By Doug Kahn
“Banned in 1988, assassinated in 1990, mainstreamed in 2019: Kahane lives” was the headline atop a recent Times of Israel blog that commented on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s appalling decision to broker a deal aimed at bringing a racist and extremist party into his coalition government.
For 50 years, I have taken on the challenge of making the case for Israel — from my days as a student at UC Berkeley to my years confronting anti-Israel activism in the Bay Area while working at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council.
I have not hesitated to mobilize our community even on those occasions when I have harbored personal doubts about specific decisions of the Israeli government because I feel a strong sense of responsibility to defend Israel from the kind of ganging-up and rush-to-judgment against it that has sadly shadowed its entire existence.
When I have disagreed, I have found discreet ways to communicate directly to Israeli officials — not because I thought it would really influence decision-making, but because I believed that conveying how Israeli governmental actions affect Israel advocacy efforts on the ground here was part of my duty. This is particularly important living in the Bay Area, which sets trends that ultimately radiate across the country.
Now I am a private citizen speaking only for myself. And while confident that my views are shared by many who deeply care about Israel and who, like me, continue to advocate on its behalf because of a passion and love of Israel, I feel compelled to share these personal views today.
I believe Prime Minister Netanyahu’s calculated decision to openly embrace Jewish extremism crosses a red line.
Netanyahu encouraged the far-right Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, comprised of followers of Rabbi Meir Kahane, to merge with another right-wing party, Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home), to ensure that the combined “joint list” would reach the required threshold to win seats in the Knesset and join his coalition. This was orchestrated with his promise to set aside two cabinet positions for this bloc.
Otzma Yehudit’s leaders are unapologetic about their links to Kahane, the rabidly racist American rabbi, now deceased, who made aliyah in 1971. He established the Kach Party, which was subsequently banned for its virulent racist and violent views.
One of Kahane’s adherents was Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli doctor, who murdered 29 Palestinians in cold blood in the mosque at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron on Purim in 1994. It turns out that Baruch Marzel, among the leaders of Otzma Yehudit and spokesman for Kach for many years, organized a Purim party at Goldstein’s gravesite to celebrate the life of this Jewish terrorist. And one of the leaders of the party, Itamar Ben-Gvir, has a picture of Baruch Goldstein in his home, which he refuses to take down.
Lest there be any doubts about the party’s links to Kahanist views, two months ago Marzel said in an interview, “I stand for the same things Rabbi Kahane taught us — not to give one inch of the Land of Israel, not to give one inch of Torah, and not to give up on one Jew anywhere in the world. That’s one side. The second side is to fight the enemy and expel it from Israel.”
Indeed, the party platform states “we will work toward the emigration of the enemies of the State of Israel to their respective lands, including both Arab and Western countries.” Like the European trend of extremist right-wing parties putting a slightly gentler face on their racist objectives, this appears to be a reframing of Kahane’s platform calling for expulsion of all the Arabs living in Israel — just without the specific phrase.
Though appalled, I am not shocked by Netanyahu’s embrace. In 2015, worried about a defeat, the prime minister made a short video on election day afternoon appealing to his base with the statement, “The right-wing government is in danger. Arab voters are coming out in droves to the polls. Left-wing organizations are busing them out.” He apologized for his race-baiting statements after he won, but the upcoming April 9 election is likely to make the previous one appear tame by comparison.
If Otzma Yehudit is part of the next government, it will create a toxic effect. No longer marginalized, this party will have been legitimized with mainstream credibility and a measure of power. Relatedly, it will make it that much more difficult for American Jewish advocates for Israel (like me). Though I will not abandon this role, it becomes increasingly difficult to credibly explain that while Israel faces social challenges like other countries (in that it is not immune to discrimination, racism and social gaps), it remains committed to equal opportunity for all its citizens (Jewish and non-Jewish) and aspires to live up to the noblest ideals. Mainstreaming views that should remain at the margins muddies those waters mightily.
The American Jewish community consistently calls on friends in other communities to distance themselves from extremists within their communities. From the virulent anti-Semitism of Louis Farrakhan to a terrorist attack perpetrated in the name of Islam, we ask others to condemn hate in their communities because it is imperative to stand up against extremism and hatred lest it spread.
Speaking out forcefully and unequivocally to condemn extremism is what American Jewish organizations did when Baruch Goldstein went on a murderous rampage.
And that’s what we did when Meir Kahane came calling, and Jewish Federations and JCRCs around the country refused him entry — thereby making a statement about red lines.
Indeed, I remember the moment in 1985 as if it was yesterday, when Kahane rang the doorbell at the Jewish Federation in San Francisco. Earl Raab, my predecessor at JCRC, went downstairs, stepped outside to tell Kahane he could not enter, met with him for an hour in his rundown Dodge and told Kahane point blank that he was not welcome inside until he renounced violence and terrorism — which he never did.
Now the prime minister of Israel has embraced Kahane’s avowed followers — personally putting out the welcome mat.
It is a sad day.
And if a racist and extremist party does indeed end up in Israel’s ruling coalition, it will be a remarkably more complicated reality. The blending of politics with even a small political party that espouses blatant hate will be hard to navigate for American Jewish organizations that do not normally comment on internal political issues in Israel.
Recognizing that the Israelis will make their own decisions at the polls, many national organizations will wait to see the results of the election, and whether Otzma Yehudit ends up in the ruling coalition, before deciding whether to comment publicly (though AIPAC, the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee and Union for Reform Judaism already have).
But I am confident that organizations such as the S.F.-based JCRC — which day in and day out leads our community’s strategic advocacy efforts in support of the Jewish and democratic state of Israel — will continue to share directly with Israeli influentials their serious moral concerns about this welcome mat being put out for an extremist party, as well as the extent to which such actions make efforts to retain bipartisan, broad-based political support for Israel far more difficult.
Rabbi Doug Kahn is executive director emeritus of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council. The viewpoints expressed in his columns are solely his own.