By Osmund Agbo
Yom Kippur, the festival that marks the Day of Atonement in the Hebrew calendar, is a period of deep introspection and repentance and normally comes after the Jewish New Year, otherwise known as Rosh Hashanah. For that reason, it is considered the most important holiday by practitioners of the Jewish faith. But that is not the case with my friend Menachem whose name I am convinced, is an Israeli corruption of the Igbo name, Munachim (one with God). Okay, maybe the last part is not entirely true but he is my friend anyway and I am sticking with that narrative. For Menachem though, nothing comes before his Rosh Hashanah. Not that he is so excited about reciting the special liturgy that comes with it or enjoys the symbolic food of an apple dipped in honey. None of those. He just loves that each New Year offers a brand-new opportunity for a fresh start to his Jewish people worldwide, especially those living within the State of Israel.
Menachem and I crossed paths a few years ago. It was in the summer of 2014, at a time when clashes in the Palestinian territories between the Israeli military and Hamas forces escalated to a major conflict. Hamas fired nearly three thousand rockets at Israel, and Israel retaliated with a major offensive in Gaza. By the time Egypt brokered a peace deal in late August of that year that resulted in a cease-fire, 73 Israelis and 2,251 Palestinians were dead and many more wounded were counted.
As Menachem and I watched some of the horrors that flashed during CNN’s breaking news segment while at the leasing office of our apartment complex in New York City, I was curious to see what the yarmulke-wearing Orthodox Jew had to say. By the time he was done, I saw in him a very decent human being who though had a dog in that fight and had every reason to be biased, preferred to see all humans as equal. In fact, I was so ashamed of myself for having prejudged him and so predicted his response even before hearing him out. That first encounter with Menachem sparked off a friendship that has lasted till this day. As I prepare to join him in December to celebrate this year’s Hanukkah, I could already tell how our discussion would go. He has been very open about him lapsing into depression upon realizing that Bibi Netanyahu and his extreme right coalition partners are set to form the new government in Israel. “This would mean turning back the hand of the clock,” he told me over the phone in a subdued voice.
Menachem and I have a lot in common and often found ourselves comparing notes about our two nations. We talked about the fate of Igbos in Nigeria and the Jew of the recent past. We both agreed that Holocaust was one of the greatest human tragedies of the last century and that the killing of an estimated 3 million Igbos by the Nigerian troop during the Biafran war ranks close in that scale, even though no one calls it a Holocaust or refers to it as an act of genocide. The reason being that whereas the Jews are powerful people who run both the media and world’s financial systems, Igbos on the other hand are not that fortunate. He wanted to understand how Israel with a population of 8 million has a GDP of $481B whereas Nigeria with 23 times its size at 210 million, maintains a paltry $440B as her GDP. I could not help him.
This past week, Israel swore in a new parliament, paving the way for the big political comeback of a man who is standing trial for graft and ready to hang on to power to protect himself from his alleged crime, even if it means dining with the devil. A man who has now morphed into an Israeli version of his friend, Donald Trump.
On Tuesday, November 1, 2022, Israel held its fifth election since 2019 and elected the 120 members of the 25th Knesset as its unicameral parliament is called. Results showed Netanyahu’s Likud Party and its religious and ultranationalist partners winning most of the seats and now set to form the government. Though the strong showing will mark the end of political gridlock that has paralyzed Israel for the past few years, the Israeli far-right inspired agenda including an overhaul of the country’s legal system and a tough line against the Palestinians for sure would further polarize a deeply divided nation. It will also place Israel at loggerheads with her allies in the region and abroad. The big question is, how did the far-right Jewish Power Party and Religion Zionism Party become so mainstream in Israel?
It turns out that Israel’s rightward shift started decades ago but the second Palestinian intifada, in the early 2000s gave oxygen to the raging inferno. A wave of Palestinian terrorist attacks at the time was able to convince many Israelis that Israel had no partner for peace. It made many moderates abandon their former positions and slide further right. Part of the gravitational pull to the right is also born out of a recent fear, mostly unfounded, about Israel losing its Jewish identity.
