Israel election: The triumph of Kahanism

As Netanyahu looks to cobble together his farthest-right coalition yet, western democratic governments and diaspora Jewish leaders need to take a stand

An Israeli man walks past an electoral billboard bearing portraits of Netanyahu flanked by extreme-right politicians, including Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, in Jerusalem in 2019 (AFP)
Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog, devoted to exposing the excesses of the Israeli national security state. His work has appeared in Haaretz, the Forward, the Seattle Times and the Los Angeles Times. He contributed to the essay collection devoted to the 2006 Lebanon war, A Time to Speak Out (Verso) and has another essay in the collection, Israel and Palestine: Alternate Perspectives on Statehood (Rowman & Littlefield) Photo of RS by: (Erika Schultz/Seattle Times)

Richard Silverstein

24 March 2021 15:13 UTC |

The biggest winners in Tuesday’s Israeli election appear to be Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the little-known Religious Zionist Party. Behind the milquetoast name is an alliance of some of the most extreme Kahanist elements in Israeli politics.

According to the results announced so far, a race that had been predicted as a virtual tie between centrist and rightist parties may offer Netanyahu a narrow path to a renewed term as prime minister. Far-right and religious parties, likely coalition partners for Netanyahu, were victorious in the election.

At the time of publication, however, it remained unclear as to whether this coalition would be able to secure the needed 61-seat majority.

The question is: will the suspicion and hostility with which some of these party leaders, such as Gideon Saar and Naftali Bennett, view Netanyahu outweigh their desire for political power? If history is any judge, they will put aside their personal rancour and play the political game.

Collapse of Blue and White

Election turnout was 67 percent, down from the most recent election and the lowest percentage since 2013. The initial results would suggest that many of those who elected not to vote had previously supported the moderate parties that performed better in the last election.

There are two critical factors leading to this outcome. The first was the near-collapse of the centre-right Blue and White coalition, which won 33 seats in the last Knesset. The decision by its then-leader, Benny Gantz, to desert his partners and enter a coalition with Netanyahu led to a drastic decline in its vote share. With close to 90 percent of Tuesday’s vote counted, Blue and White picked up only eight seats, while Yesh Atid, which split from Blue and White last year, won 17. This fracture essentially destroyed the centre-right as a viable alternative to Netanyahu’s far-right Likud-led coalition.

Diaspora Jewish leaders could declare that Netanyahu has gone too far, and refuse to raise funds for Israel or to attend meetings with Israeli government officials

Voters who abandoned Gantz did not necessarily turn to his former partners in Yesh Atid, which represented a moderate option, nor to Likud, which lost several seats compared to the last election. They were likely disenchanted with Netanyahu and the multiple corruption charges he faces, so they turned to newly formed parties generally even farther to the right.

By fleeing to parties likely to join a governing coalition with Likud, however, they might have guaranteed an outcome they did not foresee. Postponed until after the election, Netanyahu’s corruption trial is scheduled to resume in early April, and Likud sources have pointed to legislative outcomes that could provide him immunity from conviction while in office, including passage of the “French Law”.

A more draconian and controversial method would be for a new justice minister to fire the current attorney general and appoint one who would dismiss the charges, eliminating the greatest threat to Netanyahu’s continuing on as leader.

Extreme nationalist views

Though there are regular protests against Netanyahu’s corruption, which would likely increase if charges were dropped, it is unlikely they would reach a tipping point and lead to Netanyahu stepping down. Even if he did, the rivals waiting in the wings are no less extreme in their nationalist views; the country would merely be swapping one Judeo-supremacist autocrat for another.

Voters who turned away from Blue and White appear to have favoured soft-right parties, such as Saar’s New Hope, and some even farther right than Likud, including Bennett’s Yamina and the Kahanist Religious Zionist Party, led by Bezalel Smotrich.   

Head of Israel's Jewish Power (Otzma Yehudit) party Itamar Ben Gvir (R) talks to supporters through Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, on 19 March (AFP)
Head of Israel’s Jewish Power (Otzma Yehudit) party Itamar Ben Gvir (R) talks to supporters through Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, on 19 March (AFP)

Smotrich was once apprehended by the Shin Bet for allegedly plotting a terror attack to protest Israel’s Gaza withdrawal, although charges were never laid. He once boldly claimed that Jews cannot be terrorists; in other words, one man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.

In 2006, to protest the Gay Pride parade, he organised a “parade of beasts”, in which goats and donkeys were marched through the streets of Jerusalem. He has called himself a “proud homophobe”. He has served as an MK with the Yamina alliance and as minister of transportation.

