After spending an uplifting week in Israel, I landed back on American soil last Wednesday and my sense of rapture turned into horror. Several hours after I left Ben Gurion Airport, two terrorist bombing attacks at Jerusalem bus stops claimed the lives of two and injured 26 others, including several in serious and critical conditions. This dual sense of emotions capped a week in Israel that was, for me, replete with a range of often contradictory and paradoxical experiences.
A pilgrimage of prayer, which began by commemorating my father’s 13th yahrtziet at his kever in Teveriah, took me from the burial site of one holy tzaddik to another in the Galil and around Israel. Throughout, I marveled at the religious fervor drawing so many Jews in Israel to these sites. It’s a fervor that spans the spectrum of religious expression and adherence. Each new trip seems to me to provide a growing pleasure in that piety, which somewhat tempers the regret of irreligiosity in the Jewish state.
Though a dichotomy in the religious makeup of Israel’s citizens has long been a given, it has somewhat tapered to produce a resounding conservative majority as reflected in this past election. Take away the votes for Arab parties, and a rightward shift in Israel’s electorate cannot be denied. It is a shift grounded not only in hawkish security views but in a population increasingly and unabashedly rightwing.
This shift created a sense of euphoria in the recent decisive wins of Israel’s rightwing parties. But the shift quickly dampened over ongoing squabbling among those parties in forming a coalition. Israel’s voters are deflated by the infighting. Bickering over positions collide with principles, and sadly with egos, resulting in growing disappointment and tension.
The political version of “two Jews, three opinions” is infinitely more perilous than its cultural counterpart. In the areas most crucial to the survival of the Jewish State – religion and security – discord is dangerous. And disillusioning.
A conversation I had while in Israel with an MK from the Religious Zionist Party revealed a fervent desire to build on the success of the rightwing parties by pushing for legislation to safeguard both the religious and security aspects of the state. Especially regarding the issue of judicial reform. But these issues are met with resistance from within and without the state.
My week in Israel coincided with the Biden administration, Western allies, and progressive American Jewish organizations pressuring Prime Minister-designate Netanyahu to shun NRP’s Betzalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir for their hawkish views. Denouncing them as “threats to democracy”, they urged Netanyahu to shut them out of leadership positions.
Rather than push back against such interference in internal Israeli politics, leftwing Israeli politicians are busy smearing their rivals with similar slurs. As I spoke with the MK, Yair Lapid was ironically busy comparing Orthodox parties, including UTJ, Shas and NRP, who are seeking to pass legislation permitting gender segregation at publicly funded events, to the theocratic policies of Iran. Lapid said, “At a time when brave women in Iran are fighting for their rights, in Israel Smotrich and his haredi nationalists are trying to place women behind barriers and legalize separating men from women…This isn’t Iran.”
Instead of piling on Smotrich, Lapid should have reserved criticism for the appointment that same week of Hady Amr to the newly created post of special representative for Palestinian affairs. This first of its kind position at the State Department focused solely on the Palestinians, thus upgrading the U.S.-Palestinian relationship, was given to the anti-Israel Amr, who accused Israel of “ethnic cleansing”, pushed for a deal with Hamas and infamously wrote, “I was inspired by the Palestinian intifada”.
The inability of some of Israel’s leaders to boldly advocate for Israel’s security was tragically underscored in the ironic juxtaposition of a discussion I had with Hadar Goldin’s brother on the last day of my trip and the murdered Druze Tiran Fero the day after. Hadar’s brother bemoaned Israel’s yearslong failure to secure the release of Hadar’s body from Gaza after being murdered by Hamas in 2014. Yet it took only 30 hours for Israeli officials and the Palestinian Authority to facilitate the release of Fero’s kidnapped body by terrorists, after an enraged united Druze community within Israel threatened violence. True, negotiating with the PA differs from Hamas, but the rapidity with which the release occurred underscores the power of pressure and contrasts the undivided and motivated Druze community with its Jewish counterpart.
Such dichotomy in resolve is one of the factors that leads to terror. While walking the streets of Jerusalem, one is struck by the proliferation of building and new construction everywhere. But the expansion, coupled with Israel’s technological innovation, doesn’t seem to jive with a burgeoning sense of self-determination in the face of world opinion.
Several of the victims of last week’s terror bombings in Jerusalem were brought to Shaarei Tzedek hospital, where some still remain. I was in that hospital a few days before the bombing, visiting a sick relative, and marveled at how many Israeli Arab patients there were. While a manhunt continues for the suspected terror cell responsible for the bombing, Israeli Arabs have not been ruled out as culprits. It is galling to think of terrorists residing amongst the hands that feed them.
Israel’s enemies have been decrying the ushering in of the most right-wing government in the country’s history. It is a government elected by the people for the people – a people who gave Netanyahu's bloc a resounding victory precisely because of their right-wing beliefs. Those beliefs include the premise that there should be no allowance anymore for mixed messages that project weakness on issues of Jewish identity, as characterized by Torah law and as represented by the religious parties, and security. The appointment of Ben Gvir to the newly created position of National Security Minister, coming two days after the terror bombings in Jerusalem, will hopefully herald a tough on terror approach within a newly elected coalition.
As anti-Semitism expands and intensifies around the world, especially in unexpected places like America, Jews look to Israel as a safe haven. There can be no wavering of resolve, the type I witnessed on my recent trip, if Israel is to safeguard its Jewish character and Jewish sovereignty.
The people of Israel have spoken and their leaders need to listen.
Sara Lehmann is an award-winning New York based columnist and interviewer. For more of her writings please visit saralehmann.com.
This article first appeared in Hamodia.