Kahanist Party Leader Allowed to Run in Israeli Election Despite Attorney General's Objection

Michael Ben Ari, who once said that those speak against Jews should be killed, is the chairman of Otzma Yehudit

Itamar Ben-Gvir and Michael Ben Ari at the Knesset, March 6, 2019
Olivier Fitoussi

The chairman of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, Michael Ben Ari, received approval to run for the Knesset from the Central Elections Committee on Wednesday.

Prior to deliberations, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit submitted his opinion to the comittee, stating he was in favor of disqualifying Ben Ari from running for Knesset on the grounds of incitement to racism.

Petitioners against Ben Ari included MKs Tamar Zandberg and Esawi Freige from Meretz and Stav Shaffir from the Labor Party. Itamar Ben-Gvir, a lawyer and member of Otzma Yehudit, spoke in favor of Ben Ari, as did Ben Ari himself.

Meretz, Shaffir and the Reform Movement, who filed the petition to the Central Elections Committee to ban Ben-Gvir and Ben Ari from running for Knesset, all said they would file a petition with the High Court of Justice against the committee’s decision.

>> Kahane's Knesset legacy: If there's no Torah, the pigs will take over the country

Zandberg called the decision to approve Ben Ari "embarrassing" and promised her party would petition the High Court. "Moshe Kahlon should take down the photo of Menachem Begin from his billboards in light of his decision to skirt the vote and grant the Kahanists an entry ticket to the Knesset," Zandberg said.

Hadash MK Aida Touma-Sliman also condemned the decision, writing: "Two racists who seek to execute Kahane's doctrine – who was denunciated from the parliamentary arena – return under the sponsorship of Netanyahu and the blessing of the rest of the right."

Chairman of the Central Election Committee, Justice Hanan Melcer and Ben Ari at the Knesset, March 6, 2019
Olivier Fitoussi

Touma-Sliman said it was "a disgrace that those who call for transfer, deportation and murder get a stamp of approval that legitimizes their opinions – and that Israeli society can be forgiving towards it and hear it."

MK Yair Lapid, Benny Gantz's ally in the Kahol Lavan political alliance, attacked Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, accusing him of allowing a gang of violent racists to run for Knesset by deciding to absent from the vote. “This is not the sane right, it is not the right at all. If [Menachem] Begin could he would peel himself off Kahlon’s billboards out of shame,” Lapid said.   

Freige said after the committee’s decision that “the coalition of Kahanists won today in the Central Elections Committee and it is our obligation to do everything so this will be the outgoing coalition. Likud, whose representative on the committee wanted to send me to Syria, wants to legitimize ugly and violent racism. Everything is kosher when the goal is saving Netanyahu,” said Freige, adding: “We are facing a very dangerous process for the future of Israel.” 

Shaffir said Labor would petition the High Court so the “Kahanists, racists and inciters Ben-Gvir and Ben Ari could not run in the Knesset election.”

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the director of the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism, said the elections committee “has provided a tailwind for racism and incitement, and has failed embarrassingly in implementing the Basic Law for the Knesset.” He said the movement had provided a broad evidentiary foundation that proves the ongoing racism and incitement, which led the attorney general to determine that this was a clear case that justified banning Ben Ari from running.  

'Incitement to genocide'

During deliberations, a verbal confrontation erupted between Freige and Ben-Gvir, with the former calling the latter a "racist." 

"This man, who hung a photo of a murderer in his room is supposed to be an MK. This man, who's coming to deport me, is going to be a member of the Israeli Knesset," said Freige, referring to the fact Ben-Gvir has a photo of Baruch Goldstein, the man who slaughtered 29 Palestinian at prayer in Hebron 25 years ago, in his living room.

Freige said the 20th Knesset was rife with racist and anti-democratic legislation, "and now our prime minister is laying out the red carpet before the man who said a simple phrase: 'Kahane was right.'"

Zandberg referred to Mendeblit's opinion, which included quotes from Ben Ari, stating it clearly shows a political agenda that is inherently racist and calls for violence.

She quoted Ben Ari, who once said, "Those who only dare to speak against Jews is not alive," as an explicit call for violence, and "even incitement to genocide."

Ben-Gvir addressed Shafir, who filed a petition to have him disqualified from running as well, and filed a libel lawsuit for 500,000 shekels ($138,000), for calling his party members "Nazis." This despite the fact Shafir is privy to Knesset immunity and cannot be sued for her comments.

"Kahane's followers are used to making threats, but they won't succeed this time. We'll make sure to keep these inciting and violent racist from parliament," Shafir said.

Ben-Gvir said "Rabbi Kahane was a great and wonderful man. He didn't speak of death to Arabs but of loyalty to the State of Israel. Deal with the opinions of Ben-Gvir, of Ben Ari. Not those of Rabbi Kahane."

According to Ben-Gvir, the High Court's decision to permit former MK Haneen Zoabi (Joint List) to run in the previous election means that he and Ben Ari should also be allowed to run. "When it comes to comments, as opposed to actions, there's no room to bar" someone from running, he said.

Supreme Court justice Hanan Melcer, who chairs the election committee, contradicted Ben-Gvir and told members that "once the law only dealt with what the man did," but today "allows to disquality both for acts and comments."

Ben Ari spoke last, denying that he was racist. "I heard Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein say that Ben Ari wants to conquer Saudi Arabia... Good thing they didn't say Ben Ari wants to take down the moon."

He said that those who seek to "harm us, their solution is found in Mecca. The state should give him a grant, the plane ticket is on us." Ben Ari then erroneously stated that the Knesset does not employ Arabs, "not in construction, not in cleaning, nothing. The question is why."

When corrected on this by Melcer, Ben Ari said that when he was in the Knesset, "it wasn't the case."

In 2012, the U.S. government refused to issue Ben Ari an entry visa on the grounds that he belongs to a "terrorist organization."

Ben Ari applied to the American consulate for a visa so he could attend two conferences in the United States at the time.

Though the consulate did not specify what group he is suspected of belonging to, Ben Ari said he presumed it is Kach, Rabbi Meir Kahane's former far-right political party that both Israel and America now deem a banned terrorist organization.