Israel’s Hard Right Turn Compromises Democracy
Commentary By Steven A. Smith
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I will not be moving to Israel.
To be honest, I had no immediate plans.
But as I wrote in October 2020, as an American Jew I always knew Israel was there for me if needed. I wrote of a college friend who said that someday I would go there to escape antisemitism in the U.S.
“Someday they will leave you no choice,” he said.
I wrote that column toward the end of the Trump administration. The former president had empowered antisemites and white supremacists as no modern president had ever done. With the election looming, it seemed as if the situation could only get worse.
It did get worse. Not here, but in Israel where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has adopted Trump’s neo-fascist governance philosophy.
To secure his sixth turn as prime minister, Netanyahu has forged a coalition with Israel’s most extreme political and religious interests. His retainers support settlement expansion on the West Bank further aggravating relations with Israeli Palestinians and prompting new violence.
The situation was made worse by Netanyahu’s finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, who said recently that a Palestinian village should be “wiped out.” That is right, an Israeli government official and important figure in the government, suggests the country adopt a scorched-earth policy and slaughter a village of men, women and children. Where have we seen that before?
Smotrich will be in the U.S. to deliver a speech this week. If he were an Arab official advocating such destruction of innocents, he would be denied entry.
I look back on these last few paragraphs and I cannot believe they are my words. It is hard to explain to non-Jews how difficult it is to say these things.
But it gets worse.
Netanyahu and the Israeli Parliament where he holds sway is moving forward with a plan to neuter the nation’s judiciary, essentially giving the parliament and the prime minister control of the nation’s supreme court, even the power to appoint its judges now appointed by a select and independent panel.
Israel has been the only true democracy in the Middle East. Its parliamentary system is not the same as ours, but there has been a comparable separation of powers between the three branches. And as in the U.S., the high court has served as a buffer, keeping legislative and executive excess in check.
Outside observers believe the court has helped maintain some protections for ethnic minorities, for Palestinians and even LGBTQ people, holding in check the ultra-Orthodox interests that would further impose religious restrictions on society.
Even though it is a democracy, Israel is also a theocracy. Maintaining a balance between religious interests and democratic freedoms has never been easy. History tells us that balance in any theocracy cannot be maintained indefinitely. Secular or religious interests inevitably collide until one wins out over the other.
In Israel today, the religious interests are on the ascendancy.
And for the first time since Israel became a nation in 1948, American Jews are torn.
In Israel, there have been mass street demonstrations against the judicial plan. Former government officials have called on Netanyahu to consider a more moderate approach to judicial reform.
Those same protests have now reached America where Jews and Jewish organizations have been unusually blunt in their criticism. American Jews long ago mastered the ability to separate support for the nation – and the idea of the nation – from its politics and policies. There has always been a fear that overt criticism could empower Israel’s enemies and weaken American support.
American Jews long ago mastered the ability to separate support for the nation – and the idea of the nation – from its politics and policies. There has always been a fear that overt criticism could empower Israel’s enemies and weaken American support.Steven A. Smith
Those fears remain valid. But many American Jews can no longer maintain that separation in the face of Netanyahu’s Trump-like approach to governance.
As The New York Times reports, opposition to Netanyahu is not universal and is drawn along political lines as is the case with all American politics these days. Jews who identify as Democrats or progressives or even independents tend to be more openly critical. Those who identify as Republicans, Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox tend to support Netanyahu.
The split is significant and has serious implications for American policy in the Middle East and for the future of Israel.
Last week 90-some Democrats in Congress petitioned President Biden “to pressure Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right government from further damaging Israel’s standing as a democracy. They warned that its current and potential actions are undermining the U.S.-Israel relationship.”
Also last week 16 Jewish members of the House sent a letter directly to Netanyahu urging him to back off the judicial reform legislation.
Biden is in a bind. If he waffles, the U.S. will lose more influence in the Arab world where China is making gains. If he speaks out more forcefully, he risks American relations with Israel, already worried about American interference in domestic politics, and potentially weakens our most important ally.
Nothing has ever been easy about U.S. Middle Eastern strategy.
I think many American Jews are like me. Israel has always been there for most of us, particularly for my generation that grew up thrilled by Israel’s military successes and ability to keep at bay the entire Arab world with its pledge to drive Jews into the sea.
But now we have doubts. And fears. If Israel continues on its current path, it will not be a democracy. It will lose American support, most importantly American Jewish support. Its enemies will be stronger.
It is possible popular opposition will either deter Netanyahu or perhaps force new elections and a change of government. More likely, the turn to the right continues.
So, for me, there will be no “someday” escape from American antisemitism.
It was never a true possibility. It was a psychic safety net, a Jewish dream. “Next year in the Holy Land.”
The dream fades. And I fear for Jews like me, it might soon be gone.
Steven A. Smith is clinical associate professor emeritus in the School of Journalism and Mass Media at the University of Idaho having retired from full time teaching at the end of May 2020. His columns reflect his progressive political views. Smith was raised in a Jewish home and is culturally Jewish. However, he considers himself an atheist, which is reflected in his writing. Smith is former editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. As editor, Smith supervised all news and editorial operations on all platforms until his resignation in October 2008. Prior to joining The Spokesman-Review, Smith was editor for two years at the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon, and was for five years editor and vice president of The Gazette in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Newspaper Management Center Advanced Executive Program and a mid-career development program at Duke University. He holds an M.A. in communication from The Ohio State University where he was a Kiplinger Fellow, and a B.S. in journalism from the University of Oregon. Smith currently serves on the SpokaneFāVS Board of Trustees.
It took guts to write this column Steve. Thank you.
Thank you for raising your voice for a better path from within Jewishness. Critical voices from without are accused of racism, but anyone with eyes sees oppression and victimization not unlike apartheid situations.
Jonas, I disagree strongly with any comparisons to apartheid. There is no historical comparison. In South Africa, people of color were denied rights and were policed, denied ability to participate in the legal system. And there were occasional revolts and protests and some violence. But in the history of Israel not a single Palestinian organization has ever disavowed terrorism against civilians, has ever disavowed the pledge to drive Jews into the sea. Essentially, Palestinian organizations have maintained a state of war to this day. Meanwhile, Palestinians, if they choose, can vote, can own property, can even be elected to office. The settlement crisis is real and the Israeli government is complicit in that, of course. But the comparison to apartheid is wrong, does nothing to address the real issues and is used, in fact, by antisemites to justify additional violence.
Thanks, I appreciate clarity from anyone with firsthand experience of the place. Praying for peace.