Friday September 16, 2023 – כ׳ אֱלוּל תשפ״ב
לְמַ֤עַן צִיּוֹן֙ לֹ֣א אֶחֱשֶׁ֔ה וּלְמַ֥עַן יְרוּשָׁלַ֖͏ִם לֹ֣א אֶשְׁק֑וֹט
עַד־יֵצֵ֤א כַנֹּ֙גַהּ֙ צִדְקָ֔הּ וִישׁוּעָתָ֖הּ כְּלַפִּ֥יד יִבְעָֽר׃
(ישעיהו סב א)
“For the sake of Zion I will not be silent,
For the sake of Jerusalem I will not be still,
Till her victory emerge resplendent
And her triumph like a flaming torch.” (Isaiah 62:1)
As the Jewish world gets set to welcome in the New Year, begin our Torah reading cycle once again, and seal our fates in the Book of Life for yet another year, the Israeli political system just closed the proverbial political gates on the party lists for the upcoming November 1 Knesset elections.
As the deadline approached, we saw the usual political jockeying, deal-making, and deal-closing, and politicians sliding around like backgammon pieces hoping to cling to a group of six and not be left alone to be swallowed up in the has-been abyss.
The two left-wing parties, Meretz and Labor, chose not to run together, with hopes that they each pass the electoral threshold. The two Ashkenazi Haredi parties somehow found a way to mend their bitter rift and run together under the banner of United Torah Judaism, as the threat of revoking their allowance seemed worse than the threat of having to include the core curriculum in their schools and yeshivot.
It has been fascinating to watch the lynch-pin party “Yamina,” which secured the top spot in the last round forming the ‘government of change,’ but now has been scattered to the wind like garlic peels. The biggest gambler, it turns out, came up empty as Minister of the Interior Ayelet Shaked tried to form “Ruach Tzionit” (The Zionist Spirit) with another relatively moderate right-wing politician Yoaz Hendel, but which crash-landed during takeoff. She did manage, however, to submit a list under her former party “HaBayit HeYehudi” (Jewish Home) at the last minute.
The big news of the last few weeks was that Defense Minister Benny Gantz of the Blue and White Party joined with Gideon Saar of the New Hope party to form “HaMachane HaMamlachti”. Commentators and analysts joked that their party’s name is a translator’s worst fear, as the word “Mamlachti – ממלכתי” has no perfect English equivalent and is a combination of “statesmanship,” “stateliness,” “official,” or simply “National Unity.”*** They had the good fortune to have signed the big free agent, former Chief of Staff Lt. General (Ret.) Gadi Eisenkot, who himself brings an air of “Mamlachtiyut” and adds a rung of hope to Gantz’s aspirations to become Prime Minister, as the frustration mounts watching his former #2 who currently hangs his proverbial hat in the Prime Minister’s residence (i.e. PM Yair Lapid). Gantz and Saar also recruited Bennett’s confidant, Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahane, who may live to breathe yet another round.
As the polls currently stand, neither Lapid’s torch nor Netanyahu’s camp can come up with the 61 needed to form a government – close but no cigar. The great unknown lies this time with the projected 5-6 seats of the Joint List of Arab parties led by Ayman Odeh of Hadash – who experienced its own drama and tumult in the moments before the deadline – with former coalition partner Mansour Abbas of the Islamist Ra’am party choosing to run on its own.
In the Likud, former PM Netanyahu managed to lasso in a few newcomers to Likud’s ranks including two defectors from a more recent former PM Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party, Amichai Shikli and Idit Sillman. He even left a spot open for the well-known young conservative political commentator journalist Amit Segal, who politely declined the offer preferring to stay in his more secure position on the eight o’clock news.
In his shameless quest for the magic number of 61 seats, with which Netanyahu can pull together a motley crew of a coalition, he doubled down on his patented method of ‘when in doubt, cross all lines of decency and integrity.’ Rather than working with a moderately conservative centrist bloc to bring together a consensus coalition (or God forbid, step down and allow all those who refuse to sit with a Prime Minister under indictment), Netanyahu fanned the flames of fascism, extremism, and populist politics.
Bibi, yet again, brokered the deal to bring the forces of darkness together under the leadership of the racist and extremist pair of Itamar Ben Gvir and Betzalel Smotrich – now reunited with the staunch homophobic and anti-Reform Judaism Noam Party and its leader Avi Maoz. Netanyahu had to phone Rabbi Tzvi Tau, spiritual leader of Noam, who accepted the offer. To describe this party, one might recall Hilary Clinton’s assessment ‘basket of deplorables.’ However, this group could win up to 12 Knesset seats thereby propping them up to potentially be the third or fourth-largest party in the Knesset.
To jog your memory, it was Itamar Ben-Gvir who threatened to deport “disloyal” Israelis, including two current Arab lawmakers. Up until just a few years ago, he had a photo hanging in his home of Baruch Goldstein, the Israeli doctor who massacred 29 Palestinians at prayer at Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994.
Ben-Gvir’s recent surge in the polls is attributed to his growing appeal among young Jewish Israelis – particularly ultra-Orthodox men and traditional Mizrahi voters from the country’s geographic periphery. What became abundantly clear last week was that Ben-Gvir’s appeal is spreading to less likely quarters – a growing base among the secular left in Israel.
However, Israel Democracy Institute researcher Or Anabi sees Ben-Gvir’s recent surge in the polls as a reflection of the growing racism in Israel’s Jewish society as a whole.
“In the past, Jewish Israelis defined themselves as right or left based on how they viewed the conflict with the Palestinians and its solution. But nobody is talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the status of the territories anymore. Increasingly, Jewish Israelis are defining themselves as right or left based on their attitude to the Arab minority living within Israel.”
Bayit Yehudi leader Yossi Brodny (#2 on the list led by Ayelet Shaked) commented:
“Ben-Gvir and Smotrich’s bringing on a party that degrades women and calls LGBT people sex perverts is a terrible desecration of God’s Name. Normal religious Zionists do not hate people and do not hate the other. I am embarrassed.”
Adding her own take on the matter, Meretz faction CEO MK Michal Rozin tweeted:
“Netanyahu joined the darkest forces in Israeli society to collect votes that will save him from his trial. Rabbi Tau claims that women should stay at home and is against women serving in the army and that LGBT people need to undergo conversion therapy. This is a wake-up call to all those who believe in democracy. We cannot give Rabbi Tau the keys to the country and to manage our lives here.”
For those of us who reside Stateside, we have witnessed the dire policy implications of extremists holding democratically elected positions of power (think abortion rights, gun violence, and prayer in school) – even when Democrats control two of the three branches of government – imagine what can happen if those extremists take over.
The fact that Ben-Gvir has been carefully and strategically tempering his message is less a relief than a cause for grave concern. Will the poison of Ben Gvir, Smotrich, and Maoz be enough of a wake-up call for the mainstream moderate progressive population to act and be certain to vote in the upcoming Israeli election?
That, in fact, may be our greatest and only hope for a stable, Jewish, and democratic Israel. Everything is now in the hands of the voters. If the mainstream moderate progressive population can be awakened and motivated to express themselves in the ballot box then we can, once again, have hope for an exciting, dynamic, and inspiring future for the State of Israel and the Jewish people.
***Israelis aren’t necessarily clear on this either, as this Hebrew language podcast explains in light of the political party using the term ממלכתיות.