Supreme Court bans extreme-right Gopstein and Marzel from elections

Justices cite dozens of racist remarks by Otzma Yehudit Knesset hopefuls; allow rest of far-right slate as well as Joint List to run

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Bentzi Gopstein (R) and Baruch Marzel seen during a press conference held by the Otzma Yehudit party in Jerusalem, August 26, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Bentzi Gopstein (R) and Baruch Marzel seen during a press conference held by the Otzma Yehudit party in Jerusalem, August 26, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Supreme Court on Sunday banned a pair of senior members of the extreme-right Otzma Yehudit party from running in Israel’s elections in September.

The nine-member panel of justices voted unanimously in favor of disqualifying Benzi Gopstein, while a single justice voted against doing the same for Baruch Marzel. At the same time, the court dismissed separate petitions calling for the banning of party chairman Itamar Ben Gvir as well as the entire Otzma Yehudit slate from running.

Justices also threw out a petition demanding the disqualification of the Joint List — an amalgam of four mostly Arab parties.

Gopstein leads the racist Lehava organization, which opposes interfaith and inter-ethnic interaction, relationships and marriages. Lehava has held violent protests outside mixed Jewish-Muslim weddings and along the routes of gay pride parades, and has called on the public to alert the organization to cases where Jewish women are discovered to be dating Arab men.

Marzel led extremist rabbi Meir Kahane’s Kach party after its founder’s 1990 murder, and has long been identified with the faction’s goal of forcibly cleansing the country of Arabs. He continued to be among its top supporters until it disbanded in 1994 after the Israeli government declared it a terror group.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Esther Hayut, center, and fellow Supreme Court justices arrive for a hearing on petitions to disqualify the extremist Otzma Yehudit party from running in the September 2019 election, on August 22, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Explaining the decision to bar Gopstein from running, Supreme Court President Esther Hayut cited the “dozens” of remarks made by the Lehava chairman which presented an “unequivocal” sense that he “systematically incites racism against the Arab public.”

“Gopstein presents the entire Arab public as an enemy with which no contact should be made that could be interpreted as coexistence,” Hayut continued.

Among the quotes cited in the petition, the Lehava leader is quoted as saying at his daughter’s wedding, “Let’s say that if an Arab waiter were here, he wouldn’t be serving the food, he’d be looking for the nearest hospital.”

The court deemed his remarks to have “revealed a new low point in the racial discourse that we have not known before,” lamenting that Gopstein had not agreed to retract any of his remarks.

As for Marzel, the judges acknowledged that he had expressed regret for many of the comments he had been heard making against the Arab public. The Hebron resident-activist chalked up the remarks to slips of the tongue. Ultimately though, the court ruled that Marzel had expressed similar remorse when his candidacy was challenged in 2003 and in 2015. Then, the court ruled to green-light his candidacy.

Joint List lawmakers Ahmad Tibi, right, Aida Touma-Suleiman, second right, and Saadia Osama, third right, look on as Otzma Yehudit candidate Itamar Ben Gvir arrives at a hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on a series of petitions to disqualify both factions from running in the September 2019 elections, on August 22, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“But in practice he persisted in conduct that incited racism,” the justices wrote, concluding that they therefore would not give him a third chance.

The justices thus accepted the recommendation of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who in a legal opinion last week called for the two candidates to be disqualified.

Mandelblit based his recommendation on the Basic Law: The Knesset, which stipulates that political parties or candidates cannot run for office if they engage in incitement to racism.

Otzma Yehudit’s former No. 1 Michael Ben-Ari was barred from running in the April elections by the Supreme Court due to the racism clause, and was replaced at the party’s helm by Ben Gvir.

Otzma Yehudit blasted Sunday’s ruling and claimed that the Supreme Court was part of the political left, bent on preventing the rise of another right-wing government. Ben Gvir claimed the decision would boost the party’s performance at the polls.

Otzma Yehudit member Benzi Gopstein (with microphone), head of the anti-miscegenation group Lehava, leads a demonstration against the Jerusalem Gay Pride parade on June 6, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gopstein called the Supreme Court a “branch of Meretz,” referring to the left-wing party.

He blasted its decision to green-light the candidacy of the Joint List — whose No. 8 candidate Heba Yazbak once lauded Hezbollah terrorist Samir Kuntar, the brutal murderer of Israeli civilians, including children — while disqualifying his own candidacy. Contrary to Otzma Yehudit, however, the petition against the Joint List was calling to disqualify the entire slate and not a particular candidate.

“The Reform movement and the left-wing parties united against us, based on the understanding that we will fight for a Jewish state and advance the values ​​of Torah in the Knesset,” Marzel said in his statement reacting to the ruling.

Similarly bashing the decision was the Yamina party, led by former justice minister Ayelet Shaked, which vowed to work to “balance” the judicial makeup of the top legal body after the September election.

“Once again, it turns out that the protection of minorities, the value of equality and the right to choose and be chosen are reserved only for Arab members of the Knesset who hate Israel and are terror supporters,” the right-wing party claimed.

Otzma Yehudit party members Michael Ben Ari (R), and Baruch Marzel (L) speak during a press conference held in response to the High Court decision to disqualify Ben Ari’s candidacy for the upcoming Knesset elections, in Jerusalem on March 17, 2019 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

More centrist and left-wing parties, on the other hand, applauded the court’s ruling.

The Blue and White party said it was “inconceivable that for the sake of his own personal immunity, [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu sought to bring racism of the most dangerous kind into the Knesset.”

The party’s statement referred to the Likud’s efforts to pressure Yamina to merge with Otzma Yehudit in order to ensure that the extreme-right faction would make it into the Knesset, serve in his coalition, and, Netanyahu’s opponents claim, later back the prime minister’s purported efforts to advance legislation to shield himself from criminal prosecution.

Democratic Camp candidate Stav Shaffir praised the court’s decision regarding Gopstein and Marzel, but said she regretted that a similar ruling hadn’t been handed down regarding Ben Gvir.

“There is no place in the Knesset for Kahanists who undermine democracy and back violence against innocents,” she said of the slate, whose senior members are self-described disciples of the extremist rabbi, Kahane.

read more: