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MK Itamar Ben Gvir brandishing a gun this month during clashes in East Jerusalem. Photo: Twitter

Slouching towards authoritarianism

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Slouching towards authoritarianism

MK Itamar Ben Gvir brandishing a gun this month during clashes in East Jerusalem. Photo: Twitter

Which country has a very important election coming up in early November that may well determine whether it remains a vibrant democracy or slinks toward authoritarianism?

Overly dramatic? I’m afraid not.

Here are a few quiz hints: The election essentially hinges on the popularity of one man, the controversial former leader who lost last time but hopes this vote will result in his escaping a possible jail sentence for alleged crimes committed in office.

Still stumped? The very real concern surrounding this election is that the country in question, though proudly proclaiming its democratic bona fides, has shown disturbing signs of leaning toward “illiberal democracy.” That’s a term used by Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose tenure has resulted in a gradual but steady increase in his power and a decline in equal rights and other characteristics of traditional democracy.

So which country am I describing here? If you answered “the U.S.,” you’d be right. And if you answered “Israel,” you’d be right, too. And that’s the problem.

With weary Israelis slated to vote Nov. 1 in their fifth national election in four years, and the U.S. holding midterm elections one week later, the parallels between the state of affairs in the two countries are striking – and deeply worrisome. Not only because the two societies are divided over a former leader – Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel and Donald Trump in America – whose powerful influence has made each the singular issue at hand (even though Trump isn’t on the ballot), but because the respective societies appear to be teetering on the brink of democratic rule.

In both Israel and the U.S., the electorates have become increasingly divided to the point where politics has morphed into issues of identity and ideology. One either views Netanyahu/Trump as the defender of the country’s security and of the working man, or as a would-be authoritarian leader who seeks to divide rather than unite the country.

Those on the left focus on democracy as the highest of values and see government as promoting the importance of free elections and minority rights. Those on the right cherish individual autonomy for the majority population and are critical of the establishment as favoring elites. Each side views the other as a clear danger to future stability and believe their society’s greatest threat comes from within its midst, not from beyond its borders.

Both Netanyahu and Trump have high personal stakes in the upcoming elections that transcend politics.

Former President Trump has endorsed candidates who support, directly or implicitly, his rebellion against American law, and they in turn are prepared, once elected, to absolve him of any possible accountability for the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Former Prime Minister Netanyahu, currently on trial for charges of bribery, breach of trust and fraud, could go to prison if he is convicted and out of government. He is extracting pledges from potential coalition partners to pass legislation that would give him immunity as long as he is prime minister. The most extreme example of Netanyahu’s political outreach is his association with Itamar Ben Gvir, a modern-day Meir Kahane and leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party. The former and would-be future prime minister has persuaded Ben Gvir to merge with Bezalel Smotrich, head of the hard-right Religious Zionist party, and join the right-wing bloc.

Ben Gvir’s popularity because of – or in spite of – his long record of arrests and convictions for rioting, incitement to racism and support for a Jewish militant organization is unprecedented in Israeli history. A former member of Kahane’s Kach movement (outlawed by the Knesset for anti-Arab racism) and admirer of Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 Muslim worshipers at Machpelah (the Cave of the Patriarchs) in 1994, Ben-Gvir stands to play a key cabinet role in a Likud-led coalition if Netanyahu regains his post as prime minister.

Such a scenario, once hard to imagine, now seems likely, according to recent polls. Ben Gvir as justice minister, the post he prefers, would be a travesty. Just the idea of his party playing an active role in a government coalition underscores how dramatically Israeli society has moved to the right. And Smotrich’s Religious Zionist party has put forth a comprehensive plan to amend the justice system, essentially by weakening the judicial branch and strengthening the politicians in the Knesset.

A Netanyahu government prepared to embrace Kahane-inspired coalition ministers, with a focus on chipping away democratic norms, would be the antithesis of the Start-Up Nation image, the target of international ridicule and for a majority of American Jews, would risk rending the fabric of Jewish unity that has held between Israel and the diaspora.

That same segment of American Jews will be bereft if Republicans win a majority of House and Senate seats in the Nov. 8 midterms, as seems highly possible. The concern transcends Republican policies about immigration, women’s reproductive rights, inflation and crime. It speaks to a willful refusal to accept the truth, valuing victory over the constitutional order.

If and when a majority of Republican candidates refuse to publicly acknowledge that Joe Biden won the 2020 election and that President Trump sought to overthrow the U.S. Constitution by challenging the 2020 election results and encouraging violence, then our country will have lost its moral balance. And as part of the danger, with Jews seen as part of the elite establishment, more blatant and violent forms of antisemitism are likely to increase dramatically.

For many of us democracy is not just an American value but a Jewish one as well. It is the modern-day expression of the Torah’s declaration that every person is created b’tzelem Elokim, in the image of God.

We have been made all too aware in the recent past that democracy cannot be taken for granted – not in Israel, nor in the U.S. It is up to us to act now to assure that the rule of law is upheld, before it is too late.

Gary Rosenblatt is the former publisher and editor of The New York Jewish Week.

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