What’s the big deal with Israel’s new government?

Is the international outcry against the new Israeli government justified or overblown?
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the press after a traditional government group photo at the President’s house in Jerusalem, on December 29, 2022. (Photo by Amir Levy/Getty Images)

Israel has a new government, and although its leader is a very familiar face, the country is in uncharted territory. Descriptively, this is the most far-right and religious government in Israel’s history, with the majority of the members being from religious parties.

Headlines from some of the more left-leaning media outlets around the world — from the New York Times to the Guardian to Haaretz — have sounded the alarm about Israel’s new government, decrying the rise of the far-right into the mainstream.

Amid all of the international outcry, two perspectives stood out. First, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote an op-ed, “What in the world is happening in Israel?” in which he assailed the “ultra-nationalist, ultra-religious governing coalition,” concluding that “the prospect for a two-state solution has all but vanished.”

Meanwhile, the New York Times Editorial Board declared that “The ideal of democracy in a Jewish state is in jeopardy” because of Netanyahu and his coalition’s victory.

So, what is really going on here? Is all of this outcry against the new Israeli government justified? Is this government as extreme as the media reports make it seem to be or is this just the same old finger-pointing at Israel?

What’s the big deal with the new government? What’s all the concern about?

According to Axios, “The coalition agreements include unprecedented policies that will give much more power to religious institutions and could harm the rights of non-Jews, women, and LGBTQ+ communities.”

Here’s what they demanded in the negotiations to form the government, and what the coalition agreement includes:

  • Redefining who a Jew is for the Law of Return (removing the “grandchild clause” so that only people born to Jewish parents, rather than Jewish grandparents, and converts would receive automatic citizenship)
  • Revoking state recognition of non-Orthodox converts to Judaism
  • Legalizing gender-separated public events
  • Amending Israel’s discrimination law to allow businesses and doctors to refuse service to people, such as members of the LBGTQ community, if it violates their religious beliefs
  • Paving the way for the government to pass a law exempting yeshiva students from military service

The new government includes previously fringe figures like Itamar Ben-Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich, and Avi Maoz, all of whom now hold ministerial positions. Watch our new “Today Unpacked” video to learn more about these figures who are considered heroic by some and deeply controversial by others in the Jewish community.

Ben-Gvir, who is the National Security Minister, caused a firestorm when he paid a visit to the Temple Mount on Tuesday. Ben-Gvir believes that the current “status quo” at the Temple Mount should be changed so that Jews can pray there.

MK Moshe Gafni of the United Torah Judaism party condemned Ben-Gvir’s visit as “an unnecessary and dangerous provocation,” adding, “This caused only damage with no benefit whatsoever.”

Some members of the government, including Religious Zionism party MKs Orit Strock and Simcha Rothman, have come under fire for their statements against the LGBTQ community. Strock said that doctors should be allowed to refuse service to people if it contradicts their religious beliefs.

On the other hand, Netanyahu announced that the Knesset speaker will be Amir Ohana, who is the first openly gay person to hold the role.

Diversity of perspectives: Is the criticism of Israel’s government justified?

In response to the New York Times editorial, Prime Minister Netanyahu tweeted this:

Bibi has been doing his own speaking tour around the world. A few weeks ago, he was on NBC’s Meet the Press, where he addressed concerns over the far-right members of his government.

“I have a record of having two hands on the wheel…And I ultimately decide policy…In the first instance, in the last instance,” Netanyahu told host Chuck Todd

Watch our latest Today Unpacked video for more perspectives on Netanyahu’s government.

Meanwhile, Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the Religious Zionism party, argued in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that the criticism against him is unfounded:

“The U.S. media has vilified me and the traditionalist bloc to which I belong…They say I am a right-wing extremist and that our bloc will usher in a ‘halachic state’ in which Jewish law governs. In reality, we seek to strengthen every citizen’s freedoms and the country’s democratic institutions.”

But many Israeli leaders disagree with the far-right members of the government, starting with Israeli President Isaac Herzog. He spoke out against the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric, saying:

“A situation in which citizens in Israel feel threatened because of their identity or belief undermines the fundamental democratic values of the State of Israel. The racist comments heard in recent days against the LGBT community and against any different groups and sectors worry and disturb me a great deal.”

Former Prime Minister Yair Lapid also responded to these statements, blasting Netanyahu for “leading us towards a dark, halakhic country.”

Similarly, JNS CEO Alex Traiman voiced his support of the incoming government, writing, “Netanyahu’s return to power and the formation of a strong right-wing government is a tremendous achievement.”

“The installation of Israel’s right-wing government is not the will of Netanyahu, Itamar Ben-Gvir or any other member of Israel’s expanded political realms. Rather, it is the will of the voters and democracy at its best,” he added.

Meanwhile, JNS columnist Melanie Philips argued that the backlash stemmed from “the secular world’s hatred and terror of religion,” adding that it remains to be seen how this new government will behave.

“In Israel, the left claims the new government will deprive LGBTQ people of the right to general medical treatment (essential to a classically liberal society),” she wrote, referring to the coalition agreement’s amendment to the discrimination law.

“Religious Zionists in the coalition claim this is untrue, and they merely want to defend the right of Orthodox Jews not to be forced to act against their religious beliefs. It remains to be seen which of these perspectives turns out to be correct,” she added.

Meanwhile, commenting on the international outcry against Israel’s government, Canadian-Israeli journalist Matti Friedman argued that how we criticize matters. In his Tablet Magazine op-ed, he encouraged us to ask ourselves “if a critic is trying to make Israel better, or trying to make it disappear.”

Noam Weissman put it this way: “If your goal of criticizing Israel is to subtly chip away at the Jewish state and hope it disappears into another Arab state, I think you’ll be disappointed that your criticism will fall on deaf ears.”

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