Netanyahu’s comeback is widening the divide over Israel among American Jews

Rabbi Rachel Timoner of Brooklyn had always valued Israel as a haven where Jews could strive for their highest ideals. But after Benjamin Netanyahu won a sixth term as prime minister this month with the help of two far-right parties, she was shaken.

The Israeli elections “have produced the most racist and far-right leadership Israel has ever seen,” Rabbi Timoner said at a recent Shabbat service at Beth Elohim parish in Park Slope. “Periodically, a kind of authoritarian, nationalist, fascist madness grips many countries of the world simultaneously,” she added, linking the Israeli election results to far-right politics in the United States, Italy and Hungary.

Not so long ago, speaking so forcefully against Israel’s leaders would have come as a shock to a pulpit rabbi in a hip Brooklyn neighborhood. But with the return of Mr. Netanyahu, a sense of unease about the Israeli government has grown among many American Jews.

Some American Jews welcomed the victory of Mr. Netanyahu and his coalition partners — particularly the Conservatives, a growing political bloc, and the Orthodox, the fastest-growing segment of the American Jewish population.

Liel Leibovitz and Tony Badran, writing in Tablet, a right-wing Jewish magazine, dismissed the concerns of liberal Jews as “squeaking about the end of democracy and the brink of war” in an essay after the results were announced. Taking a nickname for Mr. Netanyahu, they wrote: “Bibi remains the only adult in the room.”

The Orthodox Union, the largest umbrella organization of Orthodox Jewish groups in the United States, released a statement congratulating Mr Netanyahu and urging “the international community as well as the entire Jewish community” to do the same.

For more progressive Jews, this is not an easy request. For many, including supporters of the Reformed and Conservative movements, the sense of unease about Israel’s direction has perhaps never been more acute since the victory of Mr Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption and could face several years in prison.

Mr. Netanyahu has ruled Israel longer than any other leader, and his victory came as no shock to Israeli experts. The source of deepest concern for some in Israel and many in the United States was his partnership with the Religious Zionism Party, led by Bezalel Smotrich, and with Jewish Power, led by Itamar Ben-Gvir.

Mr Netanyahu has always been a right-wing leader. But in his previous tenures as prime minister, he almost always ruled in coalition with centrist parties, which limited the legal reach of his government.

Netanyahu’s far-right partners both have histories of hostility toward Israel’s Arab minority, which makes up about one-fifth of Israel’s population.

Mr. Smotrich’s ultimate goal is to impose Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank and ensure that Israel is governed by Torah law.

In its platform, the ultranationalist Jewish power calls for the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority, the annexation of the West Bank and the expulsion of those “not loyal to Israel”.

Mr Ben-Gvir was also a source of concern. He has expressed admiration for Meir Kahane, a politician who called for the expulsion of Israel’s Arab citizens and a ban on sex between Jews and non-Jews, and for Baruch Goldstein, a West Bank settler who killed 29 Palestinians and wounded 125 others , when he attacked a mosque in 1994. More recently, Mr Ben-Gvir has called for a law barring converts to non-Orthodox Judaism from claiming Israeli citizenship. Reformed and conservative religious groups condemned the proposal.

Israel held its fifth election since 2019 on November 1. Mr Netanyahu completed his comeback and won office just a year after being ousted from the post of prime minister on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. His alliance captured 64 seats, giving him a clear majority in the 120-seat parliament. On November 13, Israel’s President Isaac Herzog invited Mr Netanyahu to begin the weeks-long process of forming a government.

At B’nai Jeshurun, a synagogue on the Upper West Side, Rabbi Rolando Matalon also used a recent sermon to express his dismay at the election results. He told worshipers that Jewish Power is a “racist, Jewish racist” party that promotes “hateful and violent ideas.”

“My most dominant emotion is fear,” Rabbi Matalon said in an interview. “I’m afraid of the erosion of what was liberal democracy, democratic values, the judicial system.”

Mr Netanyahu has denied all criminal charges against him and said he would not interfere in the ongoing corruption process. However, some of his coalition partners have expressed support for forcing the judiciary to end the process entirely.

Affection for Israel is widespread among American Jews. About 80 percent said Israel is an essential or important part of what it means to them to be Jewish, and about 60 percent said they felt an emotional connection to it, according to a Pew Research study released last year Center. But less than half of American Jews had positive feelings for Mr Netanyahu, according to Pew.

Others, especially younger Jews, may not feel very connected to Israel at all. The Pew study found that 27 percent of American Jews between the ages of 18 and 29 said Israel is not an important part of what it means to them to be Jewish, a view shared by only 8 percent of those over 65- years was shared. 51 percent said they felt little or no connection to Israel.

This sense of fear of Israel was evident at Friday night Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Elohim, one of Brooklyn’s largest Reform synagogues.

Irvin Schonfeld, 75, balked at the mention of Mr Netanyahu, whom he accused of meddling in the 2016 election by criticizing the Obama administration.

“I don’t like these far-right parties because they contain an element of racism,” said Mr. Schonfeld. “I am firmly convinced that there is no place for this in politics.”

With Rachel Sternlicht, 27, the ambivalence is deeper. “I don’t feel like I’m entitled to this land and this space,” she said. “I feel the Palestinians have a bigger claim to this land than I do, but they don’t get to move around as freely as I did when I was there.”

Those feelings deepened after a visit to Israel last year, she said. She expected to feel connected to Israel, but instead felt even more alienated from it. “I’ve never felt so American in my life,” said Ms. Sternlicht. “I think Israel should exist, but I really think, as it is right now, there are enormous, enormous injustices and I find them morally repugnant.”

Jewish groups in the United States are divided in their response to Mr. Netanyahu’s re-election. Many including the American-Israeli Committee on Public Affairs and the Jewish Federations of North Americaappeared subdued, celebrating Israel’s democracy or congratulating it on its victory.

Others have expressed concerns. The Union for Reform Judaism said in a statement that adding Mr Ben-Gvir and Mr Smotrich to the government “would be painful for Jews worldwide who do not see the Israel they love and believe in in these leaders or.” reflected in politics they will pursue.”

The Anti-Defamation League said it was “very concerned” about the findings and warned that Mr Netanyahu’s coalition partners “have a long history of engaging in racist, anti-Arab, homophobic and other hateful behavior”.

She said her inclusion in the next Israeli government would “damage her standing, even among her strongest supporters.”

But some, who consider themselves staunch supporters of Israel, were pleased with the results.

Rabbi Pesach Lerner, an Orthodox leader in Queens and chair of the Eretz HaKodesh party in the World Zionist Organization, said many in his community saw a voice for Netanyahu as a voice for religious freedom and public safety. He balked at the idea that Mr Ben-Gvir could be racist towards Arabs.

“Yes, he wants to round up people he doesn’t think belong here,” Rabbi Lerner said. “He doesn’t say every Arab. He says the Arabs who hate Israel, who are bent on destroying Israel, who are associated with terrorists – they don’t belong here. If you play by the rules, welcome.”

Others agree that concern for Mr Netanyahu is overdone.

Nathan J. Diament, the executive director of the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, said Mr Netanyahu’s election was first and foremost a victory for democracy at a time when many Western democracies appear to be under threat.

He said it was premature to worry about Mr Netanyahu’s coalition partners or any possible policy. In any case, “the electorate knows what they voted for,” he said.

Anne Barnhard and Patrick Kingsley contributed reporting.