Smotrich is allied with Itamar Ben-Gvir, whose political evolution as a youth led him into the arms of far-right Rabbi Meir Kahane. According to a Haaretz report: “First, he joined the youth movement affiliated with Moledet, a right-wing political party that advocated ‘transferring’ Israeli Arabs out of the country. But that turned out to be too tame for him. So not long thereafter, he defected to Kach, the eventually outlawed racist party founded by the American-born Rabbi Kahane. ‘I found in this movement a lot of love for the Jewish people, a lot of truth, and a lot of justice,’ says Ben-Gvir.”

Breaking with precedent

As a teenager, Ben-Gvir gained notoriety in 1995, when he vandalised then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s vehicle and brandished its Cadillac hood ornament, boasting: “We got the car. We’ll get to Rabin too.” Rabin was murdered only weeks later by another Kahanist.

Ben-Gvir is now the go-to defence lawyer for settlers charged with terrorist attacks against Palestinians. He is the Israeli equivalent of US lawyer and politician Rudy Giuliani, except instead of representing sleazy crooks, he represents accused mass murderers. He lives in Hebron, among the most violent of settler enclaves, where Jews and Palestinians are separated by barbed wire, locked metal gates and thousands of Israeli soldiers, who protect the settlers from the wrath of the indigenous population.Israel election: Latest results show Netanyahu without clear path to power.

Despite several prior attempts, Ben-Gvir has never served in the Knesset. His alliance succeeded this time for one reason only: Netanyahu made clear to far-right voters that if they weren’t voting Likud, he preferred they vote for the Religious Zionists. He also said the party would be a coalition partner in his next government, a striking break with previous precedent.

In 1988, Kahane’s newly founded Kach Party was so far outside the mainstream that the government banned it, and both Israel and the US have declared Kach to be a terrorist organisation. No Israeli leader has ever promoted an explicitly Kahanist party, let alone agreed to include one in a governing coalition – meaning it’s likely the Religious Zionists will obtain at least one ministerial portfolio representing the interests of their settler constituency. This offers unprecedented access to Israeli protocols and power.

This should not be surprising to anyone aware of the history of the Zionist movement. At least two former Israeli prime ministers, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir, were accused terrorists, linked to the King David Hotel bombing, the Deir Yassin massacre and the assassination of UN peace negotiator Count Folke Bernadotte, among other crimes.

Flirting with terrorists

There is one powerful way in which the world could respond to Netanyahu’s flirtation with supporters of Jewish terrorism: the US government, UN and EU could declare this government persona non grata, and refuse to have any dealings with it. It would be a diplomatic version of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS).

Israel is united in its determination to pursue racist, apartheid policies. The world is not united in opposing them

Diaspora Jewish leaders could declare that Netanyahu has gone too far, and refuse to raise funds for Israel or to attend meetings with Israeli government officials.

Contrary to what some believe, international pressure works. While Israel may complain grievously about bias towards it, when push comes to shove, such pressure works in modifying Israeli behaviour – though usually not in significant ways, as Israel does the bare minimum to avoid international censure.

Regardless, a united front of western democratic governments and diaspora Jewish leaders would offer a powerful statement, defining a red line that Israel has crossed. And yet, the likelihood of this happening is almost nil. Israel is united in its determination to pursue racist, apartheid policies. The world is not united in opposing them. It dithers while Rome burns.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

How They Do It–Does Racism Now Define Jewish Identity in Israel?

It’s not clear that Israel is more racist these days. But when religious authorities reinforce a race-based Jewish identity and Netanyahu legitimizes Kahane’s heirs, we’ve got a problem

ed note–as the reader will see, our unesteemed Hebraic author is not just some little mealy-mouthed ‘sort of’ Jew whose exposure to Judaism has been limited to dressing up like Krusty the Clown on Purim once a year. As he personally relates it, he attended yeshiva in Israel in his youth and was schooled by rabbis his entire life.

Therefore, by virtue of all of this, he KNOWS what his own religion and culture teach about ‘his people’ and their status as ‘chosen’ and having been selected by yahweh to be the ‘light amongst the nations’ and about being ‘above all others on the face of the earth’.

He knows. He knows it all began with a pennless nomad named Abram wandering around in the desert hearing voices in his head, some telling him to slit his son’s throat and then burn the corpse on an altar as an act of human sacrifice to the deity whose voice he claims to have heard in his head. He also knows that the starting point for the whole ugly affair began with —

‘I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all nations of the earth be blessed.’

