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Banned in 1988, assassinated in 1990, mainstreamed in 2019: Kahane lives

It's the boiling frog phenomenon: what began innocently enough with a few bad eggs ends with hatred and extremism engulfing the Knesset
Meir Kahane addresses a gathering at the Silver Springs Jewish Center in Maryland, October 27, 1988. (AP Photo/Doug Mills)
Meir Kahane addresses a gathering at the Silver Springs Jewish Center in Maryland, October 27, 1988. (AP Photo/Doug Mills)

In response to critics who remarked that his twisted ideology would lead to perpetual war, convicted terrorist-turned-politician, Meir Kahane, glibly replied: “There will be a perpetual war, with or without Kahane.” To his supporters, this seemed less like a warning and more like a call to arms; the need to secure Jewish safety, security, and “supremacy” by any means necessary.

Rabbi Meir Kahane was born in Brooklyn in 1932 and would go on to create the terrorist organization, the Jewish Defense League in 1968. Over the next few years, Kahane ended up getting charged with multiple terror-related offenses, ranging from conspiring to manufacture explosives to leading an attack on a Soviet diplomatic office. But it was in 1971, when Kahane moved to Israel, that he really began to make a splash.

Kahane tried and failed to get elected to the Knesset, running in 1973, 1977 and 1981 with dismal results. But after years of handing out incendiary pamphlets and stoking violence against Arabs (notably getting arrested in 1980 for planning armed attacks against Palestinians, which would be his 62nd arrest since moving to Israel), Kahane would finally find some electoral success. In 1984, his Kach Party earned enough votes to attain one Knesset seat, which he took.

Kahane would spend the next four years in the Knesset calling for Israel to become a theocracy, where all non-Jews would have their citizenship revoked and be forcibly expelled. He would often foment anti-Arab sentiment at rallies, telling a crowd: “I don’t want to kill Arabs, I just want them to live happily, elsewhere. Give me the strength to take care of them once and for all.”

He would pejoratively refer to his fellow MKs as “Hellenists” and would publicly call Arabs “dogs.” He spoke often about his desire to criminalize interfaith sexual relations and to reclaim the territory of the Ancient Judean Kingdom. He even tried to pass a law creating separate beaches for Jews and Arabs. These ideas were met with scorn from MKs, with senior members of the Likud Party likening Kahane’s proposals to the Nuremberg Laws in Nazi Germany. Kahane’s brash, vitriolic ideology often led to the legislative chamber emptying out en masse whenever he took to the podium to give a speech, resulting in him addressing an empty room, save for the transcriptionist who was paid to remain.

Israeli society rejected Kahane and everything he stood for, and due to the anti-democratic and racist nature of the Kach Party, the Central Elections Committee banned it from running in any future Israeli elections. This decision was upheld by the Israeli High Court, effectively ending Kahane’s political career. Just a few years later, in a Manhattan hotel, an AlQaeda-affiliated assassin would take Kahane’s life with a pistol shot from close range. Ironically for Kahane, terrorism begot terrorism.

But sadly, our story doesn’t end there. The Kahanist ideology did not die with its mastermind. We need not look any further than the current Israeli electoral landscape to see that Kahanism is alive and well in 2019. The only difference is that, unlike in the 1980s where it was shunned by the entire political establishment, it is now being embraced wholeheartedly by none other than the prime minister.

On February 11, Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted that all the small, fringe, ultra-right, extremist parties are splitting the vote from each other and none of them would earn enough votes above the electoral threshold to get into the Knesset, so in order to form a strong right-wing coalition government (that his Likud Party would lead), said parties must join forces under one far-right bloc to get at least six to eight seats together. The far-right parties in question were Yachad, Jewish Home/Tkuma and Otzma Yehudit, the latter of which is composed entirely of followers of Meir Kahane.

In Netanyahu’s power-hungry mind, ensuring that the ugliest elements plaguing Israeli society are represented in the Knesset is worthwhile if it means that he’ll get yet another term as prime minister. Indeed, precautions must be taken, lest Benny Gantz’s centrist coalition put an end to his treasured political dynasty.

Well, Netanyahu’s dream became a reality on February 20, with Jewish Home/Tkuma announcing an official merger with Otzma Yehudit, where the Kahanists would be given the fifth and eighth slots on the electoral ticket. In exchange for this great meeting of the minds, Netanyahu promised the far-right bloc that upon forming government, they’ll receive the education and housing ministry portfolios as well as two seats in the security cabinet. Netanyahu also signed a vote sharing agreement between the Likud and this new bloc, meaning that any surplus votes that the Likud Party gets that fall below the threshold of providing them with an additional Knesset seat will be allocated to the other party in the hopes of providing them with one. In other words, a vote for the Likud could very well be a vote for the Kahanists.

