One would think that after 2016 and 2020, I would be used to the word “election” being synonymous with “potentially terrifying historical turning point.”
I am no stranger to bracing myself for election outcomes. I stayed up past midnight in 2016, the bright blue of my phone blaring the damning results into my retinas at three in the morning. I stayed awake in November of 2020 at my parent’s kitchen table, my mother’s hand gripped in mine as the worst of our fears was, by the tiniest margin, abated.
And now I am bracing myself again. Not for an American election this time, though in many ways, it feels the
same; the way I grit my teeth before checking the news and the way I struggle not to feel nauseous at the reality
of the barely-there line between fascist and politician. It’s almost a relief that I’m not panicking this November
about the death of democracy in the country where I hold citizenship. But at the same time, it doesn’t soothe my
rancor to know that as a diaspora Jew, a country where I have found a second home may be about to reject every
social or political ideal that I hold dear and embrace a government that doesn’t see a problem with societal
inequity, with homophobic and religiously intolerant practices written into law, or with the violent displacement
of its citizens.
I am not alone in this seething anxiety that emerges every time I check the Israeli news. Most American Jews, myself included, are politically left of center. On November 1st, Israel will go to the polls. On November 2nd, an entire community of Americans who feel a deep sense of belonging in Israel may find themselves on the opposite side of a potentially irreparable divide between their own politics and Israel’s governing leaders.
Israel-diaspora relations and the relationship between Israel and the United States have been a source of frustration for many American Jews for years, but I cannot remember a time when a crisis like this felt like it was on the horizon. I am reminded of conversations I’ve had with younger colleagues who were in high school in November of 2016– old enough to be stuck living and coming of age in Trump’s America, but not old enough to do anything about it, even to cast a futile vote in an overwhelmingly red state. This prison of inefficacy, watching from the other side of our phone screens while a country turns to values that are antithetical to what its tight-knit diaspora community believes, is harrowing.
The democratic leanings of most American Jews are no secret. This is a community that helped lead the charge for civil rights here in the United States, a community that has always been at the forefront of the fight for social justice and against racism both domestically and abroad. It’s a running joke that if you have six Jews in a room you’ll have ten opinions, but if there’s one thing that unites the American Jewish community it is the applied practice of tikkun olam, healing the world, especially in the arena of social justice. American Jews have, for many, many years, stood against racist immigration policies, inhumane incarceration practices, homophobia, unfair treatment towards the unhoused, Islamophobia, and all manifestations of white supremacy within the borders of the US and much of Europe.
So why does this community – this fierce, accomplished, progressive community – remain so hesitant to confront similar issues in Israel?
I’ve been asking this question for a long time. I have tried to convince myself that maybe people honestly think that Israel’s treatment of Palestinian people is a phenomenon, twisted by the media to seem worse than it is. Or perhaps they want to believe that the societal inequity, pain, and suffering of Palestinian refugeees was a one-time issue that is now marginal and generally contained. Maybe they simply didn’t know. Maybe they see Israel as an oversimplified Jewish haven, where antisemitism has a harder time finding purchase, and they refuse to be the one who tears that image down. Maybe they fear being called a self-hating Jew or a rotten antisemite on Twitter for speaking up against the unfair treatment of Palestinian people.
I’m not sure any of those lines of thinking are valid excuses anymore.
The outcome of November 1st may usher in an era in which systemic, ideological discrimination against Palestinians is not only part and parcel of Israeli public life, as it has been for years, but also normalized and even championed by Israel's top leadership. Earlier this week, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu referred to Itamar Ben Gvir of the Jewish Might party as “a natural partner,” and vowed to make him a minister in his cabinet, if he forms Israel’s next government coalition.
Ben Gvir has been indicted 53 times for violations that included racial incitement, violent acts and supporting a terrorist organization. He was convicted of eight criminal offenses that included such violations. Ben Gvir now says that he no longer espouses the extremist, racist, violent views of Rabbi Meir Kahane. He knows full well that the Kahanist movements Kach and Kahane Chai were banned and are considered terrorist organizations not only by Israel but also by the US, Canada, the European Union and Japan. His continued relationships with members of these movements, in addition to his proposed policies and his rhetoric regarding settlements, do not match his disavowals.
For progressive Americans, Jews and non-Jews alike, the inclusion of Ben Gvir in the ruling coalition, let alone in the cabinet and certainly as a senior government minister would be a disastrous turning point in their attitude toward Israel. If we are worried by the likes of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and Marjorie Taylor Greene operating in the halls of government in Washington DC, we should be deeply troubled about the possibility of Ben Gvir attaining more power, too.
For years, organizations like Americans for Peace Now, where I work, have encouraged Americans to differentiate between the democratic majority of sovereign Israel within the Green Line, and the extremist settlers in the West Bank. We have urged Americans to focus on supporting progressive trends in Israeli society and to view the ultra-nationalists on the right as weeds to be yanked out. The act of fighting the occupation and bolstering Israeli democratic institutions is an integral part of the love that we have for Israel and the belief that it can still be an embodiment of Jewish values and a bastion of democracy.
Ultra-nationalists or Kahanists in key government positions would be too much for left-leaning American Jews to swallow. The rift between their ethical outlook and the worldview of Israel’s conservative leaders would reach unprecedented depths. Such a scenario would be interpreted as a nightmare-come-true, shattering the dream of an Israel that can proudly be a light onto the nations. Young, politically aware, American progressives already feel a distinct resentment toward Israel as a ruthless, belligerent occupying power. Further shifts in Israel’s government makeup will push that discomfort further, morphing it into utter disgust.
American Jews care deeply about Israel’s wellbeing and its character as a democracy. Much of the diaspora
Jewish community believes, wholeheartedly, in Israel as a representative entity of Jewish values. It stings to
watch the supposed embodiment of these ideals throw them away entirely.
I can’t vote in an Israeli election. Most American Jews who I know can’t either. Like American high school students who watched with horror in 2016 and 2020 as elections they couldn’t vote in changed the bulk of the next decade of their lives forever, I can’t do anything but stare at the headlines, hoping against hope that people make the ethical choice. It would be easy to grow despondent, to prematurely mourn the death of honest politics and the fair treatment of people under the law. But if I have learned one thing from my years of gripping my phone too tightly and watching the polls come in, it is this: hope is always an option.
Even now, on the verge of an election that could lead to a mainstreamed government stance of bigotry and racism, American Jews can still hope and pray that Israelis will vote in a manner that reflects the text and spirit of Israel’s Declaration of Independence. Independence is about choices, after all– choices at the polls, choices in the rhetoric and media that we choose to swallow, and yes: the choice to continue hoping for a future that includes peace. So while I will be doomscrolling on November 1st, bracing once again for election results that might dictate the tone of the next several years, I’ll raise a glass: to independence, to hope. To the many Israeli citizens who are fighting racism and bigotry, Jews and Arabs alike, reminding us that the vision of peace and democracy isn’t dead just yet.