Baruch Marzel can be found wherever there is political agitation, especially when it’s about Israel’s Arab population.
An unapologetic extremist, Marzel participates in nationalist marches through Arab towns, provocatively waving Israelis flags; demonstrates against Jewish-Arab intermarriages and Nakba Day celebrations; and organizes big parties to celebrate the actions of Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 29 Arabs at prayer in Hebron in 1994.
He also protested Pope Francis’s visit to Mount Zion, calling on the “impure” pontiff to “leave our holy country”; described US President Barack Obama as an “anti-Semitic Jew hater”; and brought three donkeys to the gay pride parade in Jerusalem, one of them bearing a sign saying “I’m proud too.”
Soon he may also be found in Israel’s parliament, returning the ultra-nationalism of outlawed extremist rabbi Meir Kahane to the Knesset.
Marzel, who was born in the US but immigrated to Israel with his parents when he was a baby, is a provocateur extraordinaire who has been arrested dozens of times. His criminal record reportedly includes violent attacks against Arabs and policemen, though he says that he is “not violent, in general.”
Trouble-maker or threat to democracy?
While he narrowly avoided being disqualified over his extremist views — being cleared to run by the Supreme Court on Wednesday — many eye him warily more as a trouble-maker than as an actual threat to Israel’s democracy.
Marzel is no stranger to the Knesset. Between 2009 and 2013, he served as parliamentary assistant to MK Michael Ben-Ari, whose Otzmah Leyisrael list failed to pass the electoral threshold in the last election. Marzel is considered to be more radical than Ben-Ari.
Still, since the political mainstream boycotts Kahanists in the Knesset, Marzel is not expected to be a very effective lawmaker. Even left-wingers are not really concerned that he can do much legislative damage.
“The fringes don’t necessarily determine the content of the Knesset,” said Yariv Oppenheimer, the head of the dovish Peace Now group. During Ben Ari’s term in the Knesset he wasn’t able to pass any laws or promote his detestable agenda in any significant way, Oppenheimer added. “They make more noise than they cause damage.”
Being a member of Knesset would give Marzel’s Kahanist positions far more legitimacy than they would have if he were just a regular extreme activist, and that’s surely regrettable, Oppenheimer said.
The spirit of Kahane
According to recent surveys, Marzel is likely to sit in the 20th Knesset, as the holder of the fourth slot of the Yachad list headed by former interior minister Eli Yishai, currently polling at four to five seats.
Marzel’s ultra-nationalist Orthodox Otzmah Yehudit (Jewish Power) party entered a technical agreement with Yachad just before the deadline for parties to register their official slates, in what was seen as a nod more to pragmatic politics than shared ideology. The deal is meant to help the two parties pass the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent; after the elections the two lists are widely expected to split up again.
After a group around Meretz MK Issawi Frej petitioned to have Marzel banned from the race, quoting the “spread of racist ideology in Israel,” the Central Elections Committee disqualified the candidate last week. Even the centrist Yesh Atid party supported Marzel’s disqualification, fearing an increase of “incitement and violent rhetoric” in the Knesset.
But on Wednesday, the Supreme Court overturned the committee’s decision, as was widely expected. After two years’ hiatus, in which Ben-Ari’s Otzma found itself outside the Knesset, the spirit of the late racist Rabbi Meir Kahane is set for a comeback.
“To our great dismay, the Supreme Court has paved the way for the return of Kahane to the Knesset,” the Coalition Against Racism, an umbrella group representing human rights NGOs, said in a statement after the ruling.
At the core of Marzel’s party platform lies the belief that the entire Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people and that everyone who doesn’t like that idea needs to be kicked out.
During an interview in Yahad’s campaign headquarters in the capital’s Givat Shaul neighborhood, Marzel wholeheartedly endorsed this idea, which in Israel is known as “transfer.”
“We need to remove from here all our enemies,” he told The Times of Israel, adding that “enemies” does not necessarily refer to Arabs. Those who fully support the Jewish people’s rule over the land are welcome to stay, he explained, while even Jewish opponents of this idea need to go.
Despite his militant anti-Arab agitation, Marzel rejects the accusation of racism. “I don’t hate Arabs; I love Jews,” he said, issuing a thinly veiled indication of his true inclination. Asked how many of Israel’s 1.72 million Arab citizens he thinks need to leave Israel, he hesitated to give a precise number, offering instead that most are disloyal and thus have no right to stay. “We will check them one by one,” he said ominously. “The majority certainly don’t belong here.”
His vision for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is hence simple to sum up: Convince yourself that God and the United Nations gave the entire Land of Israel to the Jews, annex the West Bank and Gaza, and throw out everyone who thinks differently. “All our diplomatic problems stem from the fact that we don’t believe that this land belongs to us. On the day we internalize and tell the world that this land belongs to the Jewish people, we start applying sovereignty everywhere and begin building everywhere. That’s it. That’s my diplomatic platform.”
Joined Kahane at 13, first arrest at 14, first conviction at 17
Marzel was born 55 years ago in Boston, but arrived in Jerusalem’s Bayit Vegan neighborhood when he was six weeks old. He gave up his American citizenship a few years ago ahead of a previous Knesset bid. Although his father Shlomo was a respected educator who didn’t deal much with politics, Baruch joined Kahane’s Jewish Defense League at age 13.
Kach, Kahane’s political movement in Israel, was outlawed because of incitement to racism and support for terrorism, but Marzel unabashedly worships the slain rabbi’s legacy. “I think Kahane was right. Every child in Israel knows that Kahane was right — everything he said happens.”
Marzel was first arrested by police at 14. His first conviction followed three years later. According to a newspaper report, he accumulated 40 police complaints before he reached 30.
After studying in the Jerusalem’s Mercaz Harav yeshiva, a mainstream national-religious school, Marzel served in the army and was wounded in the first Lebanon war.
After his wedding he moved to Hebron, where he helped established the Tel Rumeida settlement and tried to advance the ideology of Kahane, which sees an urgent need to “transfer” Arabs out of the Land of Israel.
Marzel himself does not use the word “transfer,” but he readily detailed how he would ascertain that no “enemies” stay in Israel after the West Bank and Gaza are annexed.
“I will encourage their emigration,” he said, adding that only a small number of Arabs would want to stay after his party came to power. “I am sure that it’s possible to arrange that a great part of our enemies will not be here. There are ways,” he said.
Many of Marzel’s views fall outside even those of the most hard-line nationalists from the outgoing Knesset, and officials from far-right parties have attempted to distinguish themselves from Marzel and his Otzma party.
“Our common goal is to prevent both the removal of settlements and an Arab state on this side of the Jordan River. We are pragmatic and they remain narrow-minded, failing to see the bigger picture,” said Jeremy Saltan, who served as an aide to National Union leader Yaakov Katz during the 18th Knesset, when Ben Ari (and his parliamentary assistant Marzel) were part of his list.
Today, Saltan works for Jewish Home chairman Naftali Bennett, whom many Israelis consider a ultra-nationalist but who for Marzel’s taste is too fond of Arabs.
“Bennett doesn’t have any ideology,” Marzel said. Bennett is a nice guy who knows how to talk well, but he doesn’t share our views, he added. “Whoever says that 99 percent of Arabs are loyal to the country [Hebrew link] — something’s wrong with him.”
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, likewise, has no ideology and therefore is “dangerous” to the cause of Greater Israel, Marzel opined.
Where does that leave Prime Minister and Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu? “He’s not a man of the right,” Marzel said. “He’s a centrist, perhaps even a leftist.”