So just who are these upstanding citizens who make up Otzma Yehudit, the Kahanist party that could very well be gracing the Israeli populace with their presence in the 21st Knesset?

Well, there’s Michael Ben-Ari (who was denied entry into the United States due to his membership in Kach, a recognized terrorist organization), Itamar Ben Gvir (who is well-known for defending Jewish terror suspects), Baruch Marzel (who served as the secretary of the Kach Party when Kahane was in the Knesset), and Bentzi Gopstein (who was a student of Kahane’s and who leads the far-right Israeli activist group, Lehava).

Otzma Yehudit leader, Michael Ben-Ari, is particularly poisonous. On top of taking on the usual Kahanist positions, he also holds left-wing Jews in particular contempt, having referred to them as “germs” and “enemies of Israel” that need to be eradicated. Ben-Ari has also called for genocide in Gaza, shouting during 2012’s Operation Pillar of Defense that “there are no innocents in Gaza…mow them down! Kill the Gazans without thought or mercy!” While this kind of rhetoric may seem shocking, it is par for the course in Otzma Yehudit.

After all, Baruch Marzel himself has been arrested in Israel countless times for violent clashes with police, Arabs, and left-wing activists. Notably, in 2000, Marzel organized a Purim party at the grave of Baruch Goldstein, a follower of Meir Kahane, who, in 1994, open-fired at Muslim worshippers at the Cave of Patriarchs in Hebron, killing 29 and wounding 125. Marzel has also advocated for violence towards homosexuals, declaring a “holy war” against them, and referring to homosexuality as a disease.

Now, some members of Jewish Home/Tkuma are upset about the merger because they feel uneasy about being officially aligned with Kahanists. But if we’re being honest with ourselves, Tkuma (the sub-party that’s within Jewish Home) can very well be viewed as a sort of aperitif to Kahanism, a Kahanism for those whose sole objection to the movement is the dirty association that comes with it. Indeed, the Otzma Yehudit leaders themselves seem to agree, stating that the ideological differences between the parties is actually quite limited. Indeed, the hatred espoused by members of Otzma Yehudit will mesh quite nicely with the hatred that Tkuma leader, Bezalel Smotrich, has displayed in the Knesset for the past few years.

In 2015, Smotrich called homosexuals “abnormal” and subsequently referred to himself as “a proud homophobe.” Smotrich has also defended housing developers that refused to sell homes to Arabs, and in 2016, he tweeted that he supports separating Arabs and Jews in hospital maternity wards, stating “It is natural that my wife would not want to lie down next to someone who just gave birth to a baby that might want to murder her baby in another 20 years.” Furthermore, in response to 17-year-old Palestinian Ahed Tamimi’s eight-month jail sentence for slapping a solider, Smotrich tweeted that she “should have gotten a bullet.” Let’s also not forget that Smotrich (and Jewish Home/Tkuma as a party) supports annexing the West Bank. Just don’t ask what happens to the Palestinians in that scenario…

On April 9, a sizeable number of Israelis will take to the polls to elect a party composed entirely of racist, homophobic, theocratic, violent thugs who use Israel’s democratic system as a tool to get elected for the sole purpose of dismantling it.

This is terrifying.

Now, there are those who will say I’m being alarmist. After all, Bezalel Smotrich is already serving in the Knesset (as part of the governing coalition no less) and Michael Ben-Ari already briefly served in the Knesset in 2009 under the National Union Party and the sky did not fall.

First of all, this is different because, while someone like Smotrich should never have been part of a governing coalition in the first place, he never held a ministerial portfolio. Under this deal, individuals who preach intolerance, believe in discrimination and call for war crimes will be given the reigns over Israel’s education system and housing policy, and will further be given a say in the nation’s security. These malevolent individuals are also being given the prime minister’s seal of approval. That’s an unprecedented allotment of power and legitimacy.

Furthermore, the problem with the laissez-faire attitude is that the sky rarely falls suddenly; change occurs gradually. It’s the boiling frog phenomenon. It starts innocently enough with “a few bad eggs” here and there and ends with Kahanists engulfing the Knesset. Hatred and extremism cannot become normalized.

The crime is not in the existence of these people, there will always be a hideous underbelly within any society and Israel is no different. The true crime is embracing it and mainstreaming its hideousness into the general political discourse.

In just 30 years, we’ve gone from the entire Knesset boycotting Kahane’s speeches to the prime minister openly collaborating with his successors.

Remember the boiling frog? Well, it’s long dead and the pot is boiling over.

About the Author
Michael Aarenau lives in Montreal, Quebec. He has a Bachelor's of Public Affairs and Policy Management from Carleton University and is currently pursuing a law degree at McGill University. Michael is passionate about human rights, international affairs and justice. For cheeky insights in 280 characters or less, follow him on twitter @MAarenau
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