After Naftali Bennet and Ayelet Shaked, the two government ministers in the religious Zionist party Habayit Hayehudi, left to start a new party that defined itself as a mix of religious and secular right-wing nationalists, the remaining party feared that it would not pass the threshold to stay in the Israeli parliament. This fear, combined with pressure from Prime Minister Netanyahu and the promise of two significant ministries, led Habayit Hayehudi to create a bloc for the coming election with Otzma Yehudit, a party whose leaders are all followers of Rabbi Meir Kahane.
The Kahanists are considered a fringe element in the religious Zionist community and most Jewish leaders view them as Jewish racists. Their inclusion is perceived as a legitimization of their extreme positions. This has led to a fierce debate between those who view it as a moral issue that crosses all boundaries and those who see it as a risk of losing right-wing votes. The loss of those votes could conceivably lead to a leftist government that could agree to a Palestinian state on part of the land of Israel, an issue that some see as outweighing all other considerations.
Kahane was a controversial figure during his active periods in America and Israel. His followers heard a message of Jewish pride and power that quoted Jewish sources. Detractors saw him as a figure who promoted violence and revenge. While in America, Kahane’s Jewish Defense League fought anti-Semitism and for Russian Jews, his tactics included actions that led to loss of lives. Kahane had been associated with Zionist youth movements, and when the American government began to arrest JDL members he moved to Israel.
In Israel, his Kach movement attracted young people with its strong stance against Arabs. He considered all Arabs to be enemies of the Jewish state and potential terrorists and proposed expelling them from Israel except for those who were willing to accept living in a Jewish state without any political rights. Before he was assassinated by an Arab terrorist while speaking in New York, he was ostracized by the entire spectrum of the Israeli political establishment. In particular, his calls for violence against Arabs took an ominous turn when a follower, Baruch Goldstein, killed twenty-nine Arabs and wounded many more on a Purim morning when they were praying at a mosque in Me’arat Hamakhpela. Kahane’s followers, including the leaders of Otzma Yehudit, consider Goldstein a martyr and hero.
There are rabbinical figures who supported Kahane as representing an authentic strain within halakhah. Others, while disagreeing, still consider his positions as within the pale. Opponents, however, see his stress on revenge and violence as abnormal Judaism and against basic morality. Since his followers have supported violent acts, this is not a theoretical question.
One of the party’s candidates on the combined list is a lawyer who primarily defends Jews accused of violent acts including murder against Arabs. He and others consider the Israeli government, in particular the Shin Bet and police, as enemies of patriotic Jews. The hatred of Arabs was extended by Kahane and his followers to those Jews who are too accommodating to Arabs, whom they call Hellenists.
In America, the younger generation of Jews is not familiar with Kahane, though he wrote many books promoting his views. After he left for Israel, the Jewish Defense League essentially disappeared without Kahane’s charismatic leadership. Some of his followers are still banned from America. Except for a few pockets of sympathizers, the American Jewish community has opposed any granting of legitimacy to the Kahanists. It weakens support for Israel amongst younger Jews and in broader American society.
However, in Israel many religious Zionists believe that maintaining sovereignty in Yehuda and Shomron is of paramount importance. To them, a government that would compromise on territory would forfeit legitimacy. For them to lose the votes for Otzma Yehudit that will be wasted if they don’t pass the threshold is inconceivable.
From the beginning of the Zionist movement, religious Zionism worked with secular and even anti-religious Zionists. If Habayit Hayehudi itself has had secular members of parliament, some argue, why can’t they make a technical arrangement with the Kahanists?
There is a fundamental difference. The secular Zionists were openly secular while the followers of Kahane claim to represent authentic Judaism. At stake is one’s conception of Judaism. For Yossi Klein Halevi, a disillusioned former JDL member who wrote in a blog in the Times of Israel on Feb. 24, 2019, legitimizing Kahanism and Jewish racism is a hillul Hashem (desecration of God’s name).
The land of Israel has sanctity. Of greater importance is to be a nation that is kadosh.
Photo Caption: Reuven Rivlin negotiating after the 2015 elections.
Photo Credit: Wikipedia Commons