Skip To Content
JEWISH. INDEPENDENT. NONPROFIT.

Support the Forward

Funded by readers like you DonateSubscribe
News

U.S. Jewish groups face major dilemma as Israeli far right gains in election polls

In 2019, America’s Jewish establishment raised the alarm on Benjamin Netanyahu legitimizing the most extreme forces in Israeli politics. Three years on, with Itamar Ben-Gvir on the verge of power, their silence is deafening

This article originally appeared on Haaretz, and was reprinted here with permission. Sign up here to get Haaretz’s free Daily Brief newsletter delivered to your inbox.

Ahead of Israel’s November 1 election, pro-Israel members of Congress are issuing stark warnings that bringing Israel’s far right into a governing coalition would be disastrous for the U.S.-Israel relationship.

At the same time, prominent American-Jewish organizations that harshly denounced extremist leader Itamar Ben-Gvir and his Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party in 2019 have remained silent this time around – despite the fact that Ben-Gvir enjoys growing support and has been turned into a legitimate potential coalition partner by opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

Ben-Gvir’s growing popularity in Israel seems to be why these Jewish groups are shying away from making any comments on his inclusion in a future government.

In the three years since then-Prime Minister Netanyahu first pushed Otzma Yehudit to merge with other right-wing Orthodox parties prior to the April 2019 election, the far-right party has gained unprecedented levels of support. Netanyahu’s chances of returning to power fully depend on Ben-Gvir and the right-wing Religious Zionism alliance he leads together with MK Bezalel Smotrich. Recent polls show them earning 12 to 14 of the 120 Knesset seats if the election were held tomorrow.

This raises the stakes for American-Jewish leaders when it comes to a full-throated denunciation of Ben-Gvir: Doing so risks being seen as interfering in Israeli politics and an open conflict with Ben-Gvir’s political partner Netanyahu.

Leading supporters of Israel on Capitol Hill have had no such qualms, however. Hawkish Democratic stalwart Sen. Robert Menendez – chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of the most pro-Israel lawmakers in the U.S. Congress – told Netanyahu he had “serious concerns” over a possible government coalition with “extremist and polarizing individuals like Ben-Gvir,” according to a report first published by Israeli journalist Barak Ravid.

That report quoted Menendez as saying that an Israeli government including Ben-Gvir “could seriously erode bipartisan support in Washington, which has been a pillar of the bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Israel.” It added that another “senior U.S. official was very concerned about what impact such a political development could have on U.S.-Israeli relations.”

Following the report, Rep. Brad Sherman, a California Democrat and pillar of support for Israel in the House of Representatives, tweeted that he “urges Israeli political leaders from all sides of the political spectrum to ostracize extremists like Itamar Ben-Gvir whose outrageous views run contrary to Israel’s core principles of a democratic and Jewish state. These extremists undermine Israel’s interests and the U.S.-Israel relationship, which I and my colleagues have worked to strengthen.”

Offering support for Menendez, he also tweeted that the senator was a “true friend” to Israel and that “a real friend tells you the truth, even if it’s something you don’t want to hear.”

No comment

In the wake of these comments, Haaretz contacted leading American-Jewish organizations and asked them to state their positions on Ben-Gvir and Otzma Yehudit, as well as their reactions to Menendez and Sherman’s remarks.

Two major groups – the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the American Jewish Committee – chose not to comment at all.

In the past, both groups were more outspoken. In 2019, after Netanyahu lobbied the religious Zionist Habayit Hayehudi party to join up with Ben-Gvir in that year’s election, the American Jewish Committee publicly condemned Otzma Yehudit’s “reprehensible” views, warning against its potential entry to the Knesset and inclusion in a governing coalition. AIPAC offered its support of that stance, tweeting that it agreed “with AJC. AIPAC has a long-standing policy not to meet with members of this racist and reprehensible party.”

In 2021, ahead of Israel’s fourth election in two years, both groups began to adjust their behavior. When asked by Haaretz for their position on the prospect of a government that included Ben-Gvir, as well as the openly homophobic Noam party (which is again part of the Religious Zionism alliance in this election), AIPAC said it would “have no further comment” on the matter. The AJC position was substantially muted from its prior position two years earlier, stating when questioned that it had “full confidence in the well-established Israeli judicial review process regarding electoral participation. That’s where the ultimate decisions lie.”

Other American-Jewish leaders who refused to weigh in on the matter in 2019 continue to choose not to comment ahead of the upcoming election.

William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (the umbrella body for organized U.S. Jewry), said his group “has a long-standing policy of not opining on Israeli elections.”

The Jewish Federations of North America, the umbrella organization representing 146 Jewish federations and 300 independent Jewish communities, refused to comment when asked about Ben-Gvir. Two of the three major streams of U.S. Judaism – the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Orthodox Union – also declined to comment.

The quiet has not gone unnoticed.

“The silence is deafening from pro-Israeli and American Jewish organizations who seem unwilling or unable to call out extremist right-wing Israeli parties and Netanyahu’s willingness to support them,” tweeted Aaron David Miller, the former State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in both Republican and Democratic administrations.

