A month before the elections, debate has broken out among Israeli pundits and politicians over whether a far-right politician and disciple of the late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane is, in fact, a “Kahanist.”
Waged on news broadcasts and op-ed pages, in radio talk shows and news sites’ comment sections, the debate is unsurprisingly intense.
The question: Is Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir, now running for Knesset as part of the Religious Zionism slate, a “full-blown Kahanist,” or something less extreme?
Such a question is obviously subjective. One person’s extremism is another’s grim realism or blunt authenticity.
The debate is also not really about Ben Gvir. It is about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who expended great effort in recent weeks to ensure Ben Gvir gets into the next Knesset by uniting Ben Gvir’s slate with that of Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich. Netanyahu lobbied hard among both factions and offered Smotrich cabinet and Knesset seats in exchange for his agreement.
Netanyahu’s reason for advancing Otzma Yehudit was straightforward. Smotrich and Ben Gvir were each polling at roughly 2 percent of the vote last month, well below the 3.25% threshold for entering the Knesset. If they failed to make it in, all those right-wing votes would be lost to Netanyahu’s future rightist coalition, which polls suggest is nail-bitingly close to the 61-seat parliamentary majority. Just a seat or two more for the right wing could win the race.
The gambit appears to have worked. Together, Smotrich and Ben Gvir now consistently poll at over 4%.
But the support for the merger with Ben Gvir has again left Likud wide open to attack across the political spectrum, from far left through to centrist Yesh Atid and on to Yamina and New Hope on the right. Likud members, some of whom are embarrassed by the move, have attempted to distance themselves from Ben Gvir, calling him a racist or saying that his views “are not my own,” while at the same time tolerating his entry into the political arena as part of the dirty give-and-take of realpolitik.
Likud has also attempted to deflect criticism by looking for faults in other parties, highlighting extremist or sometimes simply indelicate comments from Arab-majority and left-wing parties, and claiming that Netanyahu’s opponents will need to rely on “terror supporters” to build a coalition.
The result is a fight now underway between right and left over which side’s extreme edges are more disreputable.
Perhaps the best articulation of the right’s effort to defend Ben Gvir’s candidacy — that is, to defend Netanyahu’s willingness to support the far-rightist — came in a widely shared February 13 column in the Maariv news site by influential right-wing pundit and television anchor Kalman Liebskind.
Liebskind argues that associating Ben Gvir with Meir Kahane is dishonest, as he doesn’t share the late rabbi’s views. In making the case for Ben Gvir’s defense, Liebskind also effectively lays out the reason that any association with Kahane can seem so disqualifying in Israeli politics.
Liebskind claims that those trying to foist the Kahanist legacy on Ben Gvir are just trying to score cheap political points against him. “Once you play the ‘Kahane’s disciple’ card, you don’t need to prove anything,” he writes.
He notes that Ben Gvir was 14 when Kahane was gunned down in 1990. But beyond that, he says, Kahane’s views were much more extreme than Ben Gvir’s.
Kahane “believed that only a Jew can be an Israeli citizen,” Liebskind notes, “that only Jews can live in Jerusalem, that separate beaches must be established for Jews and non-Jews, that sex or marriage between Jews and non-Jews should be outlawed. Has anyone ever heard anything remotely similar from Ben Gvir? You’d have to be a person with an impressive capacity for deceit to answer yes.”
He concluded: “Why do you think Rabbi Kahane and his movement were outlawed, and Ben Gvir and his movement were not? Exactly for these things.”
Ben Gvir himself denies that he is an ideological descendant of Kahane, while still viewing the rabbi in a positive light.
“Otzma Yehudit does not carry on Rabbi Kahane’s path,” he said in an interview with the religious-right website Srugim last week. “There shouldn’t be any misunderstanding here. I think Rabbi Kahane was a holy man, a righteous man, who fought for the Jewish people and was murdered for the sanctification of God’s name. Rabbi Kahane brought Soviet Jewry to Israel and acted with so much sacrifice against the terrorists who attack us.”
“But after all that, no, I’m not Rabbi Kahane word-for-word. I wouldn’t propose bills for separate beaches,” he continued, noting that he did not support “generalizing” by giving all Arabs the same negative treatment.
