by Tony Greenstein
In 1984, Rabbi Meir Kahane, the founding leader of the openly racist Kach party, managed to enter the Knesset after securing some 26,000 votes. Despite his rising political profile, however, the far-right rabbi was not welcomed with open arms in the Israeli parliament – whenever he spoke, all the other 119 members of the Knesset (MKs) would walk out.
MKs were so disturbed by Kahane’s presence in the parliament that in August 1985 they even passed a revision to the Electoral Law which banned parties “inciting racism” – including Kach – from participating in future elections.
The problem was that this amendment also disqualified parties which opposed the existence of the Israeli state as a Jewish state. The second anti-racist law in 1986 was even worse. It exempted discrimination on the grounds of religion resulting in Kahane voting for it and the left in the Knesset voting against it!
However, the MKs’ vocal opposition to Kach had nothing to do with the racist ideology that was guiding the party. They were simply concerned about the damage Kach’s success could inflict on Israel’s image on the international arena – before the Supreme Court’s election ban, polls were predicting that the party could gain up to 12 seats in the 1988 elections.
Nevertheless, even if it was mostly for cosmetic reasons, back then, overt racism was still unacceptable in Israeli politics.
However, much has changed in the last 35 years.
Today, heirs of Kahane are being welcomed in by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. What was trefa (forbidden) yesterday, has become kosher today.
Netanyahu’s political calculations
As part of his ongoing election campaign, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has openly encouraged the far-right Jewish Home party to unite with smaller, even more extremist right-wing parties, including Otzma Yehudit – the party of Kahane’s disciples. The Jewish Home central committee recently approved the merger, paving the way for at least one member of Otzma Yehudit – its leader Michael Ben Ari – to secure a seat in the 21st Knesset in the upcoming April election.
Ben Ari, an avowed Kahanist, was a member of the Knesset between 2009 and 2013. Apart from inciting a pogrom against African refugees in South Tel Aviv, he is famous for tearing up a copy of the New Testament and putting it in a rubbish bin and for referring to Jewish left-wingers as “germs” that need to be eradicated.
In September 2010, in response to being told that for every Israeli killed, six Palestinians had died over the previous 10 years, Ari remarked that “For every one dead on our side, we need to kill 500 and not six.” During 2012’s Operation Pillar of Defense, he stated that “there are no innocents in Gaza…mow them down! Kill the Gazans without thought or mercy!”
This is who Netanyahu has made sure will enter the new Knesset in April.
The reason the prime minister has so eagerly supported Otzma Yehudit – and other extremist parties like it – is because the far-right in Israel commands up to 250,000 votes but is divided between at least four parties. He believes that a failure of these parties to unite could lead to many of them not crossing the electoral threshold (which was raised from 2 percent to 3.25 percent in 2013 in order to exclude the Arab parties from parliament), making way for the rise of a left-wing coalition in the Knesset.
Unlike his predecessors, who had once likened Rabbi Kahane’s racist policy proposals to Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg laws, Netanyahu seemingly has no qualms about dealing with the far right. There are no waters too polluted for the prime minister to fish in.
Some on the Israeli left are acting as if this signals a major shift in Israeli politics. Yet Israel’s Arab population is undoubtedly asking, “What’s new?” After all, they have always suffered violence and institutional discrimination.
What we are witnessing today is not a major shift in Israeli politics, but the public face of Zionist ideology finally catching up with decades of Zionist practice. Israeli Labour governments of the past spoke the language of social democracy as they practised ethnic cleansing. Netanyahu’s new, openly fascist right-wing government, however, has taken the hypocrisy out of Zionism.
When Kahane preached that Israel could either be a Jewish state or a democratic one, he was stating a truth that generations of “left-wing” Zionists have glossed over. The Zionist ideology had always given prominence to the state’s Jewish identity over democracy. This is why, when it was founded in 1948, Israel expelled over 750,000 Palestinians, and successive Zionist governments, Labour and Likud alike, opposed mixed marriages and personal relationships between Jews and Arabs.
In this context, the only real difference between mainstream Zionist Israeli parties and the likes of Kach or Otzma Yehudit is that what the former whisper in muted tones, the latter shout from the rooftops.
