The threat’s from inside the house
Abe Foxman analyzes the profound divisions behind Israel’s struggles
Abraham Foxman of Bergen County, the now-retired longtime head of the Anti-Defamation League, has a deeply ingrained self-image as an optimist.
As a child Holocaust survivor who grew up on a struggling South Jersey egg farm, and whose five-decade-long career allowed him to see politics at its seamiest as well as its most glamorous, he always has oriented himself toward hope.
That’s why it was so startling to hear Mr. Foxman say, in the days leading up to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s temporary pullback from demands that legislation to curb the Israel Supreme Court be passed immediately, that he was so worried that he feared Israel’s survival would be possible only by miracle.
And then boom! On Monday evening, Bibi pulled back, at least a little, at least for now.
But for once, Mr. Foxman didn’t feel the warm comfort of optimism.
“We moved back from the precipice,” he said on Monday evening. “But it is not over yet. It is not over at all.”
This is the most serious threat Israel has encountered since it was formed, Mr. Foxman said. “We moved back from the precipice, but it is not over. It is not over at all.
“I think Israel will never be the same. Not as we knew her.”
The experience of seeing Israel about to become something entirely different was terrifying. “I think that Israelis and Jews who love Israel experienced a very frightening moment,” he said. “Our beloved Israel almost disintegrated, and not because of threats from the outside. These threats were coming from the inside.”
For decades — probably for the seven and a half decades since Israel was created, in 1948 — onlookers have been pointing out that Israelis have been held together by the dire threats that encircle them, which allow them to look outward rather than inward. But that can work for only so long.
“Israel is a conglomerate of all kinds of things,” Mr. Foxman said. “Of ethnicities. Of the secular and the religious. It’s a coming-together of Jews from 70 nations, with 70 traditions, cultures, and histories. It has miraculously survived for 75 years because its leadership understood that it must continuously find compromises to the problems it faces internally.”
Since Netanyahu was reelected in December, after a series of elections and faint hope and failed attempts at various apparently doomed coalitions, the divisions between Israelis have sharpened. “Democracy survives on compromise,” Mr. Foxman said. “If there is no compromise, then one side rules at the expense of the other. That’s what was happening. There was a collaboration between forces who felt that they had been on the outside, but now they smelled power. They were unwilling to compromise.”
The problem is built into Israel’s existence. Israel is built on a paradox, the idea that a state can be both Jewish and democratic. “We talk about Israel, glibly, as being a Jewish democracy, but those terms, Jewish and democracy, don’t necessarily live well together,” Mr. Foxman said.
That agreement can work, up to a point, as long as the leaders are willing to compromise with groups whose demands seem outré because they are so alien to everyone outside the group. That takes selflessness and genuine leadership.
“In the past, leadership was more about unity and the country and its well-being,” Mr. Foxman said. “Leaders were willing to make compromises.
“Take Ben-Gurion.” David Ben-Gurion was Israel’s first prime minister, and foundationally important to its creation as a state. “Ben-Gurion was a socialist atheist, who had no need for or interest in religion,” Mr. Foxman said. “He made a compromise with the Orthodox that gave them Shabbos, kashrut, and the religious courts. He made the compromise for the sake of unity. So he compromised his beliefs and his party’s beliefs to keep the nation together.
“Now, 75 years later, we find a coalition that is not socialist, not liberal, but religious nationalist and illiberal. It wants to impose its traditions and its beliefs on the secular minority” — because the non-religious, Ashkenazi, European-rooted Israeli elites either are being outnumbered by Jews from elsewhere, with far more traditional religious expectations, or soon will be — “and the prime minster, instead of trying to compromise for the sake of unity, for his own personal reasons wants to impose that illiberal nationalist majority on the secular minority.”
When it comes to demographics, Mr. Foxman thinks that if secular Israelis are not a minority now, they will be in the next five to ten years. On the other hand, unexpected things happen. Russian Jews are pouring into the country, and they’re generally secular, although their life experiences in an authoritarian system are unlikely to have made many of them liberal.
