US Orthodox group backs Netanyahu over bid to put Kahanists in Knesset

Young Israel says it understands political calculus behind push for Otzma Yehudit-Jewish Home merger, ZOA also slams criticism of prime minister over maneuver

Otzma Yehudit candidates Itamar Ben Gvir, left, and Michael Ben-Ari, right, carry a mock coffin with a man wearing a Benjamin Netanyahu face mask during a protest in Jerusalem on July 27, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Otzma Yehudit candidates Itamar Ben Gvir, left, and Michael Ben-Ari, right, carry a mock coffin with a man wearing a Benjamin Netanyahu face mask during a protest in Jerusalem on July 27, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

An American Orthodox Jewish group is defending Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to work with a far-right political party.

It is the first statement by a major American Jewish organization defending Netanyahu’s decision. Last week, Netanyahu orchestrated an agreement between the extremist Otzma Yehudit and Jewish Home, a far-right religious Zionist party. The merger will increase the united party’s chances of gaining enough votes to enter Knesset, Israel’s parliament.

An array of centrist and liberal American Jewish groups and religious movements has criticized the merger as giving legitimacy to a fringe, racist movement.

But the National Council of Young Israel, a traditionalist Orthodox association of 175 synagogues that tends to take hawkish stances on Israeli issues, defended the prime minister’s actions as a matter of political calculus.

A plaque noting the financial help received by the Young Israel organization of Staten Island, N.Y. adorns a building in the Jewish enclave of Hebron Wednesday Sept. 17, 1997. (AP/Jacqueline Larma)

Young Israel also noted that the Israeli Supreme Court said in 2015 that a Otzma Yehudit candidate should not be barred from running because of the party’s platform.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu acted to get right-wing parties to merge in order to meet the threshold necessary to secure a victory in the election,” read a statement Monday by Farley Weiss, president of the National Council of Young Israel, to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “We understand what Prime Minister Netanyahu did, and he did it to have ministers of the national religious and national union parties in his coalition.”

The statement stands in contrast to an alphabet soup of major Jewish groups that have condemned Otzma Yehudit — from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee to the American Jewish Committee to the Anti-Defamation League. In a rare instance of criticism of a sitting prime minister, Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, called the political deal “very disturbing.”

Prime Minister and head of the Likud party Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a statement to the media in Kfar Maccabiah, Ramat Gan, February 21, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“He obviously has some political calculation that drove him to it, but politics can’t dictate everything,” Hoenlein told The Associated Press, referring to Netanyahu. “You have to take into consideration all of the ramifications and all of the concerns.”

With Netanyahu’s intervention, Jewish Home agreed to include on its slate in April’s elections Michael Ben-Ari and Itamar Ben-Gvir, self-professed followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who advocated the expulsion of the Palestinians from territories controlled by Israel and a near theocratic state of the Jews. Netanyahu would need the support of successful right-wing parties to form a government led by his Likud party.

The Young Israel statement likened Netanyahu’s decision to the 1993 vote on the so-called Oslo II accords, when a left-wing government relied on votes from Arab-Israeli political parties to secure passage of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. That argument echoes one made Saturday by Netanyahu himself on Twitter.

“Such hypocrisy and double standards from the left,” Netanyahu wrote. “They condemn a bloc on the right with right wing parties while the left worked to bring extremist Islamists into Knesset to create a bloc … The height of absurdity.”

The Zionist Organization of America, a right-wing pro-Israel group, also called the condemnations of Netanyahu hypocritical. The ZOA statement did not discuss the actual positions of Otzma Yehudit, except to say at one point that its critics were engaging in “Nazi-name-calling against Jewish candidates.”

“It is also mystifying that these Jewish-American groups condemned Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu for encouraging small right-wing Israeli parties to merge, so that Israeli voters on the right are not disenfranchised,” the ZOA statement reads, telling other American Jewish groups to “direct their condemnation to those who oppose the State of Israel, and are truly racist and reprehensible, and a danger to the Jewish people and the Jewish State.”

Otzma Yehudit party leaders Michael Ben-Ari, left, and Baruch Marzel, in 2012. (Yoav Ari Dudkevitch/Flash90/via JTA)

The Young Israel statement also contrasts with statements condemning Otzma Yehudit from the Reform and Conservative Jewish movements. In Israel, the Modern Orthodox leader Benny Lau condemned the merger, comparing their ideology to the Nazi Nuremberg Laws, Israel National News Reported.

Also, 80 rabbis signed onto a statement by Torat Chayim, an international association of Modern Orthodox Zionist Rabbis, saying that bringing Otzma Yehudit into the government is “truly a lamentable failure” by Netanyahu.

JTA has reached out to the Orthodox Union and Rabbinical Council of America for comment on the issue. RCA responded that it doesn’t comment on Israeli politics.

Two Democratic Jewish groups, the Jewish Democratic Council of America and Democratic Majority for Israel, both spoke out against bringing Otzma Yehudit into a potential coalition. The Republican Jewish Coalition said it has a longstanding policy of not commenting on internal Israeli politics.

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