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US Democratic pro-Israel group ‘appalled’ by Kahanist faction’s entry to Knesset

DMFI says views of Religious Zionism’s Itamar Ben Gvir antithetical to Israel’s founding principles; AIPAC says it’ll continue policy of boycotting such MKs

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Itamar Ben Gvir of the far-right Otzma Yehudit faction speaks at the Religious Zionism party headquarters in Modi'in, on elections night, March 23, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)
Itamar Ben Gvir of the far-right Otzma Yehudit faction speaks at the Religious Zionism party headquarters in Modi'in, on elections night, March 23, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

A pair of left-leaning Jewish groups in the US expressed dismay on Wednesday at the all-but-certain entry into the Knesset of Kahanist and anti-LGBT candidates from the far-right Religious Zionism party. Pro-Israel lobby AIPAC, meanwhile, said it would maintain a boycott of Religious Zionism’s Otzma Yehudit faction.

The alliance of national religious factions has won six seats, according to a count of over 90% of the vote, meaning its No. 3 candidate, Otzma Yehudit chairman Itamar Ben Gvir, will be one of the 120 MKs in the next Knesset, along with No. 6 candidate Avi Maoz, the chairman of the Noam party, which has made opposing LGBT rights its top priority.

The Democratic Majority for Israel, which was founded in 2019 to shore up support for the Jewish state in the Democratic Party, was the first major US group to condemn the development, not even waiting for the final results to come in.

The group focused its censure on Ben Gvir, whose Otzma Yehudit faction members describe themselves as disciples of the late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane.

“We are appalled to see another small party comprised of racist, Kahanist Jews join the Knesset. We have condemned this party before. The views of these Kahanists are antithetical to Israel’s founding principles and to our Democratic values,” said DMFI board co-chairs Ann Lewis and Todd Richman in a statement.

Meir Kahane addresses a gathering at the Silver Springs Jewish Center in Maryland, Oct. 27, 1988 (AP Photo/Doug Mills)

The Brooklyn-born Kahane founded the Kach movement, which is blacklisted in both the US and Israel. Ben Gvir has said his party’s views are not as extreme as those of his mentor. Rather than supporting the expulsion of all Arab Israelis as Kahane did, Ben Gvir says he only backs expelling “disloyal” Arabs.

DMFI added that including Ben Gvir in a governing coalition “would be wrong.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said before the election that he plans to do just that, including the Religious Zionism among his “natural coalition partners.” However, the premier has clarified that Ben Gvir would not be given a ministerial post. Sources in the Religious Zionism party told The Times of Israel that no such stipulations were made in their talks with Likud.

Netanyahu was the architect of the Religious Zionism alliance of Bezalel Smotrich’s National Union, Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit and Maoz’s Noam earlier this year. The prime minister also freed up a spot on the Likud list for National Union MK Ofir Sofer in order to coax Smotrich, who had been hesitant to merge with Otzma Yehudit, which until recently had been considered beyond the pale. The premier also reportedly agreed to back a number of pro-settlement policies and reserve senior posts for Religious Zionism MKs in the next government in exchange for the parties agreeing to unite.

Itamar Ben Gvir of the Otzma Yehudit party speaks during a ceremony in Jerusalem marking the 27th anniversary of the killing of extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, November 7, 2017. The sign behind him reads, “Kahane was right!” (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The DMFI statement also noted that the the Ra’am party, “based on Islamist ideology, may determine who leads the country’s next government.”

The group did not specify why it made a point of noting the Islamist ideology of the Arab Israeli party.

Mansour Abbas’s Ra’am is indeed slated to play the role of kingmaker, after campaigning on the notion that it is “not in the pocket of either the left or right-wing” and will be willing to cooperate with either bloc. Ra’am is on course to receive four seats in the next Knesset. With the pro-Netanyahu bloc including Yamina currently at 59 seats and the anti-Netanyahu bloc at 57 seats, Abbas will either play a major role in deciding the makeup of the next coalition or send the country to a dizzying fifth election in just over two years.

Joining DMFI in condemning Religious Zionism’s success was T’ruah, a rabbinic human rights organization in North America.

“We particularly condemn the inclusion of Kahanist and anti-LGBTQ parties in the new Knesset. Itamar ben Gvir, who will be a new member of Knesset, is a well-known extremist who has engaged in violence, and who has been known to display in his living room a portrait of Baruch Goldstein, who carried out a massacre of Palestinian worshipers in Hebron in 1994,” the group’s executive director Jill Jacobs said.

The Times of Israel reached out to several other major Jewish organizations in the US for comment on Religious Zionism’s entry into the Knesset and Netanyahu’s role in bringing it about.

Bezalel Smotrich and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (File; courtesy)

A spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee said the group stood by its 2019 statement, which was crafted after Netanyahu brokered a similar alliance with Otzma Yehudit for the first time.

“AIPAC has a longstanding policy not to meet with members of this racist and reprehensible party,” the group tweeted then.

“We stand by our previous statement, and as we indicated then, we have not and will not meet with members of Otzma,” an AIPAC spokesman said Wednesday.

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