Knesset ethics panel reprimands far-right MK who likened Arab party MKs to sheep

Almog Cohen loses some parliamentary rights, but only for a few days; 2 Yesh Atid lawmakers also reprimanded for chaotic scenes amid judicial overhaul push

Otzma Yehudit MK Almog Cohen reacts during a discussion in the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on February 22, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Otzma Yehudit MK Almog Cohen reacts during a discussion in the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on February 22, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Knesset’s Ethics Committee ruled on Sunday that an Otzma Yehudit MK who filmed himself making racist and offensive comments against opposition lawmakers will be blocked from speaking at the plenum and in committees for five days.

Almog Cohen will also be unable to submit bills or queries until the end of the Knesset’s winter assembly on April 2 and will receive an official reprimand.

The committee, under Shas MK Yinon Azulai, said Almog’s conduct “has no place in public discourse and certainly not in the Knesset plenum. His comments were defamatory and humiliating… and can not be defended.”

Cohen caused an uproar when he filmed himself last month during a plenary session denigrating various opposition lawmakers, including making animal sounds at lawmaker Ofer Cassif — the only Jewish MK in the Arab-majority faction Hadash-Ta’al, while saying one should “talk to them in a language they understand.”

“You need to talk to him like a sheep,” he said.

Cohen also said of Ta’al’s Ahmad Tibi, a trained gynecologist, “That’s a doctor; I wouldn’t let him treat my dog,” and commented that Yesh Atid’s Merav Ben-Ari “has a voice like a floor cleaner’s.”

The far-right MK has since apologized to Ben-Ari, but refused to apologize to the Hadash-Ta’al lawmakers, going on to explicitly say that MKs in the faction, which he claims is made up of “terror supporters” and “traitors,” were “not worthy of being sheep, they’re not humans.”

The ethics committee said some of Cohen’s comments can be seen as “racist and chauvinist.”

In its decision, the panel also reprimanded Yesh Atid MKs Yorai Lahav-Hertzano and Vladimir Beliak after the two climbed atop tables at a committee hearing on bills that are part of the government’s judicial overhaul bid.

“The public sees such behavior and it has a negative effect on it,” the panel said.

The two MKs refused to apologize for their behavior, saying their actions were taken amid a government push that is threatening Israeli democracy.

Cohen’s video from the plenum was also tied to the judicial shakeup, filmed during the first votes on bills that are at the heart of the government’s steps to overhaul the judicial system, including by giving politicians full control over the selection of judges and sharply curbing the High Court’s ability to strike down laws, and allowing 61 of the Knesset’s 120 members to re-legislate them when it does.

The far-right MK is a member of the ultra-nationalist Otzma Yehudit party, whose leader, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, has previously been convicted of incitement to racism.

Ben Gvir was for years a self-described disciple of the late racist Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose extreme platform called for expelling Arabs and criminalizing relations between Jews and non-Jews. In recent years, Ben Gvir has tried to distance himself from some of his spiritual mentor’s views.

Kahane’s Kach party was declared a terrorist organization by both the Israeli government and the US State Department a few years following the rabbi’s assassination in 1990, after which it disbanded.

Ben Gvir also used to hang on the wall of his Hebron home a picture of Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 massacred 29 Palestinians at prayer in Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs. He removed the picture once it became clear it harmed him politically and has since said he no longer considers Goldstein a “hero.”

Ahead of the November 1 elections — in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bloc of right-wing, far-right, and ultra-Orthodox parties won a plurality of Knesset seats — Cohen was caught on hidden camera saying Otzma Yehudit’s recent moderation of its extremist positions is a “trick” to enter parliament, implying members actually hold far more extreme ideologies than being voiced at the time.

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