Israel Election Results: U.S. Jewish Groups Concerned as Kahanists Closer Than Ever to Joining Government

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Religious Zionism's Bezalel Smotrich (left) and Itamar Ben-Gvir campaign in Jerusalem, last week.
Religious Zionism's Bezalel Smotrich (left) and Itamar Ben-Gvir campaign in Jerusalem, last week. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

U.S. Jewish organizations and lawmakers are sounding the alarm over the possibility that Israel’s next governing coalition will include members of a far-right, anti-Arab and proudly homophobic party. Their concern centers on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s intention to include the Religious Zionism party in the government, if he is indeed tasked with forming one.

The Religious Zionism party, helmed by far-right radical Bezalel Smotrich, is an alliance that includes the anti-LGBT Noam party and Otzma Yehudit, founded by former disciples of Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Kach party was banned from running in the 1988 Israeli election due to incitement and racism against Arabs. The party's co-founder, Michael Ben-Ari, was denied an entry visa to the United States in 2012 due to his membership in a "terrorist organization."

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While some U.S. Jewish establishment organizations such as AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee opted to maintain silence on Netanyahu's alliance with the neo-Kahanists, other Jewish groups and figures are now raising serious concerns about the possibility of a government including unabashed racists.

Rep. Steve Cohen, a Democrat from Tennessee, said in a statement provided to Haaretz: “I am concerned that an extreme right-wing group best known for its intolerance has increased its voice in the Knesset. I believe that tolerance and collegiality are necessary in any legislative body and so, as one who cares deeply about Israel’s future, this trend is worrisome. We need more Yitzhak Rabins and Ehud Baraks and fewer Meir Kahanes.”

Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a Democrat from Illinois, told Haaretz that “the racist (and formerly terrorist) Kahanist party doesn't belong in any government.” Schakowsky and Cohen are not exaggerating this ideology’s potential power in the next government: Third on the Religious Zionism slate is Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has called Kahane “a holy person.” Should Netanyahu form the next government, Ben-Gvir could either get a ministerial position or lead a Knesset committee. 

Israel election 2021 final results.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, issued a statement saying that although the vote count is ongoing, they are deeply troubled by the number of seats won by “extremists candidates and parties,” including Ben-Gvir.

“Ben-Gvir has advocated for judicial reform that would endanger the integrity and independence of the Supreme Court, blurring the lines between the pillars of Israeli democracy,” he said.

Jacobs added that “Political diversity is critical in all democracies, but democracies have to protect themselves from extremists. It is up to Israeli leaders to prevent the legitimization of extremist and racist views and ensure that Knesset members espousing such beliefs are not offered executive positions. If these voices were included in the cabinet of the governing coalition, Israel’s international standing – including with Diaspora Jewry – will be diminished.”

Democratic Majority for Israel, an organization that seeks to increase and ensure support for Israel within the Democratic Party, said they were "appalled to see a small party comprised of racist, Kahanist Jews, join the Knesset," adding that "the views of these Kahanists are antithetical to Israel’s founding principles and to our Democratic values. Bringing them into a governing coalition would be wrong."

The American Jewish Committee expressed "deep concern [on] the apparent entry of representatives from the far-right Otzma Yehudit and Noam parties into the Knesset," reiterating their longstanding policy not to deal with extremist voices and parties in Israel, the U.S. and elsewhere.

The AJC, one of the oldest and most significant Jewish advocacy groups in America, had remained silent on Netanyahu's alignment with Otzma Yehudit during the 2021 election despite describing the party as "reprehensible" in 2019.

T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights condemned the inclusion of Otzma Yehudit and Noam in the new Knesset, saying that Kach's previous ban should have been enough of a precedent to block the Religious Zionism factions from the 2021 election. The group’s executive director, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, said "T’ruah has a long history of working to stop U.S. funding of Kahanist organizations, including by initiating a series of IRS complaints, and will continue our efforts to ensure that U.S. taxpayer money does not go toward violent extremism."

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