The Growing “Battle” Inside U.S. Jewish Institutions As ‘Israel’ Embraces Racist Parties


Itamar Ben-Gvir (r), leader of the Israeli far-right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, during a memorial ceremony for the late Israeli-American Rabbi Meir Kahane, in Jerusalem on Nov. 10, 2022. Kahane, a cofounder of the Jewish Defense League (JDL), was convicted of acts of terrorism and assassinated in 1990. Ben-Gvir will be Israel’s national security minister under a coalition deal with Binyamin Netanyahu’s Likud party. (ILIA YEFIMOVICH/PICTURE ALLIANCE VIA GETTY IMAGES)

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, January/February 2023, pp. 20-21

Israel and Judaism

By Allan C. Brownfeld

THERE IS A GROWING EFFORT to stifle free speech within the American Jewish community. Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), recently called for a battle inside Jewish religious denominations against Jews who oppose Zionism, a group which is growing dramatically in number. 

“Anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism,” he declared at the World Zionist Congress’ August meeting in Basel, Switzerland. “We must reckon with the fact that there are anti-Zionists within the Jewish community. We must be honest and acknowledge that reality. The reality is just because you are Jewish doesn’t exempt you from trafficking in anti-Zionism…We have got to deal with this openly…This will be a fight.”

David Wolpe, a Conservative rabbi in Los Angeles, endorsed the idea of a battle against anti-Zionists at the same August conference. He said that his “Sinai Temple takes the largest delegation to the AIPAC [American Israel Public Affairs Committee] conference every year of any synagogue in the country. We have an absolutely unapologetic Zionist commitment…It’s true in America, as you know, Zionism is a word that often draws tremendous ire, but it’s a battle that is important for Jews to fight.”

In October 2022, Mondoweiss noted that, “Wolpe and Greenblatt are trying to stop the tide: young Jews are giving up on Zionism, with sizable numbers saying they believe Israel is an apartheid state.”

In an interview with the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP), Zachary Lockman, professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies and History at New York University, provided this assessment: “The Jewish community—the organized, very Israeli-connected Zionist mainstream organizations—think they don’t have as much power as they did because the community has changed. Younger American Jews don’t care about those big organizations. They may or may not belong to a local synagogue, but the synagogues themselves have changed.”

In Lockman’s view, “there’s been a sea change…Segments of the American Jewish community were actively hostile to Zionism [and] into the 1930s and 1940s, Reform Judaism was formally opposed to Zionism…Polls show that a good chunk of the younger generation don’t feel much connection to Israel, or are critical of it, have no great desire to visit…The assaults on Gaza horrify a lot of people. The asymmetry of power and violence and death is hard to miss.”

All of this discussion in the American Jewish community comes just as far-right racist groups are gaining extraordinary influence in Binyamin Netanyahu’s new Israeli government.

In 1984, Rabbi Meir Kahane won a seat in the Knesset pledging to expel Palestinians from Israel and the occupied territories. He also advocated Nuremberg-like legislation to make marriage between Jews and non-Jews illegal. He and his Kach party were expelled from the Knesset for racism. Today, that same racism is welcomed in the Knesset.

Discussing the Nov. 1 election results, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz declared, “Kahanism won. Israel is now closing in on a right-wing, religious authoritarian revolution. The big winner is Itamar Ben-Gvir. The big loser is Israel.”

In October, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) noted that when Ben-Gvir, the extremist follower of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, was in talks in 2019 to coordinate tactics with other parties, “the message from the U.S. Jewish community was clear: Don’t.” That’s no longer the case.

According to JTA, “At least four of the major Jewish groups that spoke out in 2019 say they will not get involved this time: AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Two groups that spoke up in 2019, the Anti-Defamation League and the Reform movement, told JTA that they are just as alarmed now as they were then. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said a failure by the organized Jewish community to present a solid wall of opposition to allowing into government a party based on the teachings of the racist late Rabbi Meir Kahane would have far-reaching consequences not just for the U.S.-Israel relationship but for Israel’s relationship with U.S. Jews.”

Ben-Gvir was, the Washington Post notes, “for decades a political untouchable. His roots in the overtly racist Kach party…banned by Israel, put him beyond the fringe of even the most right-wing parties.  That changed last year when then-Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu…desperate for a few more parliamentary votes, invited Ben-Gvir into his alliance.”

