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To my community I say: This is a terrible stain

I stand by what I told my congregants this Sabbath: The Otzma Yehudit party is based on race theory and this should horrify us

I spent this past Saturday night, from the moment that reports about my Shabbat sermon surfaced in the online news until the early hours of the morning, fending off the media. The program researchers and news anchors seemed to be taking delight in the fact that an Orthodox rabbi in Israel had broadsided the Jewish Home party (Bayit Yehudi) for adding Otzma Yehudit to its ranks, gleefully – and inaccurately – reporting that I had said “a vote for Bayit Yehudi is a vote for Nazism.” But I did not want to fan the flames of division in the homes of Israel, so I refused all media requests.

My words here are intended, first and foremost, for those who believe in the values of the Torah and in the State of Israel, and who see themselves as active participants in the grand Zionist vision of the redemption and the return to Zion. This is the community in which I was raised; this is the home in which I live. It is my most personal and intimate context. I have no other home, nor do I want one. It is a community that is not willing to abandon the Torah, with all its responsibility, and it is a community that will not accept anything less than full partnership in achieving the Zionist dream. I am speaking here to the fellow residents of my home.

On Shabbat morning, I stood before the congregants of the Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem and delivered a sermon. I had wanted to talk about the role of the rabbi in Jewish life — to “be a disciple of Aaron, a lover and pursuer of peace, who loves humankind and brings people closer to the values of the Torah.” However, there are times in the life of a spiritual leader when it is necessary to abandon the role of Aaron, and to stand, instead, like Moses in the breach, crying out “whoever is for God, join me!” This is the feeling that has been burning in me during the last few days, ever since Bayit Yehudi, the religious Zionist party, decided to join forces with Otzma Yehudit, a party made up of disciples of Rabbi Meir Kahane, paving the way for Otzma Yehudit to enter the Knesset as part of a “technical bloc.”

As I stood before my congregation, I was accompanied by two figures: my father and teacher, Naphtali Lau-Lavie, and my rabbi and teacher, Rabbi Yehuda Amital, both of blessed memory. They gave me the strength to fulfil the commandment “fear no person, for judgment is God’s.” They raised me with the values of a Torah that centers around the fundamental principle that people are created in the “image of God.” They instilled me with a system of values in which politics is not supreme. They taught me that there are some values that are so important that they demand that we make great sacrifices, rather than compromise them.

The Israeli Supreme Court has ruled that Otzma Yehudit may run for Knesset. I am not taking issue with that ruling. The question I am asking is which door that party will (or won’t) use to enter the Israeli parliament.

Otzma Yehudit is a new incarnation of Meir Kahana’s Kach party. Attempts are being made to rebrand Kach in a softer light, in order to condone Otzma Yehudit’s entry into the Knesset on the coattails of the historic National Religious Party (Mafdal). In my sermon, however, I tried to lift the veil of ambiguity and shine a bright light on the goals of the original Kach, the mother party, whose disciples are now candidates for election to the Israeli house of parliament.

Kach was a racist right-wing movement with fascist characteristics. It called for the expulsion of Israel’s Arab citizens, promoted racist legislation against them, advocated turning Israel into a halakhic state, and championed the annexation of all parts of the Land of Israel. In the 1980s, Likud Knesset member Michael Eitan compared legislation proposed by Meir Kahane to the Nuremberg Laws, which struck the opening chord of Nazism in Germany. In his analysis, the two sets of laws both dealt with the status of Jews and non-Jews, imposed restrictions on places of residence, prohibited intermarriage, restricted extramarital relations, enforced separation of students, prevented meetings between young people, and mandated segregation on beaches.

The issue of Jewish “race theory” is a complex subject that has concerned me for years. There are many sources that seem to allow racism to raise its head in the name of the Torah of Israel and even in the name of the Torah of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook. But those of us who see ourselves as partners in the great hope of “Hatikvah” — the dream of the return to Zion, the ingathering of the exiles, and the sovereignty of the Jewish state — know that we are commanded to interpret the Torah in a manner that is compatible with the value of human equality and that extends equal rights to all the inhabitants of the land.

Yair Kotler cited the following story in the name of former Knesset member Geula Cohen, who cannot possibly be accused of being a leftist. In November 1984, MK Cohen visited a school in Nahariya, where one of the students assembled asked her opinion of Meir Kahane. But before she even began to answer, the students burst into wild applause. Geula Cohen then read out the comparison that MK Michael Eitan had made between Kahane’s bills and the Nazi legislation, as cited above. The reaction was stunned silence.

It was the stunned silence of the students in Nahariya that I wished to achieve in my congregation when I spoke on Shabbat. I wanted to impress upon my community that we cannot minimize the impact of this political merger and say, “it’s not so terrible.” It is indeed terrible. The doctrine of Otzma Yehudit is steeped in racism. We, the descendants of Jews who were murdered in the name of the Nuremberg law, must safeguard our one and only state, our irreplaceable home, and distance it from these racist values.

I did not say in my sermon that the members of Otzma Yehudit, who define themselves as disciples of Rabbi Meir Kahane, are Nazis or that their party is a racist party. But I did say that the party — like Kach’s legislation, which bears a striking resemblance to the Nuremberg laws — is based on race theory. I wanted to shock the members of my religious Zionist community into the realization that by voting for the Jewish Home, they will be ushering in race theory to the Knesset. And I wish to warn other members of this community as well.

I am not a political person. I do not spend time calculating how many seats various parties will receive in the upcoming elections nor which parties will pass the electoral threshold. I am a person whose life is devoted to Torah and to education. And as such, I am calling out, mourning, and lamenting my community’s loss of its way, and am condemning the insult to the Torah, which is being interpreted repeatedly in line with race theory.

Rabbi Rafi Peretz, head of the Jewish Home, does not need me to attest to his greatness and his humanity. But he, in his capacity as head of Bayit Yehudi, will bear responsibility for this terrible stain and for all its future implications.

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Translated by Shira Pasternak Be’eri.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Benjamin “Benny” Lau is the rabbi of Jerusalem's Ramban Synagogue and the Director of the 929 Tanakh B'Yachad daily Bible study initiative.
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