PROVIDENCE — Providence College political science Professor Ruth Ben-Artzi, an Israeli and US citizen, was one of three authors of a Boston Globe commentary piece upholding Israel’s right to defend itself but questioning Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s competence and ability to protect the country.
Her concerns carry a special weight: She is the niece of Netanyahu’s wife, Sara Netanyahu.
“We recognize Israel’s right to defend itself,” Ben-Artzi wrote, along with two prominent Rhode Island rabbis. “But we do not believe that Benjamin Netanyahu’s government — whose incompetence and divisiveness led to the greatest intelligence and security failures in Israeli history — deserves the benefit of the doubt on how best to protect Israel in this critical moment.”
All three were also among the 88 Rhode Island Jews and Israelis who signed a letter urging Rhode Island’s congressional delegation to press for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza.
In an interview Thursday, Ben-Artzi declined to discuss details of her relationship with the Netanyahus. “Israel is a small country, and many people are related to someone in the government,” she told the Globe. “Just like Rhode Island, everyone is related to everyone.”
But in a March article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, she explained that while only a few friends knew she’s related to the Netanyahus, she decided to break her silence about the family connection because she is “ashamed, sad, and angry.”
“Ashamed that my relatives have no shame. That they are in a position of power that promotes and encourages violence, racism, nationalism and fascism,” she told Haaretz. “These are not the Jewish values I absorbed and to which I feel connected.”
Ben-Artzi, 52, has taught at Providence College for 16 years, focusing on international relations and the Middle East. She grew up in Israel, graduated from the University of Haifa, and earned a doctoral degree in political science from Columbia University.
She is the daughter of Matania Ben-Artzi, a math professor, and his wife Ofra, a teacher of Hebrew and Hebrew literature. In the Haaretz article, Ruth Ben-Artzi recalled traveling with her aunt, who is now the prime minister’s wife, across the United States and Canada. “She was like my mother’s little sister and like a big sister to me,” she told the newspaper. “We were very close once.”
Ben-Artzi told the Globe she does not know what drives Benjamin Netanyahu.
“I can’t pretend I can get into his head,” she said. “But one thing I do know is that over the years the image that he created for himself of being the pragmatist, the realist, the security guy is a façade. He is an ideologue, and he wants to stay in power. He is very right-wing and comes from a very right-wing family. His political strategy of sowing division and incitement and mobilizing his right-wing base started early on in his political career.”
Ben-Artzi said the government that Netanyahu formed in November 2022 has been “the most extreme right-wing government,” citing its launch of a judicial overhaul that prompted widespread protests. “Hundreds of thousands protested every Saturday for months,” she said. “That would backslide Israel from democracy, and that concern remains.”
Netanyahu’s government pushed for financial agreements to fund ultra-Orthodox schools, Ben-Artzi said, noting that Israel has no separation of church and state. She said the judicial overhaul would further limit religious pluralism. “This is at the heart of one of the big issues at the core of the protests,” she said. “The schooling system is religious and does not include basic subjects contributing to the civilian population.”
Ben-Artzi called for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza and said she wants to see more done to free the 240 hostages seized by Hamas.
“The Israeli government’s claim that they will not pause or cease-fire until hostages are returned just does not make sense,” she said. “The bombing is jeopardizing the safety of the hostages as well, and we know who we are dealing with. If the priority is to have those hostages released, we have to pause and negotiate.”
On Monday, US Senators Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrats, issued a joint statement urging Israel to pause military operations against Hamas in Gaza to allow more humanitarian aid to reach the Palestinian people. And on Thursday, the White House said Israel has agreed to put in place four-hour daily humanitarian pauses in its assault on Hamas in northern Gaza, but President Biden told reporters that there was “no possibility” of a general cease-fire.
Ben-Artzi called the statement from Reed and Whitehouse “a move in the right direction.” But she said, “I think the only right move — not just for humanitarian reasons but for security reasons for both Israelis and Palestinians — is a cease-fire.”
Right now, Ben-Artzi said, Hamas has drawn Israeli forces into the “booby trap” of Gaza, jeopardizing the lives of Israeli soldiers, she said, and Israel is drawing international condemnation as it attacks a densely settled area filled with civilians and children who are used as human shields.
“What my country’s government is doing is playing into Hamas’s hands by isolating Israel in the international community and arming extremists with more motivation and more support to use force,” she wrote in a statement accompanying this week’s letter to Rhode Island’s congressional delegation.
Meanwhile, the Israeli government appears to have no endgame in mind as its troops enter Gaza City, Ben-Artzi said. She said that point is underscored by the fact that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday called for Israel and its allies to start “setting the conditions for durable peace” in Gaza now. “If the Americans have to present a vision and there is no vision from Israel, we have a problem,” she said.
Israel cannot afford to wait “until the war is over” to pursue the political solutions, Ben-Artzi said. Diplomacy has allowed Israel to avoid wars with Egypt and Jordan for years, she noted. “There are more than 5 million Palestinians between Gaza and the West Bank,” she said. “They are not going anywhere, and Israelis are not going anywhere.”
“Israel is in the neighborhood it’s in, and that is not going to change,” she said. “The only way to prevent more violence in the future is to secure a political solution.”