The Coalition Conundrum
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The Coalition Conundrum

Israel’s ruling government, American Jews and the question of the Jewish state’s democratic values.

Relations between Israeli and diaspora Jews, complicated during the best of times, have been strained — to say the least — since the months leading up to Israel’s March 17 election.

American Jewish Democrats were aghast when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to cancel his March 3 Iran nuclear speech before Congress, which he delivered despite the vocal opposition of President Barack Obama and key Democratic legislators supportive of Israel.

Netanyahu and his right-wing supporters were just as aghast when a handful of left-wing American Jewish philanthropists, including Daniel Abraham, founder of Slim Fast Foods and a major democratic donor, funded One Voice and V15, nonprofit organizations that actively campaigned for a change in government, and therefore against Netanyahu and his Likud Party.

Netanyahu and Likud received their own support from Jewish Republicans, including casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who has poured millions of dollars into the pro-Likud Yisrael Hayom newspaper, a freebie that’s become the most read newspaper in Israel.

Now that Netanyahu has cobbled together a right-wing religious government, relations could deteriorate even further, pundits say.

“The values of this right-wing government remind me of an extreme-right Republican government,” says Arie Kacowicz, a professor of international relations at the Hebrew University. “They go against the democratic values many American Jews hold dear.”

The new government is a partnership between Netanyahu’s Likud Party, Naftali Bennett’s nationalist Jewish Home Party, two ultra-Orthodox parties (Shas and United Torah Judaism) and Moshe Kahlon’s centrist Kulanu Party. In his Haaretz column Chemi Shalev, the newspaper’s U.S. editor, writes that if Israel had a two-party system, Netanyahu’s coalition “would be first in line to sign a ‘sister party’ accord with the Republicans: in many ways, albeit Jewish instead of Christian, they are now like twins separated at birth.”

But at the same time, the recent Israeli elections appeared to show that the public simply felt safer with Netanyahu at the helm, given both a Middle East in chaos, despite what were likely to be his more conservative coalition partners. An Israeli official in New York put it this way: “It was like the Israeli public looked at Bibi and [Zionist Union Party leader Isaac] Herzog and said, ‘One of them looks like a prime minister, and one of them doesn’t.”

While American Jewish conservatives and their Israeli counterparts are thrilled that the government will almost certainly oppose territorial compromise with the Palestinians and expand existing settlements, for example, even they could be disheartened by what could be an erosion of women’s rights, religious pluralism and overall human rights — issues near and dear to American Jews.

The new coalition “is going to deal with a lot of the things that ignite Israel-diaspora tensions — such as conversion and rabbinic rule,” Shmuel Rosner recently wrote in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. Just as the new coalition was taking the reins, and with charges of apartheid flying, Netanyahu last week was forced to scuttle a proposal that would have had Palestinians returning to the West Bank not ride on the same buses as Jewish settlers.

Uri Regev, president and CEO of Hiddush-Freedom of Religion for Israel, believes Likud’s agreements with the religious parties should be a source “of grave concern” to American and world Jewry.

“The coalition agreements with the charedi parties ensure that ‘Who is a Jew,’ marriage freedom, pluralism, gender equality and much more are going to be rolled back, making Israel far less inviting and accepting of the religiously diverse and liberal diaspora.”

Regev noted that Netanyahu’s charedi coalition partners have already vowed to return funding cut by the past government to charedi yeshivas that don’t teach secular subjects, and to repeal the charedi draft law requiring a few thousand charedi men to perform IDF service. The cost of additional funding to charedi and Orthodox sectors, warned Regev, “is going to be indirectly shared by diaspora philanthropists.”

The social activist predicted that diaspora philanthropists “will find that their philanthropic recipients, cultural, academic, social welfare and other projects, are going to be more needy because their budgets are going to be cut to pay for the new political ‘pork barrels.’”

Elana Sztokman, a Modern Orthodox Israeli feminist and author of “The War on Women in Israel: A Story of Religious Radicalism and the Women Fighting for Freedom,” says the fact that oversight of the rabbinical court system has just been transferred from the Justice Ministry to the Ministry of Religious Affairs “means that no secular, democratically committed official will have any say whatsoever on what is going on there.”

Since it is the rabbinical courts that decide who can and cannot get married or divorced, and often decide on custody issues, “this is an affront to women’s rights,” she asserts.

Other provisions in the coalition agreement, from budget approval to pay the salaries of only Orthodox communal rabbis, and the decision to remove new Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home Party) from the committee to appoint rabbinical judges, “also have the potential to change the character of Israel’s democracy.”

Additionally, Sztokman says, “the fact that several key ministries are back to being run by the ultra-Orthodox, who have a very troubling history vis-à-vis non-orthodox Jews in Israel and abroad, is a cause for concern.”

Kacowicz worries that Shaked will weaken the autonomy of the high court, which many on Israel’s right consider too powerful because of its ability to override the Knesset.

If Shaked manages to rein in the court, Kacowicz said, “it will go against the values of a liberal democracy.

Sam Bahn, an American Jew who monitors press coverage of Israel, believes many center-left American Jews hold Israelis and its government up to an impossibly high standard while they, themselves, don’t live in Israel, pay taxes in Israel or fight in its wars.

“American Jews do not really understand the realities which Israelis experience and which shape their mentality — and their choices at election time. Too many see an Israel that they want to see — what Israel should be rather than what Israel is,” Bahn said.

“While all Israelis yearn for peace and most desire a two-state solution, most do not believe it is possible after years of Palestinian terrorism, including the 15,000 rockets coming out of Gaza after turning it over to Palestinian rule,” Bahn said.

He continued, “They see [Palestinian Authority] President Abbas honoring terrorists, constantly delegitimizing Israel and trying to criminalize Israel in world forums. And Israelis see official Palestinian TV teaching Palestinian children hatred of Israel, anti-Semitism and glorification of violence — which is professionally documented on the Palestinian Media Watch website.”

Rosner, from the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, urged American Jews not to panic over the composition of the new government.

“Organizations, activists and other people with ideologies or interests different from the ones of the new government are going to ask for your support and paint you a picture of an Israel that is fast becoming a dark nationalistic theocracy.

“Do yourselves and Israel a favor and don’t be tempted by these messages of gloom. Most of them are unfounded,” Rosner said. Most of what the government is going to do is talk.”

Michele Chabin reports from Jerusalem for The Jewish Week.

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