It’s about to get a lot harder for American Jews to explain Israel

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By Michael Koplow, The Forward

As the results of the latest Israeli election become clear, dire predictions of an ultra-nationalist, Kahanist, far-right ascendance are proving correct.

Three far-right parties running as a bloc commanded over 10% of the vote, rendering them the Knesset’s third-largest party. They were bested only by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud and outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid.

The prospect of Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, two outspoken men who have made their ultra-nationalist intentions clear, controlling ministries and serving in Israel’s security cabinet means big changes ahead for Israelis — and perhaps even bigger changes for Palestinians.

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But American Jews should brace themselves as well. The presence of extremists in the incoming governing coalition is likely to further the trend of American Jewish disengagement, particularly among younger American Jews.

More starkly, it will challenge the relationship between American Jews and their fellow Americans as it pertains to Israel. The days of business as usual when discussing Israeli democracy, and shared values, are over.

American Jews have consistently argued for special ties between their country and Israel by appealing to the notion that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. We point out the presence of Arab Supreme Court justices and Knesset members, and proudly tout Israel as the only place in the region that is LGBTQ-friendly and tolerant of religious and ethnic minorities. American Jews have dined out on democracy and liberal values as the winning arguments for Israel for decades. The best of Israel’s reality formed the foundation of how American Jews explained and advocated for Israel to the U.S. government and wider American society.

These arguments held steady — even if they were increasingly challenged — during Netanyahu’s previous 12-year tenure. But reality is changing, and the old playbook no longer applies. The imminent ascendance of Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, and what their popularity signals about Israel’s direction, renders any comparisons to previous Netanyahu governments useless.

Smotrich and Ben-Gvir have promised to pursue all sorts of odious things: stripping citizenship from and deporting those they murkily deem to be disloyal. Instituting shoot-to-kill orders for suspected Palestinian attackers, irrespective of whether they present a fatal threat. Effectively immunizing Knesset members from corruption charges and eliminating all independent judicial oversight of the government and the Knesset. None of these are compatible with Americans’ notions of democracy or liberal values, and arguing that they aren’t as big a deal as people think will strain credulity.

Even if the most extreme proposals are thwarted by Netanyahu and other members of the government, it will be difficult to praise the virtues of Israeli diversity and tolerance with a minister who once organized an anti-LGBTQ “beast march” that featured farm animals as stand-ins for gay rights marchers, and another minister who was convicted of incitement to racism and supporting a terrorist organization while praising notorious mass-murdering Jewish terrorist Baruch Goldstein as a hero and righteous man.

What has made the U.S.-Israel relationship unique is the affinity that non-Jewish Americans have for Israel, whether because they admire Israel as a democracy in a non-democratic region or because they view Israel as an extension of American values and traditions.

If the emotional or cultural bonds are no longer as resonant, the U.S.-Israel relationship will devolve into a solely transactional relationship akin to other American strategic partnerships, which will bring with it the challenges that are present in relationships with states like Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates.

Celebrations of Israeli democracy will increasingly sound off-base and tone deaf. For many, these arguments will land as an attempt to distract from the ugliness unfolding. Even while Israel remains democratic, the most utilized tool in American Jewry’s Israel toolbox is much blunter than it was before Tuesday, and that is going to be a difficult reality for many to face.

The internal challenge this will present to American Jews and the organized American Jewish community should not be underestimated either. It will not only upend tried and true American Jewish messaging about Israel, but will widen the fault lines within American Jewry. The majority of American Jews, and American Jewish institutions, will attempt to wall off these unsavory coalition partners from the rest of the Israeli government. But they will quickly run up against the inconvenient fact that some elements of our community will celebrate them instead.

It will be tougher to portray Religious Zionism and Otzma Yehudit as insignificant aberrations rejected by the Jewish community when Smotrich goes on a speaking tour of Orthodox institutions, or when Ben-Gvir is honored at a far-right Jewish organization’s annual gala. It will be impossible to avoid the complications of internal American Jewish politics when Ben-Gvir is invited to the U.S. by far-right members of Congress or conservative governors and held up as a shining example of the new face of Israel.

All of this will be even more confusing to the large majority of Americans who do not follow Israel closely or obsess over its every move, and cannot discern which Israeli ministers are supposed to be out of bounds and why some parts of the American Jewish community and its political allies are welcoming them while others are shunning them. 

The furtherance of Israel as a politically divisive issue within American Jewry will become even more supercharged than it already is. Israelis and Palestinians must learn to live with their new reality. But American Jews must brace ourselves and adapt to a new world as well.

This article was originally published on the Forward.