Jewish Pittsburghers react to Israeli election
“Only foolish people make predictions about Israeli politics,” said Rabbi Danny Schiff.
Think you’re sick of hearing about the midterm elections? Did you tire from the barrage of television commercials, talking heads and political yard signs? Are you feeling anxious from not knowing for certain the winners of every race and which party would control the House?
Whatever strong emotions you associate with the Nov. 8 elections, they pale to what Israelis have experienced.
On Nov. 1, the Jewish state completed its fifth legislative election in three years. The makeup of the country’s Knesset, its prime minister and its governing coalitions keep changing based on the political winds blowing across the Middle Eastern country.
The political intrigue started in 2018 when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on the verge of losing his governing coalition, called for elections. Despite winning that election, he failed to form a government and called for new elections in April 2019.
In 2019, the Likud and Blue and White Party finished in a virtual tie, but neither party was able to form a coalition, meaning — you guessed it — more elections.
Before the third round of elections took place, though, Netanyahu was indicted on charges including bribery, fraud and breach of trust. New elections took place in the early days of COVID in March 2020. Again, there was no clear winner. Netanyahu and Benjamin Gantz formed a unity government. The two couldn’t govern together successfully, however, and a year later — wait for it — there was another national election. When Netanyahu was unable to form a coalition in the Knesset, Yair Lapid seized the opportunity and became prime minister, ending 12 years of Netanyahu’s reign.
A little more than a year later, Lapid’s coalition fell apart triggering another election. Proving you can be down but not out, Netanyahu, appears to be piecing together another coalition, meaning he will once again add the title of prime minister to his name.
“Only foolish people make predictions about Israeli politics,” Rabbi Danny Schiff, Foundation scholar at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, said when asked if he thinks that this will be a lasting government.
Nevertheless, Schiff, an Israeli citizen and part-time Pittsburgher, sees no reason why this government shouldn’t remain in place for at least several years. But he is concerned about what that permanence means, as Netanyahu’s new coalition may be beholden to small parties and their interests.
“I think that is very worrying,” Schiff said, “given the makeup of the coalition that looks like it’s going to be sworn in soon.”
Some say that bloc is the most far-right in the nation’s history. It will include ultra-nationalist and ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) parties, as well as controversial politicians, including Itamar Ben Gvir, who has called for the deportation of rival lawmakers, more freedom for soldiers to shoot Palestinians and an end to Palestinian autonomy in parts of the West Bank. He is expected to seek the position of public security minister.
“In the context of Israel, far-right usually means a couple of things,” Schiff said. “That means ultranationalist in the sense of the approach to how they see the land of Israel — that’s the characterization of religious Zionism and for the Haredi parties it certainly means a really strong commitment to a public Jewishness in the state of Israel that aligns with their understanding of what Jewishness should be.”
Schiff’s main concern, he said, is the preservation of democracy in the country, which has only one chamber of parliament and no executive branch separate from that chamber — making the Supreme Court the only check and balance on the Knesset.
Schiff isn’t alone in his concern. Several of the compromises being bandied for a commitment to align with Netanyahu’s party in the new government — including revising Israel’s grandfather clause, which allows people with even one Jewish grandparent to immigrate to the country, and the “judicial override clause,” which would allow the Knesset to override the Supreme Court on any law it considers illegal —have many people troubled.
“It will basically mean that the simple majority in the Knesset can do whatever they like without effective checks and balances,” Schiff said. “I think that’s a concern for a democratic system because it can easily lead to the tyranny of the majority.”
Mark Fichman is a member of J Street Pittsburgh’s steering committee and a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. He thinks most American Jews are disturbed by the results of Israel’s latest election.
“My own view,” he said, “is that Netanyahu is extremely problematic.”
Fichman noted that last year Netanyahu was talking to Arab parties about forming a coalition.
“I take it with a bit of a grain of salt,” Fichman said. “He forms a coalition with the people he can, that will allow him to pursue the goals he cares to pursue; and so one aspect of it is his policies, the other is keeping his posterior out of jail.”
Fichman expects more pushback on Israel from President Joe Biden than there was from the previous administration, but he doesn’t think it will be very pronounced.
“J Street has asked the Biden administration not to deal with Ben Gvir if he attains a ministerial position,” Fichman said. “I’m not sure the Biden administration will do that or if, pragmatically, you can do that. It’s really up to Netanyahu, in some sense, how he wants to configure his administration and project his policies and image in the United States.”
Netanyahu, Fichman said, is an astute politician with a keen understanding of the American landscape and, as prime minister, Netanyahu could appoint Ben Gvir to a position that would involve very little interaction with American officials.
Before the elections at home, J Street made some news when its founding director, Jeremy Ben-Ami, said that the group is “not a two-state solution organization.”
Ben-Ami, Fichman explained, was commenting on the organization’s goal of influencing U.S. policy toward Israel to remain a democratic Jewish state. He said rising antisemitism in the U.S., primarily from the right but occasionally on the left, is also a concern.
“In Germany, two things had to happen: the ascendancy of an antisemitism orientation in the Nazis and the end of democracy. Democracy and the protection of individual rights safeguarded Jews in Germany and other places,” he said, noting that democracy protects Jews everywhere and is a Jewish value.
“We’re concerned about democracy declines in Israel and their intolerance to human rights,” Fichman said.
Stuart Pavilack, the director of Pittsburgh’s chapter of the Zionist Organization of America, thinks the latest election will bring stability to Israel. He isn’t concerned about the makeup of the coalition.
“The headlines are ‘right-wing government, right-wing government,’” he said. “It makes it seem like something nefarious is going on. The reality, that most people aren’t aware of, is that something like 65% of the Israeli public considers themselves on the right, whether you’re talking about moderate right, hard right or center-right. So, to say ‘the right-wing government’ is trying to put a negative spin on what’s going on in Israel. Their democracy is different than ours, and we have to respect that.”
Pavilack recommends not getting caught up on buzzwords or phrases; rather, he urges American Jews to be as educated as possible as to what’s happening in Israel.
“It’s a never-ending learning process for Americans to try and stay attuned to what’s going on,” he said. “The right wing in Israel has a different definition. There are some on the right wing that are just for the protection and future of the country.”
Efrat Mishani, the Jewish Agency Israel Fellow at Hillel JUC Pittsburgh, also believes American Jews should be educated about Israeli politics and elections. She teaches university students about the process.
“On Nov. 1, we collaborated with student leaders and had a watch party at Hillel,” she said. “We had about 30 students. We all sat together and watched the results. It was a great time.”
The opportunity allowed her and other Hillel leaders to hear the students’ opinions and concerns and to teach them about the election process, she said. She expects those who attended will continue to stay engaged with future elections in the country.
Asked her opinion on the election, Mishani offered a response one hears often in Israel, to everything from internal Israeli politics to conflicts with Hezbollah to Iran policy to what type of hummus is best: “It’s complicated.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at [email protected]