OPINION: Seeing theocrats and bigots enter government is an affront to our Jewish souls

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OPINION: Seeing theocrats and bigots enter government is an affront to our Jewish souls

Sir Mick Davis, who voted in the recent Israeli election as a new citizen, urges the diaspora not to self-censor when it comes to opposing the country's far-right government

National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir visits Temple Mount, January 3, 2023. Credit: Twitter
National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir visits Temple Mount, January 3, 2023. Credit: Twitter

In the legend of Faust, popularised over the centuries by the likes of Marlowe and Goethe, the protagonist sells his soul to the devil in return for a life of knowledge and pleasure. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Faustian bargain is that in return for power – and with it the chance of avoiding corruption charges – he would sell not only his own soul to right wing extremists, but that of his country.

November was the first time I voted in an Israeli election and I have never been more excited at a ballot box than as a new citizen of the Jewish and democratic state.

I knew, like every voter, I might not get the government I wanted. I did not therefore rush to criticise the new government, even if I didn’t vote for it – it is not for me to complain about a democratic choice.

But as the intentions of this government become clear I am struck that they do not reflect the democratic choice of the majority of Israelis.

South African-born mining businessman and community leader Sir Mick Davis

Two essential propositions guarantee democratic resilience. First, the minority respects the wishes of the majority, even if that majority is wafer thin, as it incontrovertibly was this last election.

Second, however, the majority does not oppress the minority. No one has a mandate to dismantle the institutions of Israeli democracy that safeguard these propositions.

But the new coalition’s intent is clear: they do not respect the rule of law but seek to overturn it. This was confirmed by its reaction to a court ruling that Shas leader Aryeh Deri was not an appropriate minister due to his criminal convictions for financial crimes. “Harm has been done to the principle of the will of the majority, and we must fix this,” warned the prime minister with a populist turn of phrase.

I have seen in many jurisdictions where I have some experience what happens when politicians are not limited by democratic safeguards, politicise the courts and undermine the rule of law. This government includes elements who are antithetical to democracy and is acting accordingly.

A fire has been lit and history is replete with lessons that the resultant flames cannot be controlled – not even by someone as politically gifted as Bibi Netanyahu.

But the new coalition’s intent is clear: they do not respect the rule of law but seek to overturn it.

Yet, just because this government is taking Israel down a murky rabbit hole, it doesn’t mean Diaspora Jews should feel they either have to dive in with it or abandon Israel in disgust. The opposite of both is true.

Diaspora Jews concerned about the Israeli far-right should instead raise our voices more than most of us have previously been comfortable doing, be courageous enough to face the inevitable backlash and stipulate clearly that we will not normalise politics that represent a betrayal of Jewish, Zionist and democratic values.

Simultaneously, rather than switching off from Israel, we – I still say we as I am a dual citizen – need to engage more smartly and strategically than ever with Israelis working on a daily basis to safeguard the democratic state that we have been such passionate advocates for in our own countries.

It is Israelis who will be crucial in preventing the anti-democratic politics of this Faustian coalition inflicting too much damage before the next election.

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new right-wing coalition and its proposed judicial reforms to reduce powers of the Supreme Court in a main square in Tel Aviv, Israel January 14, 2023. REUTERS/ Ilan Rosenberg

We need to extend our solidarity to Israelis like the hundreds of thousands who poured onto the streets to protest the so-called “judicial reforms”; to the President of Israel’s Supreme Court, Esther Hayut, who called those “reforms” an attempt to change “the democratic identity of the country beyond recognition.”

And to former prime minister Yair Lapid, who described them as “radical regime change”. And to the leaders and employees in the high-tech sector who went on strike on Tuesday as a warning of the damage an assault on the rule of law would do to investment in their sector.

If ever there was a time to speak truth to power it is now. Diaspora communities need to be clear: we are facing a crisis for the Jewish people.

We should reject soothing, siren voices minimising the scale of the crisis by for instance pointing to the rise of right-wing populists elsewhere or the disingenuous attempts of those, like Smotrich writing in the Wall Street Journal, to claim that his government’s plans to hobble the supreme court are merely a move towards a more American style of democracy.

If ever there was a time to speak truth to power it is now. Diaspora communities need to be clear: we are facing a crisis for the Jewish people.

Israel is the only country, other than the countries where we live, in which all Jews are existentially, spiritually and culturally invested in its wellbeing and success. How well Marine Le Pen polls in France is unfortunate for France. And the global trend towards right-wing populism and so-called illiberal democracy is deeply concerning.

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

But Israel is the beating heart of the Jewish people. It is where we pray towards, where we send our children to shape their Jewish identities and where we have a right to citizenship through Aliyah that many of us exercise.

When we see cynics, theocrats and bigots enter government it is not only a matter of concern but an affront to our Jewish souls. And if you aren’t concerned you need to ask yourself serious questions about whether you have any red lines at all when it comes to an Israeli government.

Of course, within the Diaspora, this view will be derided by our own noisy far-right elements. How dare you say such a thing, the keyboard warriors of the right will say, as you sit in the comfort of the suburbs of London or New York or Manchester or LA.

Yet they sit in the same comfort in the same suburbs, and more often than not, it is not their children who will wear the noble uniform of the IDF to defend the consequences of reckless leadership in an already febrile environment.

We must not indulge these elements. Too often, moderate, sensible voices in Jewish communities self-censor on Israel to avoid their inevitable scorn. If we continue to do so, then not only will we be betraying our values, and the many Israelis who share them – we will allow extremists to hold our homeland hostage.

Too often, moderate, sensible voices in Jewish communities self-censor on Israel to avoid their inevitable scorn.

If we do not speak up now we never will and our communities need leadership. If Jewish leaders support this Faustian coalition they should have the courage to say so. If, as is more likely, they have concerns they should articulate them unequivocally and with conviction eschewing the predictable blowback.

Religious Zionism party leader Betzalel Smotrich

Yet we must do more than speak out. We must engage strategically with Israel’s civil society as it comes under attack. We must champion those Israelis striving to protect the tolerant, law based, democratic state which we have unashamedly supported for 75 years.

On this we can learn from the right. While many on the right loudly decry anyone who talks or acts on Israel in ways they don’t like, negating our very right to an opinion from thousands of miles away, they don’t follow their own advice. Indeed, for decades, millions of dollars have flowed from certain Diaspora Jewish philanthropists to build the infrastructure of the most trenchantly intolerant fringes of the Israeli right.

Now the moderate mainstream must respond to this moment of crisis with long-term strategic engagement of our own. We must not be cowed by those who excoriate us and deny our right to an opinion. Instead, we must engage with, invest in and amplify the message of Israel’s civil society as it mounts the long-term defence of the democratic values of the Jewish state.

• Sir Mick Davis is former chair of the Jewish Leadership Council and ex-chief executive of the Conservative Party 

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