OPINION: If you don’t think this is indefensible, what is?

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OPINION: If you don’t think this is indefensible, what is?

Jewish News editor Richard Ferrer on a Jewish community divided between those prepared to call out racists and those determined to support anything in Israel’s name – including hatred.

Richard Ferrer has been editor of Jewish News since 2009. As one of Britain's leading Jewish voices he writes for The Times, Independent, New Statesman and many other titles. Richard previously worked at the Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, edited the Boston Jewish Advocate and created the Channel 4 TV series Jewish Mum Of The Year.

Israeli designate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in conversation with right-wing Knesset member Itamar Ben Gvir during the swearing-in ceremony for the new Israeli parliament.
Israeli designate Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in conversation with right-wing Knesset member Itamar Ben Gvir during the swearing-in ceremony for the new Israeli parliament.

There are five Ws in journalism – who, what, where, when, why. There are but three in the Middle East – what, went, wrong. More Wild East than Middle East, it’s a place dominated by despots violently oppressing their own people while violently opposing the existence of Jews in 0.1 percent of the land.

With neighbours from hell, it’s little wonder Israelis elect hawks like Benjamin Netanyahu – who’s set to be sworn in as prime minister for an unprecedented sixth time. Yet even Bibi’s razor beak looks blunt compared to the predators he’s given top jobs to.

The new coalition government is a veritable police line-up of self-declared bigots and malcontents whose support gifted Netanyahu a path back to power.

This lot shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the public, let alone public office.

Dear reader, I give you Israel’s Crass Of 2023…

Jewish News editor Richard Ferrer
Photo by Yossi Zeligar/Nikoart

Meet Itamar Ben-Gvir, nicknamed the “pyromaniac” for stoking last year’s riots against Israeli Arabs that sparked conflict with Hamas. Ben-Gvir’s has been convicted on multiple racism and terror charges, waved a gun at Arab Israelis during the election campaign and, in his troubled youth, cheered the assassination of former Israeli leader Yitzhak Rabin – the last prime minister to seek peace with the Palestinians. He’s just been made Israel’s new security minister.

Next we have cuddly Chanamel Dorfman, Ben-Gvir’s chief of staff, arrested several times for incitement and being “an instigator who can harm society”. He was on an extremist watchlist and calls the police – who now, of course, answer to his boss – a “rotten mafia”.

Then there’s Avi Moaz, the head of a sinister sounding new department called “Jewish identity” – whatever that means. He’s a big fan of “conversion therapy”, the wicked pseudoscientific practice of changing a person’s sexual orientation and wants to ban gay pride parades and the promotion of women in the military.

Israeli right-wing Knesset member Itamar ben Gvir (L) and Bezalel Smotrich (R) during the swearing-in ceremony for the new Israeli parliament the 25th Knesset in Jerusalem on 15 November

And then there’s charm school dropout Bezalel Smotrich, a “proud homophobe” who would curb the powers of the Supreme Court to hold the government to account, calls non-Orthodox Jews “fake” and wants to expel Arabs and annex the West Bank. He’s just been given power over Israeli settlements and Palestinian construction in the West Bank. So that’ll be fun.

Giving these people the keys to the country is, frankly, next level batshittery for a modern democracy. Imagine Nick Griffin as home secretary, Enoch Powell communities minister and David Icke minister for culture, media and sport. With a tad less humanity.

They are not liberally-minded democrats in the proud tradition of Israel’s founders. Theodor Herzl must be turning in his grave. They are, as journalist Jonathan Freedland calls them, the Jewish Taliban – theological thugs in search of a Jewish Iran or Saudi Arabia.

Head of the Religious Zionist party Bezalel Smotrich speaks to supporters as the results of the Israeli elections are announced. Photo by Yossi Aloni/Flash90

Seeing them handed power is tortuous for most British Jews, who now find themselves asking questions they never wanted to ask and drawing conclusions they never wanted to reach, that undermine all they hold dear about the Jewish state.

As Professor Jonathan Rynhold, head of political studies at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, told me: “For most Jews, the supremacism of these politicians is abhorrent. Jews will continue to identify with Israel, but most will feel unable to support a government in which they play a significant role.”

Some ask: “If diaspora Jews don’t stand up for Israel, who will?”, when they should be asking: “If I don’t think this is indefensible, what is?

Today, British Jews – well, at least the ones whose stomachs are turning rather than their heads – are screaming: not in our name! Our conscience – our love for the Jewish state, for all it was, is and could be – demands we speak out, even if obsessive Israel bashers are gleefully licking their chops at the spectacle.

It’s not as if making the undeniable case for Israel as a progressive place in a regressive region isn’t tough enough. That job just got a whole lot tougher.

A significant minority of British Jews, however, don’t dare speak out, preferring to hold their noses in the hope the pong passes. Sandpit sales are through the roof in north-west London.

For some the unedifying spectacle of Jews criticising Israel is simply too much to bear. They won’t concede the country is compromising its values in a misguided attempt to defend them. They ask: “If diaspora Jews don’t stand up for Israel, who will?”, when they should be asking: “If I don’t think this is indefensible, what is?”

The divide has been brought into sharp focus by the community’s two main newspapers. Jewish News has run headlines “Where’s the outrage?” and “Our worst fears”, adamant that a line has been crossed and that line is where hatred begins.

Jewish News front pages before and after the recent election.

The Jewish Chronicle’s less than helpful position, meanwhile, is to ignore the problem. It thinks only racists who aren’t Israeli politicians deserve contempt, writing in recent editorials, “It is not for us to make pre-conditions on our support for Israel” and, “We should not reduce the diaspora’s relationship to political calculus”.

I sympathise with the knee-jerk Jewish impulse to support anything and everything in Israel’s name, even intolerance. Because if you don’t, you quickly come to two painful conclusions.

One, that you’re occupying the intersection in a Venn diagram with the ‘From the river to the sea” loony left and rabid right, whose purpose in life is to deny the Jewish state out of existence.

For many the unedifying spectacle of Jews criticising Israel is simply too much to bear.

Two, that perhaps insularity and extremism as a means of self-preservation are inevitable for any Middle East state. That Israel, inexorably, has become debased by the neighbourhood.

Of course, Israel is bigger than a few bigots – or indeed one election – and the Crass Of 2023 may not (despite their clearly-stated objectives) shape key policies. Yet, in the wake of such an alarming election, a niggling feeling persists.

That Theodor Herzl’s notion of a pluralistic state was a pipe dream for a country cursed from day one to share soil with the madmen of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. That perhaps, after 75 years, it’s tainted by the air it breathes.

Ben-Gvir and Smotrich’s worldview, after all, is grounded in the history and the politics of the region. It’s ying to the Arab yang. No Jews in Arab lands, no Arabs in Israel. Fight fire with fire. Burn everything, including Israel’s precious relationship with much of the Jewish world.

• A version of this piece was originally published in The Times Red Box

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