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ROME – Over the weekend, the New York Times joined a growing chorus of voices raising concern over the new Israeli coalition being formed by incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying the rightwing government poses a threat to democracy and, ultimately, Israel’s identity as a Jewish state.
In the editorial, published Saturday, the Times argued that Netanyahu’s coalition, set to be Israel’s most far-right government in history, poses “a significant threat to the future of Israel – its direction, its security, and even the idea of a Jewish homeland.”
The incoming government “could make it militarily and politically impossible for a two-state solution to ever emerge” in the longstanding Israel-Palestine conflict, and proposed changes to the status quo of holy sites such as the Holy Mount risk “provoking a new round of Arab-Israeli violence,” it said.
Last week, a top Israeli Christian leader, Dr. Juergen Buehler, president of the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, voiced concern over certain coalition members who have said “some not nice things about Christians in the past,” and he voiced hope that Netanyahu would “use his full influence” to ensure the new government establishes partnerships, rather than builds walls.
Specific concern has been raised over notably far-right Israeli politician Itamar Ben Gvir, who is set to receive significant power in the Netanyahu government and who has in the past led violent protests against Christians and defended a man convicted of setting fire to a Catholic church near the Sea of Galilee.
Netanyahu is expected to present his new government to Israeli President Isaac Herzog Tuesday ahead of a Dec. 21 deadline to conclude coalition negotiations, yet as that deadline draws closer, more voices are joining the fray urging caution and voicing concern.
Speaking to Crux, Rabbi David Rosen, former Chief Rabbi of Ireland and current International Director of Interreligious Affairs for the American Jewish Committee, said “the situation is one of great concern” for Christians and Jews alike.
In addition to the concerns over extreme positions against Christianity, there are also fears “with regards to LGBTQ elements, all different areas of what you might call human rights and liberal causes,” Rosen said, saying these issues “are perceived as being under threat by Netanyahu’s coalition partners who he has to give enormous power to because basically they’ve saved his bacon, if I can mix my religious language.”
“He’s brought in some of the most unsavory elements, elements from which reflect some of the attitudes which Jews have suffered from historically and which should be an anathema in terms of Jewish ethical values,” Rosen said, saying the whole Jewish world is trying to put Netanyahu “on notice.”
Rosen also urged Christians to join the Jewish community in speaking out against the actions of former United States president Donald Trump, who recently hosted white nationalist and Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes at his private home in Mar-a-Lago along with rapper Kayne West, who in the past has made antisemitic remarks.
Speaking out against these actions and the individuals who conduct them is “very important,” Rosen said, saying, “for those who care about the relationship with the Jewish people, the issue of antisemitism is the litmus test, and it proves to what degree one is sensitive to Jewish sensitivities or not.”
“Trump’s actions are clearly actions of crass insensitivity and therefore those who care about the relationship with the Jewish people will take the kind of stand that Dr. Buehler did,” he said, noting that Buehler, in addition to raising concern over Netanyahu’s coalition, also condemned Trump’s meeting with Fuentes and West.
“I think making that criticism, especially coming from an Evangelical Christian who both sees Trump and Netanyahu as having been advantageous in terms of the pursuit of their own agendas, nevertheless, to be able to say, this kind of behavior is not acceptable and we condemn it, it is very important indeed to win the trust of the Jewish people,” Rosen said.
While he doesn’t believe there is need for “great concern” with Netanyahu’s coalition partners, Rosen said there are still reasons to worry, and that Christians who care about pluralism and democratic cohesion “should express their concerns.”
Concern must be expressed, he said, over “anything that in any way offends the dignity of any human person, regardless of their race, color, creed, or gender.”
“The more concern is expressed, the more cautious the Israeli government will be, just as I think Jews should express this to all different governments in the world today, where more and more populist, illiberal elements are being brought into power, both in Europe and maybe again in the United States,” he said, alluding to Trump’s presidential candidacy for 2024 US presidential elections.
Even if Trump does not win, “there’s certainly a resurgence of those elements and those elements tend to come also with a resurgence of antisemitism, and if we want to combat antisemitism then we’ve got to make sure that we show when where we are a majority, we respect minorities as much as we want us to be respected when and where we are a minority,” Rosen said.
He voiced hope that Christians “can be allies with the vast majority of the Jewish world in spreading this concern and hopefully providing a counter-balance to certain tendencies that Netanyahu’s coalition partners might want to pursue.”
Rosen was among the panelists at a high-profile gathering of Evangelical Christians in Jerusalem last week, where he spoke on the current status of relations between Christian and Jewish communities, and stressed the need for stronger efforts to be made toward ongoing reconciliation.
In his interview with Crux, Rosen said mainline Protestants were the first to take steps toward reconciliation with the Jewish community, and the Catholic Church came to it later, “but came to it with an intensity that led to the Catholic Church leapfrogging over much of the Protestant world.”
Much of that, in Rosen’s view, has to do with the Catholic Church’s hierarchal structure.
However, while Catholic-Jewish relations are stronger than ever, there is still work to be done, he said, specifically in terms of implementing key documents on relations with the Jews issued at the “Olympian heights” of the Vatican, such Pope Paul VI’s 1965 declaration Nostra Aetate, at the grassroots.
While in the United States has made more progress amongst the “rank and file,” this is not the case for the rest of the world, Rosen said, saying, “Even Pope Francis, who everyone knows he’s a friend of the Jewish people, shows how the Church has not internalized or succeeded in internalizing these documents” when he refers to the “pharisees” as a derogatory term in homilies and speeches.
“So, even at the top of the Church there has not been an adequate internalization of the changes that have come about,” he said, meaning that while North America in his view is a “great success story” in this regard, “the educational challenge still remains a very significant one.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen