Price: Good reason Kahane Chai still designated terror group

US blasts ‘abhorrent’ celebration of Kahane after prospective minister attends

Public rebuke by State Department spokesman is first by Biden official aimed at far-right lawmaker Ben Gvir, who is aiming to become next police minister

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir at a ceremony honoring late Jewish extremist leader Rabbi Meir Kahane in Jerusalem on November 10, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir at a ceremony honoring late Jewish extremist leader Rabbi Meir Kahane in Jerusalem on November 10, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

US State Department spokesman Ned Price condemned far-right MK Itamar Ben Gvir’s attendance at a memorial event for Meir Kahane on Thursday, in what was the first public rebuke from the Biden administration of the Religious Zionism-Otzma Yehudit lawmaker aiming to become Israel’s next public security minister.

“Celebrating the legacy of a terrorist organization is abhorrent. There is no other word for it. It is abhorrent,” Price said when asked during a press briefing about Ben Gvir’s participation in the memorial event hours earlier. Price was referencing the Kach group that the American-born rabbi founded in 1971 and its offshoot Kahane Chai.

Kahane led the group until his assassination in 1990. Members and supporters of Kach and Kahane Chai killed, attacked or otherwise threatened or harassed Arabs, Palestinians and Israeli government officials. While the organization remains outlawed in both Israel and the US, Kach has been dormant since 2005.

Ben Gvir and his Otzma Yehudit faction have long described themselves as disciples of Kahane, though the far-right lawmaker has more recently claimed to moderate his views. During his address at the Thursday memorial, Ben Gvir pointed out that unlike Kahane he no longer believes that all Arabs should be expelled from Israel or that Arabs and Jews should have separate beaches — drawing boos from the crowd.

But the remarks did not appear to assuage the Biden administration, with Price adding that “we remain concerned by the legacy of Kahane Chai and the continued use of rhetoric among violent right-wing extremists. We’ve condemned incitement, violence and racism in all of its forms

“There’s a good reason why Kahane Chai remains designated as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) organization,” Price added.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price speaks during a news conference at the State Department, March 10, 2022, in Washington, DC. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/Pool/AFP)

However, he acknowledged that as of May, Kach is no longer designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization — a more severe classification that was removed due to the group’s inactivity.

“We urge all parties to maintain calm, exercise restraint and to refrain from actions that only serve to exacerbate tensions. That includes in Jerusalem,” Price said, referencing the city in which the annual memorial event took place.

Ben Gvir was joined at the confab by several other members of Otzma Yehudit, which make up just under half of the Religious Zionism alliance of far-right, religious nationalist parties.

In his speech at the event, Ben Gvir insisted that “ultimately Rabbi Kahane was about love. Love for Israel without compromise, without any other consideration.”

Followers of the late rabbi Meir Kahane pray at his grave at the Givat Shaul cemetery in Jerusalem on November 10, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Also addressing the event was a former political partner of Ben Gvir’s, far-right activist Baruch Marzel, who called for expelling the over 300,000 Arab Israelis who voted for the Balad and Ra’am parties in last week’s election.

“Nothing will stop unless we drain the swamp,” Marzel declared.

The Biden administration has avoided commenting directly on the rise of Ben Gvir’s party, which is expected to play a prominent role in Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu’s next government.

An official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel earlier this week that the Biden administration is still waiting for the Israeli government to be formed before making any policy decisions.

Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir at a ceremony honoring late Jewish extremist leader Rabbi Meir Kahane in Jerusalem on November 10, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

However, the US will likely have a hard time working with ministers such as Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir, the official said.

Both have a long history of remarks against Arabs, Palestinians, LGBTQ individuals, and Judaism’s Reform movement. Smotrich was arrested during protests against the 2005 Gaza disengagement and Ben Gvir was convicted of incitement to racism and supporting a terror organization in 2007 for holding up a sign at a protest that read “Expel the Arab enemy” and “Kahane was right,” referring to the late-extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, whom Ben Gvir has described as his mentor. The MK claims that he has become more moderated in recent years and now differs from Kahane, in that he only supports expelling Arabs he deems “disloyal,” as opposed to all of them.

Meir Kahane addresses a gathering at the Silver Springs Jewish Center in Maryland, Oct. 27, 1988 (AP Photo/Doug Mills)

The pair of lawmakers could have a hard time securing visas to visit the US, even on official government business, given that the process requires a criminal background check.

Pressed for his reaction on the rise of the far-right in Israel last week, Price said that the US “hope[s] that all Israeli government officials will continue to share the values of an open, democratic society including tolerance and respect for all in civil society, particularly for minority groups.”

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