In other words, racism–DNA based narcissism–was something that began literally at the very beginning of the entire Judaic affair, and our un-esteemed Hebraic author knows this, and yet, he asks the question, as if it weren’t already immediately apparent and did not need asking, whether or not the Jewish state has become ‘racist’, when in fact it is as much a question that needs asking as  whether or not water is wet or fire is hot.

But this ‘how they do it’. They ask these questions in such a way as if the answer were not already apparent, and in the process of their typically verbose and circular jabber-jawing, inundate the reader with a bunch of Hebraic hocus-pocus/mumbo-jumbo that results in the reader’s curiosity vis a vis this problematic topic being blunted via the over-saturation of Judaic nonsense.

And what’s worse is how many gullible lap dogs–and particularly those of the non-Hebraic persuasion–will lap it up.

Perhaps the answer to the burning question as to why NOW is the appropriate time for an intellectual exploration of this type is provided thus–

‘We are inundated by surveys and statistics that tell us that racism is on the rise, but none of those who collate these figures can tell us how bad things were before every nasty word was broadcast in real-time on social media and before each act of racial violence was recorded on smartphones and uploaded to the web. I remember growing up in Israel of the late 1980s. Arab workers (no-one called them Palestinian then) were regularly assaulted on the streets, and the stories of abuse of Palestinian detainees one heard from older friends who were soldiers during the early days of the First Intifada were, if anything, worse than the horrific cases happening today. And very little made it into the media.’

In other words, that aparitif known as ‘damage control’, spiced up with a twist of  ‘deflection’ and a pinch of ‘distraction’.

As we like to say, no one ever accused ‘them’ of being stupid.

Haaretz

I don’t have many good things to say about the rabbis who taught me as a teenager. But I had a momentary recollection of positivity early this week when Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed that he was trying to get the religious nationalist Jewish Home party to link up with the other far-right parties – including the Kahanist Otzma l’Yisrael, to avoid the right-wing bloc losing votes.

Back in November 1990, when the far right extremist Meir Kahane was assassinated in New York, our yeshiva forbade its students from going to the funeral in Jerusalem. Other religious nationalist yeshivas did the same.

This wasn’t a small thing. Telling yeshiva students you couldn’t go to the funeral of a Jew who had been murdered as a Jew. But there was a very self-conscious effort at the time to make it clear there was a difference between us and the Kahanists.

Fast-forward 28 years, and no senior rabbi or politician has objected to Netanyahu’s indecent proposal. At the most you can hear their muttering, “We’ll have to see in the polls if it makes electoral sense.” Not a peep about how unthinkable the idea of joining a blatantly racist party should, one not morally worth considering, even if it would jeopardize the right-wing’s hold on power.

At this point some readers may be nodding that there isn’t that much difference between the religious nationalist, or Orthodox Zionist, community in Israel and the Kahanists anyway. Both are nationalist-fundamentalists who believe Jews should settle the entire historical homeland and disregard the basic rights of non-Jews living there. How is the old-school genteel national-religious racism better than the in-your-face fascist version of Kahane’s disciples?

But it wasn’t that simple three decades ago and it isn’t today. Not only is that broad section of Israeli society (and Jewish society outside Israel as well) which seeks to live a Torah-observant life, while being part of the modern world, impossible to classify in one religious and political box, with dozens of sub-groups existing on the non-parallel scales of nationalism and piety, but the notion that Israelis have become either more or less racist over the years is highly problematic.

We are inundated by surveys and statistics that tell us that racism is on the rise, but none of those who collate these figures can tell us how bad things were before every nasty word was broadcast in real-time on social media and before each act of racial violence was recorded on smartphones and uploaded to the web.

I remember growing up in Israel of the late 1980s. Arab workers (no-one called them Palestinian then) were regularly assaulted on the streets, and the stories of abuse of Palestinian detainees one heard from older friends who were soldiers during the early days of the First Intifada were, if anything, worse than the horrific cases happening today. And very little made it into the media.

In the 1980s Kahane, who regularly led at his rallies chants of “Death to Arabs,” was an elected member of the Knesset. And when he was barred on the grounds of racism from running again in 1988, he was replaced in the Knesset by members of Moledet, whose official policy was ethnically cleansing the West Bank.

So no, I don’t think Israel is necessarily more racist today than it was then (and I’m not even going further back to the wonderful days of the Mapai governments when Israeli Arabs lived under martial law for decades). In some very small ways, particularly the exhaustingly slow, but increasing presence of minorities in gradually higher levels of public service (where they are still woefully underrepresented) things have actually improved.

