Why did Israel elect people with hateful views? - opinion

Today, there are those in Israel who seek significant ministerial positions yet appear totally insensitive as to what it means to be a minority within a population.

 Religious Zionist Party leader MK Bezalel Smotrich (photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)
Religious Zionist Party leader MK Bezalel Smotrich
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

Perhaps this is one of the most challenging articles I have ever written. I love Israel; I will always love Israel and consider myself privileged to be able to live in the one Jewish state and would not wish to live in any other country. But, like others, I am concerned about whom incoming prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu might choose for strategically important ministerial positions.

On November 1 we Israelis – for the fifth time in less than four years – went to the polls to elect a government; the result of this election poses varied questions. As Jews, we should learn from our past, but history has shown this is not always the case. 

What should we have learned? 

As a people in exile for 2,000 years, we have had to be beholden to the countries where we lived, which affected our expression of our Judaism and our level of comfort with our Jewish identity. Some were more fortunate than others. With the current frightening rise of antisemitism worldwide, we can only hope that governments abroad will protect the Jewish minorities residing in their respective countries.

Today, there are those in Israel who seek significant ministerial positions yet appear totally insensitive regarding what it means to be a minority within a country’s population. Born and raised in this land, it could be argued, makes it difficult to conceive the feelings of a minority. But there is no excuse for racist language against Israeli Arabs, who comprise more than 21% of Israel’s population and contribute nationally on numerous levels. 

 Head of the Otzma Yehudit Party MK Itamar Ben-Gvir speaks to supporters as the results of the Israeli elections are announced, at the party's campaign headquarters in Jerusalem, November 1, 2022.  (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90) Head of the Otzma Yehudit Party MK Itamar Ben-Gvir speaks to supporters as the results of the Israeli elections are announced, at the party's campaign headquarters in Jerusalem, November 1, 2022. (credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

Our health service embraces 20% of doctors who are Israeli Arabs, 25% of nurses who are Israeli Arabs, and 50% of Israeli pharmacists who come from the Israeli Arab sector. 

Are we not disturbed that Bezalel Smotrich – a possible future government minister – has called for Jewish and Arab Israeli women to be in separate maternity wards? We can only imagine how Jewish women in the Diaspora would feel if they were placed in a separate ward from other mothers. For Jews, in particular, segregation has frightening connotations. 

Many readers – myself included – spent a significant part of our lives in a country where we were the minority. How would we have felt experiencing the kind of racist comments that have come from the mouths of potential future ministers here? 

Itamar Ben-Gvir, also known for his hate speech against Arabs, wants to be public security minister. He considers himself a responsible adult for moderating his call from “Death to Arabs” to “Death to Terrorists.” 

He spoke recently at a gathering honoring the late Meir Kahane, whose Kach Party was banned in 1994 following Kach member Baruch Goldstein’s murder of 29 Palestinians who were praying in Hebron; until recently, Ben-Gvir had a photo of Goldstein displayed in his home.Ben-Gvir is an advocate of neutralizing the Supreme Court which, since Israel’s rebirth, has acted as a means of “checks and balances” for a country that has no constitution or second representative house.

How will the words of Ben-Gvir be viewed on campuses worldwide? To reward someone who verbalizes racism with a major ministerial post can only serve to legitimize attacks on Jewish students, thereby increasing the numerous challenges they face.

What of Diaspora Jewry? How will it view a country in which Ben-Gvir wants to disenfranchise the majority of Jews living in the US? William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, expressed grave concern over the aim of members of the incoming government not to recognize Reform conversions abroad in relation to the Law of Return. 

In addition, there is talk of removing the “grandchild clause” within the Law of Return

It does not stop with the Jews of the US. President Joe Biden’s administration has told Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu to appoint politicians that the US can work with, especially to the roles of defense minister and public security minister. Smotrich, who spent a short period in the IDF, is demanding to be appointed defense minister. 

Although initially Smotrich headed the third largest block of 14 seats, following the election, the two main components, Smotrich’s Religious Zionist Party and Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit decided to split; Ben-Gvir, however, has vowed not to enter a government without Smotrich bringing back the bargaining scenario to square one.

Is there any positive in Israel?

AS I WRITE this article, I remind myself that, in spite of all this, there is much that is positive here in Israel. 

Over the years, I have been privileged to work with volunteer-based organizations such as WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization) and ESRA. Both are about giving and helping those whose daily lives are improved because of the many who give of themselves to help others. 

I have written many times about the Israeli hospitals that have taken in children from Gaza and the West Bank – in the midst of intifadas and wars. They have helped Palestinian children be restored to health, whether through bone marrow transplants or heart operations, while simultaneously providing support and hospitality for their parents. Our research and development have produced revolutionary aid for many suffering physical and medical challenges. 

During the current war in Ukraine, Israel was the only country to set up a field hospital. How many times have we been the first to offer and give medical aid in places suffering from nature’s devastations?

In 1981, as the newly elected chairperson of British WIZO, the first public meeting I chaired was addressed by then-Israeli ambassador to the UK, Shlomo Argov. He was an advocate for peace; an outstanding speaker and representative of Israel. Tragically he was seriously wounded upon leaving an event in London, the result of a horrendous terrorist attack. 

He remained in the hospital incapacitated for a number of years until his death. 

Two years following the attack, a book was published of his speeches and writings. 

I can do no better than to conclude this article with his words in his speech “The Many Israels,” delivered in 1981 to the Joint Israel Appeal-Rabbinical and Communal Leaders, on the eve of Yom Kippur.

“Fear not; Israel is a vital, viable, vibrant and beautiful country. It has blemishes, but then who hasn’t? Let us join hands in order to put right what still needs to be put right, so that we can be ever more proud of our State of Israel. So that no one will ever say to you that the Israel you loved is no longer there. The Israel that you loved is there and will always be deserving of all your love.” 

“Fear not; Israel is a vital, viable, vibrant and beautiful country. It has blemishes, but then who hasn’t? Let us join hands in order to put right what still needs to be put right, so that we can be ever more proud of our State of Israel. So that no one will ever say to you that the Israel you loved is no longer there. The Israel that you loved is there and will always be deserving of all your love.”

Shlomo Argov

The writer is chair of the Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association (IBCA). The views expressed are hers alone.