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US Reform chief: Ben Gvir as police minister akin to KKK leader as attorney general

Rabbi Rick Jacobs says ‘unimaginable’ that Otzma Yehudit leader and Bezalel Smotrich of Religious Zionism will be ‘face of modern Israel,’ warns that US officials may not meet them

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, stands in his office in New York in May 2022. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, stands in his office in New York in May 2022. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

The head of America’s Union for Reform Judaism said Sunday that handing far-right Otzma Yehudit leader MK Itamar Ben Gvir the job of public security minister was akin to “appointing David Duke, one of the heads of the KKK, as attorney general.”

Rabbi Rick Jacobs made the comment while speaking to the Ynet news site. The quotes were published in Hebrew and are translated here. It was not immediately clear whether Jacobs had spoken in Hebrew or English.

“We are very concerned about Israel’s existence and its place in the world,” Jacobs said, describing Ben Gvir as “someone who has made a career out of hatred and encouraging violence.”

“Most American Jews find it unimaginable that someone like Itamar Ben Gvir or Bezalel Smotrich would be the face and voice of modern Israel,” he added. “Honestly, it’s a scary thought.”

Smotrich leads the far-right Religious Zionism party, which ran alongside Otzma Yehudit on a joint slate.

Jacobs urged Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu to “examine the consequences for the State of Israel and Diaspora Jewry” of including the two far-right lawmakers in his cabinet.

Head of the Otzma Yehudit party MK Itamar Ben Gvir speaks during a faction meeting of the Otzma Yehudit party at the Knesset on November 15, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Following his victory in elections earlier this month, Netanyahu has entered negotiations with parties in his right-wing and religious bloc to form a coalition. Ben Gvir is seeking the Public Security Ministry, which includes responsibility for the Israel Police, while Smotrich is insisting on becoming defense minister or finance minister.

Jacobs said that appointing Ben Gvir to the post, and Smotrich to another senior position, would likely face opposition from the Biden administration. He even suggested Ben Gvir could be prevented from entering the US.

“It is a big question mark if people in Washington will want to talk to them,” he said, noting that the ministerial positions the two MKs are angling for have an influence on matters that stretch beyond internal Israeli affairs.

“This requires interaction with personalities all over the world,” he said. “I can imagine that many leaders will find it very difficult to meet with them. Senior US officials will find it difficult to hold talks with a government that includes Smotrich and Ben Gvir.”

“I don’t think it’s an undemocratic decision to boycott them,” he added. “The Israelis have the right to choose who they want, but they must understand the consequences and the price of their choice.”

He stressed that “we are not leaving you, the Israelis, but it will be incredibly difficult to convince people who question some of the Israeli policies that this is not a radical turn to the right.”

In this handout photo, Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, left, meets with Religious Zionism chief Bezalel Smotrich, on November 15, 2022. (Likud)

Among its policy points, Otzma Yehudit has pushed to deport “disloyal” Israelis and to loosen soldiers’ live-fire regulations. The Religious Zionism party and ultra-Orthodox parties also in Netanyahu’s bloc have issued a demand in their coalition negotiations to remove the “grandchild clause” of Israel’s Law of Return and thereby to restrict immigration only to converts and people born to a Jewish mother, not those with a Jewish grandparent.

Jacobs spoke out in particular against the proposed changes to the Law of Return.

“The Law of Return is one of the foundations of Zionism,” he said. “With the current rise in antisemitism, this change would be so painful and damaging to the close relationship we have.”

Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit ran on a joint ticket with Smotrich’s Religious Zionism in the election. Avi Maoz, chair of the anti-LGBT Noam faction also ran under Religious Zionism. The three parties announced Sunday that they were splitting up to act independently in the Knesset.

Likud has taken much criticism for embracing the far-right parties, which harbor extreme stances that go far beyond its own positions, including unequal treatment for Jews and Arabs, deportation for “disloyal” citizens and constraining LGBT rights.

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