Israel’s Rising Right and Shrinking West
By Seth Jacobson
Earlier this month, Biden met with his Israeli counterpart—notably not at the White House, but at a New York hotel adjacent to the UN, and surrounded by protesters. And on September 22nd, as Netanyahu addressed the UN General Assembly, the largest protest against his administration took place steps away in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, attended by both Israelis and Americans.
Israel’s relationship with its most important ally is quickly cooling, to the point where even the foreign press has picked up on it, with Le Monde calling Netanyahu’s recent U.S. tour “painful.” But what’s notable about the latest strain on U.S.-Israel relations is the fact that Jewish Americans, historically a support base, are now at the forefront of the criticism.
At the center of these protests is Netanyahu’s decidedly right-wing plan for judicial reforms. Back in July, the Knesset ignored months of mass protests to pass a new law stripping the country’s Supreme Court of its ability to veto governmental decisions. Next steps include giving the executive branch greater control over judicial appointments and removing independent legal advisers from government ministries. It is a plan that inevitably heralds a constitutional crisis, insomuch as a country without a written constitution can have one. When you have retired military major generals and former special forces members weekly joining hundreds of thousands of individuals in the streets of Tel Aviv, you realize this is a moment of true reflection and unrest that is pulling at the core of the country’s ideals.
Regardless of how the matter is resolved, these past months of growing conservatism in Israel have created a chasm between the country and its American supporters. This group was once able to point to shared democratic values as a reason for the two countries’ special relationship—Israel is the largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid, it was the first country to be designated a major non-NATO ally (MNNA), and has even benefited from U.S. protection on the UN Security Council—but in recent years that reasoning has worn thin.
Regardless of how the matter is resolved, these past months of growing conservatism in Israel have created a chasm between the country and its American supporters.
The country that once made Tel Aviv Pride a global destination has rolled back its recognition of LGBTQ rights. Same-sex marriage is still illegal, though those married abroad enjoy legal recognition thanks to a 2006 Supreme Court ruling. The growing Orthodox right-wing has managed to impose sex segregation in public spaces, with reports emerging of female bus drivers being accosted for doing their jobs and of political parties issuing de facto bans on women running for office. The World Economic Forum’s most recent Global Gender Gap Report saw Israel fall in the ranks from 60th to 83rd place, right below Lesotho.
Perhaps nothing illustrates the clear gap in values between Jewish Americans and the current Israeli government than the visit of Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich to the United States earlier this March. His visit was met with a boycott and a letter of condemnation from a coalition of 145 Jewish American leaders, citing “views that are abhorrent to the vast majority of American Jews, from anti-Arab racism, to virulent homophobia, to a full-throated embrace of Jewish supremacy.”
Israel has to remember that Americans as well are witnessing the rise of far right extremism here at home. Antisemitism has increased every year since 2015 and spiked alarmingly during the Trump administration, with no signs of abating. Even without Trump, the Republican Party has drifted further right, with two U.S. Representatives recently taking speaking roles at white nationalist conferences. Rather than taking a stand against the rising tide of U.S. antisemitism, Netanyahu has been all too happy to bolster his strongman image, at the expense of Jewish Americans who have to live with the consequences.
This is not to say that there’s an irrevocable break between Israel and its supporters abroad. There are those who take a non-partisan stance, and Orthodox conservatives in the U.S. generally approve of Netanyahu and his right-wing coalition. But roughly 70 percent of Jewish Americans identify with the Democratic Party, and for them, this moment in Israeli politics is a watershed moment. In addition to worrying about the country’s future, they are also questioning the country’s creation. Dr. Shaul Magid of Dartmouth’s Jewish Studies Department framed it in this way: “The fundamental question all of us have to confront is: Is this government an aberration, or is this government a logical outcome of what’s been going on for the last 50 years?”
For a state so reliant on foreign aid and public opinion, both of which have been bolstered by Jewish Americans in the United States, alienating them to this extreme is yet another blemish on the Netanyahu administration. It remains to be seen if his positioning will impact the once intractable support for the Jewish state in the U.S.
This article was originally published in the Jewish Journal.