To win this last election, Mr. Netanyahu had to rile up the far-right base by amplifying perceived threats to Israel’s Jewish identity after ethnic clashes last year ended with the inclusion of Arab lawmakers in the government. He knew that was not the case but needed their support. As the stony-hearted politician that he is, what does he care!
Yair Lapid, the outgoing Prime Minister assumed his position on July 1, 2022, as the leader of the left leaning Yesh Atid Party, which he founded. His ascent was made possible following an alliance that included Naftali Bennett’s New Right Party, a right-wing group that positions as being open to both religious and secular people. Together, they formed the most diverse government of national unity in Israel’s history that stretches from Jewish settlers to an Israeli-Arab Islamist party and super-liberals. What forced this coalition was the understanding that the then Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu was bent on crippling every effort to move the country forward because he was afraid of losing immunity from prosecution on multiple corruption charges that could lead him to prison.
This new government planned for a renewal of the relationship with the Palestinian Authority rather than weaken it, chided the extreme right-wing forces, and attempted to counter Mr. Netanyahu’s unchecked drift toward authoritarianism. They were able to lead the country away from the polarization that was making Israel ungovernable. Unfortunately, going by the outcome of this election, many did not agree with them.
Late in the election night in Jerusalem, Itamar Ben-Gvir, the leader of the far-right Jewish Power Party was ecstatic as he addressed the crowd. The man was confident of his place in the coming government and proud of the role he played. By the deal agreed upon with Bibi’s Likud Party, he will likely serve in the newly created position of National Security Minister, a role that includes oversight of the National Police and Border Police in the West Bank. Palestinians are worried with that choice and for good reasons.
As a young man, Mr. Ben-Gvir who by the way is the son of Iraqi-Kurdish immigrants was convicted of racist incitement and support for a terrorist group. He was a follower of one rabbi called Lior, who was the source of rulings labeling the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin a traitor who endangers Jewish lives and subsequently led to Mr.Rabin getting assassinated by extremists. Also hung in his home was a large portrait of a Jewish extremist who in 1994, shot 29 Palestinians dead in a West Bank Mosque. That is the profile of the man tipped to serve in a high-profile security position. One can begin to understand the fear and apprehension in the camps of Palestinians and Israelis like Menachem who do not want further escalation of this conflict.
Before now, many had predicted the fate of Bibi Netanyahu to be like his predecessor and the 12th Prime Minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert. After serving as PM, Mr. Olmert was sentenced to serve a prison term over convictions for accepting bribes and for obstruction of justice during his terms as Mayor of Jerusalem and as trade minister. But that was a different time in the world than today and Israel was not led by a Teflon don of a Prime Minister.
Many believed that the assassination of Yishak Rabin was the turning point in Israeli politics. The nation’s politics has since moved away from secularism and has totally embraced religious fundamentalism.
But the collapse of the forward-looking coalition led by Naftali Bennet and Yair Lapid was not only the fault of Israeli right-wingers. Israeli-Arab parliamentarians who joined the coalition to improve the lives of their people were called traitors in their hometowns. Organized groups set up tents just meters from the homes of these members of Knesset, relentlessly harassing them and their families. At the same time, Israel incurred a series of Palestinian terrorist attacks in Tel Aviv and other major cities, taking the lives of about 20 people. The opposition latched onto it and claimed that this was a result of the government’s hands being tied by the Raam Arab party.
Today, the prospect of a Palestinian state coexisting with the nation of Israel seems far-fetched. Most importantly, the hope for peace in that part of the Middle East is now a distant mirage. I worry for every peace-loving Israeli and Palestinian. I worry about my friend Menachem.
Osmund Agbo writes from Houston, Texas. Email: Eagleosmund@yahoo.com