[Note: This latest column by Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President Emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism and a regular columnist in the Israeli daily Haaretz, is an important read in advance of the Israeli elections on March 23. I’m posting it because only those who have a subscription to Haaretz can read it, and it ought to be read by every American Jewish leader, especially in the organizations he mentions. If you know such leaders, please forward this to them.]
Just as Trump normalized the Proud Boys, Bibi is normalizing the neo-fascist Kahanists and their anti-Arab hate. But instead of outrage from AIPAC and U.S. Jewish groups, there’s apologetics, or silence
No more excuses, please.
Not for the vicious racism and neo-fascism of Itamar Ben Gvir and the band of thugs that he has gathered around him.
Not for Benjamin Netanyahu, who, in a despicable display of political narcissism, stage-managed a merger of right-wing parties that will bring Ben Gvir and his racist cronies into the Knesset.
Not for AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee, which were critical of Ben Gvir in the past, but, in this Israeli election campaign, have chosen to remain silent.
And not for other American Jewish groups and leaders, who are too often detached and indifferent as an Israeli party promotes extremism, mob rule, and anti-Arab hatred, with the blessing and support of Israel’s Prime Minister. I am tired of the excuses, the explanations, and the thoughtful “analysis,” all of which fall far short of what is required at this moment: explicit, unequivocal, full-throated condemnation of Ben Gvir and everything that he stands for.
This is a fateful moment for the Jewish world. In 1975, when the United Nations General Assembly proclaimed that Zionism is racism, Jews everywhere came together to assert, in outraged protest, that no, it is not. Now, almost half a century later, Ben Gvir, a candidate for the 24th Knesset, spouts racist slogans and justifies them as the natural extension of Zionist and Jewish values.
And thanks to the efforts of Benjamin Netanyahu, Ben Gvir and his colleagues in the “Religious Zionism” party — which is neither religious nor Zionist — seem assured of at least five seats in Israel’s parliament.
It may be too late to prevent their election. But it is not too late for American Jews to join with the great majority of Jews in Israel in denying these quasi-criminals the legitimacy that Netanyahu has shamefully bestowed on them. They are distorters and corrupters of all that is sacred and holy in Jewish tradition, and they must be branded as such.
For those unfamiliar with the background, this is a story that begins with Rabbi Meir Kahane, an American immigrant to Israel who was elected to the Knesset in 1984. In that year, Kahane spoke at an election rally in the Arab-Jewish city of Akko. As reported by Ben Caspit in Ma’ariv, Kahane began the rally with these words: “Shalom Jews, shalom dogs.”
Everyone understood who Meir Kahane was. He celebrated terror and embraced anti-Arab violence. He made no attempt to hide his views or his intentions. Michael Eitan, then a Likud Knesset member, drew up a chart demonstrating that the legislation proposed by Kahane was similar to the Nuremberg laws. Kahane sought, for example, to establish separate beaches for Jews and Arabs and to prohibit Arabs from having sexual relations with Jews. Kahane’s disciple, Itamar Ben Gvir, mentions his mentor at every opportunity. Ben Gvir lacks Kahane’s flamboyance and charisma, and, as a matter of practicality, has slightly toned down his rhetoric; Kahane was ultimately banned from politics by the courts, and Ben Gvir hopes to avoid that fate. But his racist message is the same.
Ben Gvir is infamous in Israel for hanging in his living room a photograph of Jewish mass-murderer Baruch Goldstein, who carried out the 1994 massacre of 29 Muslim worshippers in Hebron. Ben Gvir eventually took the picture down last year, not because it was wrong but for the sake of “a right-wing victory in the elections.”
In 2019, when Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit party was running for the Knesset as part of a coalition with other far-right parties, AIPAC tweeted that it viewed Otzma Yehudit as “racist and reprehensible,” and noted AIPAC’s longstanding policy of refusing to meet with the group. It associated itself with a similar statement by the American Jewish Committee.
This time around, however, both groups have refrained from critical comments, as have most other American Jewish organizations and leaders.
But this is a serious mistake. In 2019, Ben Gvir’s election to the Knesset was a long shot. This year, he is considered a sure thing, thanks to the intervention of the prime minister. Netanyahu has attempted on previous occasions to create mergers between the Kahanists and other extremist parties, but his efforts in this round of elections have been far more successful.
Motivated by his desire to win votes for a Likud-led coalition that will make him Prime Minister again and grant him immunity from prosecution for the criminal charges that he faces, Netanyahu did not hold back; he twisted arms, pressured allies, and made promises of power and money to bring together Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party. Ben Gvir is number three on the Religious Zionism list, and as noted, is virtually certain to win a Knesset seat.
But not only will Ben Gvir follow Meir Kahane into the Knesset. Netanyahu has officially announced that if he forms the next government, Ben Gvir and the Religious Zionism party will be part of his coalition.
Netanyahu apologists, both in Israel and America, say: Politics as usual. No big deal, they claim. Bibi is just doing what everyone would do.
