The Right-Wing Extremists Are In Charge in Israel

When I initiated this blog in the aftermath of Oct. 7, I included an aspirational tagline: “A clear Jewish voice from a respected liberal rabbi in a time of uncertainty and upheaval.” I have done my humble best to live up to that description; as circumstances have evolved, so have my own perspectives. Early in the war, after the atrocities of Oct. 7, I fully supported Israel’s right to take the fight to Hamas. Now, nearly eight months later, I am far from certain that this is still the best path for Israel. Early on, I was willing to support the Israeli government in wartime despite my loathing for and mistrust of the current coalition. Now that it has been clear for some time that the current government has no intention of ending this war, I can no longer offer even that conditional support.

I have written about the dangerous and vile Islamist extremism that animates Hamas and about the existential threats that Israel faces. I have written about the complex geopolitics that make this a regional and potentially global conflict. I have written about the terrifying explosion of antisemitism that erupted around the world on Oct. 8, antisemitism operating under new terms and new pretenses. I have written from Israel about all the generous and brave individuals I met who are working to care for one another and to maintain their civil society. But now I must also write about the takeover of the levers of power in Israel by its extreme messianic right wing, the so-called “settler movement.” This takeover has been decades in the making and is now irrefutably complete. Because these xenophobic, racist, violent, ultra-nationalist and triumphalist fanatics are now running the show, I must include myself among those — both within Israel and without — who conclude that Israel is making disastrous choices. I do not know if Israeli democracy will ever recover from this regime. I fear that Israel is on a path to becoming a global pariah.

Early in the war, after the atrocities of Oct. 7, I fully supported Israel’s right to take the fight to Hamas. Now, nearly eight months later, I am far from certain that this is still the best path for Israel.

To say I come to these conclusions with a heavy heart barely begins to describe my sorrow. I know that there are some who feel certain that from its founding, Israel could never succeed as both a homeland for the Jewish People and as a democracy — that these two concepts were irreconcilable. There are some who hold that because Israel was founded on the dispossession of another people’s land, Israel was damned and illegitimate in its very origins, and doomed to fail. I disagree. I do not think historical outcomes are foreordained. Despite humanity’s astonishing capacity for selfishness, brutality and folly, I still believe we have the capacity to choose wise and visionary paths. The future is by its very nature open, not fixed. The very fact that Israel managed to build a vibrant nation out of the ashes of the Holocaust while under constant threat of war and annihilation is witness enough for me of the unexpected possibilities that the unknown future can hold. And so, I must always hold out hope. Yet Israel’s current trajectory presents to me very grim future trajectories for my beloved Israel.

Some historical background
Historically, there have always been competing versions of Zionism. The Labor Zionists who were the dominant force behind Israel’s modern-day founding in 1948 expressed their liberal and democratic ideals in Israel’s Declaration of Independence:
“The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”

In the absence of a formal constitution, the Declaration of Independence became the guiding document for the new nation. The court system, the electoral system, national health care and the educational systems were all established accordingly. “Complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants” has in practice never been fully achieved and has in many ways fallen woefully short, but the aspirations of the Declaration of Independence to this day remain, now only tenuously, in place.
Meanwhile, there were other streams of Zionism that espoused different aspirations. Religious Zionism viewed the return of the Jews to their ancestral homeland through a religious and messianic lens. After all, the Hebrew Bible predicts that we would one day return from Exile, and that this would be a fulfillment of God’s promise to us. The Religious Zionists were a negligible force in Israeli politics until 1967. The Six-Day War of June 1967 changed everything. Fearing for its very existence, Israel launched a preemptive war against Arab armies massing on its borders. To their own astonishment, a few short days later, Israelis were conquerors. Israel had expanded its territorial holding five-fold. A few prominent and measured voices in Israel counseled caution, aware of the dangers of occupying and even annexing these lands. But giddy relief and excitement gripped the nation and the Jewish world at large: Little David had defeated Goliath once again!

For the Religious Zionists, the reunification of Jerusalem, and the conquest of Judaism’s holiest sites — the Western Wall, the Temple Mount, the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron and many others — was a sign that the messianic era had arrived. They began to establish outposts and settlements throughout the area known as the West Bank. They renamed these areas with their biblical titles: Judea and Samaria. The Israeli government mostly looked the other way and gave tacit approval to these settlers, and thus the settler movement was born. Over the ensuing decades, the corrosive, racist, violent and anti-democratic ethos of right-wing religious Zionism has only grown in influence and infiltrated into the Israeli military, police and other institutions, so much so that the Jewish Power party, once legally banned from the Knesset, is now the kingmaker of the Israeli governing coalition.