Ben-Gvir, who one commentator called the “David Duke of Israel,” first came to prominence as a 19-year-old in 1995 in the wake of a peace deal with the Palestinians signed by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The Post reports that, “An outraged Ben-Gvir brandished a car ornament reportedly ripped from Rabin’s Cadillac and said, ‘we got the car. We’ll get to Rabin, too.’ Weeks later, Rabin was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli extremist. Ben-Gvir was not connected to the killing, though he campaigned for the assassin’s release from prison. He has been prosecuted for inciting violence and was known to keep on his wall a portrait of Baruch Goldstein, the American Israeli who massacred 29 Palestinian worshipers at Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs.”

The Times of Israel noted that Ben-Gvir and his allies “appear to have staked positions even more extreme than the far-right parties troubling Europe…their most prominent policy positions…include encouraging Arab citizens of Israel to emigrate; annexing the West Bank without affording Palestinians the right to vote or other civil rights;…using live fire against Palestinian rioters; refraining from prosecuting IDF soldiers for military actions they carry out; overhauling the legal system, crimping the high court’s ability to strike down legislation and giving the government the ability to pack the bench with ideological compatriots.”

Yaakov Katz, editor of the Jerusalem Post, told BBC, “Ben-Gvir and [coalition member Bezalel] Smotrich want to change the type of democracy we have. They want to take us into a potential dark moment. They would have the power and influence to dramatically change the country and that’s what they say they want to do. When it comes to Arabs, when it comes to LGBTQ rights, when it comes to the rights of women, they could do a lot of damage.”

The silence of major American Jewish groups is coming under increasing criticism. Susie Gelman, who heads the Israel Policy Forum, told the Times of Israel, “It takes an excessive measure of cognitive dissonance to condemn displays of racist supremacy at home as American citizens while dismissing similar displays as irrelevant or beyond our legitimate concerns when they so prominently occur in the Jewish state.”

Israeli apartheid is worse than that of South Africa. The evidence for this is clear, but the West refuses to notice it. 

In a much-discussed article, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, a long-time supporter of Israel, used the headline, “The Israel We Knew Is Gone.” He quotes Moshe Halbertal, a Hebrew University Jewish philosopher, who notes, “Israeli hawkishness toward Palestinians is now morphing into something new—a kind of general ultranationalism” that not only rejects any notion of a Palestinian state, but also views every Israeli Arab, who make up about 21 percent of Israel’s population, as a potential terrorist.”

Halbertal declares that, “The Torah stands for the equality of all people and the notion that we are all created in God’s image. Israelis, of all people, need to respect minority rights because we, as Jews, know what it is to be a minority—with and without rights. This is a deep Jewish ethos and it is now being challenged from within Israel itself.”

Writing in Mondoweiss, Philip Weiss says that, “Finally, American Jews will see what Zionism has done to us, corrupted almost every Jewish institution with racism, turned Jewish leaders into apologists for persecution and massacres.”

Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, largely ignored by American Jewish groups, has been compared to South African apartheid by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem. 

John Dugard, a South African jurist, and scholar of international law who was a prominent opponent of the apartheid regime in South Africa and served as U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the occupied Palestinian territories, provides this assessment of South Africa’s Bantustans and Palestine’s territorial enclaves: “South Africa’s Bantustans were a devious and wicked device designed to exclude black South Africans from participation in the political life and wealth of the Republic of South Africa, but the apartheid regime of South Africa spent millions of dollars on establishing schools, universities, clinics, hospitals and industries designed to provide jobs for black South Africans. The comparison provides further evidence, if evidence be needed, that Israeli apartheid is worse than that of South Africa.  The evidence for this is clear, but the West refuses to notice it.”

On Nov. 10, 1975, the U.N. General Assembly adopted Resolution 3379 declaring that Zionism “is a form of racism and racial discrimination.” It was revoked in 1991.  Recent events in Israel indicate that this revocation might have been premature.  Those Jews who opposed Zionism from the beginning are now looking increasingly prophetic. The argument that Israel and America share common democratic values will be increasingly difficult to advance in light of Israel’s turn away from any notion of genuine democracy and its embrace of what looks increasingly like racism. American Jewish leaders will have a difficult time explaining their opposition to racism in the United States and their continuing embrace of Israel, as it appears to adopt the very mindset found so objectionable at home. 

The reason that more and more Jewish Americans feel ambivalent about, and increasingly critical of, Israel is clear. Isn’t it time for American synagogues to finally stop displaying Israeli flags and to reject Israel’s claim that it is the “homeland” of all Jews?  No other nation in the world claims to be the “homeland” of millions of people who are citizens of other countries. Hopefully, the latest events will move American Jewish opinion further in this direction.

Allan C. Brownfeld is a syndicated columnist and associate editor of the Lincoln Review, a journal published by the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education, and editor of Issues, the quarterly journal of the American Council for Judaism.


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