“I take from Rabbi Kahane many, many good things. But to say about me that I’m Rabbi Kahane, I’m not there…. I say it all the time. I know they wait constantly for me to say some sentence, something that will let them say, ‘here, he’s generalizing about the Arabs.’ No interview goes by where I don’t say, ‘I don’t support generalizing about the Arabs, but yes, someone who’s against me, who hurts our soldiers, who hurts our children, I’m against him.'”
He went on in the interview to promise he would advance a program to encourage emigration for “those who don’t want us here,” specifically mentioning those who throw rocks and firebombs at soldiers.
Kahanism then and now
The New York-born Kahane first made a name for himself in the US, founding the vigilante Jewish Defense League and using a domestic terror campaign to draw attention to the plight of Soviet Jewry. He moved to Israel in the 1970s and after several unsuccessful runs entered the Knesset in 1984 as the leader of the Kach party.
While in the Knesset, Kahane was widely reviled for pushing proposals to expel Arabs from the country and the territories controlled by Israel. He also wanted to ban intermarriage and sexual relations between Jews and non-Jews and called for the replacement of Israeli democracy with religious law.
As Liebskind correctly notes, he was no mere populist. His racism was systematic and all-encompassing — by his own testimony. He wore his views proudly and insisted they were Judaism’s most fundamental and authentic beliefs and mores.
It was no gimmick or sop to the left that whenever Kahane rose to speak in the Knesset plenum during his single term in the parliament, then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir of Likud, perhaps the most right-wing leader Likud has produced, would walk out and refuse to dignify Kahane with his attention. Kahane usually spoke to empty plenums for that reason.
In 1988, the Supreme Court upheld the banning of Kach from running for the Knesset, though Kahane claimed that he was not a racist. Ttwo years later he was assassinated in New York by an Egyptian-American extremist.
After his death, his movement split into two groups. One was headed by his son, and the other by former acolyte Baruch Marzel, who in 2012 formed the Otzma Leyisrael party with Ben Gvir and other former followers of Kach, later renamed Otzma Yehudit.
Ben Gvir was born into a secular family in the Jerusalem suburb of Mevaseret Zion, but as a teen he became active in Kahane’s Kach movement. He enjoyed brief notoriety from a TV interview in which he proudly held up an ornament that he managed to rip off prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s Cadillac.
“We got the car. We’ll get to Rabin too,” Ben Gvir said into the camera weeks before the premier’s 1995 assassination.
The ultra-nationalist went on to obtain a law degree and has since made a practice of representing Jewish terror suspects, while launching his nascent political career.
In each of the past four election campaigns, Netanyahu has attempted to broker deals to merge Otzma with other far-right factions. In the run-up to the April 2019 vote, Netanyahu engineered a deal for Otzma to join the Union of Right Wing Parties, which placed Ben Gvir sixth on their slate. Netanyahu’s move drew rebuke from nearly every major Jewish organization including those that rarely comment on Israeli politics, condemnation that is being echoed today. The party won five seats, the closest Ben Gvir would come to entering the Knesset, until now.
Ben Gvir is third on the Religious Zionism slate. If the party enters the Knesset, as polls show it doing, he’ll be guaranteed a spot, and with it a platform to push his policy proposals, which include encouraging emigration of non-Jews from Israel, and expelling Palestinians and Arab Israelis who refuse to declare loyalty and to accept sub-equal status in an expanded Jewish state whose sovereignty extends throughout the West Bank — the biblical Judea and Samaria.
In a sense, Liebskind is right that Netanyahu is not pushing the second coming of Meir Kahane into the Knesset. Ben Gvir does not openly call, for example, for the outlawing of sex between Jews and non-Jews.
The implication is clear: If Ben Gvir is legitimate, then by extension Netanyahu cannot be tainted by the association.
But in another sense, arguably a far more important sense, Liebskind cannot sustain his argument without ignoring nearly everything else Ben Gvir has said in three decades of public activism, including constant and open praise for Kahane and his views, as well as repeated and explicit declarations that he is, in fact, Kahane’s disciple.
The internet never forgets
In 2018, Ben Gvir stood at the podium at an event commemorating, in the words of a banner draped behind him, “28 years to the murder of the leader of Israel, Rabbi Meir Kahane.”
The event’s purpose, the banner read on its second line: “Demanding that the Kach movement’s disqualification be canceled.” Next to those words was the declaration, “Rabbi Kahane was right!”
The attempt to outlaw Kach, Ben Gvir explained, had failed. The reason: he and his fellow Otzma Yehudit party chiefs were Kach.