What has undeniably changed and for the worse, as Netanyahu’s urging to bring the Kahanists in to the legitimate political tent (back in the day when Kahane was an MK, the other 119 members, including all Likudniks, would boycott his speeches, leaving him to address an empty plenum) perfectly shows, is that we’ve become much more tolerant of racism.

And in many ways tolerating racism, even if we believe ourselves to be non-racist, is equally bad. Treating Otzma L’Yisrael and its ilk as a legitimate party means that racism is an option. And when it’s an option, even if we claim not to choose it, racism permeates everything.

Here’s another example. This week, Haaretz’s Judy Maltz reported that rabbinical courts in Israel are demanding more and more immigrants from the former Soviet Union undergo DNA tests when seeking to marry in Israel and their Judaism is in question.

It’s easy to see this as another worrying sign of growing racism in Israel. Except it isn’t really. The dayanim in the rabbinical courts certainly don’t reflect Israeli society, but instead the ultra-Orthodox rabbinical establishment that has always sought to be the gatekeepers of the Jewish people. This isn’t even about Israel per se, it’s a millennia-old debate over what constitutes Jewishness which began in the Diaspora, weaponized by 21st century technology.

Twenty years ago, I reported in Haaretz on the first cases in which rabbinical courts were using DNA tests. At the time it was seen as a positive development, as the tests were meant to solve issues of mamzerut (bastardy) and allow people to wed in Orthodox marriages. The procedure was sanctioned by Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, then the most senior of the ultra-Orthodox poskim (arbiters of halakha) who ruled that DNA testing should be used only to solve problems, not create new ones.

But Elyashiv’s warning has been disregarded, and when it comes to conversion, everything is kosher to reinforce the most reactionary definition of Jewishness.

Is this racism? Not necessarily. The narrow-minded halakhic concept of Jewish identity evolved historically as a reaction to the ruthless persecution of Jews for proselytizing Christians in the early centuries of the Holy Roman Empire. Today, the ultra-Orthodox attitude towards conversion is about intra-Jewish politics and maintaining their hegemony, not race. A convert who has completed the years of rigorous and often callous process of Haredi giyur will be treated as a Jew by the rabbinical courts, no matter the color of their skin.

But while the dayanim live in their own bubble, their actions still resonate. Using DNA profiles for what, for them, is only a technical halakhic decision, reinforces a racist definition of Jewish identity. That may not be their intention, but they don’t really care. They quite literally live in the dalet amot, the rarified – if not alienated – confines of halakha.

I don’t expect Haredi dayanim to exercise more care in their rulings, though I wish they would. But since they exercise inordinate power in Israel, countering their influence means other Jews should reexamine their own definitions of Jewishness. That includes – particularly for religious Jews – making it clear that Kahanism has no place in mainstream politics and Jewishness, but also rethinking attitudes to other forms of Jewish identity.

This week 80 Ethiopians arrived in Israel as new immigrants. They are the first group in about 1000 Ethiopians who have been allowed by the government to emigrate, for reasons of “family reunification.” Over the past 20 years, the Jewish Agency tasked by the government to facilitate the emigration of members of the Falashmura, has done so with gritted teeth, though current chairman Isaac Herzog has reversed that policy.

IOn my visits to the Falashmura compounds in Addis Ababa and Gondar, the Agency’s officials explained to me, usually off-record, that the thousands waiting there for years to be allowed to emigrate were masquerading as Jews and the victims of a cruel manipulation by cynical rabbis and activists making a living off their plight, and by the deluded tikkun olam intentions of American Jewish organizations. They warned that every Falashmura immigrant meant more dozens more relatives who would demand to be let in.

Veteran Ethiopian-Israelis, who belong to the original Beta Yisrael community, have said even harsher things. They described the Falashmura as the descendants of renegades who had converted to Christianity over a century ago, who had conveniently discovered their Jewish roots only when it meant a one-way ticket out of Ethiopia.

I used to accept this view, and wrote in this paper, upon returning from Ethiopia, that successive governments, caving in to pressure and authorizing every few years more Falashmura to emigrate, were “manufacturing Jews.” I’m no longer so sure that’s altogether a bad thing.

Not that we should continue turning a blind eye towards the Ethiopian conversion industry. But however it’s happening, they are arriving and becoming Israeli citizens. And gradually, painfully, slowly, the increasing presence of black Israeli Jews, as we saw last week in the protest in Tel Aviv against police violence towards them, is slowly opening the eyes of Israelis to much broader definitions of Jewish identity and to the pervasiveness of racism which they have tolerated for far too long.

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