Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu set off a political earthquake Thursday when he successfully brokered a merger between the far-right Jewish Home party and the extremist neo-Kahane Otzma Yehudit ("Jewish Power") party. The newly merged electoral list was promised two ministries in a Netanyahu government (reportedly housing and education), as well as the 28th slot on Likud’s own list.
Jewish Home certainly is no stranger to extremism: Bezalel Smotrich, who stepped into the party leadership role when Naftali Bennett and Ayalet Shaked left to form their own "New Right" splinter party, is a self-described "proud homophobe" who infamously called for segregated Jewish and Arab maternity wards.
Yet in this coalition they’d actually be the moderates. Otzma Yehudit’s senior leadership is overrun with the most grotesque and unapologetic strands of racism in Israeli life today.
Itamar Ben-Gvir has a picture of Jewish terrorist Baruch Goldstein in his living room.
Former MK Michael Ben-Ari was actually banned from the U.S. for being a member of a terrorist group. All are disciples of the late Meir Kahane, whose Kach Party remains the only party ever banned from Israeli politics for incitement to racism.
Barak Ravid accordingly described Bibi’s efforts on Otzma Yehudit’s behalf as the political equivalent of "a U.S. president cutting a political deal with David Duke."
It’s a fair comparison. But in 1985, Hyman Bookbinder of the American Jewish Committee might have found an even better one.
That was the year that Bookbinder compared Kahane to none other than Louis Farrakhan. Both, he said, were "cancers on the body politic." Both, he said, must be absolutely and unequivocally disavowed by the members of their respective communities.
The connection is actually more than just rhetorical: Kahane was quite open about drawing inspiration from extreme elements of the Black Power movement in laying the foundation for his own version of extremist Jewish politics. The Kahanist blend of inflammatory racism and vicious homophobia, wrapped in a cowl of "traditional" religious conservatism and group self-empowerment, certainly finds ample reflection in the sermons of Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam.
But needless to say, the parallel between Louis Farrakhan and the neo-Kahanists in Otzma Yehudit presents an especially fraught image for the American Jewish community. For some of the markers we laid down are now being called - and it’s fair to wonder if we’re willing to pay what is due.
The Jewish community, including myself in this - has not been shy, after all, in declaring what one’s obligations are when a Louis Farrakhan is in your orbit.
Denunciation must be immediate and unqualified. There is no space for equivocation and, more importantly, no room even for association. These were the strikes against Tamika Mallory and Marc Lamont Hill, for example - while neither specifically endorsed Farrakhan’s viciously anti-Semitic screeds, both continued to promote and praise him, and help pave the way for his continued influence. As abetters of Farrakhan’s power, they too could be held to account for his bigotry.
We have been very brash and very confident in saying that if a Louis Farrakhan emerged in our community, we would behave differently.
Of course we’d disavow him, without hesitation and compunction. We would not weasel around, we wouldn’t try to cut fine distinctions between disliking the racism but needing to be "where our people are." We would not tolerate a Farrakhan, and we would not tolerate those in our community who gave succor to a Farrakhan. Farrakhan-like figures, we insisted, do not present hard choices.
Well, good news! Now’s our chance to show how easy this all is. Netanyahu and the Israeli government are to the neo-Kahanists in Otzma Yehudit as Tamika Mallory and the Women’s March is to Louis Farrakhan. This is our moment. Time to put up or shut up.
Are you hesitating? Are you tempted to say, "Yes, Jewish Power is a racist party, but politics is a dirty business and people make ugly compromises all the time”? That sounds awfully like "going wherever our people are."
Are you willing to call Jewish Power racist, but make excuses for Bibi and Likud for associating with them? Then you’re no different from the Women’s March apologists, who also tried to disavow Farrakhan’s own bigotry while disclaiming any culpability for those who promoted him.
Are you casting about for a spurious distinction to seize upon - Bibi never called Kahane "the greatest of all time!" - and deciding it’s all apples-to-oranges? Well it’s true that Bibi never called Kahane "the greatest of all time," but Mallory didn’t work feverishly to get Farrakhan two cabinet postings and a seat in Congress - so call it a wash.
It’s not that politics, and intracommunity relationships, aren’t a messy businesses. They are - for the Jewish community, and for the Black community. The degree to which we demand context and complexity in one should be the precise degree that we tolerate it in the other.
And while it’s fine to observe that there is something wrong with the left if it’s "hard" for it to extricate itself from a naked bigot like Farrakhan, we must then be equally open about what it says about our Jewish and Zionist community to the extent we find ourselves impossibly entangled with the hateful extremists in Jewish Power.
For me, though, I find it no struggle at all to condemn both Otzma Yehudit's vicious racism and Netanyahu and Likud for legitimizing and promoting it. And to be clear, I don’t want to suggest that all in the Jewish community are failing this test. Some are, indeed, "putting up."
Jonathan Greenblatt of the ADL declared that there "should be no room for racism & no accommodation for intolerance in Israel or any democracy," specifically making note of the "hate-filled rhetoric" of Jewish Power party leaders Netanyahu was legitimizing. Rabbi Rick Jacobs of the Union of Reform Judaism said it was "morally outrageous" for Netanyahu to try to "bolster" himself politically by promoting naked racism. J Street released a lengthy statement lambasting Netanyahu and Likud for "openly mak[ing] common cause with proponents of ethnic cleansing and right-wing terror."
But too many of us are still in denial about what has long been before our eyes: Netanyahu’s political power is built upon racist foundations - if not by his own direct hand (though his notable racist appeals against Arabs "voting in droves" certainly suffices to render him directly culpable), then certainly in the politicians and parties he has helped empower.
Unfortunately, even in the face of the once-unthinkable step of legitimizing and aligning with neo-Kahanists, the list of Jewish organizations who have kept quiet is much larger than those who have spoken up.
And what of the venerable American Jewish Committee? At the time this column was published, their initial response was: no comment. It was a far fall for the organization's principled posture 30 years ago, insisting on the moral equivalence of Farrakhan and Kahane and the moral imperative to let neither’s bigotry go unchallenged.
After publication, the AJC did manage to call Jewish Power "reprehensible" in a statement that seemed primarily concerned with shunting responsibility for its presence or absence in the Knesset onto the Central Elections Commission.
Is it a step forward? Yes, and I'm glad the AJC belatedly spoke out. But their clear reticence in doing so still stands in stark contrast to the immediate and unqualified condemnation we've claimed to expect out of those who associate with Farrakhan.
This op-ed was updated to reflect the fact that, after publication, the AJC released a statement on Jewish Power.
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