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The lost moral compass of Israeli politics

Back in 1984, the Knesset rejected Meir Kahane's racist views; now, we're at risk of a government that will welcome them, for a few thousand votes
The Jewish Home party votes on a pre-election alliance with Otzma Yehudit in Petah Tikva, February 20, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)
The Jewish Home party votes on a pre-election alliance with Otzma Yehudit in Petah Tikva, February 20, 2019. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Israel’s political parties submitted their lists of candidates to the Central Elections Committee in the Knesset Thursday night. Most of the negotiations and mergers leading up to the event were long-since done-deals. So it was largely a mundane affair. One unresolved drama, however, captured the attention of the news channels to the very end. Would the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Strength) party accept the No. 8 position offered by Ayelet Shaked’s new United Right party?  

Amid the endless speculation by pundits and commentators, it seems that the only really important question went unasked: How did it come to be that Israel’s prime minister and the Likud party, along with the entire religious Zionist establishment (that rarely agree about anything), were united in their commitment to see that a Kahanist, bigoted, morally repugnant Knesset party once again be integrated into Israel’s political mainstream?

It’s not like there is any real question about what Otzma Yehudit stands for. The party’s website is quite open about the programs it proposes: The party seeks to establish a new agency to expedite the removal of “Israel’s enemies from the land of Israel”;  It would reestablish full Jewish sovereignty over the Temple Mount (presumably removing the Muslim presence there); Jewish law would be integrated into the country’s legal system; Jewish settlement would be encouraged in all parts of the Land of Israel; it would wage war on abortion; the disturbing list goes on and on. Otzma Yehudit’s leadership remains faithful to the racist tenants of the late Meir Kahane – who called for the expulsion of Arabs from Israel and was arrested over 60 times for his vulgar, provocative, confrontational actions against Arabs.

Of course in the end, the deal with the United Right didn’t happen. Sadly, it wasn’t because of principals or irresolvable policy differences: Offered the No. 8 and 13 spots on the United Right’s list, Otzma Yehudit’s leader Itamar Ben Gvir held out for the No. 5 spot, claiming his many supporters would not come out and vote for him in such a lowly position.  

After the party opted to run independently, the press debated whether this gamble would go down as foolhardy greediness or political savvy. (Recent polls suggest that the party still falls just short of the electoral threshold.) No one asked why a new party, which purports to combine the high ethical standards and tolerance of iconic Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook with the civility of the liberal right-wing was even willing to talk to a party that calls for deportation of innocent people due to their ethnicity. 

Jewish texts have always harbored isolated racist passages, dismissive of non-Jewish people and their rights. Luckily the more progressive voices in Jewish tradition have always been predominant. After all, the book of Leviticus commands one law for Jewish and non-Jewish citizens; innumerable biblical proscriptions enjoin the people of Israel to be particularly solicitous to the non-Jewish citizen (“ger”) – reminding us that the Israelites were also strangers in Egypt who faced oppression. Related debates in Jewish halacha have been largely resolved – such as the ruling that “Jewish doctors can violate the Sabbath” — refers to treatment of both Jewish and non-Jewish patients. This is the Judaism that is manifested in Israel’s political culture since the adoption of the country’s Declaration of Independence.  

Otzma Yehudit lies far beyond this broad consensus. Its detestation of Arabs is symbolized by party head Ben Gvir’s decision to hang a portrait of Baruch Goldstein in his living room.  (On the morning of Purim 1994, Goldstein, a physician and disciple of Kahane, walked unprovoked into a mosque adjacent to the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and opened fire. He killed 29 and wounded 125 unarmed Muslims before being beaten to death by the survivors.)  

When asked if, in his new efforts to seek broader acceptance, he would take the photo down, Ben Gvir responded characteristically: “When Ahmed Tibi (the Arab MK) takes down his photo of Arafat, I’ll take down my photo of Dr. Goldstein.” Since when has individual or collective morality involved emulating the actions of adversaries?

In any self-respecting democracy, a party head who venerates a mass murderer unrepentantly would be unimaginable – or at the very least, such a figure would find himself to be a total outcast – even among the furthest right parties. But Likud and religious Zionists have not only come to accept Ben Gvir’s perspective as legitimate, they also embrace it as a valuable political asset. 

Questioned in the press, mainstream religious representatives admit that they are not crazy about the Otzma Yehudit party, which they refer to as “errant weeds within their camp.” But they have come to believe that Ben Gvir and his party have a definite place among the religious right. They point to the large number of his supporters who voted for the United Right party, formerly the Union of Right-Wing Parties, in the last elections, when he was on its slate. That support presumably enabled the party to pass the 3.25 percent electoral threshold level.  Apparently, it is simply too attractive a political asset to forego.

Some of the religious party supporters claimed that they are not responsible for granting Ben Gvir and Jewish racism its new kosher status. Rather they blame the media for the new legitimacy the racist party enjoyed. Indeed, during the run-up to the submission of the Knesset lists this week, there wasn’t a television station or radio talk show that didn’t seek out the ever colorful comments of the amiable Ben Gvir. Ayelet Shaked, who claims to represent a secular, liberal ideology, was actually emphatic about her interest in his joining the party. She even offered Ben Gvir a position of “deputy speaker of the Knesset” if he would accept the No. 8 spot on her slate as it had become crowded due to the merger of the two parties.

There was a time when it was different. When Meir Kahane first was elected to the Knesset, the entire body politic reacted with abhorrence. When the racist rabbi would go to the parliament’s rostrum to speak, the other 119 Knesset members would simply walk out. In those days, not so long ago, there was a shared level of decency among all factions in the parliament that was non-negotiable. Back then, the prime minister did not try to rationalize support for the ugliest expressions of Israeli racism. No self-respecting political party would sell its soul for the proverbial bowl of lentils and a few thousand votes. 

In the April elections, one of the bill-board campaigns run by the Blue and White party posed a question: Would the country pick “Am Yisrael Hai” (Israel lives) or “Kahane Hai”? (Kahane lives) Some people wondered if this was a false dichotomy – just the usual election bombastic populism. It wasn’t. The truth is that only six months ago, Prime Minister Netanyahu gave a place to the religious party on his own Likud list in return for it integrating the neo-Kahanists into its national religious slate.  

For context about what this means, it is well to look to the United States for a comparison.  There probably was no more defining, traumatic moment in the ever trying days of the Trump administration than the president’s elusive response to the White Supremacist, KKL demonstrators whose actions led to the murder of non-violent protester, Heather Heyer.  “There are very fine people on both sides,” he shrugged, exonerating the darkest corners of the American political spectrum. It is hard to see how Israel’s prime minister and right-wing parties are not guilty of the same sort of calculated, nihilistic, equivocation.

I remember circulating a petition in my North Carolina high school, asking that the United States quit the United Nations, after the General Assembly called “Zionism” – “Racism.” It was clear to me then, that Israel had adopted the best of Jewish tradition – which welcomed its minorities, giving them equal political, social, cultural and economic rights. Today, it seems that a significant part of the electorate believes otherwise. Or maybe their leaders simply care more about staying in power.

The elections in September will indicate just how many Israelis are willing to forego their commitment to the principles of democracy that ensure a sense of belonging for all citizens in the Jewish state. The elections this September will determine whether we offer Israel’s minorities the same respect, status and security that we would expect for Jews wherever they live around the world. It is a vote about the legitimacy or illegitimacy of racism. In short, the elections this September are about saving the soul of Israel and making it a country we can be proud of once again.

About the Author
Professor Alon Tal, is the chair of the Tel Aviv University Department of Public Policy and a veteran environmental activist.
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