Lessons from Ben-Gvir’s Temple Mount Visit
Knesset coalitions rarely reflect uniformity.
Americans live in partisan times. Democratic and Republican voters regard supporters of the other party not as rivals to engage in dialogue with or try to persuade to a different point of view, but as enemies to be shunned and vilified.
Ben Sasse, a Republican former U.S. senator from Nebraska and incoming president of the University of Florida, offers a caution:
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“A nation of … millions of souls couldn’t possibly agree on everything, but we can hash out our disagreements in the communities where we live and the institutions we build, including, I would think, houses of worship, schools, organizations and, yes, assemblies of elected officials. If only these ‘adversaries’ could engage in honest and nonjudgmental debate, these are the places where they could figure out a positive path forward.
Sasse notes that “the alternative is allowing the harmful type of tribalism that welcomes hatred of those we disagree with to define us.”
Regrettably, this latter kind of hyperpartisanship is taking hold in Israeli politics and among American Israel supporters on both sides of the aisle.
Israel’s 64-Knesset-seat ruling coalition is depicted monolithically as an ultra-religious/politically right-wing aggregate, all holding one point of view.
Oppositional voters appalled by views expressed by Itamar Ben-Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich, Avi Maoz, and certain charedi MKs are painting Benjamin Netanyahu and his entire coalition with one brush, rendering them worthy only of being boycotted.
This is an ineffective tactic, especially in the Knesset.
It was more instructive when Bibi and his opposition bloc remained in dialogue with receptive government MKs, siphoning them off one at a time.
Today’s opposition should ask: Are certain MKs capable of being persuaded to abandon Bibi’s ranks?
Let’s keep in mind that the popular vote victory on November 1 was not overwhelming. It was nearly equally divided between Bibi’s supporters and his opponents. His successful outcome was a tribute to his adroitly parlaying the requirement that Knesset parties must reach a 3.25% threshold.
He unified the Smotrich/Ben-Gvir/Maoz camp into one line on the ballot, lest any vote be lost. He dissuaded habitual Religious Zionist voters from supporting Naftali Bennett’s discredited Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home) party, since it was unlikely to reach the 3.25% threshold.
Yair Lapid proved unable to play the system; he failed to persuade the Labor and Meretz slates to unite. And, too, the United Arab List did not retain the Balad party. Meretz and Balad lines subsequently came close but did not exceed 3.25%. Their votes were lost. Adding their combined 6% into the anti-Netanyahu Knesset mandates would have been consequential.
Bibi’s coalition-building effort also reflected the adroit papering over of differences among Likud, the charedim, and the ultra-nationalist Religious Zionists.
Likudniks primarily are at odds with the charedi push for yeshiva students to bypass IDF service and to live on state funding. This system is unsustainable. The true Likudniks are part of a proud Revisionist Zionist/Herut/Likud heritage defending the rights of all types of Israeli citizens. While Noam — Avi Maoz’s party — and the charedim condemn LGBTQ lifestyles, Bibi and other Likudniks do not. Bibi even appointed a gay MK to become Speaker of the Knesset and publicly honored this man, his husband, and their children.
Likud members are concerned about charedi demands to outlaw construction projects to enhance public transit lines that non-Jews perform on Shabbat. Such construction on Shabbat enables the general populace to be relieved of additional weekday traffic disruption.
The demands made by charedi and hardline Religious Zionists — Smotrich, Ben-Gvir, etc. — for fundamental judicial reform also reveal coalition fault lines. Given Bibi’s legal troubles and those of Aryeh Deri, many Likudniks recognize that the PM’s stance and that of Shas are self-serving.
Smotrich’s Religious Zionist party is incensed at the order issued by Likud Defense Minister Yoav Gallant to evacuate Or Chaim, an unauthorized West Bank outpost. Nearly 70% of the grassroots Likud members are at odds with Shas’s demand to ignore the High Court ruling against Deri’s serving as a minister. Other cracks in the uniformity of Bibi’s religious right-wing bloc were evident in the run-up to Ben-Gvir’s recent visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
Bibi and the Likud joined with the police and security officials in advising Ben-Gvir against making such a provocative visit, which they predicted would foment violence by Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
Regrettably, Ben-Gvir did not comply with Bibi’s advice against a Temple Mount visit. But at least the message of caution was received; Ben-Gvir toned down the event, and it was not announced in advance. He arrived at 5 a.m., when the site was empty, and remained there only 15 minutes.
Beyond Likud, a second coalition group opposed to visiting the Temple Mount were the charedi parties and Avi Maoz’s Noam party. For decades, chief rabbinate signage posted at the Mughrabi Gate — the sole point of entry for non-Muslims — has read “According to Torah Law, the Temple Mount area is strictly forbidden due to the holiness of the site.”
Members of a third element of the coalition — to which Ben-Gvir and Smotrich belong — advocate Jewish visits and prayer on Har Habayit. Ben-Gvir’s well-publicized monthly visits to Har Habayit are known to be inflammatory. They give encouragement to Return to the Mount, a group of activists who seek permission not only for Jewish prayer but for offering the ancient Passover sacrifice on the Temple Mount this coming April, a flashpoint that would ignite the Arab world.
They may feel justified in taking actions to answer the question — but at what cost?
As noted by charedi spokesman Avi Shafran, theirs is “a provocation without a justification. It is also a gift to Muslim extremists the world over who loathe Israel and search for anything they can portray as insulting.”
In sum, the assumption of a monolithic ultra-right-wing hardline religious coalition is false. Coalition MKs ought not be lumped into one camp and shunned as hopelessly unpersuadable to other points of view. Their multiple differences can be cultivated effectively by the opposition.
Israeli society would benefit from an open and healthy debate.
Opponents would do well to follow the wisdom of Ben Sasse and keep in mind the strategy implemented by the Bibi-led opposition. Regularly engage coalition MKs about issues, one by one, on an individual basis. That was the secret to galvanizing popular support and to dethroning the Bennett/Lapid 61-seat majority.
Engagement and earnest debate rather than cancel culture should be the tactic of the Knesset opposition and its supporters in Israel and the Diaspora. Stereotyping an entire bloc of diverse coalition members is a tactical blunder. Who knows? Concerns that arise might well cross partisan lines. Cracks in the veneer of uniformity already are being revealed and ought to be further explored.
Rabbi Alan Silverstein, Ph.D., became rabbi emeritus of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell in 2020; he began there in 1979. He’s headed the Conservative movement’s International Rabbinical Assembly, the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues, the Foundation for Masorti Judaism in Israel, and Mercaz Olami.