Far-right leader MK Itamar Ben Gvir was booed by attendants at a commemoration event Thursday night for the late racist rabbi Meir Kahane after he expressed opposition to the most extreme and discriminatory ideas of his spiritual mentor.
Ben Gvir, of the Religious Zionism-Otzma Yehudit alliance, said that although he admired Kahane, he would not advance legislation to expel all Arabs from Israel and the West Bank or to create a regime of ethnic segregation — as Kahane advocated.
For this, he was roundly booed by the audience.
“It is no secret that today I am not Rabbi Kahane and I do not support the deportation of all Arabs, and I will not enact laws for separate beaches,” he said to loud jeers.
Remarks he made vowing to expel terrorists from the country were, however, cheered by the crowd.
The commemoration event is held every year in honor of Kahane, a one-time member of Knesset for the racist Kach party he founded and who was assassinated at a New York City hotel in November 1990 by an Egyptian-American jihadist.
Despite distancing himself from Kahane’s most overtly racist and discriminatory views, Ben Gvir, who is expected to be a key figure in Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s incoming government, extolled Kahane’s virtues and praised him for many of his activities.
“Ultimately Rabbi Kahane was about love. Love for Israel without compromise, without any other consideration,” he said.
Also present at the event were incoming Otzma Yehudit MKs Yitzhak Vesselrov, Almog Cohen and Zvika Fogel; Jerusalem deputy mayor Arieh King; Otzma Yehudit founder Baruch Marzel; leader of the Jewish supremacist Lehava organization Bentzi Gopstein; and ultra-nationalist rabbi Dov Lior.
Marzel told The Times of Israel he did not vote for Otzma Yehudit in the recent election since Ben Gvir has said he does not follow Kahane’s path, and said he intends to establish a new far-right party to contest future elections.
Like Kahane, Marzel has been barred in the past from running for the Knesset by the Supreme Court for incitement to racism.
In his own speech at Thursday’s event, Marzel called for the expulsion of large swaths of Israel’s Arab minority to applause from attendees.
Marzel charged that Abu Ghosh, a Jerusalem-area village known for its hummus restaurants and friendly relations with the Jewish population, was not the symbol of coexistence it is made out to be, because most of its residents voted for Arab-majority parties Ra’am and Balad.
“It’s possible to find people in Abu Ghosh who aren’t enemies, but there are mostly enemies there, terror supporters, supporters of the destruction of the State of Israel, and we need to take it apart and deport them from the State of Israel,” he said.
“Nothing will stop unless we drain the swamp. This is Rabbi Kahane, and this is the truth. Everyone knows he is right,” Marzel added.
״We all know [Kahane] was right. We saw how many are afraid of him because they are afraid of the truth. But we will continue to say [‘Kahane was right’], and with the help of God… [we] will win and drive out the enemies,” he declared.
Radical hill-top settler youth activists were also prominent among the audience, including Meir Ettinger, a grandson of Kahane who has spent time in jail for extremist activities.
Ben Gvir arrived at the event shortly after he and the rest of his Otzma Yehudit party met with President Isaac Herzog for consultations on who should form the next government. On Wednesday, Herzog was overhead telling party representatives on a hot mic that “the entire world” was concerned about Ben Gvir’s extreme views.
The Otzma Yehudit chief released the memorial speech to the media ahead of the event after apparently accidentally posting it online earlier in the day.
In the speech, Ben Gvir credited Kahane, who was banned from the Knesset for racism, with establishing a yeshiva that helped turn him to return to religion, and where he studied the extremist rabbi’s teachings. He noted he’d never “had the merit” to meet Kahane.
“It is no secret that today I am not Rabbi Kahane and I do not support the deportation of all Arabs, and I will not enact laws for separate beaches, although it is certain that we will act and do everything to expel terrorists from the country for the sake of the Jewish character of Israel, for the settlements and its Jewish identity,” Ben Gvir said.
“It seems to me that ultimately Rabbi Kahane was about love. Love for Israel without compromise, without any other consideration,” he said.
Ben Gvir is a self-described disciple of Kahane, a former MK whose Kach party was banned and declared a terror group in the 1980s in both Israel and the US. Like the late Kahane, Ben Gvir was convicted in the past of supporting a terror organization, though he insists he has moderated in recent years.
Noting the weekly Torah portion, Ben Gvir said that when another Jew is in trouble, “we leave everything and go to help,” and cited this as his reason for entering politics.
“This is my role and the mission I took upon myself… To act with love of Israel for any Jew in trouble,” he said.
“If in Judea and Samaria,” he said, meaning the West Bank, “they throw rocks and Molotov cocktails at our soldiers and police officers, [the latter] must be allowed to respond. If a family is scared to walk to the Western Wall because it’s dangerous, that must end.”
“Love for Israel includes the duty to ensure we are a free people in our land, without fear, with pride and tremendous love,” he added.
Archival video footage of Kahane was shown during the commemoration, including one clip where he repeated his oft-declared goal of expelling all Arabs from Israel and the West Bank, comments which were greeted with cheers and applause by the audience.
And several stalls at the event sold far-right merchandise, including bumper stickers stating “Leftists are traitors,” “Coexistence with the enemy doesn’t exist,” and “Transfer for the enemy.”
Ben Gvir gained notoriety before the 1995 assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin when he proudly held up an ornament that he’d managed to rip off Rabin’s Cadillac during a TV interview and said “We’ll get to Rabin too.” For years, Ben Gvir had a picture of Baruch Goldstein — the Jewish terrorist who carried out a massacre at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994, killing 29 Palestinians — hanging on the wall of his Kiryat Arba home. He removed it in 2019 after it became heavily publicized in local media and began to harm him politically.
Going into last week’s elections, Ben Gvir campaigned on hardline policies such as enacting the death penalty for terrorists, expelling “disloyal” Arab Israeli citizens and changing the rules of engagement for Israeli security forces to allow them to more easily shoot-to-kill Palestinian suspects.
The proposals appeared to resonate with large swaths of the increasingly right-wing public, with the far-right Religious Zionism alliance that Ben Gvir ran as part of surging to 14 seats, the third most of any electoral slate.
On Monday Ben Gvir retweeted a photograph of Arab Israeli lawmaker Ahmad Tibi at Ben Gurion Airport holding a suitcase and added the remark “About time. May we merit to only have news like this and may he not come back here.”
Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit is a part of the Religious Zionism alliance of far-right parties that won 14 seats in last week’s elections for the Knesset and is set to be the second-largest party in the coalition that Netanyahu hopes to form, ousting Prime Minister Yair Lapid.
Netanyahu’s bloc of right-wing religious parties won 64 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.
Likud has taken much criticism for embracing far-right parties harboring extreme stances that go far beyond its own positions, including unequal treatment for Jews and Arabs, deportation for “disloyal” citizens and constraining LGBT rights.