But it is not politics as usual. It is a political earthquake, an indication of the moral degradation that has transformed Benjamin Netanyahu into a Trump-like figure and a caricature of a Zionist leader.
And it is most assuredly not what everyone would do. When Meir Kahane was in the Knesset, he was a pariah, shunned by every major party across the political spectrum. When he would rise to speak in the Knesset, Yitzhak Shamir, the hardline Likud prime minister, would walk out in protest, followed by most members of his party. Legitimacy for Jewish racism? Never. Acceptance on any level? Absolutely not.
Kahanism was an embarrassment, an impure growth on the outer fringes of Zionism. And Israel’s political establishment – right and left, Likud and Labor – was intent on keeping it there.
But not Netanyahu.
Bibi, as American Jews are observing with horror, is turning into Donald Trump before our very eyes.
Just as Trump aligned himself with the most violent, reprehensible elements of the American far-right, Bibi has embraced the most violent, reprehensible elements of the settler community. Just as Trump legitimized the militias and the white nationalists, Bibi has legitimized the Arab-haters and the racists on the margins. Just as Trump excused and normalized the Proud Boys, Bibi is excusing and normalizing the Kahanists and the criminal cohorts that champion them. And just as Trumpism radicalized the Republican Party and destabilized American society, leading ultimately to violence and insurrection, Kahanism, if it enters the inner sanctum of Israeli political power, will pose a similar threat to Israeli society.
Am I overreacting? I do not think so.
Consider the following: In order for Netanyahu to form a government, he will need a coalition of 61 Knesset members, drawn from the Likud, the Haredi parties, the Religious Zionism party, and Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party. (Bennett has not ruled out joining a Netanyahu government, and in my view will ultimately do so.) According to current polls, Netanyahu is within a seat or two of the 61 he needs.
If he gets those seats, and he might, he will be prepared to pay a very high price to Bennett, Smotrich, and Ben Gvir to assure their loyalty. And this means he will be completely dependent on them, every minute of every day, for the existence of his government.
How does Netanyahu justify a coalition that includes Ben Gvir? He says that Ben Gvir will be in the coalition but not in the cabinet. Take note: Benjamin Netanyahu is expecting the citizens of Israel to be grateful to him for taking an unrepentant Kahanist into his coalition but not giving him a government ministry. And, by the way, Netanyahu’s assurances mean nothing. If Smotrich demands a cabinet position for Ben-Gvir as his party’s price for entering the coalition, Netanyahu will agree.
And that is why American Jews must find their voice and condemn Ben Gvir in the clearest terms. And an interesting question, of course, is why they haven’t already done so.
Responding to questions from Haaretz, UCLA professor of Israel Studies Dov Waxman offers a number of interesting thoughts, including this theory: American Jews have not expressed outrage over Netanyahu’s ties to Ben-Gvir because they have simply given up on the prime minister. He long ago stopped caring about American Jews, and they in turn have stopped being shocked by anything that he does.
Waxman is an astute observer of the American Jewish scene, but he is wrong about that.
It is a mistake for any Jewish group to suppose that American Jews have lost the ability to be shocked or outraged by the actions of Benjamin Netanyahu. Yes, the majority dislike him. But most remain closely tied to Israel, and as jaded as they are by Netanyahu’s antics, they still see an embrace of neo-Kahanism as a big step too far.
Two factors are at play here. First, Israel’s extremist settlers are little known in America, but Meir Kahane is the exception, even 30 years after his death. For American Jews, Kahane is one of their own — a homegrown phenomenon who travelled the path from activist to fanatic on American soil before bringing his racist medicine show to Israel. American Jews remember Kahane, understand him, and despise him, just as they despise those who embrace his teachings and traffic in his anti-Arab vitriol. Second, American society has been consumed in recent years with a struggle against racism, and American Jews have played a leading role in that struggle. Ben Gvir represents racism run wild, and American Jews will refuse to disregard or whitewash in Israel what they struggle against every day at home.
Let us be clear: An insignificant percentage of Israelis support Ben Gvir and his neo-Kahanist philosophy. As Israel’s political establishment has always proclaimed, Kahane, Ben Gvir, and their supporters do not represent Israel and do not represent the Zionist enterprise. They are, in fact, the antithesis of everything that Jews hold dear.
But there is no denying the danger that now exists. Benjamin Netanyahu, putting his personal interests before the interests of the state that he leads, appears to be creating a space for the Kahanists to emerge from the muck. If he succeeds in activating Ben-Gvir’s movement of degenerate Jewish radicalism, it will not be easy to deactivate it and return it to the depths from which it came.
And this means that American Jews must pound on the table, supporting the anti-Bibi forces that want Ben Gvir to remain the outcast he has always been.
Yes, American Jewish religious and communal organizations usually refrain from involving themselves in Israeli elections. Nonetheless, there are times when Zionist principles, Jewish values, and common decency require Jews of all persuasions to speak up. And this is one of those times.
Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Twitter: @EricYoffie