning women from running for office is not new but the fact it has gone unaddressed for so long is unacceptable for a modern state like Israel, especially when Israel is often held out as an example of the advancement of women in the region. It is also contradictory to the fundamental values of the state of Israel that all citizens are equal under the law. It’s outrageous that the government permits such gender-based discrimination to continue.

It’s also important to note there is no shortage of academic studies analyzing the agenda and results of governments where women are underrepresented. The results were clear consistently: when women are not represented, issues impacting and supporting women are not put on the agenda.

Disturbingly, the election results indicate that a significant faction of the Israeli public isn’t concerned with discrimination against women, or against LGBTQ or Arabs. However, it is also noteworthy that the votes for the Netanyahu bloc (the parties expected to be in the coalition) actually received less total votes than the parties against the Netanyahu bloc, meaning the vast majority of Israeli voters do not in fact support extremists.

Statistically, the majority of the country voted center or center-right. Likud received 32 seats, Yesh Atid received 24 seats, and the National Unity party received 12 seats, totaling 68 seats – a clear majority even without including the left-wing or Arab parties. With Yisrael Beiteinu’s party, that would make the majority 74 seats.

So how did the extremists come to power?

The problem exists because Yesh Atid and the National Unity party refuse to sit together with Likud in a government with Netanyahu leading. Therefore, while it’s shocking and upsetting that extremists may be in positions of power in Israel during this coalition, it’s also inaccurate to categorize this as a significant “shift to the far-right” as many have been quick to do in the international press.

Israelis should care more about giving a platform to radicalism because it is dangerous and leads to systemic persecution but we are unlikely to see that in this particular government – at least yet. Netanyahu has his work cut out for him to keep the extremists in check and he must work diligently to limit the expansion of radicalism. Israel does not have a good track record in this area. Extremism begins with rhetoric, and while we aren’t yet in crisis, Israel and its supporters must be on alert as radicalism rises. This setback – and make no mistake it is a setback – is something Israel will overcome, just as the nation overcame Kahane before.

The writer is the CEO of Social Lite Creative LLC.