Many of us in the US have been trying to to understand the newest controversy that has Israel in our news — particularly Israeli Prime Minister Netenyahu’s boosting of the far-right Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”) party in the run-up to the Israeli national elections in April. Of course I have lots of opinions of this deeply misguided and troublesome decision by the Prime Minister. But rather than opine about it, I thought I would pull together seven questions and a few links/resources that help others get some insight into the issue. Here they are:
- What is the far-right wing political party Otzma Yehudit that has everybody up in arms? In short, it’s a far-right, nationalist party that is the successor to a previous Israeli political party founded by Meir Kahane designated as a terrorist organization by the US because of it’s extremist views. But to explain why its problematic, The Jerusalem Post has a great summary answering the question: “What do Otzma Yehudit and its leaders stand for?” But don’t just take it from the Post, you can read specific statements from one of its leaders, Baruch Marzel, as well as its political platform.
- So it is a super-problematic political party that has a shady legacy. But, really, what is the issue? This isn’t Netenyahu’s party anyway, right? Right. Netenyahu is the leader of the Likud party, a mainstream party on the right (as opposed to left) end of the political spectrum. But as part of his effort to build a right-wing political mandate in the upcoming elections, Netenyahu encouraged the merger of Otzma Yehudit with the religious Zionist party, Jewish Home. It was this encouragement of this merger, with the expectation that it would help lift Otzma Yehudit into the Knesset (Israel’s parliament), that ignited the most recent backlash.
- What is the reaction in Israel about this? Are they upset about it? Well, of course it depends on the individual’s politics, but this has been a shocking act of political calculation by the Prime Minister that has been widely condemned. Of course there are plenty of political rivals condemning it. But one of the boldest statements has been by a prominent national-religious rabbi, who said the policies encouraged by Otzma Yehudit are akin to the Nuremberg laws passed by the Nazi’s in 1935. So yeah, I’d say they are upset.
- And what about in the United States? Especially those organizations like AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee (AJC) that normally help defend Israel from unjust criticism – are they upset about this too? Yep. Like a substantial number of US Jewish organizations, they aren’t happy at all, and they have openly criticized this action by noting that the views of Otzma Yehudit are reprehensible.
- So in other words, this is a real dumpster fire of political miscalculation by Netenyahu? That’s an understatement. Even well-known Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt is pissed, and resigned from her synagogue because the national Young Israel movement of which it is a part failed to condemn Otzma Yehudit (although it is important to note, the rabbi of her synagogue did condemn the policies of the party in a public Facebook post).
- So what are all the commentators/talking heads saying? A lot. And far too much to include here. But here are a few insights:
- One of my favorite writers, Yossi Klein Halevi, chimes in on how the recent actions by the Prime Minister is a “desecration of Israel”
- Another one of of my must-reads on Israeli political analysis, Haviv Rettig Gur, writes that “for Netanyahu to fight publicly for openly racist parties to enter the Knesset is a new level of compromise in his long-running game to remain at the top.”
- Michael Koplow also makes a great point that now is a moment for American Jews to look in the mirror: “If you have a problem with American politicians who embrace or even tolerate Farrakhan, but you dismiss Netanyahu’s latest with a shrug and an eye roll, your right to complain about racism and extremism is shot.”
- But WAIT, is there any reason AT ALL to be optimistic about this situation? Well, it’s not awesome, but fortunately there is some glimmer of hope. As Batya Ungar-Sargon has smartly pointed out, this whole situation, and the reckoning that has ensued, might help save liberal Zionism. So, there is some possibility of a silver lining.
There you have it — seven questions and my best efforts at their not-so-easy answers. But like anything related to Israel and the Middle East, if you come away with more answers than questions, well then you aren’t digging deep enough, regardless of whether you are on the left or the right.