For Years, We Fought Israel's Kahanists. We Lost, and Jewish Religious Extremism Has Won

I battled Ben Gvir in radio interviews, challenged Hilltop Youth, leafleted synagogues and ran protests. But our counter-arguments to the poison of Kahanism, made from within the religious Zionist camp, have failed

Anton Goodman
Anton Goodman
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Gathering of far-right activists commemorating Meir Kahane in Jerusalem
Gathering of far-right activists commemorating Meir Kahane in Jerusalem.Credit: Lior Mizrahi
Anton Goodman
Anton Goodman

The first time that the Kahanist-led Otzma Yehudit party was welcomed into the religious Zionist political tent, I built a coalition of religious Jewish voices to protest out of shock and outrage. 

Two years later, and I am now resigned to seeing them elected to the Knesset. Those two years have seen the mainstreaming of a pernicious and racist extremism in the religious Zionist community. It's now more urgent than ever that Israeli society as a whole takes the threat of Jewish religious radicalism seriously.

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My Facebook feed reminded me that two years ago today I was standing outside the Prime Minister's residence, hosting a demonstration against the threat of Kahanism entering the Knesset. 

It was a formative moment, with over 500 participants in attendance, mainly Orthodox Jews and a stream of rabbis, academics and social activists speaking from the podium in favor of Jewish universalism and humanism, and against the racist nationalism of Kahane's disciples. 

Activists march in protest of Prime Minister Netanyahu's support of far-right political pact, Jerusalem, March 2, 2019.Credit: Emil Salman

Today, there is no such demonstration: we are silent, battered, resigned to the fact that Kahanist ideologues will win seats in the next Knesset.

In the lead up to those national elections of April 2019, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brokered a partnership between the main religious Zionist party, Bayit HaYehudi ("Jewish Home"), and the Kahanist-led Otzma Yehudit ("Jewish Power.") 

Many saw this as yet another cynical attempt by Netanyahu to hold on to power, no matter what the cost to society. But within religious Zionist society this was nothing short of a watershed moment. 

From its birth in the 1970s and through its election success of winning a seat in the 1984 elections, Kahanist ideology had been consistently condemned by the religious Zionist party of the day, the Mafdal. Yosef Burg, the leader of the Mafdal from 1970-1986, was outspoken on the matter, saying: "If the idea of Greater Israel can lead, philosophically, to Kahane, then this is a matter of great guilt." Indeed, when the Knesset plenary emptied for Kahane's maiden speech, it was the religious Zionists who led the parliamentarians out of the hall.  

The isolation of Kahanist ideology and elements continued for the next 20 years, but the disengagement from Gaza, and the evacuation of the Gush Katif Jewish settlements, had a radicalizing effect on religious Zionist politics. Soon we would see the election of Betzalel Smotrich to the Knesset, a key organizer in the disturbances around the withdrawal, and a long-time collaborator with Kahanist proponents. 

Smotrich has always been clear on distancing himself rhetorically from Kahane, yet his actions: holding a "March of the Beasts" featuring farm animals to protest the Jerusalem LGBT pride parade, denying the triple murder of the Dawabshe family in Duma as a Jewish terror attack, and calling for segregated Jewish-Arab maternity wards, have sounded a clear dog whistle to its most extreme elements. 

As Smotrich's influence has grown, it was only a matter of time before he prepared the ground for radical religious nationalists to serve in the Knesset.

Members of Habayit Hayehudi voting in favor of the electoral alliance with Otzma Yehudit, February 20, 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The threat of Kahanism in the Knesset is two-fold. Firstly, the political power and visibility of that power, will change Israeli society in a crucial and tangible way. 

During the 2019 elections Netanyahu promised Otzma Yehudit 50 million shekel of discretionary funding. A similar signed promise this time around would be an enormous windfall for strengthening the grassroots infrastructure of the party, helping infect more of Israeli society with their extremism. 

