Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Is the Jewish World Ready for Itamar Ben-Gvir?

In 2009, Marty Peretz called Avigdor Lieberman a fascist.

My how the world turns.

Today, of course, Lieberman is effectively a centrist figure in Israeli politics, who seems more inclined to form coalitions with the left-of-center bloc than the right-wing. 

Some of that reflects changes in Lieberman -- he has moderated somewhat from where he started and moved towards the center since bursting onto the Israeli political scene. But a lot of it is attributable to changes in Israel's political center of gravity, which has been lurching to the right for decades. Opinions and beliefs which were outlandish and outrageous in 2009 don't even qualify as right-wing in 2022. In 2018, Batya Ungar-Sargon could hold Naftali Bennett's feet to the fire over his open opposition to democratic rights for Palestinians. Fast forward just a few years, and Bennett is the savior figure who managed to oust the even more odiously anti-Palestinian Bibi Netanyahu out of office. What was once the extreme right in Israel now is the "moderate" bulwark against an ascendant and even further-extreme right. The world keeps turning.

And so we get to the present day, and the rise of a new extremist powerbroker in Israel: Itamar Ben-Gvir. Ben-Gvir is more than a terrorist-sympathizer, he actually was convicted of providing support to a terrorist organization. He wants to expel Arabs, he had a shrine to Baruch Goldstein, he's a disciple of Kahanism. His political character has been described as a "pyromaniac", given his lust to take combustible situations and pour gasoline on them. He's been described as a "David Duke"-like figure in Israeli politics, except unlike Duke he's actually winning office. He makes even the original flavor of Bennett or Lieberman look positively moderate. And in the very plausible event that the right-wing bloc wins the next Israeli election, Itamar Ben-Gvir is likely to receive a very prominent ministry position in the Israeli government.

The establishment of the Jewish diaspora isn't ready for this. In 2019, when Netanyahu first entered into a deal with Ben-Gvir, it received widespread condemnation from American Jewish groups (even AIPAC!). They characterized his party "racist and reprehensible". Three years later, Ben-Gvir's influence has only grown. If he does enter into government at a high level, does anyone believe groups like AIPAC are going to hold the line? That they'll follow their own logic and concede that Israel's governing coalition is seeded with the racist and the reprehensible? Or will the world turn once more, and Ben-Gvir become accommodated?

By and large, the American Jewish community has been covering its eyes regarding the surging ascendency of far-right extremism amongst the Israeli Jewish community. The tendency has been to dismiss this sort of extremism as marginal, as outliers, as the province of fringe cranks that one might find in any pluralistic political community. There is a terrified refusal to acknowledge the larger pattern, which is that folks like Ben-Gvir are not outliers, and things are getting worse, not better. "A little patience," they say "and we shall see the reign of witches pass." But it isn't passing. The cavalry isn't coming. It can happen (t)here.

The American Jewish community does not want to see Israel descend into far-right fascism. It wants, desperately, that folks like Ben-Gvir are outliers and are repudiated and can be rendered into fringe irrelevancies. But that's not happening. So what next? Unfortunately, the problem with not wanting to see something is that there's always the option to cover your eyes. Squeeze them shut and pretend the problem isn't there. Start whatabouting on Hamas or Iran or this or that. Figure out a way to accommodate and appease the new normal, in the hopes that after this, we won't go any further. Soon the reign of the witches has to pass. That is, more or less, what the global Jewish community has done for the past few decades -- it has just pretended not to see the rise of Israel's extreme right in the hopes that if it is ignored long enough, it will go away.

It's not going away. It is getting worse. And sooner or later, we have to starting thinking about what steps we need to take to arrest and reverse its momentum, rather than vainly hoping it will correct itself. I am not convinced that the American Jewish community is ready to have that conversation. But if we don't have it, folks will start having it without us.

No comments: