The following is a transcript of Episode 115 of the Identity Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.
Yehuda: Hi everyone. Welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer and we’re recording on Thursday, October 27th, 2022.
There’s a beautiful and suggestive little interpretation in the Midrashic book, Genesis Raba, which comments on a curiosity that appears in Genesis 32.
It’s an anxious moment in the Torah when Jacob’s about to re-encounter Esau after years apart from one another with lots of bad memories and a lot of bad blood. You see, Jacob had extorted his brother out of his birthright and then tricked their father to steal his brother’s blessing, and had then escaped upon hearing that his life was threatened.
So now, decades later, when the brothers meet again, how’s the encounter gonna go? Were Jacob and Esau to become brothers again, or sworn enemies? It’s an incredibly rich and full chapter about his fears and concerns, as if the Torah is begging us to understand and take seriously the gravity of what he’s nervous about.
So then in Genesis 32:8, the text of the Torah uses two verbs, “vayirah vayetzer lo,” to describe Jacob’s state of mind. He was very fearful and he was distressed. And as you all know, the midrash loves moments like this of duplication of words. What does the richness of the language suggest?
So in Genesis Raba, in the Midrash, Rabbi Yehuda son of Rabbi Eli said, “Aren’t fear and distress identical?” What do I gain from two different words? Rather, it must mean, the midrash says, that Jacob was afraid he would be slain by his brother, but he was also distressed that he might be the one doing the slaying.
I used to use this text a lot of my teaching in a class I’ve taught many times on power and powerlessness in the Jewish tradition. Conceptually, I think it’s a pretty good class. Jewish tradition takes power seriously and doesn’t really valorize the morality of powerlessness the way that Christian sources sometimes do. Our tradition advocates for the right, not only of self-defense, but for the right of preemptive self-defense.
Rabbi Akiva in the Talmud insists that when push comes to shove and either you or someone else can live, you have to actually prioritize your own life. You know, I’m crudely summarizing of course, but the ramifications of this kind of Torah are obvious and pressing for contemporary Jews. We have to come up with a way of living in a moment in Jewish history when we so clearly can remember the lowest moments of our own victimhood and vulnerability.
And at the same time, when we actually possess more power as a people than we ever had, the Jewish state has nuclear weapons, after all? How do we negotiate that dynamic? So Jacob’s dual fears, what might be done to him and what he might do are a useful opening gambit.
But I’ve taught this material a lot less over the last few years. It started to feel just to banal. Power and powerlessness are not equal weights on a scale with some obvious Aristotelian middle ground. Depicting them as such loses a lot of the abject terror that should rightly accompany both the feeling of real powerlessness and the severity of what it should mean to wield power over others.
But the bigger problem I have with this text is that questions of power and powerlessness really rarely ever appear exactly the same at the same time. Maybe a soldier in the midst of a really difficult moment while fighting a just war. Well, maybe that person can truly experience what Jacob is said to have experienced, but for most of us, questions of Jewish power and powerlessness are most of the time either far more subtle or they’re more far more obvious in the ways that they obligate us.
Does the Torah sufficiently help us understand what it means to take seriously its warnings on either end? Or does it just make us feel complacent and self-righteous, as we continue to blunder our way through conditions of Jewish history we’ve never quite experienced before?
This is our pre-Israeli election episode. It’s not actually an episode about Genesis or Genesis Raba. But a lot of news and analysis right now, including over at our sister podcast, For Heaven’s Sake, is focused on what we’re gonna talk about today, which is the piece of the Israeli election story that’s causing so many of us the most distress, the troubling rise of Itamar Ben Gvir, the Kahanist candidate for the Knesset who might have been illegal as a candidate in a earlier era of Israeli history, but current polling projects him to win upwards of 12 seats, 10% of the plenum.
This is the nightmare scenario of the misappropriation of the politics of powerlessness towards a politics of ruthlessness, a rise of demagoguery that exploits the feeling of vulnerability towards its own political ends. You know, I have to say, I really do try to live optimistically. I feel like believing in the possibility that the future will be better than the present is the only way to fuel a life in education.
But I’m feeling pretty bereft and one of the only things that has helped me of late on this issue is listening for voices in Israeli society who are responsibly drawing a line in the sand about Ben Gvir, and not merely criticizing him or questioning his legitimacy, but willing to ask about the larger social ills and dysfunctions that are bringing him about.
So I invited one of those people here today. Yaakov Kaz is the editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Post, the author of several acclaimed books on political and Israel’s political and military establishments, and he is published extensively across major global media outlets. Yaakov also previously worked in politics for Naftali Bennett when Bennett was Minister of Education and Diaspora Affairs.
And last week his opinion piece was titled Ben Gvir is a Danger to Israel and He is What the Election is About. I invited Yaakov also because Yaakov represents, I think, a mainstream position in Israel, you know, it’s not a left-wing publication, the Jerusalem Post. And the decision by the editor in chief of such a publication to speak so explicitly and clearly against a particular Israeli politician is the use of significant social and political capital to take a stand.
So thanks for joining me and, um, and let’s start right there. Why here, why now? What does the stand against Ben Gvir represent for you and even for the publication that you, uh, that you represent?
Yaakov: Well, it’s great to be with you Yehuda, and I thank you for the opportunity. It’s a good question and I, I grappled with it for a while. Honestly, I, for a long time had been very concerned about general Israel democracy. Uh, I feel that the last five, uh, elections, we’re on the eve of the fifth, has led to a very, a corrosive state within Israeli society.
Cause for, just three years, there’s constant mudslinging and constant, you’re wrong, I’m right. My guy’s the right guy, your guy’s the wrong guy, whatever it is. And it, and it just, it never ends. And when you’re in this constant cycle, you never can just take a breath and, and relax and that’s not healthy.
And compound that with the fact that we have a, uh, now former Prime Minister, but through most, through four of the elections, he was the prime minister who’s on trial, who’s clearly fighting for his legal and political survival, and putting that as the number one on his agenda. Everything else falls second to that, that’s also made the situation bad.
So it was in general, I would say not, not the best mood, but Ben Gvir really takes things to a whole other level. He is, in my view, a combination of an American white supremacist together with a European fascist, all in one. He’s everything I think the people who founded this state, the people who fought and continue to fight and die for this state do not believe in.
He is against coexistence between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians. He is against minority rights. Members of his party are against the gay community, LGBTQ rights. And what finally prompted me to write this piece was that I understand and I, something that’s obvious, right, but, but I think just needs to be said is, you know, people think, oh, it’s just a convenient marriage, Netanyahu wants a 61 coalition, so if he can get it, he’ll get it with these guys, and everything will be great.
No. Netanyahu wants, first and foremost to find a way out of his trial. For him to get that he needs these guys and these guys will give it to him. Smotritch, Ben Gvir, and everyone else in that party. But for them to give him that they will need to get something in return. And what they want in return is what I think, Netanyahu, passing legislation to get out of his trial, that’s gonna be small peanuts compared to what these guys want.
These guys want to change the democratic character of the state of Israel. They wanna upend it the way we know it. They want to change the rule of law. They wanna undermine the courts. They wanna weaken the judges. They wanna change the way people can open the Attorney General’s powers to open investigations to fight corruption. They wanna cancel some of the charges against the Prime Minister, they wanna say there’s no longer fraud and corruption in politics.
And they want to institute Jewish law in Halakha. And I wear a kippa, I keep Shabbat, I keep kosher. I try to be a good Jew, but that’s not what Israel is, right? So this has me all very concerned. And, uh, it brought me, I, I felt compelled to write that piece.
Yehuda: Right, so I want to get to where Ben Gvir comes from, so it’s not just about the decision to speak about Ben Gvir but about the phenomenon itself. But I, I do want to pick up on something you said.
You said he combines aspects of an American white supremacist with a European fascist. And at the end, you made reference to your own Jewishness. But I would say there’s a third piece of Ben Gvir.
He’s not purely a white supremacist or a European fascist. He’s also a Jew. And that’s, I, to me, that’s one of the
Yaakov: He’s our own.
Yehuda: That’s right. So this is in the house. I, I remember when I was a teenager on an Israel trip, I was on a Bnei Akiva summer program and we were sent out to home hospitality in people’s houses. And I, I went to stay in someone’s house in Bat Yam. A kid my age who was the Bnei Akiva equivalent in Israel. And it was the only time in my life I walk into the room and I’m sleeping under a picture of Meir Kahane.
This is in 1992, had it been four years later, probably been a picture of Baruch Goldstein and I, you know, I was, Incredibly offended and raised to be polite. So I obviously didn’t say anything. I stayed there all Shabbat. But it was really troubling and I feel that that’s a metaphor of like, it’s in our house, it’s in our network, it’s in our community, in our system.
So there’s something more than just, here’s a dangerous politician who’s risen in Israeli society. Here’s a dangerous politician who actually represents, in some ways, a value system, to which we feel an enormous amount of proximity. You could reflect a little bit on that.
Yaakov: No. A hundred percent. And I’ll tell you, a lot of people pushed back. Why am I making such a big deal? Why are we calling up Ben Gvir? Why are we picking on him? The Swedes have their far right. Italy just elected someone who’s a nationalistic far-right politician to be the Prime Minister.
You look around the world, Bolsonaro is about to win again, maybe in Brazil in this election that’s taking place next week and it goes on and on. And you know, Israel is part of the global trend. I don’t care about the global trend, right? I mean, I do, but I care about what’s happening here in my home.
And I would want us to be different. I would want us to strive to be better. I know that we can be. I know that there are alternatives. I know that there’s a different way of doing things. And therefore that doesn’t bring me any comfort. I think that to some people it does bring comfort cause they say, you know, it’s happening all over the world. This is the moment, this is the trend, this is the time, and therefore we should just come to terms with it.
I don’t accept that because I know that as Jews we can be better. We know how to do better. And the state of Israel, in my view at least, and again, this is just my personal opinion, wasn’t created for these types of politicians to take power. Of course it’s democracy. And people can choose as they like.
Yehuda: Well, yeah. Although, well now we could talk about that. I mean, I, one of the things that’s been driving me crazy actually about those who would defend Ben Gvir is Ben Gvir is proof of Israeli democracy because in a free, unfair election, which let’s hope that it is, in a free and fair election, the voice of the people is choosing this and which is a totally crude misunderstanding of democracy.
Democracy is not merely which candidate gets the most votes. It’s the rule of the majority that is coupled with a respect for the rights of the minority, cause otherwise all it is, is tyranny of the majority. It’s not actually democracy. The fact that a fascist wins an election, is not evidence of the health of the democracy. It’s just, it’s actually evidence of something else that’s broken.
So in your article, you ask how did this happen. How did someone who threatened Yitzchak Rabin as a teenager, who hung a picture of the mass murderer Baruch Goldstein in his house, who was a prominent member in an outlaw group and who was convicted of incitement, become legitemate?
So there’s actually, your question is, become legitimate. There’s two questions here, I really am curious, as a journalist, can you help us explain, how does Ben Gvir get legitimized in the Israeli public sphere, and then the second question is, how does he become a plausible electoral figure?
Because you could become legitimate but still be marginal. But there’s kind of two phases that seemed to have happened in this process.
Now we can talk about that. own moral credibility for right wing positions would go down.
Yaakov: Yeah. I think there’s a lot that’s happened in Israel, right? Israel’s changed to a large extent. Often I hear, and I’m sure you do as well, Israel’s turned to the right and Israel’s become more right wing, and I think there’s some truth to that, and I also would push back and I would say in some aspects of life we’ve become more right wing definitely when it comes to security and diplomatic matters.
We understand we have to be strong and we have to take a tough stance. And no one even talks about, you know, the Labor Party. You even hear them talk about a two-state solution today, right? So the Palestinian conflict is not even an issue. It’s no longer the fault line for what means right or what means left.
But I think there’s also parts of society that have moved to the left. The fact that so many Jews don’t wanna be married through the rabbinate. Uh, other aspects. I don’t wanna get into that, but I do think that when it comes to security there was a big turning point, I think during Shomer Chomot, guarding the walls, the operation that took place in May of 2021 when we saw riots in mixed cities across the country. Lod, Yaffa, uh, Akko, and other places.
That was a moment in time that I think to a large number of Israelis there was a feeling that this is the kind of stuff that happens on the other side of the green line. This happens in the West Bank. We don’t have these riots and we don’t have these lynches of Jews on the streets of Haifa or Akko or Bat Yam or wherever these things happen.
And Ben Vere in a very sophisticated way, capitalized on that with very clear, black and white, we have to be stronger. We have to scare them, we have to deter them. We have to show them strength, and tapped into a fear that people have.
And people started to feel that it’s not just when you cross a machsom, when you cross a checkpoint into the West Bank, that you have to look over your shoulder or constantly be looking, is someone gonna come and shoot you, maybe.
But it could also happen on the streets of Israel proper, right, if we wanna call it that. Within any of these cities. And not just by East Jerusalem Arabs who aren’t Israeli citizens or by Palestinians who illegally cross in and infiltrate, but also by Israeli Arabs who could take up arms and decide to kill us.
And he managed to use that, I would say, in a very sophisticated way. He also moderated himself a bit. He’s always been a rabble-rouser. He’s always been around. I’ve known the guy for 20 years, right? I remember him back during the beginning of the second Intifada, he was at all the major protests. I remember him during the disengagement. He was a, you know, a prominent, but pretty much just a right-wing activist.
But he’s managed to rebrand himself in that way, and I think that, at the end of the day, there’s that. What I add to it also though, is we really haven’t had anyone in the Israeli government in the last few years talk about a vision for coexistence between Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs, or Israelis and Palestinians.
The Palestinian conflict has been thrown as if to the wastebasket. No one talks about it. No one lays out a vision of how that can be resolved and when there’s an absence. And yes, t’s true that the last government did bring Ra’am in, and there was some attempt towards some something, which is, in my view, historic.
But when, when you create this vacuum and even the moderates aren’t willing to talk about it, what you’re doing is you’re allowing these more radical and extreme elements to take over and to start to spread what they believe to be true. So that also plays a role into it.
But I think what even more so is what’s legitimized him. You know, those are maybe the cultural reasons behind it that I could identify, but I think that what legitimized him is, is actually it’s who legitimized him. It’s Benjamin Netanyahu. And as you know, Yehuda, it wasn’t that long ago when Meir Kahane, the guy whose picture you slept under in Bat Yam, back in the nineties, was in the Knesset.
And Yitzchak Shamir, who no one could say was a left-wing prime minister. This guy was as right-wing as they came, get up and walk out of the Knesseet plenum because he was not willing to legitimize who was so full of hate and racism against Arabs in this country.
Netanyahu has taken a completely different approach, and by the way, you know, I don’t know this for. But I would argue, mean Netanyahu is a thoughtful man, he’s a smart man. He has intellectual depth that I’ve, I’ve gotten to know all the politicians over the last 25 years, let’s say, that’s unparalleled, really, to a large extent. He cannot really wanna sit with a guy like this, but he is in a position, and that’s why I go back to what I mentioned before about the trial and the corruption charges. It changes everything. It corrupt the whole system.
Yaakov: And therefore he has said, that not only is this guy gonna be a member of my coalition, I’m gonna make him a minister And that changes everything.
Yehuda: It’s such a weird thing that’s been taking place, because on the one hand, it’s clearly running through Ben Gvir. 12 seats helps Netanyahu. On the other hand he has done some symbolic things, like refusing to actually show up on a stage recently, at a rally, with Ben Gvir, until Ben Gvir left the stage.
So Netanyahu, there is some consciousness of, I need to leverage Ben Gvir, but not be tainted by him. But I, I would think that the difference between Netanyahu and Shamir, I mean there’s a thousand differences. But it wasn’t just that they didn’t want to legitimate Kahanism. They also knew that if they were mistaken for Kahanism, their own moral credibility for right-wing positions would go down. So it was actually also in their interest.
So something else has changed. Maybe it’s all about Netanyahu’s own political survival, but it does feel like it changes, very significantly, what holding to a right-wing position in Israel is willing to incorporate under its tent, as pro-right-wing positions. Right? It feels bigger than that. It can’t simply be about Netanyahu and his own politics. Or can it?
Yaakov: You see, I, a, it’s a good question. I don’t know. I think to a large extent we see what’s happening around the world. Getting to what we were talking about before. Nationalism is on the rise. People are moving to the right, in many cases, anti-immigration, anti-minority. I mean, these aren’t ideas that are just unique to Israel.
We see them everywhere. But I do think the Likud party was not this kind of party. Netanyahu himself for years was the greatest protector of the courts. That’s not Yakov Katz saying that. Our own Barak, the former Supreme Court president who the right wing today blames and points their finger at as the man who took too much autonomy and independence in his court decisions.
He said it just a few months ago when there was a possibility of a plea deal that was on the table for Netanyahu. He said that Netanyahu should get the plea deal because he was always the man who protected the courts. So something changed. And what was that thing that changed? It was the trial and these charges that were brought against him.
So I do think is that, that is the source for a lot of it. Of course, there’s all those other elements that are here, but I think if we didn’t havd this trial taking place at the moment, I don’t know that Netanyahu would be doing this. It wouldn’t be needed also right, Yehuda, because if Lapid and Gantz were able to sit with Netanyahu, you would have an amazing government.
You would have a moderate centrist government made up of Likud, Yesh Atid, and Benny Gantz. You wouldn’t need any of the Haredi parties, the ultra-orthodox parties. You wouldn’t need any of the Arab parties that, they together, based on polls right now, we just had our latest poll, the last one before election, Likud is 31. Lapid is 25, so that’s right there is 56, and Benny Gantz is 12. You’re at 68. Right, you’re done. You don’t need any, and you don’t need any of those small interest groups that could extort you.
And imagine what a government like that could do. Moderate, centrist, in the middle. They could do great things for the state of Israel, but that’s not possible because of the individuals that are at play.
Yehuda: Yeah, it also raises the normalization question. So if Netanyahu is basically willing to sit with Ben Gvir, then it puts a pressure on the Lapids to say, I won’t sit with him, because they’re sitting with Ben Gvir. And I, politically, is that the right thing? I don’t know. Morally it kind of sounds right.
Because if Likud, through Netanyahu, has changed the goalposts on legitimizing far-right fascist position as being plausibly within the mainstream of Israeli politics, then it’s not sufficient to simply write an op-ed about it in a newspaper. It might be that politicians need to refuse to normalize that in a political system, even at the cost, of actually then, actually paving the way for those guys to sit in the government.
Yaakov: Well, I mean, what you’re also touching on is a fear that some voters who are debating whether they should vote between Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid. And we all remember that Benny Gantz did join a government with Netanyahu after he said he wouldn’t. And that was under the pretense of Covid at the time, and that was, you know, a state of emergency.
But there are those who say that he would potentially do it again because his argument would be if the numbers add up. But right now they don’t in the polls that, I have to pay this price to come in to prevent Ben Gvir from being in a coalition. And maybe that be justification that voters would forgive, for him, again, violating and breaking his promise in his word. I, I don’t necessarily,, he promises again that he won’t do that.
But that does open up the question, should you fall on your political sword to prevent Ben Gvir from entering a government? Should Lapid for example break, violate, his promise not to do a unity government with Neyanyahu, which by the way, if he was willing to sit with Netanyahu, Netanyahu would let him be prime minister first, without a doubt, but he won’t do that.
And maybe there’s an argument to be made, we have to put the country first. Cause if there’s a 61 that Netanyahu has with Ben Gvir, maybe Lapid does need to violate and break that promise.
It, it’ll be interesting to see how the numbers fall and where it goes in that sense, but I do think, you know, what makes him, Ben Gvir, this danger to democracy, and, and, and I’ll say something even more than that. Give them one year, right, because people say, no he’ll have 61, it’ll be a narrow government, it won’t last.
All they need is one year. One year to potentially change the way this country looks. It’s balance of separation of powers, the independence of our court system. And what it looks like. I mean, you know I’ll give you one example, which shocked me.
I’m watching the evening news one night on Channel 13, and there’s a reporter who’s spending the day with Itamar Ben Gvir, he lives in the city of Chevron, in the Jewish community, and they’re looking out at the Palestinians and the city is most, almost exclusively Palestinians. There’s just a few thousand Jews who live there, even if that much.
And he says to him, what are you, how you gonna get rid of these Palestinians? You say you don’t want them?
No, no. We’re gonna set up a ministry for migration. We’re gonna, we’re gonna set up an office to get people to encourage people to migrate and to leave. And the guy says, how are you gonna do that? Where are they gonna go? And he says, no, in Europe they need, and he says in Hebrew, yadayim ovdot, they need working hands.
And I’m thinking to myself, and maybe, I don’t know, maybe it’s just me, grandson Holocaust survivors, I don’t know. I’m thinking to myself, seriously, like we’re talking about deporting people to go work? Like weren’t we there so long ago in our history? And people are quiet? And no one is shouting from the rooftops when they’re hearing this? To me, it’s shocking.
Yehuda: So let’s talk about the electorate, right, so, it’s kind of amazing to me that anyone would see Netanyahu as not sufficiently right-wing enough, when it comes to security, when it comes to crime. That’s the brand that he built since the assassination of Rabin in 1995. He has always depicted himself, his whole story, brand is built on, I am the person who will keep you safe.
If ten percent, whatever percentage of the electorate is voting for Ben Gvir, so, let’s segment a piece of it, are themselves, extremists. But I don’t believe, and I, I suspect that you don’t belive that that percentage of the state of Israel, who are voting in the system, are actually themselves extremists.
And we know this, by the way, it’s a hard pill to swallow, but like, many of us, it took a while to recognize that like, when we were dealing with the rise of right-wing demagoguery in this country, in the 2016 election, you could not plausibly say that the 45-46 percent of Americans who voted for Donald Trump were all themselves pro-demagoguery. A great deal of them were Republican voters who were gonna vote for whoever was on the Republican ticket.
So how do you understand the makeup of the Ben Gvir electorate? Segment out the extremists. And why do they not view Netanyahu as being sufficiently strong on issues of military and security that they need someone even more extreme?
Yaakov: So I think there’s three types of people who are voting for him. There are those extremists, and they exist, and you know, that makes up several thousands of people.
You have the people who feel that Netanyahu always, what he ends up doing, and if it, historically, it makes sense, it is the case, he makes a government, he always brings in a party to the left. Right, the last people he calls are the people to his right. That’s the relationship he had with Naftali Bennett for many years, who was in the Jewish Home party, or Yemima party, to his right.
But he would always first go to the parties to his left, whether it was Ehud Barak, back in 2009, who he brought into his coalition, whether it was Tzipi Livni, who in 2013 he brought into his coalition. He always searched for that person. So they want to strengthen the right side of Netanyahu, to ensure that Netanyahu stays right.
There’s also that feeling and Ben Gvir and Smotritch are playing up that card. They openly speak about that, right? That Netanyahu needs us next to him so he, we can keep him right-wing.
And then there’s the third part, I think the third typecast of voter who is saying that at least now in the polls, that they’re gonna vote for the religious Zionist party. Those are people who are confused. And who feel like they don’t have a home anymore. And you know, the pollsters talk about how there’s maybe two to three seats that’s about anywhere from 90,000 to 110, 115,000 people who are actually debating between voting the Ben Gvir Smotritch party and even parties like Benny Gantz.
And you say to yourself, how is that possible? How can one a person be in the same place in his or her mind, that one day they’re saying they’re voting for Ben Gvir, who I believe is a racist, right? And someone who’s completely, I mean, you know, whether you think he’s racist or not, but completely against any reconciliation with the Palestinians, the Palestinian State, independence, and a party that has Benny Gantz and Gadi Eisenkot.
They’re pretty left wing, right? I mean, good guys, but they’re pretty left wing. So how, how can you move back and forth between those two parties? And I think that those are people who, it might have been classic Likud voters once upon a time, but they’re a bit fed up with Bibi. They think he might be corrupt. They understand that he’s not focused on advancing the nation like he used to be. Now he’s focused on his own personal survival.
So they’re looking for somewhere to sit and, and park their vote and, and they don’t know where. So they’re confused, and there’s a lot of people who are attracted to Ben Gvir and to the simple messages that he’s saying of be strong, fight back, deter, scare. That works.
By the way, when he’s already, I mean, he’s polling at our, our polls show 14 seats. Okay. 14 seats, that’s a huge number. And it’s not just those extremists. And it’s not just religious people. There’s a ton of secular people voting for, voting for the religious Zionist party. They’re voting for them because they want right-wing, but they don’t want necessarily Bibi, and the seats where he’s getting, maybe 2 of them could potentially go to Gantz, but he’s polling 4-5 from Netanyahu himself.
Yehuda: Yeah. You have brought us to a different kind of tragedy over Israeli history which is about religious Zionism itself. And for probably the first half of Israeli history, religious Zionisms were a signficant force in the Israeli political system.
And they represented something that is like an endangered species today. They were, religious zionists, on the religious side, on the Zionist side, nationalists, connected to the land of Israel, and also profoundly humanists. And actually the religious Zionist party really declined for like a thirty year period, and now its made a comeback as an anti humanist party.
And it’s, I mean, on a personal level I find that devstating, I don’t know where those rabbis are anymore. We know there was a phase of time, where like, you know, the Melchiors of the world just tried to become politically viable, and just never could. What happened to religious Zionism in this?
Because when you have a religious Zionism that’s not only antihumanist but is actually attracting secular Jews, you know it’s weirdly lost its way, because its no longer so committed to its values of religious Zionism that it wants to even keep its own camp committed to those values. You know, its just politically opportunistic.
Yaakov: You know, I, I, I’ll tell you about a conversation I had the other day with Elazar Stern, who, uh, is a religious Zionist, a former general in the IDF, and he’s number seven, I think, on the Yeish Atid list, which is, uh, Yair Lapid’s party and, and I like him. Good guy. And, you know, big proponent of conversion reform, big proponent of the big tent of opening it up of even certain separations of religion and state.
He believes in the classic sense of what religious Zionism is, which is the bridge, right, between the religion, religious people and secular people and, and, and serving that bridge, and a connector of different types and, and being a humanist.
And he says to me, but Yaakov, but those voters are out there, right? There are people like you, like me, like others. And I said to him, Elazar, yeah, I mean, you know, I live in Jerusalem in a neighborhood called Baka. I’m like, yeah, there’s probably some in Baka, there’s some in Ra’anana, maybe a few in Modi’in. But that’s about it, right? They’re not there in the big numbers.
And I think where they’ve gone and what’s happened is is this is, the change in the party. It became a one issue party. And the one issue for many years became just the Palestinian issue. They gave up, you know, for a long time. You had people, like Zevulun Hammer, uh, Yosef Burg, sorry, Avraham Burg’s father.
Yehuda: Yosef Burg. Yeah.
Yaakov: Yeah. Yosef Burg. These were people who were real Mamlachti statesmen, believed in national unity, were famed education and interior ministers in this country. But they don’t even want that portfolio anymore, right? It’s not about that. It’s about what, what can they do to build settlements? What can they do to legalize legal outposts? What can they do to prevent any diplomatic process with the Palestinians?
That’s what it’s become. It’s become a single issue movement today. And I think that that’s what’s contributed to this just dramatic change in the political force that we used to know of religious Zionists, which by the way, they’ll tell you, Yehuda, what do you mean? Look how big we are today. I mean, we’re polling at 14 seats. It’s incredible, right?
Yehuda: Yeah, right, no, that’s the trap of populism, right? People like it, you know, people like it. And that, that affirms to the people who are behind it that all you need to do is sell a story that people actually like. It’s the death of principles.
So let’s go back to the rebranding of Ben Gvir, you, you used that term earlier, that he got rebranded in the Israeli public. I saw this, and I felt outraged by it also, some outrage on Twitter and elsewhere, and about the ways that the television shows, you know, brought him on. One of them did like, hey, we’re making you know, schnitzel with Itamar Ben Gvir.
Uh, how does an independent media do this well? Because, on one hand, you can put out a signed, or an unsigned editorial of like, I think thos candidate’s bad for democracy. On the other hand, you do have to cover the election. You can’t pretend that he doesn’t exist.
And obviously, like Trump, you know, in America exploited this unbelievably well, went from nowhere, and basically got, you know, a billion dollars plus of media through social media to built out his campaign.
I’m curious how you think about that story of the role of the media in covering these elections, to both responsibly tell people what the options are that available to them, and also know that you’re participating in reshaping the brand identity of a whole bunch of different politicians.
Yaakov: You know, a a, a minister in the government told me just yesterday, he said, we were talking about Ben Gvir and I again said, I think Netanyahu is largely responsible. He said, no, the people who are most responsible for what’s happened to Ben Gvir is you guys in the media.
You’re constantly bringing him on, tou’re constantly writing about him, you’re constantly interviewing him, you’re constantly putting photos of him in the newspaper. You guys have legitimized him. And I think that there is, you know, we’re not yet at the postmortem, or the elections are not yet over. That’ll come, I’m sure. But I think it the the comparison that you made with Trump of how he did capitalize on that.
I mean he brought ratings, he brought traffic, right? He brought viewers and readers and clicks. And I think that that’s very much what we’re seeing here as well. People are captured by him. They’re fascinated. He puts on a good show. He’s a good communicator. And he enjoys the fight, he doesn’t shy away from the tough questions, some other politicians do when you interview them.
And therefore that is appealing to a media that is trying desperately to keep its consumers and its readers and its viewers and listeners in a very competitive environment.
