WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s strong push for a unity deal with a racist political party makes it harder to advocate on Israel’s behalf, liberal US Jewish leaders said Sunday, with one rabbi saying the move was tantamount to “welcoming” the Ku Klux Klan into an American administration.
“It’s not as if Otzma Yehudit is a conservative, right-wing party,” said Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say it’s the equivalent in the United States of the KKK being welcomed into the corridors of power. It’s not a close call if you’re an umpire of baseball. It’s not even near the plate.”
The Israeli premier’s active facilitation of an agreement between the right-wing Jewish Home party and Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), an extremist faction led by disciples of the late ultra-nationalist rabbi Meir Kahane, was castigated over the weekend by major American Jewish groups.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, which rarely comments on internal Israeli politics, said that it would refuse to meet with “members of this racist and reprehensible” party, in what was interpreted as an exceedingly rare, implicit rebuke of the prime minister’s move.
The deal, which Netanyahu participated in by giving Jewish Home a slot on his Likud party’s slate and promising the party two ministerial slots in his next government, was a bid to strengthen a possible Likud-led coalition after the April 9 general elections. According to Jacobs, it has hurt the capacity of American Jews to defend Israel.
“It makes our work more difficult,” Jacobs told The Times of Israel. “We stand up for Israel every day, everywhere. Certain criticisms of Israeli policies are understood and legitimate. But we are fighting every day for there to be more support and more understanding, and this is absolutely a very serious blow to the case that we all make.”
Jacobs said the merger with Otzma Yehudit was so shocking that even organizations that are generally careful not to weigh in on the Israeli premier’s decisions felt compelled to respond.
Rabbi Debra Newman Kamin, the president of the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, likewise said that the move was another case in which American Jewish leaders will have to grapple with Netanyahu making decisions that don’t reflect their values. “Unfortunately, this isn’t a new challenge,” she told told The Times of Israel.
On Sunday evening, the Conservative movement released a statement condemning Netanyahu’s embrace of Otzma Yehudit. “Racism and hatred are antithetical to our Jewish values and the ideals on which the Jewish State of Israel was founded,” said the statement, signed by the RA, United Synagogue, Jewish Theological Seminary and the Women’s League for Conservative Judaism.
“Otzma Yehudit should not be further legitimized in any sense and we hope and pray that the party returns to a place of irrelevance,” it said.
Otzma Yehudit is the ideological godchild of Kahane’s Kach party, which was barred from the Knesset under a Basic Law outlawing incitement to violence and was later banned entirely in Israel. Kahane was the American immigrant who founded the militant Jewish Defense League, who, before his 1990 assassination, promoted the annexation of disputed territories and the expulsion of Arabs from the West Bank.
Otzma Yehudit includes a number of self-declared Kahanists, among them 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 anti-miscegenation activist who is facing charges of incitement to violence, racism and terrorism; and Itamar 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.
The Rabbinical Assembly’s censure of Netanyahu for the deal is especially unusual for the 118-year-old organization. The only other time it has issued a statement on anything the prime minister has said or done was in 2015, Kamin said, when Netanyahu warned during the previous elections that Arabs were voting “in droves.”
Indeed, Netanyahu’s recent political maneuvering stirred the vexation of US Jews perhaps more intensely than ever before.
“Literally, the head of Otzma Yehudit is banned as a terrorist from the United States,” said Susie Gelman, chair of the Israeli Policy Forum, which advocates for a two-state solution. She was referring to Michael Ben-Ari, whose visa application in 2012 was denied because of the State Department’s “prerogative to ban terrorists” from entering the country.
“This is Kahane’s party in a different guise,” Gelman said.
The unprecedented decision of AIPAC and AJC to criticize Netanyahu’s unity deal “speaks to the extremism of the move itself,” she added. “This was a line that Bibi crossed that is just not supportable. It reflects the inherent illegitimacy of Bibi’s move.”
On Saturday, AIPAC sent out a confirmation that Netanyahu will still address the lobby’s annual policy conference next month.
“I think it’s going to be interesting to see what kind of reception he gets, but it’s over a month away,” Gelman said. “A lot can happen between now and March 25. A week in Israeli politics is a very long time. Five weeks is an eternity.”
In the meantime, liberal Jewish leaders plan to continue to apply pressure on the prime minister over his embrace of Otzma Yehudit.
Jacobs said the issue was not going to blow over. “If you’re the leader of the Jewish democratic State of Israel,” the Reform leader said, “you have to stay within bounds of the core values that have sustained our people for thousands of years.”