To begin with what should be a frank acknowledgement of the obvious: a decisive portion of Israel’s electorate, like that of the United States and many other countries around the world, is susceptible to the bullhorn of illiberal nationalism. For the last couple years it’s been similarly apparent that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu views exploiting these illiberal attitudes as critical to his political survival, especially in difficult times.
The extent to which he is truly invested in such a program is debatable, but also an irrelevant distraction. Netanyahu, over a career spanning three decades, has watched the political right in Israel embrace increasingly boorish attacks on institutions such as the High Court and the press. He has seen those individuals rewarded in Likud primaries and understands his future depends on their continued support. The latest news out of Israel, that Netanyahu plans to support a bill that would block the High Court from overturning any law passed by the Knesset, underscores this dynamic.
Yes, like the anti-NGO law and the law to retroactively legalize settlements on private Palestinian land, analysts say this will never pass. In the short-term, that is right. It’s a brilliant exploit of brinksmanship that positions Likud to the right of other right-wing parties on an issue that animates certain voters. While a scaled-down version of this bill may still pass, it will most likely be blocked by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon. What’s undoubtedly significant, though, is that the prime minister sees majoritarian illiberalism as a banner under which he must stand.
What precipitated this crisis? Did the High Court once again ask the government to follow their own laws and remove an illegal settlement deep inside the West Bank? No. The Court last month saved Israel from international embarrassment by temporarily blocking plans to deport African asylum seekers to so-called “third countries” without any regard for their safety. In August of last year, the Court also ruled that Israel could not indefinitely detain refugees until they accepted deportation.
When American Jews, the majority of whom are liberal and vote for the Democratic Party, think of Israel as a source of pride, this is what they have in mind: a liberal democratic oasis in a region that doesn’t have many of them. Despite the occupation and the settlements, Israel has largely retained liberal democratic institutions inside the Green Line. While discrimination against minorities is hardly a thing of the past in Israel, this is also the case throughout the democratic world and certainly in less-than-democratic countries.
But as we’ve learned in Eastern Europe since the fall of the Iron Curtain, without a polity sufficiently committed to the survival of these institutions, they could eventually succumb to attacks by populists. Israel, perhaps, is in a more precarious situation than most: while a democratic regime exists inside its internationally recognized territory, it implements undemocratic rule in territory to which it is connected and where hundreds of thousands of its citizens reside. Illiberal governance is hardly a befuddling concept to Israelis. Apart from the effete gentry of Tel Aviv and their sympathizers, most Jewish Israelis don’t see it as a threat to their way of life and this is especially so when the domestic targets are unpopular human rights NGOs that receive foreign aid funding from Europe.
It remains the case, however, that an actual law to weaken the High Court’s authority is at least years away. Similarly, while annoying and discriminatory, the regulations placed on NGOs do not yet threaten to shutter or silence them. But the rhetoric and values associated with such outcomes have arrived––and Netanyahu has embraced them fully.
The much-maligned but indispensable American Jewish establishment, essentially the more significant of the legacy organizations that make up the Conference of Presidents, has often found itself at odds with the Israeli government, especially over issues related to the rights of non-Orthodox religious Jews in Israel. But whereas before such disputes could simply be chalked up to the mechanics of coalition politics in Israel, where ultra-Orthodox parties are often a lynchpin, the most recent clashes have stemmed from the prime minister’s barefaced mendacity.
First, he reneged on the celebrated deal to construct a dignified space for non-Orthodox Jews at the Kotel, infuriating American Jews who have not been assuaged by pitiful offers to “improve” the current arrangements; adding insult to injury, the prime minister has personally adopted the narrative of the ultra-Orthodox parties, eluding to a sly attempt from Reform and Conservative Jews to gain power at the holy site. Then, earlier this month, he abruptly cancelled an agreement with the United Nations to resettle African asylum seekers, caving to pressure from anti-refugee activists, mere hours after receiving praise from several American Jewish organizations.
They were shocked and likely humiliated by Netanyahu’s sudden reversal. They should not be fooled again. Last week former URJ President Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie excoriated the prime minister in an op-ed for Ha’aretz, writing, “You have ceased to be the leader that you once were – and yes, you once were a leader of stature, whether I agreed with you or not. But you are now on the road to becoming a delusional maniac.” While current leaders are hesitant to audibly voice such views, they are doubtlessly being aired behind closed doors.
What this means for the future of official American Jewry’s relationship with Israel is unclear. On the one hand, Netanyahu won’t be in office forever and may in fact be leaving sometime soon as a result of advancing corruption investigations. On the other hand, there may well be future Likud prime ministers beholden to the same illiberal politics. To make matters more complex, the American Jewish community hardly speaks with one voice. There is a growing segment of Orthodox Jews whose views diverge remarkably from the rest of the Jewish population and who may find no problem with illiberal politics in Israel.
What is apparent, though, is that Likud can no longer be portrayed honestly as a hawkish but liberal party. Netanyahu’s unseemly attack on the New Israel Fund as a foreign organization seeking the end of Israel as a Jewish state ought to show American Jews that they are not immune to the uncouth onslaught against Jewish liberalism perfected by the likes of Bezalel Smotrich, Moti Yogev, Oren Hazan, and Yariv Levin, which is now practiced by the prime minister himself.
For liberal American Jewish institutions, it is no longer possible to engage with Israel effectively without also intervening in Israeli politics and making clear that politicians who cross certain red lines will no longer be welcome at galas, conferences, and high-level meetings. The alternative is continued humiliation and partnerships that only imposes costs on one side.Slandering individual, or groups, of diaspora Jews should be one red line. Lies should be another. Perhaps naked appeals to racism and extremist doctrines should be included as well. This will result in the division, or rather the accentuation of a preexisting divide, of the American Jewish community along ideological and denominational lines. Those of us who’ve seen the polls will skip the shiva for the apocryphal era of Jewish unity on Israel and begin working with Israeli partners who don’t treat us with contempt.