Extremist Otzma Yehudit threatens to sue prominent rabbi over Nazi comparison

Ben Gvir demands apology and compensation from Benny Lau, who said vote for party was akin to backing Nuremberg Laws

Michael Ben Ari (right) and Itamar Ben Gvir of the Otzma Yehudit party outside the Central Elections Committee office in the Knesset on February 21, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Michael Ben Ari (right) and Itamar Ben Gvir of the Otzma Yehudit party outside the Central Elections Committee office in the Knesset on February 21, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The extremist Otzma Yehudit party is demanding NIS 100,000 ($27,700) in damages and an apology and threatening to sue a prominent religious-Zionist rabbi who compared the party’s platform to the racist Nuremberg Laws of Nazi Germany.

Rabbi Benny Lau, spiritual leader of the Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem, railed against the far-right racist party on Saturday after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week brokered a merger between it and the pro-settlement Jewish Home list.

In a Saturday sermon, Lau said a vote for Otzma Yehudit was akin to backing Nazi Germany’s anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws.

“As someone who dreams the dream of the return to Zion, I will fight so the doctrine of Kahane doesn’t enter the Knesset because it is a racial doctrine like the Nuremberg Laws,” Lau said in a subsequent newspaper interview.

Rabbi Benny Lau. (Courtesy)

The Nuremberg Laws, passed by the Nazis in 1935, were a series of anti-Semitic laws that included stripping Jews of German citizenship and barring them from marrying or having sexual relations with ethnic Germans.

Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”) was founded by followers of US-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, and includes among its leadership defenders of Jewish terrorists, activists who protest outside weddings between Jews and non-Jews, and advocates for the mass-expulsion of Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza.

During his brief stint in the Knesset before his party was outlawed in 1988, Meir Kahane proposed bills forbidding Jewish-Arab sexual relations and outlawing other kinds of social and cultural interaction.

In a letter to Lau dated Saturday, attorney Itamar Ben Gvir, a prominent far-right activist and Otzma Yehudit candidate, rejected the comparison to Nazis, threatened to sue Lau for defamation, and demanded an apology and compensation from the rabbi.

Michael Ben Ari, center, Itamar Ben Gvir, left, and Lehava chair Benzi Gopstein, all of the Otzma Yehudit party, at an event in Jerusalem marking the 27th anniversary of the death of Rabbi Meir Kahane, November 7, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Your words constitute clear libel and profound insult toward us,” Ben Gvir wrote to Lau. “The comparison of Jews loyal to the state of Israel, to the land of Israel and to the people of Israel to Nazis crosses a red line. The Nazis exterminated six million Jews in the Holocaust, and tried to destroy all the world’s Jews, for no reason other than that they were Jews, at the behest of a racial doctrine. Otzma Yehudit is a respectable movement that works to further the national interests of the state of Israel and the Jewish people. The comparison is wholly illegitimate,” Ben Gvir wrote.

He added: “There is no doubt that [you violated libel laws when] your actions and words humiliated us publicly, and made us targets for hate, ridicule and contempt.”

The letter said Otzma Yehudit would sue Lau for defamation if he failed to publish “a statement of clarification, correction and apology at the same place and with the same prominence” with which he delivered his criticism, and paid it NIS 100,000 in compensation “for the damages done to us.”

In an interview with the right-wing Galey Israel radio station on Sunday, Ben Gvir again rejected Lau’s comparison, saying it “hurt the six million murdered in the Holocaust.”

Lau is the nephew of former chief rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, a Holocaust survivor. The elder Lau’s son, David Lau, currently serves as Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi.

Ben Gvir called himself an “admirer of Rabbi Kahane,” and said Otzma Yehudit’s platform “has one clear statement: Anyone who isn’t loyal should leave here, and must be expelled from here. If that’s racism, then I’m an extremist.”

Jewish Home party chief Rafi Peretz at the party’s primary headquarters in Ramat Gan on February 4, 2019. (Flash90)

Jewish Home responded to Lau’s call not to vote for the party because of the merger with Otzma Yehudit by defending party leader Rafi Peretz as “one of the greatest builders of religious Zionism, who has dedicated his whole life to the wellbeing of the Jewish people.”

The party said Peretz had struck the deal with Otzma Yehudit out of a feeling of “leadership and national responsibility.”

In an interview with the right-wing Israel National News website, Lau urged readers to examine the biting comparison that Likud MK Michael Eitan “made in the 1980s between the Nuremberg Laws and those that Kahane sought to enact.”

Among Kahane’s proposals — none of which passed — during his tenure as the Kach party’s lone Knesset member in the mid-1980s was revoking the citizenship of Arab Israelis and outlawing marriage and sex between Jews and non-Jews.

Kahane, who founded the far-right Jewish Defense League in the United States before moving to Israel, served only one term as an MK before Kach was barred from running in 1988. Kahane was assassinated two years later in New York by an Egyptian-American gunman.

Rabbi Meir Kahane at a New York news conference, August 31, 1984. (Gene Kappock/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images via JTA)

Otzma Yehudit includes in its top ranks a number of self-declared Kahanists, among them chairman Michael Ben Ari, who was denied a US visa in 2012 over his ties to Kach; Baruch Marzel, who served as Kahane’s secretary in the Knesset; Bentzi Gopstein, a former student of the extremist rabbi and an anti-miscegenation activist who is facing charges of incitement to violence, racism and terrorism; and Ben Gvir, who as a teen was active in Kach and is now largely known for representing Jewish terror suspects.

Under the Otzma Yehudit platform, Israel’s sovereign borders would extend from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River, and “enemies of Israel” within those expanded borders would be resettled elsewhere in the Arab world.

Gopstein’s Lehava movement works to prevent relationships — romantic and otherwise — between Jews and Arabs, and has held sometimes violent protests outside interfaith weddings.

Netanyahu has taken considerable heat from opposition figures and Jewish groups over his efforts to broker the electoral alliance between Otzma Yehudit and Jewish Home, with the pro-Israel AIPAC lobby issuing a rare rebuke in which it called the party “racist and reprehensible.”

The premier on Saturday hit back at critics for “hypocrisy and double standards,” but did not name AIPAC.

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