During his stint in the Knesset, Kahane proposed a series of laws which would make Israel a true “Jewish state”. These proposals included, among others, revocation of citizenship rights of non-Jews, the eventual imposition of slavery on Arabs and other non-Jews, banning non-Jews from living in Jewish neighbourhoods, the expulsion of non-Jews from Jerusalem and eventually Israel, prohibition of sexual relations between Jews and Arabs and forced dissolution of all inter-faith marriages.
While many of these proposals, such as the prohibition of sexual relationships between Jews and Arabs and the forced dissolution of intermarriages, come straight from the 1935 Nazi Nuremberg Laws and appear extreme and unrealistic on the surface, they offer little more than further codification of the existing practices of the Israeli state.
There is no civil marriage in Israel and since religious authorities do not perform interfaith marriages (between a Jew and a member of another religion), they are not permitted in Israel. Kahane’s proposition to ban non-Jews from living in Jewish neighbourhoods is also already a reality. Hundreds of communities in the country are already Jewish only; non-Jews residing in Jerusalem are facing expulsion for the most trivial reasons.
Kahane represented the hidden face of Zionism. Members of the Knesset, both from the left and the right, denounced his ideas and words to keep up appearances, while tacitly supporting the very same racist policies he promoted.
Kahane may have died at the hands of an assassin in 1990, but his ideas have thrived in his absence. Israel’s government no longer feels the need to hide the fact that it embraces the open racism of Kehane’s modern-day followers.
The upcoming election is likely to mark the demise of the so-called Zionist “left” – and the decades-old lie that mainstream Zionists are fundamentally different from racists like Kahane.
This is causing apoplexy among Zionism’s liberal supporters. Batya Ungar-Sargon, opinion editor of the left-wing Jewish-American periodical The Forward, recently published a commentary headlined Netanyahu Just Invited Israel’s Equivalent Of The KKK To Join The Government.
“These are the David Dukes and the Richard Spencers of the Jewish State, people who believe that Jewish sovereignty depends on the oppression, ethnic cleansing and even murder of Israel’s Arab population,” she explained.
The American Jewish establishment has clearly been shaken by Netanyahu’s open association with proud fascists and racists, but above all by his shamelessness.
Most American Jews have long suffered from political schizophrenia – they are progressive on everything bar Palestine. For decades they have turned a blind eye to all sorts of racist atrocities committed by the Israeli state and its leaders.
And what appals them today is not the ideas Otzma Yehudit representatives would bring into the Knesset – which, in fact, are just a vocalisation of accepted Israeli practices. They are just concerned about the political consequences of the Israeli prime minister’s open support for shamelessly racist political forces.
In an interview with Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, Susie Gelman, a prominent Zionist-American donor, recently expressed this sentiment, saying, “Netanyahu’s actions are feeding the estrangement of young American Jews from Israel”. Many other Jewish American leaders have voiced similar concerns.
In response to the deal between Netanyahu and Kahanists, Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt tweeted: “There should be no room for racism and no accommodation for intolerance in Israel or any democracy. […] It is troubling that they are being legitimized by this union.”
Where, one wonders, was Greenblatt when the Chief Rabbi of Safed Shmuel Elihayu issued an edict in 2010 that Jews were forbidden to rent rooms and apartments to Arabs? Or when Rabbis Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur published the King’s Tora, which explained how Jews could legally kill non-Jews, even children and infants?
In this context, members of the Jewish American establishment can be likened to the MKs of the 1980s who protested Kahane’s racist speeches while voting for similar, but more polite, policies themselves. The liberal Jewish establishment’s main concern today is not the institutional racism rampant in Israel or the ethnic cleansing that is taking place before their eyes, but that his “move will hurt Israel’s image and create a rift with Jewish Americans”.
It is clear that Zionism has now come full circle. There was always a tension within socialist Zionism – between their professed universalism and their actual practice. Zionism today has no such dilemmas.
The logic of a Jewish state is that non-Jews are there on sufferance. Just as Jews were not welcome in the ethno-nationalist states of 1930s Europe, so too are Palestinians excluded from the Jewish state today.
There is a large section of Israeli society, in particular, the religious Zionists, for whom the Palestinians represent the Jews’ mythical biblical enemy, the Amalekites. In Exodus 17:14, God told Moses: “I will utterly blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.”
Today these passages are being brought back to life. For those who are aware of the story of Esther, Netanyahu is indeed the Jewish Haman.