The Religious Zionists wield their power today in an unholy alliance with the inheritors of yet another stream of Zionism known as Revisionist Zionism. Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud Party represent this lineage. Revisionist Zionism, founded in 1920, believed that the Jewish People had a right to the entire land of Israel — that is, all of British Mandatory Palestine and Transjordan (today’s Kingdom of Jordan.) Revisionists embraced colonialist expansion without apology, arguing that in the realm of statecraft, might makes right. The early Revisionists argued against the Labor Zionists’ Socialist ideals, advocating instead for free markets, violent insurgence towards political goals, and unabashed, amoral state power.

For almost 30 years, the Revisionist Zionists sat as the opposition in the Israeli government. Then, in 1977, they won a majority for the first time, and their leader, Menachem Begin, became prime minister. The debate within Israel raged for decades over its existential dilemmas: How could Israel remain a majority Jewish and democratic state when it ruled militarily over a Palestinian population in the West Bank and Gaza? Yet how could Israel ensure its own people’s security when the leaders of that Palestinian population were set on Israel’s destruction? When Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shook hands with PLO leader Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993, the possibility of a two-state solution became imaginable. But rejectionists on both sides engaged in violent terror to derail the Oslo Accords. On Nov. 4, 1995, Rabin was assassinated by Yigal Amir, a right-wing Jewish religious extremist who was convinced that Rabin was a traitor to the Jewish people. In the ensuing months leading up to the next elections, a series of Hamas suicide bombers wreaked horrible death on Israeli civilians. Public opinion in Israel turned against Oslo, and in 1996, Benjamin Netanyahu was elected to his first term as prime minister.

We will never know if the plan for separate Palestinian and Israeli states laid out in the Oslo Accords might have succeeded. Tragically, violence and terror prevailed. As a result, over recent decades the voices for coexistence in Israel, the left, have steadily diminished, and the triumphalist right has cemented its grip on power. I strongly encourage you to read “The Unpunished: How Extremists Took Over Israel,” a searing essay by Israeli investigative reporter Ronen Bergman that appeared last month in The New York Times. The subtitle: “After 50 years of failure to stop violence and terrorism against Palestinians by Jewish ultranationalists, lawlessness has become the law.” It is chilling but essential reading.[1]

Obviously, this brief sketch skips countless crucial events in Israel’s history. It also ignores the special vibrancy of Israeli civil society that can only be understood by experiencing it; it ignores the economic and technological miracle that has been dubbed the “Start-Up Nation”; it ignores the astonishing flowering of Jewish culture and creativity that could only happen in a restored and self-governing Jewish society. I share this sketch as a schematic in order to chart the political trends that have led Israel to its current condition. I share it as a reminder that Zionism has never been a monolithic enterprise; every national ideology is made up of competing strains. And I share it to reiterate that history is not foreordained, but is the result of decisions — for good and for ill — that people make, individually and collectively.

What can I do?
So here I am. A Jew and a Zionist, a passionate advocate of liberal democracy, a lifelong lover of Israel, which I consider my second home, witnessing my beloved home devolve towards a venal and authoritarian state, permanently policing and suppressing the lives of millions of Palestinians. Hamas’s unspeakable horrors of Oct. 7 traumatized all of Israel. Oct. 7 also laid bare the incompetence and rot within the Israeli government and military establishment. Thousands of ordinary Israelis stepped into the breach that day to rescue their fellow citizens, while the government and the army were asleep at the wheel. And yet despite continuous protests, that government unconscionably persists in power and will not step aside. Meanwhile, global opinion turns against Israel, and antisemitism bursts through this opening. We are in deep, deep trouble. What can I do?

I will only support the work of activists who accept the premise that both the Palestinian people and the Jewish people have legitimate claims to national sovereignty and to lives of safety on that tortured sliver of land.

