Should American Jews care about the upcoming Israeli elections? If they have paid attention to the damage that has been done to Israeli democracy under the leadership of Benjamin Netanyahu, damage that parallels the damage done to American democracy under President Donald Trump, they most certainly should.
Rabbi Daniel Gordis, an Israeli centrist if there ever was one, recently penned these words: “For many months now, some Israeli voices who were critical of Netanyahu (myself included) have denied that Netanyahu was intentionally channeling Donald Trump’s provocative attitude toward democracy, arguing that the prime minister was cozying up to the American president only because of Trump’s volatility and Israel’s need for American support in the face of Iran, Russia’s re-entry into the Middle East and other foreign policy concerns. Today, however, that argument rings hollow. Israel is now witness to a full-scale assault on its democracy by its own prime minister.”
This channeling of Trump’s provocative attitude toward democracy has taken many forms, including racist demagoguery. Netanyahu’s denigration of Israel’s Arabs caused Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin to swiftly rebuke him, stating that Israel does not have “second class citizens.” Like Trump, Bibi has attacked the country’s judiciary and state prosecutors. The prime minister threatened Israel’s freedom of the press by warning Galei Zahal, Israel’s Army radio station, that its existence might be in peril if the right were not given more exposure.
Like Trump, Bibi questions the patriotism of those who oppose his policies and language of divisiveness. Organizations like the New Israel Fund (NIF) and its human rights and Jewish/Arab coexistence grantees have become Bibi’s common whipping boys. And then, there is the dismissal of truth itself, an indispensable foundation for democracy; like Trump, “fake news” has become a mainstay of Bibi’s vocabulary.
Sadly, public opinion polls indicate that more and more American Jews, particularly the younger generation, are prepared to throw the Israeli baby out with prime minister’s dirty bathwater, which also includes Bibi’s reneging on the deal for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall. And many who claim that they still love and care about Israel despite Netanyahu and his policies question whether there is anything they can do about it since they can’t vote. Only part of the solution is likely to be found in the upcoming elections. More important are the thousands of Israelis working with Israeli NGOs day in and day out to preserve and protect Israeli democracy, demonstrating their love for Israel regardless of the election outcome. And they need the support of those Americans who truly understand what it takes to defend democracy.
Shai Robkin is an American and Israeli citizen who volunteers on behalf of a number of organizations that work to strengthen Israeli democracy.