Friday November 4, 2022 – י’ בחשוון תשפ”ג
Late Tuesday night Itamar Ben Gvir took to the stage, flanked by a security detail, with a gloating smirk, as he began to speak. Almost in competition with the roaring chants of his devotees and acolytes, transforming the party’s headquarters into a soccer stadium feeling, he belted out the words “שהחיינו והקיימנו והגיענו לזמו הזה” (Shechechyanu, V’Kiyamanu, V’higiyanu LaZman Hazeh!) – which was met raucous applause and inspired continued cheering of “BEN GVIR FOR PRIME MINISTER” and “DEATH TO TERRORISTS! DEATH TO TERRORISTS!” Before the final and official results were in, we all knew the fait accompli that the Religious Zionist Party would receive 14 mandates in the Knesset propping them up to be the third largest party in Israeli politics and beefing up the Netanyahu bloc beyond the magic number of 61 seats.
The elections are over, and the Right Wing and Haredim have won big time. This is disappointing, frightening, and above all, a clear and present threat to Israel’s democracy – purely based on the campaign promises of the Religious Zionist party’s leaders Betzalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir. Soon-to-be-PM Netanyahu, who is directly responsible for Gvir’s and Smotrich’s meteoric populistic rise, is now beholden to them for his coalition.
As I entered my voting station in Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood, I walked past a life-size cardboard cutout of Betzalel Smotrich, flanked by streams of banners promoting Religious Zionism that were so large they could be visible from outer space. While the political analysts and strategists spent the week dissecting the game board of who will receive a ministerial portfolio, some saying that Netanyahu could still limit their power, it has been astonishing to see how far the scale has shifted.
It is important to understand that Smotrich and Ben-Gvir succeeded in altering the core issue of the election for many Israelis, moving it beyond the “yes Bibi” or “no Bibi.” How should we make sense of their rise to power? Israeli educator Alex Israel commented:
“It is here that Smotrich and Ben Gvir have addressed some Israelis’ darkest fear… the fear of losing our country. And they have essentially reoriented this election as one in which the very character of the Jewish State is in peril.”
So, now, after the country has elected the most right-wing government in its history, the question remains ‘Will the country remain Jewish, or will it lose its Jewish character?’
That all depends on what we mean by ‘Jewish character.’
Does ‘Jewish character’ mean that we will return to be Lords of our Land, concretize ultra-Orthodox rabbinic law – reversing progress made to recognize Israeli Reform and Conservative conversions, preventing public transportation on Shabbat, cutting budgets to all non-Orthodox movements, and curtailing basic freedom of religion and expression.
Does the ‘Jewish character’ mean that we loosely follow the prophetic verse “וְצַדִּ֖יק בֶּאֱמוּנָתוֹ יִֽחְיֶֽה” “A righteous person will live according to their own beliefs” Habakuk 2:4? Does the ‘Jewish character’ mean that we will establish a just society based on the liberal values of the Torah articulated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Will it mean that we will “love,” or at least “not oppress the stranger” as mentioned over and over and over in the Torah. Will it mean that we “love the stranger” as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18), take care of the Earth as mandated to us in the Torah (Genesis 2:15), and the Jewish State regard every human being as being created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27)?
Fulfilling the latter texts seem to be unrealistic now.
The result of Tuesday’s Israeli elections is not just about who is in, but also about who is out.
For the first time since 1948, the left-wing Meretz party failed to cross the electoral threshold by mere two-thousand votes short of making it in. Without going into the blame game, many on the Left may be kicking themselves for not uniting the two left-wing parties Labor and Meretz, as the assumption was that instead of gaining 7 seats together, they would each gain 5, therefore, giving the anti-Netanyahu camp led by current PM Yair Lapid a realistic shot at forming his own coalition. The shock to the system is still raw, and as I spoke with a few different Meretz voters, they were still reeling from the outcome.
Now What? An Opportunity.
While many Meretz voters and those on the center-left who abhor the politics of the Smotrich-Ben Gvir extremist ideological camp feel a great loss at this time, but every loss also brings with it an opportunity to forge a new left in Israel.
As Israeli activist and writer Ittay Fleischer suggests:
“In order to be relevant, this new left must embrace rather than shun the words of our Torah and tradition whose narratives inspire the majority of the Jewish Israeli population. It needs to speak to the periphery in the same way it does to the center and build campaigns around solidarity and shared interests rather than hatred of different populations.”
It could be led by ethnically, religiously, and geographically diverse leaders – both Jewish and Arab.
“It should speak the language of social solidarity between different minority groups in this country who are harmed by the status quo, and offer creative solutions to make their lives better,” envisions Fleischer.
Its top four issues for the next Knesset could or should be:
- Raising the minimum wage and bringing free childcare education for children aged 0-3.
- Introducing Arabic into the school system as a vehicle to promote greater understanding between Jews and Arabs
- Opening a dialogue with the Palestinians to lift the siege on Gaza in exchange for the disarmament of the militant groups there with the promise of massive investment in development and infrastructure.
- Promotion of religious learning, yeshivot, and humanistic ethics throughout society as a means of increasing meaning and purpose in the lives of all Israelis.
“The four objectives should each be explained as key pillars for ensuring the safety of all Israelis, removing the monopoly the right has for solutions to our security challenges.”
Make no mistake, this is a battle over core values.
Hadassah Froman lives in the Settlement of Tekoa. She has 10 children and 50 grandchildren and is the widow of the late Rabbi Menachem Froman who was known for his deep religiosity and his radical approach to peace-making. Yesterday, she welcomed our group of young Reform social-justice activists into her modest home and shared with us her Torah.
“We have forged a path through which it is possible to love the Land without hating Arabs, and strive for peace without abandoning who we are,” she explained. “The current Religious Right is neither truly religious nor right. Many of the leaders have been emptied out of what it means to be a religious Zionist. Zionism is not about proving ownership and dominion over the Land. It is about us belonging to the Land, and not the other way around. The lack of deep spirituality has led to jingoism, aggression, violence, and hatred, which is easily mistaken for vision by charismatic leaders.”
“Our vision and approach to life,” she said, “hasn’t yet coalesced into political expression, but don’t worry,” she said with hopefulness and confidence, “it will.”
When God told Avram to go to the “Land that I will show you,” there was no road map presented and no GPS presenting an ETA. As we like to say about ourselves, “עם הנצח לא מפחד מדרך ארוכה” the “eternal people is not afraid of a long path.”
Let us begin today to forge that path together.