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American Jews fear a possible confrontation with the Israeli government



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Israel’s relationship with the Jewish American community, one of its closest and most important allies, is about to be tested, with Israel’s emerging right-wing government on a collision course with Jews in the United States.

Major American Jewish organizations, traditionally a bastion of support for Israel, have expressed concern about the far-right character of the presumptive government led by conservative Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Given American Jews’ predominantly liberal political views and affinity for the Democratic Party, these concerns could have a ripple effect in Washington and widen what has become a partisan divide over support for Israel.

“This is a very important crossroads,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a liberal, pro-Israel group in Washington. “The possibility of concrete action that could be taken by this administration, these are the moments when relations between American Jewry and the State of Israel begin to truly falter. So I’m very scared.”

Jewish-American leaders appear particularly concerned that a trio of hardline, religious lawmakers expected to play prominent roles. All three have made racist anti-Arab statements, denigrated the LGBTQ community, attacked Israel’s legal system, and demonized the liberal, non-Orthodox sect of popular Judaism in the United States, which strongly opposes Palestinian independence.

“They are among the most extreme voices in Israeli politics,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest Jewish movement in the United States. The role of leadership is of deep, deep concern.”

More centrist organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League, which fights anti-Semitism and other forms of hate, and the Jewish Federation of North America, an umbrella group that supports hundreds of Jewish communities, also spoke out.

While these groups, like J Street and the Reform Movement, support a two-state solution with the Palestinians, their recent statements have focused on Israel’s democratic ideals. The Anti-Defamation League said the inclusion of three far-right lawmakers in the government “goes against Israel’s founding principles.” The federations called for “inclusive and pluralistic” policies.

For decades, American Jews have played an important role in fostering closer ties between the United States and Israel. They have raised millions of dollars for Israeli causes, spoken out in defense of Israel, and bolstered strong bipartisan support for Israel in Washington.

But this long-standing relationship has come under strain in recent years – particularly during Netanyahu’s 2009-2021 rule.

Netanyahu’s hard-line policies toward the Palestinians, his open conflict with Barack Obama on peacebuilding and the Iran nuclear issue, and his close relationship with Donald Trump have put him at odds with many in the American Jewish community.

Opinion polls show that nearly three-quarters of American Jews lean toward the Democratic Party. They are more critical of the Israeli government and more sympathetic to the Palestinians than their Republican counterparts, divisions that are even wider among young Jews in their 20s.

These trends appear to be going into hyper-drive as Netanyahu prepares to return to power after a year and a half as opposition leader, this time anchored by the country’s most extremist politicians.

Netanyahu and his allies are still building their coalition after winning elections last month. But he has already reached several deals that are ringing alarm bells abroad.

Itamar Ben-Gavir, a lawmaker known for his anti-Arab vitriol and provocative stunts, has been offered the job of national security minister, a powerful post that would put him in charge of Israel’s national police force. These include the paramilitary Border Police, a unit on the front lines of much of the fighting with Palestinians in East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.

Ben-Gavir labeled the Arab lawmakers “terrorists” and called for their deportation. He wants to impose the death penalty on the Palestinian attackers and to acquit the soldiers.

Netanyahu also agreed to appoint lawmaker Avi Maoz as a deputy minister overseeing a new authority in charge of “Jewish identity” and to give him responsibility for Israel’s education system.

Maoz is known for his outspoken anti-LGBTQ stance and disparaging comments about the Reform movement and other non-Orthodox Jews.

He wants a ban on pride parades, has compared homosexuals to pedophiles and wants to allow some conversion therapy, a disrespectful practice that attempts to change the sexual orientation or gender identity of LGBTQ children.

Maoz hopes to change Israel’s “law of return,” which allows immigration to Israel with a single Jewish grandparent, and replace it with a stricter definition of Jewishness. He also opposed non-Orthodox conversion to Judaism. This is an insult to liberal Jewish groups, who have a less rigid view of Jewish identity.

Bezalel Smotrich, a settler leader with a history of anti-gay and anti-Palestinian comments, has been granted extensive authority over settlement construction and Palestinian civic life in the occupied West Bank.

Netanyahu has been generous to his allies because they support major legal reforms that could delay or dismiss his corruption trials. Critics say such a move would undermine Israel’s democratic foundations.

In a speech on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Netanyahu tried to downplay such concerns by pledging to defend democracy and LGBTQ rights. “I ultimately set the policy,” he said.

Hailey Soifer, chief executive of the American Jewish Democratic Council, said it was premature to judge a government that had not yet taken office. But he acknowledged concerns about issues such as LGBTQ rights, Palestinian rights and respect for democracy — especially with the Trump administration’s memory still fresh.

“Many of these concerns are based on our own experience with an administration that did not share our values,” Soifer said.

It is unclear whether US policy will be affected. The Biden administration has said it will wait to see the new administration’s policies, not personalities.

But Eric Alterman, author of “We Are Not One,” a new book about the relationship between Israel and American Jews, says the sides are going in opposite directions.

Progressive Democrats have already pushed for a tougher stance on Israel because of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

“It may come suddenly. It may be piecemeal. But there is just a break coming between American Jews and Israeli Jews,” Alterman said.

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Associated Press writer Eleanor H. Rich, Louis Henao in New York and Peter Smith in Pittsburgh contributed reporting.

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