Australia/Israel Review


Ben-Gvir and Israeli Liberal Democracy

Nov 23, 2022 | Gil Troy

Many voters for controversial far right politician Itamar Ben Gvir were motivated by worries about terrorism and violence (Image: Shutterstock)
Many voters for controversial far right politician Itamar Ben Gvir were motivated by worries about terrorism and violence (Image: Shutterstock)

Columnist Thomas Friedman’s much-forwarded New York Times lament for Israel’s soul – “The Israel We Knew is Gone”, published November 4 – has demoralised the Jewish world. Feeding off the disgust many share for Itamar Ben Gvir’s bigotry, Friedman has gone too far.  

The Israel I and so many others know is not the Israel that Friedman ever bothered to know or The New York Times deigns to cover. So let’s say to the “I-wash-my-hands-of-Israel” crowd, the Israel we know still lives, with all its flaws and challenges, its greatness and possibilities. Rather than jumping ship, we’re swabbing the deck; rather than giving up on Israel because of some politicians, we won’t give up on our lifelong mission to make Israel the best it can be. 

I’m not sure what’s most galling about all these ship abandoners: their arrogance, their ignorance, their disrespect for the democratic process, or their narrow vision. Beyond overlooking so many liberal-democratic trends still thriving in Israel, Friedman and his colleagues have barely covered the violence and terrorism that spawned Ben Gvir. It’s like condemning the 2020 lockdowns, without mentioning COVID. 

It’s heartbreaking. Many of Israel’s closest friends know Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, but look blank when you say names like Yezen Falah, Amir Khoury, Shulamit Rachel Ovadia, Eytam Magini, Ido Baruch, Noa Lazer and Noam Raz. These are among the 26 Israelis murdered in over 2,200 terrorist attempts or attacks in 2022 – so far! Yezen, 19, was a Druze police officer. Amir, 32, was a Christian Arab cop, whose funeral was mobbed by ultra- Orthodox Jews, thanking him for stopping a terrorist in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak. Shulamit, 84, was bludgeoned to death. Eytam, 28, about to marry, was shot with his childhood friend in a Tel Aviv bar. 

Ido was a 21-year-old hero – known for his generosity, including DJing for free frequently, including at a bat mitzvah for a special needs girl. His mother spoke so poignantly at his funeral, about the partnership she and the other army parents had with their kids and one another: “This boy was all heart and generosity, melach ha’aretz – salt of the earth.” Noa was merely 18. Her mother, who like Ido’s girlfriend, immediately sensed something wrong, summarised all the mourners’ feelings, saying: “I am in a nightmare that never ends.” 

Noam was a 47-year-old father of six, killed just as he was finishing a counter-terrorism operation. On Thursday, two days after the election, his 78-year-old father Yeshayahu Rosenberg heard that one of Noam’s murderers had been killed while resisting arrest; a few hours later, Yeshayahu died. 

Their stories are etched into every Israeli’s soul, weigh on every voter’s heart. If more outsiders knew how many Israelis fear walking around their neighbourhoods, and felt the outgoing Government was not responding effectively, perhaps they would understand that many – alas, not all – of Ben Gvir voters were worried, not bigoted. 

I believe the Bennett-Lapid Government handled these threats effectively, and I fear anti-Arab bigotry only heightens tensions. But I understand that some of my fellow citizens differed. Moreover, outgoing PM Yair Lapid’s listless campaign did not help. When Lapid denounced radical MK Aida Touma-Suleiman for praising a new group of Palestinian terrorists, “The Lions’ Den,” as martyrs, few noticed. Such restraint was political malpractice. 

Even so, the margin separating winners from losers was marginal. Shifting 4,000 votes would have yielded a different outcome. 

Democratic countries are more than their politicians – or one electoral outcome. “The Israel” of last year’s experiment in centre-fielding, including Arabs in the coalition, was pretty much the same “Israel” of this year’s right-wing backlash. Life is a continuously evolving multi-plot movie, not a simplistic snapshot, frozen in time. 

Even regarding Israeli Arabs, which moment defines them? 

March 2020, when so many marvelled about how many Israeli Arabs were heroic nurses, doctors, pharmacists and ambulance drivers fighting COVID? May 2021, when some Israeli Arabs rioted in mixed cities like Acre and Lod? June 2021, when the Islamist Ra’am party joined the government? Or November 2022, when Ben Gvir triumphed, partially thanks to those same mixed cities where his vote quadrupled? 

The day after Election Day, my wife and I visited Tel Aviv; it was as vibrant and tattooed and optimistic and hip as ever. That Friday, we visited our son Yoni at the base where he is doing reserve duty for a month near Hebron. Exploring Susiya, an ancient Jewish village nearby, reminded us how rooted we are historically in every inch of this land – no matter what we end up doing politically to live with the other inhabitants on that land. 

A dose of reality, meaning complexity, is always good for the soul – and an invitation to the humility and nuance so many finger-pointers lack. 

Patriotism means loving your country despite its politi- cians sometimes – and beyond just its politics always. 

The US is more than the January 6 riots, even with 140 election deniers elected to Congress. Israel is more than Smotrich and Ben Gvir – much more. 

My preferred candidates may have lost Israel’s election, but my hopes for Israel are not lost. Israel will not only outlast the bullying bigots of the moment, it will also outlast the sky-is-falling chicken liberals like Thomas Friedman who only think they know Israel. 

Prof. Gil Troy is a distinguished scholar of North American history at McGill University, and the author of nine books on American history and four books on Zionism. He is the editor of the new three-volume set Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings.© Jerusalem Post (www.jpost.com), reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.

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