Furthermore, the leader of Otzma Yehudit, Itamar Ben Gvir, is unfortunately a brilliant political operator who will wield power to manipulate the Knesset and its committees to his agenda. We’ve already seen the opening salvo: his successful attempt to persuade the Elections Committee to ban Ibtisam Mara'ane (#7 on the Labour slate) as a candidate. Mara’ana’s disqualification was revoked this week by the Supreme Court.

The second threat, while less visible, is even more dangerous: increasing religious extremism within the splintered spectrum of religious Zionism.

Welcoming Otzma Yehudit to the Knesset is an act akin to pouring gasoline on a dumpster fire. 2021 has already witnessed an unprecedented number of Jewish vigilante and terrorist attacks against Palestinians and Israeli security forces. 

A portrait of late Jewish extremist leader Rabbi Meir Kahane inside a disputed building in the West Bank town of Hebron, November 2008. Credit: AP

These attacks are a continuation and escalation of the decades-old and ongoing terrorism of the hilltop youth movement. The hilltop youth gained more notoriety and won followers since the tragic death of Ahuvia Sandak, a hilltop youth who was killed following a stone throwing incident and pursuit by the Israeli police. 

The hilltop youth know Itamar Ben Gvir well. He is their serial defender in Israel's legal system, taking on high profile cases, and defending terrorists such as Amiram Ben-Uliel, who was recently convicted to life imprisonment for the Duma murders, including 18-month-old Ali Dawabsheh who was burned alive in the fire that Ben-Uliel set.

When Ben Gvir is sworn in as a new Member of Knesset, there will be a strong tailwind buoying the hilltop youth, and clear encouragement to ramp up their violence further.

It is clear that the now-amplified voice of religious extremism will be one of the major narratives of the next Knesset. So where are the protests and opposition in this election cycle? It is undoubtedly the responsibility of religious Zionists to speak out against Otzma Yehudit, since Kahane was a product of our community, so why are we not out on the streets with Oz VeShalom, the Religious Peace Movement, calling for our own community and for all of Israeli society to wake up and reject the Kahanists? 

Having battled Ben Gvir in radio interviews, challenged hilltop youth in public interventions, run protests and papered synagogues with pamphlets against religious radicalism, I have realized, reluctantly, that our attempts have fallen on deaf ears. The recent endorsement of Otzma Yehudit by Rabbi Haim Druckman and other key religious Zionist rabbis shows that Kahanism has achieved its stamp of kashrut. 

Supporters of Otzma Yehudit marching through the Arab-Israeli city of Umm al-Fahm, July 2017.Credit: Eran Gilwarg

We have lost this battle. Religious Jewish society in Israel has become a hotbed for extremism, from tacit to explicit support for violence, to blatant racism and crude nationalism. The time has come to accept Otzma Yisrael into the Knesset, and take their dark ideology out of the shadows and onto the national policy stage.

But we have not lost the war. If sunlight is the best disinfectant, then I only hope that enough Israelis from across the political spectrum will now see Otzma Yehudit’s foul extremism for what it is, see the danger growing amongst us, and demand policy and government action to tackle it.

In 1985, during Kahane's sole term as a member of Knesset, the Knesset was so disgusted by his rhetoric and attempted legislation that a special law was passed to prevent his Kach party from running again, a decision upheld the Central Elections Committee in 1988. 

With the election of Kahane’s disciples, Otzma Yehudit, there must be a coordinated attempt to monitor and document their parliamentary activity and a campaign to push elected officials to legislate, once again, against the presence of racist Jewish religious extremism in the Knesset.

Outside of the Knesset, we face a younger generation of religious Zionists who hold more intolerant views than their parents’ generation. A recent survey found half of Jewish religious teens favored stripping Arab citizens of their right to vote.

For the sake of this generation, and for Israel’s future, amplify the voices of religious Jews who promote humanist and progressive values. If not, the formative voice they will hear will be that of Itamar Ben Gvir.

Anton Goodman is a Board Member of Oz VeShalom, the Religious Jewish Peace Movement in Israel and the Director of Development at The Abraham Fund Initiatives, an Arab-Jewish NGO dedicated to creating equality and shared society between Jewish & Palestinian citizens of Israel

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