Pot legalization meets Jewish nationalism: Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut is no joke
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Israeli elections 2019Two recent surveys show Feiglin making it into the Knesset

Pot legalization meets Jewish nationalism: Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut is no joke

Firebrand right-wing leader is riding a wave of support from voters high on his pro-cannabis platform. But they may get a hit of something very different

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

Zehut chairman Moshe Feiglin speaks during a demonstration held following the murder of 19-year-old Ori Ansbacher, in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, February 9, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Zehut chairman Moshe Feiglin speaks during a demonstration held following the murder of 19-year-old Ori Ansbacher, in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, February 9, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

In the 2009 elections, the Holocaust Survivors and Grown-Up Green Leaf party — a merger between an offshoot of the pro-marijuana Green Leaf party and, yes, Holocaust survivors — was viewed largely as a joke.

Promising to legalize cannabis and, separately (perhaps), improve public services and rights for pensioners who survived Nazi atrocities, the bizarre union was created to help fulfill each faction’s craving to clear the then-two percent electoral threshold.

The party ended up with 2,346 votes, just 0.07% of the total ballots cast and far from enough to get out of the weeds and on to the national stage.

A decade later and with just a month left to go until the 2019 elections, potheads are once again teaming up with unexpected futon-fellows in an audacious effort to enter the Knesset. But this time their high hopes may not go up in smoke, and it may be no giggling matter.

Zehut chairman Moshe Feiglin speaks during a demonstration held following the murder of 19-year-old Ori Ansbacher, in Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, February 9, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg / Flash90)

With the Green Leaf party not running in the national election for the first time in 20 years, legalization advocates have turned en masse to the nationalist, quasi-libertarian Zehut party, led by former Likud MK and right-wing ideologue Moshe Feiglin, who has made legalizing marijuana a plank of his radical and iconoclastic manifesto.

With the support of stand-up comedian and legalization activist Gadi Wilcherski, who now joins Feiglin at most Zehut events, the party is presenting a broad plan to “end the persecution of cannabis users” through “full and regulated legalization of cannabis, based on the restrictions on the sale of alcohol and on the restrictions already in use where cannabis is legal.”

Gadi Wilcherski at the launch of the Zehut election campaign in Tel Aviv on January 30, 2019. (Flash90)

While many polls (including a poll conducted for The Times of Israel) initially skipped Zehut in an effort to simplify surveys for voters facing a record 46 parties now running, a recent buzz in interest for the party, generated in part by its legalization platform, has forced both pollsters and pundits to take notice. With several incumbent parties hovering dangerously close to the now-3.25% threshold, Zehut has started to emerge from the electoral haze as a contender with a real chance to gain Knesset seats.

According to polls published in both the Haaretz and Israel Hayom dailies on Sunday, Zehut will make it into the Knesset, while Yisrael Beytenu and MK Orly Levy-Abekasis’s Gesher party will not. A third poll, published in Yedioth Ahronoth, had Feiglin’s party tantalizingly close to the threshold with 3.1% of the vote.

A political outsider who has struggled to gain mainstream acceptance for decades, Feiglin could end up being a kingmaker after the election if he does succeed in riding the wave of support all the way to Israel’s parliament.

Speaking to Channel 12 on Sunday evening in response to his budding popularity, Feiglin said that full legalization would be his condition for entering a coalition, either headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or his chief rival, Benny Gantz.

Showing his well-known spark for self-aggrandizement, he said, “I’m not in anyone’s pocket. I will go where we can have the most impact. We have our eye on the Finance and Education ministries, where we will be able to implement our platform.”

First gaining prominence as the founder of the Zo Artzeinu protest movement, which hoped to block the 1993 Oslo Accords by blocking traffic across Israel, Feiglin’s public activity over the past 25 years has been defined by a dogged insistence on taking less-than-popular political positions. Best known for his aggressive advocacy on behalf of West Bank settlements and his occasionally incendiary pronouncements — which got him pushed down by Netanyahu from a realistic No. 20 spot on Likud’s 2009 Knesset slate and got him banned from entering the United Kingdom — he has always preferred ideological purism over populist pragmatism.

Failing to reach a realistic spot on Likud’s slate before the 2015 national elections (after having finally managed to enter Knesset with the party for the first time just two years before), Feiglin left the ruling party to form his own “political movement,” which he said at the time would “change the face of Israeli politics.”

And there is a lot that Feiglin wants to change.

Beyond legalizing marijuana, the 344-page Zehut manifesto presents a sweeping libertarian policy package including promises to revamp Israel’s education system to resemble the US voucher program, the introduction of aggressive free-market economic policies, and the eradication of recently introduced biometric identification cards.

At the same time, his economic and social policies come with a potent — and not-so-libertarian — whiff of religious and nationalist dogma.

Feiglin is a firebrand opponent of Palestinian statehood, supports building a third Temple in Jerusalem, has questioned why Israel’s non-Jewish citizens have any say in Israeli politics, and has called for stripping Arab Israelis of certain rights.

In the early 2000s, Feiglin first attempted to influence Israeli politics with a blunt crusade to take over the Likud party via his far-right Manhigut Yehudit (Jewish Leadership) faction. The group sought a foothold within the venerable right-wing party in order to “return the country to the people and lead the State of Israel through authentic Jewish values.”

A Likud supporter carries a poster of far-right party member Moshe Feiglin (Uri Lenz/Flash90)
A Likud supporter carries a poster of far-right party member Moshe Feiglin (Uri Lenz/Flash90)

Having since given up on Likud, Feiglin appears to be still seeking to bring about the same goal, now via Zehut. Nestled among his libertarian policies are a number of paradoxical proposals that would pave the way for vastly increased religious coercion in Israel.

Feiglin, for example, is proposing to do away with the Chief Rabbinate’s control over various aspects of civil life. Answering questions about a past public claim of being a “proud homophobe,” he says that he has now mellowed his position, “hates no one because of whom they love,” and believes that the state should have no hand in how people get married.

At the same time, however, his manifesto declares that “state institutions must be committed to Jewish law and tradition,” and says that only Orthodox Jewish conversions and streams of Judaism should be recognized by them.

Asked by Channel 12 on Sunday if his claim that he would join a coalition led by Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party meant he could soften his opposition to giving up Israeli control over parts of Greater Israel, Feiglin said simply: “Clearly, our opposition to what you call a Palestinian state is absolute and our loyalty to the Land of Israel is absolute.”

What Feiglin didn’t say is that Zehut’s manifesto specifically calls for measures to annex the entire West Bank, encourage Palestinians to leave the territories, move government facilities to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and curtail the authority of the Supreme Court and the attorney general.

Moshe Feiglin, head of Zehut, speaks at the party’s campaign opening event in Tel Aviv on January 30, 2019. (Flash90)

Speaking to The Times of Israel in January as Zehut launched what was Israel’s first-ever primary election open to any member of the public, Feiglin claimed there was no contradiction within his worldview: “I’m not Libertarian, I’m Jewish,” he said. “The concept of liberty comes from my Judaism.”

Instead of being a half-baked mishmash of disjointed policy proposals, his party’s manifesto is, in fact, “an entirely new sociological vision” for the Jewish people that “speaks to large, broad circles in the Israeli society,” he maintained.

While still advocating the hardline views that made him a rock star among a youthful crop of anti-establishment settlers, Feiglin is hoping that a very different audience will now take a toke. High on his pro-marijuana policies, they may get more of a hit than they bargained for.

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