• I will not abandon Israel. I will consider myself a member of the loyal opposition, as beleaguered as that cause might be at this time. I will continue to support my Israeli friends and family, reach out to them and visit, especially during this time of terrible trauma. I will continue to pray for the release of the Israeli hostages being held captive in Gaza, and that all the internally displaced refugees within Israel soon be able to return to their homes. I will continue to honor the brave soldiers risking and losing their lives in combat. I will continue to support the many grassroots organizations in Israel that promote cooperation, justice and friendship among Palestinians and Israelis. (To get a broad overview of more than 160 of these organizations, study the website of The Alliance for Middle East Peace. ) I have been particularly moved by the brave efforts during this war of Standing Together. Most recently, they have organized the “Humanitarian Guard.” At the crossing points from Israel into Gaza, right-wing religious youth have been violently disrupting the flow of aid trucks into Gaza. The Humanitarian Guard, who are volunteers from Standing Together, have been traveling to these crossing points and with their bodies have been successfully protecting the aid shipments from these vandals. Israel is not a monolith, and good and brave people there need our support.
• I will continue to support World Central Kitchen in its efforts to feed the people of Gaza during this time of unspeakable suffering.
• As I have written about since the beginning of the war, I refuse to allow my bonds with the people I love to be among the casualties of this awful war. A chasm has opened up in our country and around the world between those who oppose Israel’s response to the Hamas massacre, and those who continue to support Israel against the threat of Hamas and Hamas’s allies. Families and friendships have been riven and even shattered by this war of words. I will continue to reach out to my loved ones with whom I disagree. This requires of me a measure of humility, knowing that I don’t know everything, knowing that my positions change, knowing that self-righteousness, if it compels me to “cancel” precious relationships, isn’t right.
• At the same time, I will continue to argue against the concept of “anti-Zionism.” I know many good and thoughtful people who are passionately proclaiming their anti-Zionism, and I do not doubt their sincerity in their pursuit of justice for the Palestinian people. However, based on my understanding of the history of the term “anti-Zionism,” and of the malevolent and powerful actors who have promoted it, I think that many current activists are unwittingly participating in an antisemitic movement — one that puts not only Israel but Jews around the world in danger. I sadly accept that many Jews no longer wish to identify with Israel as part of their Jewish identity. There are other labels they can adopt, such as non-Zionist, post-Zionist or Diasporist, to describe their position. I hope that these Jews will at the least consider Israelis to be their kin, however distant, and find ways such as I describe above to be in relationship with their like-minded Israeli counterparts. But I will only support the work of those activists who accept the premise — however distant it remains from realization — that both the Palestinian people and the Jewish people have legitimate claims to national sovereignty and to lives of safety on that tortured sliver of land.
• I will work for President Joe Biden’s re-election. Faced with trying to negotiate a compromise between two uncompromising enemies, the Israeli government and Hamas, and faced with a global game of diplomatic chess that is not for the faint of heart, the Biden administration has persisted in trying to be the grown-up in the room. You may despise the United States’ role as a superpower and as a global arms supplier, and you might dearly wish for a different, better world. But this is the one we’ve got, and especially considering the terrifying alternative this coming November, Biden has my full support.
• I will continue to write about, teach and practice the deep, inspiring and challenging wisdom of the Jewish tradition. Judaism is worth studying, practicing and celebrating. It is the record of our people’s search for meaning and for the good society, across thousands of years. It is the voice of the biblical prophets, speaking truth to power. Just as our ancestors in ancient Israel and Judah were not immune to the corruption of wealth and power, nor to the poison of religious zealotry, neither are we today. Judaism is meant to be a check against those human tendencies, not a justification. I will continue to speak for the Judaism of compassion and justice.
• I will continue to be willing to change my mind as circumstances change and as new perspectives work their way into my old brain.
• And I will continue to treat others the way I would hope to be treated. As Rabbi Akiva famously proclaimed, “Love your neighbor as yourself: this is the central principle of the Torah.”

[Based on a post on Turn It and Turn It, “The Right-Wing Extremists Are In Charge in Israel”]

[1] For a more thorough understanding of the emergence of the settler movement, I recommend Gershom Gorenberg’s superb history, The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977. To get a sense of the hardened landscape of Israeli rhetoric and public opinion that has emerged since Oct. 7, read “The View Within Israel Turns Bleak” by Megan Stack (The New York Times, May 16, 2024.)

[1] I donate all paid subscription revenue from this Substack account to the Sulha Peace Project.

One Response

  1. Thank you Rabbi Kligler. It is so helpful to see much of what I have been thinking and feeling clearly and thoughtfully articulated.

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