“Today, from the perspective of 30 years later, the disqualification of the Kach movement accomplished nothing. It’s a fact, even after 30 years: The dogs barked, but the caravan moved on,” he said, using a phrase that meant that the criticism of the party had not buried it. “With the hindsight of history, it’s become clear to all those who were party to that sin [of disqualifying Kach] that they cannot silence, cannot shut people’s mouths… Today they admit to themselves, ‘we failed.’ These destroyers of Israel have failed.”
He pointed to fellow Otzma Yehudit party leaders and longtime pro-Kahane activists Marzel, Michael Ben Ari, and Bentzi Gopstein as he spoke.
“Dr. Ben Ari and I have a radio show. We’ve also become commentators on a very popular radio show. Baruch Marzel and Bentzi Gopstein are interviewed all the time. We have public platforms. We have the tools. We have a party, that we today are calling on you to contribute to, to this party’s crowdfunding effort, so we can get four, five, six, seven seats into the Knesset. Thirty years later, we call for historic justice.”
In Ben Gvir’s own words, in carefully prepared comments available online in video (link is to the video posted as a response to Liebskind), he insists passionately, repeatedly, and not so very long ago, that his Otzma Yehudit movement is emphatically the reincarnation of the Kahanist movement that so offends Liebskind and so embarrasses present-day Likud leaders.
That’s not a cherry-picked example. Ben Gvir routinely — and recently — has praised Kahane and insisted he follows in his footsteps.
On February 21, 2019, Ben Gvir was asked about his association with Kahane by Ynet’s Atilla Somfalvi. “I always say, what’s the difference between Rabbi Kahane and us, besides his being a leader, a great leader? The big difference is that for us they turn on the microphones. Today there are more and more microphones that we are given, and we make ourselves heard,” he replied.
Friends like these
The question under debate is not the relative extremism of various factions. It is whether Ben Gvir, despite his softened rhetoric, and despite his new defenders on the right, believes he represents Kahane’s old agenda as he is shepherded by the leader of the mainstream right into parliament.
It isn’t only Ben Gvir’s own testimony that clarifies the point. His associates and colleagues in Otzma Yehudit — the party activists mentioned above in his 2018 speech — make a veritable who’s who of former Kach activists.
Marzel was Kach’s spokesman for many years.
Ben Ari, Otzma Yehudit’s former leader banned from running for Knesset in 2019, has offered outspoken praise of Kahane over the years. When Ben Ari was elected to the Knesset in 2009 as the fourth-placed candidate on the four-seat National Union slate of far-right parties, he appointed Marzel and Ben Gvir as his parliamentary aides.
Gopstein, a former Kach activist, founded the Lehava organization that describes itself as committed to rescuing Jewish women from the clutches of Arab romantic partners. The group has seen members arrested for arson at mixed Arab-Jewish schools and has protested at the entrances of wedding halls where interfaith weddings were taking place.
Liebskind’s emphatic dissociation of Ben Gvir and Kahane doesn’t withstand scrutiny, and the embarrassment for Netanyahu even within the right doesn’t appear to be fading away, at least for now. It has become part of right-wing campaigns against Likud by Yamina and New Hope, as well as the campaigns further left from Labor and Yesh Atid.
Earlier this month, in an attempt to mollify concerns from within Likud’s ranks about the association with Ben Gvir, Netanyahu said in a television interview that Ben Gvir would not have a seat in his next government, but would only be a member of the parliamentary coalition. He also argued that no precedent was being set, as Ben Ari was part of the coalition in his 2009 government.
It was a strange misstatement for Netanyahu, who surely remembers that Ben Ari and his National Union list were deliberately left out of his 2009 coalition, which was Ehud Barak’s condition for bringing his Labor party into the government.
In 2019, Ben Ari followed in Kahane’s footsteps by being banned from running for the Knesset, not due to his associations with Kahane but his own incitement to racism, and specifically lumping all Arabs together as “enemies.”
Ben Gvir has thus far avoided that fate, including by claiming that he does not “generalize” Arabs. But his associations with Kahane and his other ideas mean he remains a third rail in Israeli politics.
Netanyahu may wind up making Ben Gvir and his ilk more palatable to the mainstream right. But conversely, it may end up sullying Netanyahu’s legacy among any supporters who, as Liebskind puts it, “remember Rabbi Kahane.”
Jacob Magid and JTA contributed to this piece.
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