What We’re Getting, What We’ve Lost: Ben-Gvir, Friedman and Democracy

Itamar Ben Gvir/Tehila Friedman

By JAMIE MICHAELS Ed. note: This article was sent to us before the latest round of coalition-forming attempts. In the pulsating balagan that is Israeli democracy, it can be difficult to pay attention to small details. At the time of writing, King Netanyahu—Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister—is attempting to cobble together an unstable coalition government. If he is able to do so his success will likely be short-lived.

As if to compensate for the lack of democracy in the region, Israel has recently completed its fourth round of elections in two years. The country’s system of proportional representation means that barring any unforeseen miracles (this is Israel after all) each of the tribes represented in the 24th Knesset will soon be back on the campaign trail. Because of this, keeping track of the rotating rogues’ gallery of Israeli elected officials can seem inconsequential. As we wait for the gavel to fall on both a new government and the next round of evidence in Netanyahu’s corruption trial, it seems fitting to take a moment to consider the transition of individual members of the Knesset. Who represented the Jewish people? Who does now? What does it say about us?

First and foremost, every respectable Jewish publication should dedicate space to denounce the election of Itamar Ben-Gvir. We’ve created room here to do so at length. Israel’s Basic Laws defines the state as both Jewish and democratic. To protect these foundational values candidates who incite racism are theoretically barred from running in elections. Not only should the courts have stopped him, but the voting public should have too. Ben-Gvir is a racist and a Jewish-supremacist. The head of Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), Ben-Gvir has a long and proven history of embracing reprehensible ideologies. He was exempted from service in the IDF due to his extremism. He is a former member of the terrorist group Kach and it’s difficult to see Otzma Yehudit as anything less than its ideological successor. Both have opposed intermarriage, or even the coexistence of Jews and Arabs — a historical practice Jews should be particularly attenuated to. Both Kach and Otzma Yehudit have advocated for the expulsion of Israel’s Arabs citizens for decades. Ben-Gvir has been convicted of it in court. “So, nu?” proclaim those that support his inclusion in one of the shaky coalitions of perpetual compromise that define Israeli democracy. We work within the system we have and form coalitions as we must.

Tehila Friedman would disagree. Friedman is best her known for her inaugural Knesset speech: an earnest, impassioned plea for tolerance in the face of diversity seen by millions. She reminded the nation that a civil war based on identity politics preceded the destruction of the Second Temple; that Jerusalem burned because of maximalist ideologies, because of competing Judaisms that claimed exclusive monopolies on beauty and truth. In the spirit of learning from our history Friedman called for:

“The formation of an alliance of the moderates, with all the forces from all the communities that understand the challenge called living together, to bring back the forces from the extremes that ruin everybody’s lives and to build a shared center.
“I speak in a gentle voice, I know, and you can be misled to think that my message is also calling to form a gentle and compromising center.
“But it’s the exact opposite. The center I’m talking about is a principled center, a zealot’s center, that’s not willing to compromise about its ‘centeredness’.’About its responsibility for all of the residents of our country. About the role that it plays for all those who really want to live together. It puts a limit on self-righteousness, a limit on selfishness. A center that is willing to sacrifice in the name of moderation and democracy, of a Judaism that makes place for others. A center that with its very being protects the rules that allow us to manage our differences without breaking us into pieces.”
I’d challenge anyone to find a more poignant reminder about the values Israel needs now. The red embers fanned by Ben-Gvir fall on today’s Jerusalem. It will take a multicultural coalition of moderates to extinguish them.
Tehila Friedman was not re-elected to the 24th Knesset. As a small blessing from a strange democracy, it’s likely another vote is on the horizon. For the sake of both this democracy, and who we are as a people, centrism has never been more important. We need her back as much as we need Ben-Gvir gone. He is a Jewish terrorist who glorifies terrorists. Until recently he hung a photograph of mass murderer Baruch Goldstein (the perpetrator of Hebron Massacre) in his home. Ben-Gvir has since taken down the portrait for a chance to sit in a coalition government. If he does join the ruling party, it will be more than just a shanda far die goyim. It will a be blow against every Jew who believes in both Judaism and Democracy.

No amount of political gymnastics can justify an Israel that lets Ben-Gvir be part of government. His inclusion is a stain on the state. It marks the failure of the courts and the electorate. If we can’t agree to that, what type of democracy are we protecting? Israel today is a nation of Jews, Arabs, Druze, Bedouins, Circassians, and dreamers. We will never see the world in the same way. We still need to live in it together. Regardless of whether he sits with the majority-block, Ben-Gvir will be a member of the Knesset for the first time. As the news cycle churns relentlessly forward, I hope everyone can carve out a small amount of time in the aftermath of this election to consider what we’re getting and what we’ve lost.

Jamie Michaels

Jamie Michaels is occasionally a fire fighter, has been a martial artist, and is a writer of graphic novels, with a masters in English from the University of Alberta. Recently Jamie was awarded an SSHRC Doctoral Fellowship to fund his research in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

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