In the days ahead of Knesset Member Itamar Ben-Gvir’s appointment this week as Israel’s Minister of National Security, liberal Jewish leaders in the United States issued a statement in protest of the Otzma Yehudit faction leader and his partner in government, Betzalel Smotrich, who was appointed Minister of Finance.
“Their policy proposals are anathema to the tenets of democracy, contradicting the spirit and intent of Israel’s own Declaration of Independence,” the petition, authored by nearly 300 non-Orthodox rabbis, stated. “Furthermore, their implementation will cause irreparable harm to the Israel-Jewish Diaspora relationship, as they are an affront to the vast majority of American Jews and our values.”
To show that these signatures do not speak for all American Jews, the Coalition for Jewish Values, which includes its president, Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld, the Rabbinical Consultant for this newspaper, issued its own press release. “Their frantic call to reject duly-elected Members of Knesset reflects their alienation from both the Israeli electorate and the mainstream American pro-Israel community,” said CJV Midwestern Regional Vice President Rabbi Ze’ev Smason.
Ben-Gvir, 46, and Smotrich, 42, are outsiders and at the same time well-versed in the legal system, which they now control. They rose to public prominence as protesters speaking up against territorial compromises, LGBTQ rights, intermarriage, non-Orthodox conversions and immigration, and the military’s rules limiting how it responds to terrorism. Underscoring Ben-Gvir’s identity as an outsider is that this ardent nationalist was rejected from military service on account of his political views and arrests. To his credit, he appealed against objections from the Israel Bar Association to take the exam and enter the profession. Smotrich had an easier time becoming accredited as a lawyer, after receiving his college degree and military service.
They attended many demonstrations, but also worked within the legal system to defend fellow Jewish nationalists in court, and then ran for political office.
When they speak of bolstering the Jewish identity of Israel, they should be given the opportunity to describe their platforms in detail. As their paths to power are contradictory – the protester who got inside the Knesset by the will of voters – their plans represent Orthodox aspirations as much as they are impractical to apply.
Considering the Law of Return, which enables grandchildren of Jews to make aliyah, along with non-Jewish spouses and children, how realistic is it to expect them to undergo an Orthodox conversion to Judaism? By which standard would converts be judged? Is it humane to separate family members from each other based on their religious affiliation, or ancestry?
In the seven and a half decades since the reestablishment of Israel, rabbinic disputes on the sincerity of converts, and the level of stringency in their conversions and lifestyles, have prevented a definitive standard from emerging. Instead, there have been stories of sincere converts facing deportation and Christian grandchildren of Jews welcomed as full citizens of the Jewish state. Ostensibly Orthodox, Ben-Gvir’s political faction is not affiliated with the leading rabbinical figures in Israel who have the halachic knowledge and respectability to pasken on matters of conversion.
His promise to limit the power of the Supreme Court speaks of this matter, as it has no qualification to rule on matters of Jewish status, aside from the democratic ideal that anyone can self-identify as Jewish.
Concerning LGBTQIA+ (yes, that’s the most recently acceptable term in polite society), Ben-Gvir and Smotrich joined the governing coalition, knowing that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will not erode the legal status that members of these orientations fought for decades to achieve. They are sitting in a Knesset where Likud MK Amir Ohana serves as the Speaker. On his first day at the podium, Ohana was congratulated by his husband and their two children. Will Ben-Gvir prohibit such parental arrangements from being recognized? If the mother of these children is known, will she be compelled to be in their lives? What if she is a foreign egg-donor? If religious sensibilities override the right to hold a pride parade, does Ben-Gvir realistically expect LGBTQ citizens to return to the closet and keep their relationships secret…in a democracy that champions freedom of expression?
Throughout history, we have seen that when an outsider politician is elevated to public office, this person becomes shaped by the office towards moderation and compromise, or he remakes the office in his image. In Israel, with its multitude of political parties, and with differing views within each political and religious sector, I do not expect earth-shattering changes in policy to occur.
To show his supporters that his platform is more than a set of promises, perhaps some road signs will no longer include Arabic translation, but it’s unrealistic to expect all official documents and procedures to be in Hebrew as a result of this new government.
There will be more Jewish visitors to the Har HaBayis, Kever Yosef, and other Jewish holy sites in Arab-controlled areas, but I don’t expect their legal situations to change. Perhaps Ben-Gvir will gain a symbolic prize in rebuilding Chomesh (“Homesh”), which is located within Area A, which is legally under Israeli control. I doubt that he would risk the reversal of the Abraham Accords, considering their popularity among Israelis, and the benefits that it brought, by annexing Yehuda and Shomron, and by rebuilding Gush Katif.
Instead of boycotting Ben-Gvir, Jewish organizations should put him under a spotlight, pressing him to explain his position in detail. He should be welcomed by American Jewish audiences, most of whom do not have an accurate understanding of Israeli public opinion. Much of his support comes from younger voters, so it is likely that the Otzma Yehudit and Religious Zionism parties will continue to have a place in the Knesset for years to come.
At the same time, religious Zionists are fragmented between these two parties, the larger Likud Party, and smaller movements that disagree on the details of economic, religious, and social policies. The power still lies mostly with Netanyahu, and the real fears among voters are security, the economy, and having yet another election.
Concerning their antics and words, worse things have been done by Arab and leftist Knesset Members, who managed to retain their seats while speaking favorably of terrorists and disparaging religious Jews. The election of Ben-Gvir represents the frustration of Israeli voters at the double standards in Israeli society.
By Sergey Kadinsky