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.

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Republicans Propose Nationwide Compulsory Women-Maiming Law

It's abortion/privacy week right now in my Constitutional Law class (Griswold and Roe today, Casey and Dobbs on Thursday). After class this morning, a student came up to me and showed a headline regarding the new Republican proposal to ban abortion nationwide after 15 weeks. He was surprised, since all the judicial rhetoric he had read thus far had been emphatic about "returning the issue to the states" -- how was that consistent with a federal ban? I answered, as politely as I could, that anyone who actually believed anti-abortion activists would settle for "leaving it to the states" once Roe was overturned is someone I'd like to sell bridges to. And, in fairness, that makes sense from their vantage -- if you think abortion is murder, you're hardly going to be content with allowing some states to murder to their heart's content.

That being said, as philosophically unsurprising as a federal abortion ban may be for anti-abortion activists, it seems like political suicide under circumstances where abortion is already supercharging Democratic intensity. Yet say what you will about the GOP bill, it dares venture boldly into new domains of terrorizing women and girls.

Authored by South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, the Republican bill not only bans abortions after 15 weeks, it does so without any exemption for the health of the mother. While "life-endangering" pregnancies are exempt, those which only risk severe bodily injury to the pregnant vessel person remain subject to the ban. The bill also goes out of its way to clarify that "emotional" or "psychological" harms cannot be the basis of labeling the pregnancy "life-endangering". In circumstances where there is an extreme suicide risk, the Republican law's mandate is apparently "let her die". A nationwide abortion ban with no health exemption is, stunningly (or not), being cast as an attempt at "unifying Republicans" who have been placed on the back foot after finally catching the car that is overturning Roe. After all, views may differ on whether government is permitted to murder pregnant women, but Republicans are united behind the principle that they can be maimed without consequence.

Other exemptions in the bill, most notably for rape and incest are highly circumscribed. Rape victims, for instance, must have obtained government-approved counseling at least 48 hours prior to the abortion proceeding. Child victims of rape or incest must have reported the incident to government authorities in advance. On that point, the statute helpfully gives the parents of said minor rape/incest victims the right to sue if such reporting does not happen -- a fantastic provision that I have no doubt will not at all be used to help chill and retaliate against child victims of sexual violence.

Those who do not consent to compulsory federal maiming of women face up to five years of jail time. This is the new, nationwide GOP policy on abortion. And it is on the ballot in November.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

A Synagogue in New Mexico

You may have seen the story bandying about the internet: "A tiny New Mexico Jewish community is trying to buy back its historic synagogue building". The community in question is Las Vegas, New Mexico -- what I affectionately dub "the other Las Vegas". I have an affectionate dubbing because, as it happens, there was a possibility that I'd be moving to that town of that 13,000 souls 88 miles away from Albuquerque.

My last year on the job market, before I ended up accepting a position at Lewis & Clark, the position I was "furthest" along in was a political science/legal studies job at New Mexico Highlands University, which is located in Las Vegas. I was far enough into the process there that I started to research facts about the city in question (such as its distance from the nearest large city and -- of utmost importance to my wife -- the distance to the nearest Target). I also looked into the city's Jewish community in history, where I learned many of the facts the rest of the internet picked up over the past few days -- the historic synagogue (the oldest in New Mexico), and the fact that the synagogue is no longer in Jewish hands following the gradual diminution of the town's Jewish population.

I don't have any substantive commentary to add. It was just an interesting bit of overlap between the current news and a near-miss in my life, and the unique challenges and history of being Jewish in a town that may have Jewish history, but does not have many in the way of Jews.