And so I think that we’re all sinning, maybe, in that sense. But we’re also all running businesses. I think we can’t pretend as if the media is not a business. It is, right, and everybody does have to feed a, an economic beast of sorts, and today Ben Gvir is one of the tools that’s being used, definitely, by the mainstream Israeli media.
But I also think that, you know, I’m not sure that ignoring would have solved the problem. Because don’t forget, with social media today, you do have ways to still transmit your messages, to communicate to the public, even if you don’t have the ability to be every day on Channel 12 or Channel 13 or Channel 11, the three big commercial channels in Israel, where he is pretty much every single day.
Yehuda: I thought the best example of the pathos of this problem, it was the Eretz Nehaderet skit, which is you know, kind of Israeli, kind of equivalent of Saturday Night Live, a little bit edgier politically, I think, which depicted Ben Gvir’s rise politically, and it was set musically to the song from the Producers, Springtime for Hitler.
So Ben Gvir, coming out to Springtime for Hitler, and I’m watching this, laughing, crying, a little bit, and also recognizing that Israelis don’t know Springtime for Hitler. So it was like this weird subtle move, the producers know this, I mean of the show, not the Producers. They know what they’re doing, the satirists know it, but I’m not sure that the Israeli audience actually fully knows the extent of that. But outside of Israel, they certainly do.
So let’s talk about that for a second. This has massive ramifications for Israel’s reputation in the world. What happens there? On one hand, it’s historic normalcy. And look, we have fascists too. On the other hand, I’m deeply concernd about what this does for the story of Zionism in the American Jewish community, and it validats those who are, or have been arguing for a long time, there’s no difference between Netanyahu, Ben Gvir, and the regular Israeli population. What, what do you think? What do you think that’s gonna actually look like?
Yaakov: Yeah. Well, I mean, I’ll, I’ll say two things. The first is, let me just add to what you’re saying is if I’m the Palestinians today and, you know, Palestinian leadership and I actually spoke to a few people to try to gauge the pulse there, they would love for Bibi to get 61 and for Ben Gvir to come to power.
Right? Because right now with Lapid, Lapid plays the game. He speaks at the UN, he says two states, you know, he, Benny Gantz, hosts Abu Mazen at his home. So is there a diplomatic process? No. But is it a government that’s moderate? Yes. And that, that can be swallowed well by the world. But a Ben Gvir, Bibi, Smotritch government, that’s the best weapon that the Palestinians could come up with to delegitimize and demonize, uh, and get Israel even more attacked on the global stage.
Yehuda: Well, but, but wait, I do have to push back. I’m sure that there are Palestinians politicians and strategists who believe that. But I would believe that the mass majority of Palestinian citizens of Israel are not hoping for this, but are desperately afraid of it.
So as much as we feel bad and embarrassed about the emergence of Ben Gvir, we are not those who are existentially threatened by Ben Gvir. The people who are existentially threatened are Palestinians.
Yaakov: Very true. Very true. But if you are thinking about how you can do a campaign against Israel, this is a great tool for that campaign. And that leads me to what I was gonna say next, which is, I don’t envy people like you, and other Jewish organizations around, uh particularly let’s say the United States, who often find themselves in a position that they have to defend the state of Israel and defend the Jewish state.
And are they gonna be able to do that today I mean, you know, Hartman is too very different. But what would AIPAC do? What would the AJC do tomorrow, when they’re gonna be asked? The AIPAC lobbyists are gonna go up to Capitol Hill and they’re gonna walk into some Senate office and they’re gonna start to lobby and push for Israel, and they’re gonna say, we can’t give money to a country like this anymore.
And what are they gonna say? You know, so we got our fascists just like everybody has their fascists? I mean, that’s not gonna go over well. I think that they’re in a huge dilemma right now and it’s something they don’t wanna really talk about. And we’re trying to talk to some of those Jewish groups get the feeling there.
But it’s going to put them in a very complicated situation, which I think they’re just staying quiet cause they’re hoping it’s not gonna happen. Right. So it’s better to just kind of pretend it’s not happening until it actually happens, then try to figure out what you say and what you do. But I don’t know that you know, Ted Deutch is a nice guy like him, former congressman, new head of AJC, the American Jewish Committee.
How’s he gonna go on MSNBC and defend Israel, when it’s gonna be questions about Itamar Ben Gvir? What’s he gonna be able to say?
Yehuda: But Yaakov, this goes back to where I started. I, maybe it’s not that coplicated. Maybe to say that it’s complicated plays into our own deterioration here. That we say, oh, to protect Israel or to defend Israel against its critics means I have to find a way to soft step around the racists and fascists who I think are in the house and constitute an equal, if not greater threat to what it is that we’re trying to do in the world.
Why should it be, this is not for you to answer, it’s actually for my side of the water to answer. Why should it be standard practice for Jewish organizations to not challeng themselves to be able to differentiate between broad support for the state of Israel, broad advocacy for its citizens to be safe from existential threats, deep criticism of individual actors, parties, ministers.
I don’t, maybe we’re making it
Yaakov: I mean, what you’re saying, I, I, I, I agree with what you’re saying, but it’s a very nuanced, delicate, conversation that a lot of these organizations have never really had until now. So for them, it’s a dramatic change. You know, if you look at some of these groups, and you know them better than I do, they’re behind whatever governments here, right.