Back to Israel today, however. The coalition now in power, if only by its fingernails, is shaky. “So unless Israel continues to embrace compromise, we are going to need miracles down the road. Because this is just the beginning. Until now, what has served to force the leadership into compromise was the threat from the outside. Every time the Israelis think that they are at a moment of peace” — a moment likely to end soon anyway, given the shifting alliances jostled by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — “that social contract starts disintegrating.
“A Jewish democracy is a very delicate thing,” Mr. Foxman continued. “It is not black and white. You need to be smart, you need to be able to compromise, you need to be patient, to be respectful, to be creative.
“They’ve been creative for 75 years. When the secular were a majority, they still maintained some of the things that irked a lot of their supporters — the religious courts, the Shabbos regulations — and they did it because they felt it was necessary to keep the nation together.
“And here is a moment when a political leader, for his own personal reasons” — Mr. Foxman didn’t list those reasons, but Benyamin Netanyahu is under indictment and being tried for a range of corruption cases — “was willing to undo the social contract that has served the state of Israel for 75 years. So I don’t know if what happened today is in fact going to turn into a commitment to find a compromise, but if it isn’t, everything will disintegrate to where we were yesterday.
“We need to look at long-term and short-term consequences,” he continued. “In the short term, we need to deal with the prime minister and his problems and needs and priorities. Therefore, I would say that President Herzog needs to be creative and courageous. I don’t know the ins and outs of his power, but I assume that the president, like any president, has the ability to grant pardons.
“I think that he has to offer the prime minister a pardon in advance, if he is found guilty. In exchange, the prime minister would truly engage in compromise, and get rid of Ben Gvir, who certainly is not interested in compromise.” Itamar Ben Gvir, Israel’s minister of national security, is a far-right politician who might be described as a provocateur. “Ben Gvir is holding the prime minister by his whatevers, and if he cannot free himself of that intimidation, then there is no hope for compromise, and therefore no hope for democracy.
“In the short term, we need to find a way to free the prime minister from the political extortion that the extremists in the coalition hold over him.
“My father, of blessed memory, taught me to be careful of God’s Cossacks,” Mr. Foxman continued. That included not only the actual Cossacks, the enemy, but “our God’s Cossacks, who are just as dangerous, because they believe that they possess the only truth. God’s truth.
“That’s Ben Gvir and Smotrich” — Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s finance minister and another far-right politician allied with Netanyahu — “who politically extort him.
“God’s Cossacks don’t believe in compromises.”
That’s the short-term solution.
“In the long run, Israel has to change its political system so that it is not dependent, as it is today, on two or three votes.” Those members of Knesset in a prime minister’s coalition hold a disproportionate amount of power — in some ways, although the system is different, they are the equivalent of the MAGA members of the U.S. House of Representatives, because of their willingness to burn down the system if they don’t get their way. “Their alliance is to their party, not to the electorate. That has to change.”
Mr. Foxman being Mr. Foxman, he was able to see some good in the situation. Another miracle, he said.
“It is a miracle that people went into the streets exercising democracy without violence or threats. We are talking about half a million people in the streets, standing up for democracy, in a country that has been apathetic in terms of protests for 75 years. There has been corruption, and the Israeli people have paid heavy prices for it, and yet they did not ‘rebel.’ So it is with a sense of pride that I saw that we are different.
“Look at what happened in Washington on January 6. We Americans pride ourselves on being a civilized people, but look at the violence that day.”
The protests in Israel “were spontaneous, and free of violence. It is with a sense of pride and hope for the future that I say that if things fall apart again, they can come together again.”
But wait, Mr. Foxman. You said that Israel never will go back to where it had been.
Yes, he replied. That’s true. “Israel has shown itself that we are not as one a people as we thought we were. We had two slogans. First, that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. Well, we almost lost that distinction, and it isn’t over yet.
“Second, we say that the Jewish people are one. Well, we haven’t been in the last three months, so we have to stop just saying it and start acting it.
“We have come so close to the precipice that the scars always will be there,” he said. “There is a conflict between democracy and Jewishness. There is a tension between the secular and the religious nationalists. We can’t take anything for granted anymore.”