A Survation poll last week, commissioned by The Jewish News in the UK, indicated that 52% of British Jews felt their view of Israel was impacted by the presence of the far-Right in Netanyahu’s government. Some 42% felt that it was not.
It also showed that older people were more reticent to criticise an Israeli government than younger people — of whom some 85% were ready to criticise publicly. The young were also more eager to tell Jewish organisations not to offer a platform to the likes of far-Right Israeli politicians Bezalel Smotrich, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Avi Maoz.
The questions in this survey targeted the imagery of Israel in the Diaspora psyche at its very roots. As if to add insult to injury, the poll also noted that 70% of the respondents believed that Israel was completely indifferent to the opinions of Diaspora Jews.
With the Kahanists at the heart of government, the dam of silent acquiescence for many Diaspora Jews is cracking. The Kahanists are severing the bond between public relations for Israel and public reality in Diaspora thinking.
Rabbi Meir Kahane emigrated to Israel from the US in the early 1970s. His presence coincided with the decline of the Left and the rise of the Right which came to power in 1977. The Right, however, then had to govern and to make pragmatic decisions. Many could not adapt after decades in the political wilderness. This led to splits and schisms — and this sowed the seeds of Kahanism without Kahane in Israel.
The far-Right emerged from the disputes within the Likud over Menachem Begin’s willingness to sign the Camp David Accord with Egypt’s Anwar Sadat in 1979. This agreement has brought over 40 years of peace between the two countries, but it also bore witness to the advance of a multitude of far-Right parties, entering the governments of first, Yitzhak Shamir in the early 1990s and then those of Benjamin Netanyahu.
Unlike his predecessor, Yitzhak Shamir, Netanyahu welcomed the far-Right into government. He smiled benevolently on the chaos caused but was determined that not a single Right-wing vote should be lost — even the crazies and the eccentrics should cross the 3.25% threshold to gain representation in the Knesset. The end result has been a series of Netanyahu coalitions — but accompanied by increasing rancour and division, the disappearance of a broad consensus in Israel and a rising anger from the young in the Diaspora.
Amidst this furore, most Diaspora Jewish organisations decided that the best way forward was to remain silent. No doubt many detested the Kahanists privately and resented Netanyahu’s games but believed that they could work quietly against this Israeli government behind the scenes.
Some are doubtlessly waiting for an appropriate time, a crisis moment, to speak out. The template is the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 when there was an initial enthusiasm and a jingoistic support for Operation Peace in Galilee. When the debacle of Begin and Sharon’s ill-fated initiative became all too apparent amidst huge demonstrations in Israel, the miniscule minority of British Jews who opposed the invasion at the outset were no longer laughed at.
The killing of Palestinian men, women and children in the camps at Sabra and Shatila by Christian Phalangists — as Israeli soldiers stood guard outside — proved a moral turning point. Representative organisations in the UK leapt on President Navon’s suggestion that a Commission of Inquiry should be set up in a desperate effort in playing catch-up.
There are startling parallels with 1982 today. Some fear reputational damage on speaking out; for others it is the prospect of leverage from funders.
Yet criticism today seems to have been farmed out to individuals whose independence allowed them to protest. The UK philanthropist, Sir Mick Davis, now living in Israel, who has written scathingly about the current situation, is a case in point.
Netanyahu’s assault on the system of judicial checks and balances in Israel has similarly allowed many Jewish lawyers to voice their concerns, including well-known figures such as Alan Dershowitz in the United States and Anthony Julius in the UK.
Jewish organisations seem to be turning in on themselves as if the situation is too painful to confront. It has proved easier to focus on antisemitism and Iranian terrorism. To this is added, a genuine fear of an abrupt disruption of worthy Diaspora projects in Israel on the instructions of Smotrich, Ben-Gvir and Maoz.
No doubt the question of “speaking out will aid our enemies” was raised, but does not the presence of this trio in government do even greater damage to Jewish national interests worldwide and to the cause of Zion?
The BBC has prominently featured these vast demonstrations in Israel every Saturday night — often as the opening item. Is not this display of open protest an asset in demonstrating a vibrant Israeli democracy in stark contrast to the authoritarian Islamists of Hamas and the many corrupt surrounding states?
Jewish community bodies seem to be acting out of habit rather than perceiving that a new situation has arisen in Israel-Diaspora relations.
In a series of scientific surveys in the UK, British Jews have repeatedly opposed the settlement drive — 75% consistently did not agree with the policies of successive Netanyahu governments on the question of settlements.
Representative organisations, however, remained embarrassingly unrepresentative on this issue and a studied silence has prevailed. The present situation, however, goes far beyond the politics of Left and Right and of religious and secular. Many ask their leaders why they continue to remain silent: “If not now, then when?”
In the UK and Australia, a “Choose Democracy” movement has been established. Its campaign statement says: “We either remain silent or stand in solidarity with those across Israel fighting for democracy. We choose to stand on the side of Israelis protesting against an extremist government.”
The signatories on petitions and open letters, however, rarely include the names of figures representing central Orthodoxy. One reason was that that the Orthodox did not wish to be associated with the Reform and the secular — but then why not start a separate initiative in the name of the founders of religious Zionism, Kalischer and Alkalai, Reines and Mogilever, Maimon and Bar-Ilan?
The late UK Chief Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits did not flinch from taking an openly moral stand. It did not make him friends in some quarters but he was deeply respected for having the courage of his convictions and of doing the right thing. Why then allow the disciples of Meir Kahane to speak for religious Zionists today?
As the Survation poll implies, the young have been deserted by their elders. They have no moral lodestone to turn their heads towards.
The founding of a Hebrew Republic in 1948 changed Jewish history. There is only “before” and “after”. Today few remember this and see only Smotrich, Ben-Gvir and Maoz. If the Kahanists are allowed to define Jewishness and to forge the future, then we will be relegated to speaking about “lost generations” who feel distant from Israel — and this will be due to the myopia and timidity of leadership.
There are consequences in remaining silent. Everyone has choices.
Plus61j 21 February 2023