As liberal and progressive Jewish groups assailed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s deal to return supporters of the racist rabbi Meir Kahane to the Israeli Knesset, most leading American Jewish groups are keeping silent.
Nine major Jewish groups, including the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Federations of North America, did not respond to questions from the Forward about Netanyahu’s successful efforts to merge the national-religious Jewish Home party with Otzma Yehudit, or “Jewish Power,” a small party led by disciples of Kahane. The merger all but guarantees the Kahanist party a seat in the Knesset.
Only the Anti-Defamation League, the Reform Jewish movement and a handful of smaller progressive groups, including the New Israel Fund and J Street, condemned the political maneuver.
“There should be no room for racism & no accommodation for intolerance in Israel or any democracy,” Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt tweeted on Wednesday. “ADL previously has spoken out on hate-filled rhetoric of leaders of the Otzma Yehudit Party. It is troubling that they are being legitimized by this union.”
Netanyahu was reportedly instrumental in the merger, promising Jewish Home party that he would let them control two top government ministries and seats in the security cabinet if they merged with Otzma Yehudit.
Otzma Yehudit is led by three of the most prominent living followers of Kahane, who was assassinated in November 1990. Kahane’s former political party, Kach, was banned from Israeli elections for racism in 1988, and then banned entirely under anti-terrorism laws in 1994. Kach and another Kahanist group, Kahane Chai, are currently designated foreign terror organizations by the U.S. State Department.
Both Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit were unlikely to receive enough votes to qualify for the Knesset on their own in next month’s elections. Now, the merger will ensure a strengthened far-right faction that will push Netanyahu to annex portions of the West Bank and build more settlements. If Jewish Home earns at least five seats in the Knesset, the fifth slot will go to a Otzma Yehudit member.
Spokespeople from AIPAC, the American Jewish Committee, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, Jewish Federations of North America, the Orthodox Union, UJA-Federation of New York, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Zionist Organization of America did not respond to a question about the merger from the Forward.
The groups that did speak about the merger were largely critical. In an emailed statement, the left-wing Israel lobby J Street said that the merger “shows that there may be no red line Netanyahu will not cross in his desperate effort to remain in office, no matter how much damage he does to Israel in the process.” J Street called on pro-Israel organizations and US officials to condemn the move.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest American Jewish denomination, also criticized the merger. “It’s morally outrageous to imagine that those who follow in the footsteps of R. Meir Kahana could be welcomed into PM Netanyahu’s political circle,” Jacobs tweeted. “Bolstering one’s political strength with those who profess racist views should be unthinkable.”
T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, an organization that has called for IRS investigations of Kahanist groups, said in a statement that Otzma Yehudit was comprised of “extremists who celebrate violence and preach genocide.”
The New Israel Fund, a regular target of criticism from the Israeli right, also condemned the merger. “For decades, people who care about Israel across the political spectrum have largely agreed that Kahanists are a danger to Israeli democracy and have no place in its parliament,” New Israel Fund CEO Daniel Sokatch said in a statement. “It is both horrifying and very revealing that Kahanists are now returning to the political arena and are being courted and embraced by right-wing parties and their leadership.”
The sole supportive statement came from the National Council of Young Israel, an umbrella organization for a group of Orthodox synagogues. “We understand what Prime Minister Netanyahu did, and he did it to have ministers of the national religious and national union parties in his coalition,” National Council of Young Israel president Farley Weiss said in a statement. “Previously, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that Otzma is not racist and has a right to run in the elections. We understand the Prime Minister’s actions.”
Kahane was an American-born Israeli rabbi who advocated that all Jews move to Israel and completely displace the Arab population there. Kahane openly advocated militant reaction to anti-Semitism, drawing inspiration for his Jewish Defense League from Black Power groups in the 1970s.
Many Kahane disciples have remained public figures, including Otzma Yehudit leaders Baruch Marzel, who once served as Kach’s secretary, and Bentzi Gopstein, who has also called to expel Christians and justified burning down local churches.
The third Otzma Yehudit leader, Michael Ben-Ari, was reportedly denied a visa to enter the U.S. in 2012 because of his ties to such groups. In a radio interview on Wednesday, Ben-Ari refused to denounce Kahane.
Ben-Ari previously served in the Knesset from 2009 to 2013 as a member of the now-defunct National Union party.
At a meeting Wednesday evening, members of Jewish Home’s central committee voted overwhelmingly to accept the merger with Otzma Yehudit. The Times of Israel reported that, though there was widespread opposition to the merger within Jewish Home, the deal passed because members feared that their party would not otherwise meet the vote threshold for seats in the Knesset. The party has lost support since the departure of three of its top members to firm a new national religious party, called New Right.
“Our answer to those who want to destroy our home is unity,” Jewish Home leader Rafi Peretz said at the meeting.
Breaking: Jewish Home central committee votes overwhelmingly to adopt a merger deal with the extremist Otzma Yehudit faction pic.twitter.com/zSwVnXjQNA— Jacob Magid (@JacobMagid) February 20, 2019
This article will be updated with additional responses received after the initial deadline.
Aiden Pink is the deputy news editor at the Forward. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @aidenpink. Ari Feldman is a staff writer at the Forward. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @aefeldman