And now it’s gonna be a little more nuanced, let’s say. So they’re gonna have to maneuver complicated waters.
Yehuda: Yeah, I saw uh, one indicator of this actually, even just yesterday, I saw on Twitter, Jewish News Surface, which is a right wing media outlet here, in the Jewish community in America, had some headline on Twitter. I had to read it multiple times, which said something like, “The Rise of Ben Gvir and Why the Left Calls Him Racist.”
I was like there’s a dissertation in that Tweet. Because once, quote unquote, the left, calls somebody racist in a partisan environment, the right stops interrogating whether they’re racist. They start making it about the language of the left. Like that’s the ultimate way in which the racism gets normalized, as opposed to being a descriptor of somebody’s positions which are anti-Palestinian, homophobic, and mysoginistic.
It’s, oh no, you’re just borrowing the talking points of people who are trying to be political opportunists. That’s, its kind of when you know you’ve lost, because now I can’t actually argue about racism, I could just get my guy to win or your guy to win.
Yaakov: I, I mean, I’ve seen, I, I’ve seen Jewish organizations, uh, one in particular that wrote a piece where they said they were trying to explain how the media doesn’t understand Ben Gvir. And it’s a media problem. It’s not a social, political problem that Israel faces.
It’s a huge problem. And ultimately we will see what Israel will do, what the Jewish community will do, worldwide.
Yehuda: Yeah, paging Hannah Arendt.
Last um, last thing, we’ve got a week until the election or so, last things you tell us of what to watch for, as uh, as we lead into this. This will probably air right before the election. So any other trends to be watching for or listening for around the electorate? Any um, November surprises that you think could have an impact on how the story plays out?
Yaakov: So, so here in Israel, we’ve coined the term the gevalt, right? The great gevalt, which is, uh, I guess Yiddish for yelling gevalt, something has happened. But here it’s reference to the small parties. The ones that are kind of teetering on the verge of disappearing off the political map, if they don’t cross the electoral threshold right here, you need three and a quarter percent of the entire pie of votes to be able to even get into the Knesset.
So it’s Meretz, it’s Labor, it’s Ra’am, which is the Arab party that was part of the coalition. It’s Hadash, which is another Arab party. They’re gonna yell gevalt because they’re gonna wanna make sure that they cross and they’re gonna want to try to get best some votes back from within the bloc that they’re losing them to. Meretz and Labor are particularly losing them to, uh, Yesh Atid and to Benny Gantz, a bit.
The Arabs want to get out the Arab vote, which is not expected to be particularly high. It’s always lower than the general vote and the Jewish vote, definitely, but they want to try to bring that up to, now they’re estimating to be 50%. Can they get that up to 60%? That would make a huge difference.
And it’ll be interesting to see the messages that kind of Netanyahu is pushing. He’s been very quiet. In the past he’s done blitz of interviews. Kind of the day before grabbing any microphone. You could just stand on a street corner with a mic and he’ll grab it to start talking.
Uh, I don’t know. So far it doesn’t seem like that’s what their strategy is going to be. He’d prefer not to make mistakes than to make mistakes. But that I wouldn’t expect any massive kind of October surprise in the way that, you know, you sometimes reference it in the United States, but that’s what will be interesting and turnout is really going to be key.
It’s always key in every election, but here it is because of the way our system is built. Whatever your percentage is of the general vote it means is how big you will be. So for example, if there are not a lot of Arabs who voted and Likud gets a big percentage of the overall votes, that means their piece of that pie is gonna be much bigger than we thought.
So it’s about, everyone is gonna be working very hard on making sure that their people are out on Tuesday, November 1st voting.
Yehuda: I saw one statistic which said, I have no idea if this was an accurate poll, I have no idea about the measurements, that said 70 percent of Israeli Arabs are intending to vote. If that happens, that’s an earthquake, cause 45 percent voted, I think either last election or the one before. So that would be a significant change, and I paused to acknowledge how significant it is that many of us who identify as Zionists view the necessity of Arab turnout as being one of the variables that is essential for a Jewish and democratic state.
Yaakov: Yeah. That’s pretty remarkable.
Yehuda: Well thank you, Yaakov, Katz of the Jerusalem Post, uh for being here today on our show, and for your leadership.
Yaakov: Thank you, Yehuda.
Yehuda: Identity Crisis is produced by David Zvi Kalman, was edited by Gareth Hobbs and Corey Choi at Silver Sound NYC. Our production manager is M Louis Gordon. The show is produced with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz with music provided by so-called.
Transcripts of our show are now available on the website, typically about a week after episode airs. To find them to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute can visit us online shalomhartman.org. We’re always looking for ideas for what we should cover in future episodes. If you have a topic you want us to hear about, a book you want us to read, or if you have comments on this episode, please write to us at [email protected]
You can rate and review the show on iTunes to help more people find it. You can subscribe to the show everywhere podcasts are available. We’ll see you next week, and thanks for listening.