Other American-Jewish leaders who refused to weigh in on the matter in 2019 continue to choose not to comment ahead of the upcoming election.

William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (the umbrella body for organized U.S. Jewry), said his group “has a long-standing policy of not opining on Israeli elections.”

The Jewish Federations of North America, the umbrella organization representing 146 Jewish federations and 300 independent Jewish communities, refused to comment when asked about Ben-Gvir. Two of the three major streams of U.S. Judaism – the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Orthodox Union – also declined to comment.

The quiet has not gone unnoticed.

“The silence is deafening from pro-Israeli and American Jewish organizations who seem unwilling or unable to call out extremist right-wing Israeli parties and Netanyahu’s willingness to support them,” tweeted Aaron David Miller, the former State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in both Republican and Democratic administrations.

At least one major Jewish leader was not only eager to clearly denounce Ben-Gvir, but strongly criticized his counterparts in the Jewish community who were choosing to refrain from public comment.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism (the largest Jewish movement in North America), said that if Netanyahu wins the election and Ben-Gvir earns a senior cabinet post, it “will be a horrific statement to the world about what Israel is prepared to project as its image” and “disastrous to the deep relationship between Israel and the United States.”

He added: “We talk about shared values? If the shared values become racism – I dread that day, and I pray that that day will not come.”

Ben-Gvir’s poll numbers, he said, are “part of a larger phenomenon of the growth of racism within Israeli society, and it’s deeply concerning.

“I think that Jewish leaders – who always raise a moral voice when it comes to Israel’s legitimate place on Earth, and its importance in Jewish identity – must not forget core commitments of what it means to be Jewish.”

American Jewry speaking out was not only important for symbolic reasons, Jacobs noted.

He said he believed that Netanyahu promised in the first 2019 campaign that he would not give Ben-Gvir a senior cabinet role “because there was such a loud uproar in the Jewish community. [Back then, the] Jewish leadership was far from quiet – and that included AIPAC and all of the large organizations. They said: ‘This is [a step] too far, this cannot be.’ And then Prime Minister Netanyahu, who’s a savvy politician, understood that would be going too far. And if there’s not a similar outcry and laying down of a bright red line today, then [for Netanyahu] it will be fine” to proceed.

Jacobs said he feels his counterparts are “being quiet” because “they understand that the election could go any which way,” and “to raise your voice now may be problematic if, in fact, a right-wing coalition comes into being.”

But, he added, “at the end of the day, you have to look yourself in the mirror and know what it is that you stand for, and what it is that you’re in opposition to.”

The concerns of Menendez, who is “literally a pillar of concrete support of the State of Israel,” Jacobs said, cannot be easily dismissed. “We’re talking about the strongest Democratic supporter of the State of Israel today.”

‘Menendez was right’

Other Jewish groups who responded to Haaretz’s queries regarding Ben-Gvir ranged from cautiously diplomatic to strongly worded and outspoken.

In 2019, Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt spoke out against Ben-Gvir’s mainstreaming by Netanyahu, tweeting: “There should be no room for racism and no accommodation for intolerance in Israel or any democracy. ADL previously has spoken out on hate-filled rhetoric of leaders of the Otzma Yehudit party; it is troubling that they are being legitimized by this union.”

Other American-Jewish leaders who refused to weigh in on the matter in 2019 continue to choose not to comment ahead of the upcoming election.

William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (the umbrella body for organized U.S. Jewry), said his group “has a long-standing policy of not opining on Israeli elections.”

The Jewish Federations of North America, the umbrella organization representing 146 Jewish federations and 300 independent Jewish communities, refused to comment when asked about Ben-Gvir. Two of the three major streams of U.S. Judaism – the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Orthodox Union – also declined to comment.

The quiet has not gone unnoticed.

“The silence is deafening from pro-Israeli and American Jewish organizations who seem unwilling or unable to call out extremist right-wing Israeli parties and Netanyahu’s willingness to support them,” tweeted Aaron David Miller, the former State Department Middle East analyst and negotiator in both Republican and Democratic administrations.

At least one major Jewish leader was not only eager to clearly denounce Ben-Gvir, but strongly criticized his counterparts in the Jewish community who were choosing to refrain from public comment.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism (the largest Jewish movement in North America), said that if Netanyahu wins the election and Ben-Gvir earns a senior cabinet post, it “will be a horrific statement to the world about what Israel is prepared to project as its image” and “disastrous to the deep relationship between Israel and the United States.”

He added: “We talk about shared values? If the shared values become racism – I dread that day, and I pray that that day will not come.”

Ben-Gvir’s poll numbers, he said, are “part of a larger phenomenon of the growth of racism within Israeli society, and it’s deeply concerning.

“I think that Jewish leaders – who always raise a moral voice when it comes to Israel’s legitimate place on Earth, and its importance in Jewish identity – must not forget core commitments of what it means to be Jewish.”

American Jewry speaking out was not only important for symbolic reasons, Jacobs noted.

