American Jewry Largely Hands-off in Latest Israeli Election Cycle
While Congress members sound the alarm on the rise of Israeli far right, American Jewish leaders are speaking in softer tones
Israeli President Isaac Herzog made the rounds in a Washington hotel conference room on Tuesday, greeting a largely admiring crowd of dozens of American Jewish leaders. In an intense period of political divisions and with elections looming stateside and in Israel, Herzog’s brother, Israeli Ambassador to the US Michael Herzog, asked those in attendance to try to keep the politics du jour out of the discussion that morning.
First and foremost, the underlying rule should be, we honor and respect democracy
The Israeli president, though, was more realistic, telling the crowd that none of them could completely ignore the current reality.
“You have elections and midterms, we have elections in Israel next week. I think one thing should transcend both – the friendship and close bond between Israel and the United States is unbreakable and it is a value that we must all cherish and work for. May I also add we must respect each other’s democracies,” President Herzog said.
“There will be, of course, discussions about the outcome,” he said of elections. “First and foremost, the underlying rule should be, we honor and respect democracy.”
According to multiple American Jewish leaders in the room, attendees largely hewed to the president’s request, both out of respect and for the sake of their own organizations.
There were a lot of groups – mine among them – that have a diverse membership, and we don’t take positions at all on Israeli elections
“There were a lot of groups – mine among them – that have a diverse membership, and we don’t take positions at all on Israeli elections,” Herbert Block, executive director of the American Zionist Movement, told The Media Line. “The president mentioned what he calls his soft powers, including to designate one of the members of Knesset to form a government. He talked about taking that role seriously.”
Still, it is impossible to ignore the tensions developing over the possibility of an Israeli government that would include far-right elements.
A pair of pro-Israel Congressional Democrats have sounded alarm bells over the potential for far-right Member of Knesset Itamar Ben-Gvir (Religious Zionism party) to become a senior minister in the next government, should Binyamin Netanyahu return to the Prime Minister’s Office.
Netanyahu, leader of the Likud party and of the Knesset opposition, told the ultra-Orthodox radio station Kol Barama on Tuesday that he would not “bow his head” to pressure from the US.
“We are a democracy, and we will decide who will be in the next government. I know how to stand up for us,” said Netanyahu, who would need to rely on Ben-Gvir, whose party is projected to be the third-largest in the next Knesset. Ben-Gvir, a disciple of the controversial late Rabbi Meir Kahane, was once considered beyond the pale in Israeli politics due to overtly racist rhetoric toward Arabs and his veiled public threats to then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in the weeks preceding the premier’s assassination. Netanyahu himself previously described Ben-Gvir as “not fit” to hold a ministerial role.
US Representative Brad Sherman and Senator Robert Menendez, both pro-Israel Democrats, have warned in recent weeks about Ben-Gvir’s rising political fortunes. Netanyahu said on Tuesday that he fought back against Menendez’s private comments reportedly made during a recent trip to Israel by the powerful head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“I said to Menendez: ‘Are you talking to me about [Ben-Gvir] who believes in the State of Israel and supports IDF soldiers? I haven’t heard a word about [Defense Minister Benny] Gantz and [Prime Minister Yair] Lapid partnering with [Ra’am leader] Mansour Abbas and the Muslim Brotherhood, who deny Israel as a Jewish state and go to the mourning tents of murderers of Jews,’” Netanyahu said.
Abbas declared late last year that “Israel was born a Jewish state, that was the decision of the people, and the question is not what is the identity of the state; it was born this way and it will remain this way.”
While select members of Congress wade into the Israeli political waters, American Jewry is largely taking a cautious, dispassionate approach – even those organizations that spoke out in 2019 during Netanyahu’s coalition negotiations with Ben-Gvir.
I think we should focus on the majesty of democracy that Israel is engaged in, where democracy is so vibrant that Israelis seem to want to hold elections every few months
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the American Jewish Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs all say they’re staying out of the fight this time around.
“I think we should focus on the majesty of democracy that Israel is engaged in, where democracy is so vibrant that Israelis seem to want to hold elections every few months. As far as the results – like the elections here in America – the people will speak and as the results come in, we will certainly respect it and engage with whichever government flows from those elections,” William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told The Media Line.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish movement in the US, said he intends to keep the pressure on, warning that a failure to do so by a broad swath of American Jewry would have far-reaching negative consequences for the relationship between Israel and American Jewry.
Jacobs seems to be in a lonely boat, though, in his vocal condemnation. While the influential American Jewish Committee called the views of Ben-Gvir’s party “reprehensible” in 2019, new AJC CEO Ted Deutch, who recently left Congress himself, told The Media Line that AJC has historically “been clear about the importance of the values that the United States and Israel share, and we’re going to continue to be to be clear about those shared values and looking for ways to ensure that the government in Israel and the government of the United States work together, regardless of what those governments are, to advance those values that matter so deeply to us.”
Asked to clarify whether working with a government inclusive of Ben-Gvir would put his organization in an awkward position with American Jewry, Deutch demurred.
“I think it’s important as we have these discussions, again, to make clear what our position is with elections coming up. And certainly, the AJC has made clear its views on the importance of the reflection of our shared values. And we’re going to continue to do that. I don’t think AJC is ever going to back away from that.”
The change in tack of those organizations withholding warnings this time around could be attributed to any number of factors, including the fact that Ben-Gvir is no longer a fringe figure who can be nudged off the political stage. There is also the possibility of election fatigue, where groups don’t want to expend political capital on a domestic Israeli issue, knowing the circumstances could change quickly should a new government either fail to form or collapse quickly, which are the most likely results based on polling.
Either way, it’s largely hands-off this time around for American Jewry, which has its own elections to deal with, too.