Many pieces in this news puzzle: New Israeli coalition reflects land's complex religiosity

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What does it say about Israel that its founding prime minister was someone who today might be labeled a “BuJew,” a Jew strongly attracted to Buddhist philosophy? Or that it took Israel more than 70 years to produce a prime minister who identifies with Orthodox Judaism?

The BuJew prime minister was, of course, the otherwise secular David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s George Washington equivalent. Ben-Gurion actually took several days during a 1961 two-week state visit to Burma (today’s Myanmar) to attend a Buddhist retreat. I can’t imagine an Israeli prime minister doing that today given the Jewish state’s current political turmoil and Orthodoxy’s influence.

The first Orthodox prime minister is set to be Naftali Bennett, who as of this writing is scheduled to command the top spot in Israel’s nascent anti-Netanyahu governing coalition, itself tentatively set to formally assume office within days.


Again, what does all of this say? A lot, I’d argue, about Israel’s religious complexity and the degree to which religion and politics are tightly intertwined, perhaps inseparably so, in Israel (and the Middle East in general, but that’s a larger topic for another day).

I’d also argue it underscores the importance for journalists opining on Israel to be well versed on its religious politics — from its varied and often antagonistic Jewish factions, to its distinctive Arab Muslim, Christian and Druse communities — if they are to adequately explain the thinking that goes into Israeli decision making.

Consider the following. Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu, the longtime right-wing prime minister, is a secular Jew, as are most Israeli Jews. Yet he nonetheless enjoyed the support of his nation’s ultra-Orthodox parties. Netanyahu gained their support by including the parties in his ruling coalitions, giving them great access and sometimes control over public funds needed for their community institutions and economic safety nets. 

Bennett, meanwhile, has gained the condemnation of several leading Orthodox authority figures, even though he identifies with this religious descriptor.

Like Netanyahu, Bennett is a political right winger. But the new Rube Goldberg-like coalition he’ll lead includes none of the avowedly ultra-Orthodox parties that Netanyahu courted. That’s a threat to the groups’ historical access (which, ironically, was first agreed to by Ben-Gurion for strictly political reasons as he cobbled together the new nation) to the public funds their communities rely upon for economic survival.

This threat led a half-dozen Orthodox Jewish leaders — fearful that the religiously moderate Bennett might agree to erode their longstanding domination over daily Israeli Jewish life — to urge their followers to “try and do everything so that [the Bennett-led]  government does not materialize.” 

“It is impossible to accept the reality that a government will be formed in Israel that will harm the most fundamental aspects of religion and state matters that have been accepted since the establishment of the State of Israel until today by all Israeli governments,” read their statement, according to a report in Haaretz, the leading liberal Israeli daily.

Consider this as well.

For the first time, an independent Israeli Arab (or Israeli Palestinian, if you prefer) party is set to be part of a largely right-wing Israeli government. Moreover, the party, Ra’am, comes with Islamic leanings, a huge first for Israel.

As I said, it’s complicated. As Slate put it:

The eight parties that would make up the government include the far-left and the far-right, two-staters and annexationists. The coalition would be led by Israel’s first yarmulke-wearing Orthodox Jewish prime minister, and would be the first to include a Reform rabbi, an openly gay party leader (Nitzan Horowitz of Meretz), and an Islamist. The inclusion of the Ra’am party breaks an unwritten rule of Israeli politics: that Arab parties do not serve in government.

It will be interesting to see how, not to mention if, Bennett’s right wing-religious Zionism meshes with Ra’am’s advocacy for Palestinian political and economic issues.

One gigantic divide they’ll have to work around is Bennett’s support of West Bank and East Jerusalem Jewish communities, regarded by most of the world as illegal settlements that Palestinians claim occupy land that’s rightly their’s for inclusion in their hoped-for independent state.

You can count on the elite international media covering the ins and outs of the unfolding Israeli political drama. After all, is there any other independent nation the approximate size of New Jersey that gets more sustained coverage than Israel, thanks to its centrality to the three Abrahamic religions and the global cultures they’ve spawned? 

However, there are also angles that American (and other Western) reporters might pursue for local sidebars.

One such angle is sounding out functional Muslim/Arab-Jewish, interfaith discussion groups in your coverage area. No such groups where you work? The fallback calls are to local synagogues, mosques and churches but be sure to seek out varied voices on the political and theological right and left.

Ask if they think the coalition has a shot at holding together. A lot of Israeli and other international onlookers think it doesn’t.

If it does hold together, what might it achieve for Israel’s Arab citizens, a looming question for Israel’s many international liberal critics. Israel’s Arabs constitute about 20% of its population but complain of widespread discrimination under Jewish-led governments that always prioritize Jewish security. Similarly, how will the Jewish members of this kitchen-sink coalition keep their varying constituencies behind them when it’s time for policy negotiations?

This has heightened importance following the May mini-war between Israel and the Gaza Strip’s Hamas rulers, the civil strife that erupted between Israeli Jews and Arabs, and the global upswing in anti-Semitism that’s ensued?

Here’s yet another — and quite intriguing — local angle that strays from the actual Holy Land to pop up in the U.S. It’s a new poll that reported a decline in support for Israel among younger American evangelical Christians. 

Here’s the top of a Times of Israel piece on the poll — which went largely uncovered by Western mainstream media — detailing the reported decline.

NEW YORK — A new survey points to a growing divide in the US between young evangelical Christians and their elders, particularly in their views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, indicating Israel could see a significant drop in support in coming years.

While the religious group has long been a bulwark of support for Israel in the US, the Barna Group-administered poll commissioned by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke indicates a sharp drop in support for the Jewish state and raises concerns that Israel could lose a key ally going forward, its authors told The Times of Israel. …

The poll was commissioned as part of their research for an upcoming book on the issue.

In a poll of over 700 evangelical Christians between the ages of 18 and 29 that was conducted between March and April, respondents were asked where they place their support in the “Israeli-Palestinian dispute.” Just 33.6 percent said with Israel, 24.3% said with the Palestinians and 42.2 percent said with neither side.

This marked a significant shift from 2018, when 69% young evangelicals — responding to another survey conducted by UNCP professors, Motti Inbari and Kirill Bumin — said they side with Israel, 5.6% said they sided with the Palestinians and 25.7% said they didn’t take either side.

I’m convinced that former President Donald Trump’s muscular support for Israel was overwhelmingly rooted in his desire to pander to evangelical Christian voters. Ditto for many of his supportive Republican members of the Congress and state legislatures.

Is this poll an accurate picture of some future zeitgeist? Might the day come when Republican support for Israel actually wanes if evangelicals shift enough of their backing away from Israel and toward the Palestinians?

It’s just one survey so it’s way too soon to get excited. But I wonder.

Is this survey a sign of the pushback much predicted (by liberals and anti-Trumpers of all stripes) against causes Trump championed by young voters who might otherwise be conservatively inclined voters but who are fed up with his divisive personality and illiberal leanings?

Could be. But it also just could be because of the PR beating Israel took during its recent war with Hamas over its retaliatory actions following Hamas rocket attacks against Israeli cities.

Either way, interviewing young evangelicals in your area is the way to proceed.

FIRST IMAGE: Screen shot from official Naftali Bennett Facebook page.

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