He said he believed that Netanyahu promised in the first 2019 campaign that he would not give Ben-Gvir a senior cabinet role “because there was such a loud uproar in the Jewish community. [Back then, the] Jewish leadership was far from quiet – and that included AIPAC and all of the large organizations. They said: ‘This is [a step] too far, this cannot be.’ And then Prime Minister Netanyahu, who’s a savvy politician, understood that would be going too far. And if there’s not a similar outcry and laying down of a bright red line today, then [for Netanyahu] it will be fine” to proceed.

Jacobs said he feels his counterparts are “being quiet” because “they understand that the election could go any which way,” and “to raise your voice now may be problematic if, in fact, a right-wing coalition comes into being.”

But, he added, “at the end of the day, you have to look yourself in the mirror and know what it is that you stand for, and what it is that you’re in opposition to.”

The concerns of Menendez, who is “literally a pillar of concrete support of the State of Israel,” Jacobs said, cannot be easily dismissed. “We’re talking about the strongest Democratic supporter of the State of Israel today.”

‘Menendez was right’

Other Jewish groups who responded to Haaretz’s queries regarding Ben-Gvir ranged from cautiously diplomatic to strongly worded and outspoken.

In 2019, Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt spoke out against Ben-Gvir’s mainstreaming by Netanyahu, tweeting: “There should be no room for racism and no accommodation for intolerance in Israel or any democracy. ADL previously has spoken out on hate-filled rhetoric of leaders of the Otzma Yehudit party; it is troubling that they are being legitimized by this union.”

When the ADL was asked for comment now, Haaretz received a statement that did not come from Greenblatt but from Carole Nuriel, director of ADL’s Israel Office, and did not mention Ben-Gvir or Otzma Yehudit by name.

“ADL has long been deeply concerned with the mainstreaming of extremist and Kahane-inspired extremist ideologies in Israeli society,” Nuriel said. “While we do not get involved in Israel’s electoral politics, we are disturbed by reports that individuals who espouse such views have been promised by Israeli political leaders a role in a future coalition government. As an organization deeply committed to Israel’s security and well-being as a Jewish and democratic state, we believe such a development would be corrosive to Israel’s founding principles, and its standing among its strongest supporters.”

Democratic Majority for Israel board co-chairs Ann Lewis and Todd Richman stated in their response that their group “has been clear and consistent that the party led by Kahanist Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich should have no place in Israel’s governing coalition. Most Israelis find the views of these men abhorrent as they conflict with the country’s founding principles and the shared values that undergird the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

“Ben-Gvir is Kahane in the age of Twitter and his hatred and racism should have no place in any Israeli government. Everyone, American Jewish leaders, politicians, anyone who has anything to do with Israel, should be clear about this,” Americans for Peace Now CEO Hadar Susskind said.

Speaking on behalf of the liberal, pro-Israel organization J Street, Logan Bayroff said that Menendez had been “absolutely right to warn about the dangerous normalization of extremist, Jewish supremacist political parties – and their potential inclusion in the next Israeli government. With their violent histories and open advocacy for the hatred, harassment and even expulsion of Palestinians living on both sides of the Green Line [the 1967 demarcation line between Israel and the West Bank], these groups and their leaders directly attack the core liberal democratic principles at the heart of the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

Their “involvement in any new Israeli government would be a source of alarm and outrage for many U.S. lawmakers and for the vast majority of the American-Jewish community,” Bayroff added.

The Israel Policy Forum went a step further, not only responding to questions about Ben-Gvir but initiating its own statement. Last week, the group – which advocates for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – circulated a public statement declaring that its support of Israel and the U.S.-Israel alliance “compels us to unequivocally condemn the antidemocratic, extremist views of Itamar Ben-Gvir, his Jewish supremacist Otzma Yehudit party, and the anti-LGBTQ Noam party running with him, and to caution against the danger his inclusion in any Israeli government would portend for the U.S.-Israel relationship.”

Ben-Gvir’s “inclusion in an Israeli coalition government, let alone his appointment as a governmental minister, would seriously undermine Israel’s claim to address discrimination against its own citizens and would be contrary to Zionism’s principles of fundamental justice and equality,” the statement said.

While offering “respect” for “Israeli democracy and the right of Israeli citizens to select their leaders and representatives,” the Israel Policy Forum said it was that same respect “that compels us to communicate to our Israeli friends that a government with Ben-Gvir and any coalition with Otzma Yehudit or Noam would severely undermine Israel’s standing in the U.S., not only among American Jews but among American political leaders of all stripes.”

This “will make it harder for American Jews to identify with Israel while eroding a larger sense of Jewish peoplehood. Israeli democracy is for Israelis, but we plead with Israeli voters to take this into account,” the statement added.

Engage

Republish This Story

Please read before republishing

We’re happy to make this story available to republish for free, unless it originated with JTA, Haaretz or another publication (as indicated on the article) and as long as you follow our guidelines. You must credit the Forward, retain our pixel and preserve our canonical link in Google search.  See our full guidelines for more information, and this guide for detail about canonical URLs.

To republish, copy the HTML by clicking on the yellow button to the right; it includes our tracking pixel, all paragraph styles and hyperlinks, the author byline and credit to the Forward. It does not include images; to avoid copyright violations, you must add them manually, following our guidelines. Please email us at [email protected], subject line “republish,” with any questions or to let us know what stories you’re picking up.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.