WASHINGTON, NEW YORK – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to make sure a racist, far-right party enters the next Knesset were condemned Wednesday by Jewish-American rabbis, organizations and donors who are usually supportive of Israel.
For weeks, Netanyahu has pushed for an election pact between Otzma Yehudit, an extremist party that includes supporters of the racist Rabbi Meir Kahane, and the religious-Zionist Habayit Hayehudi party. On Wednesday, he convinced both parties to join forces and run on a joint ticket in the April 9 election, thus increasing their chances of passing the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent and winning seats in the Knesset.
Robert Wexler, a former Democratic member of Congress who was a strong supporter of Israel’s security needs during his time in Washington, told Haaretz hours before the unity pact was approved: “This will complicate efforts to advocate for Israel, especially within the Jewish community. What are we supposed to tell our children?”
Wexler added: “We, Zionists and supporters of Israel in America, spend so much effort to rightly expose and highlight incitement on the Palestinain side. So when the prime minister gives this legitimacy to such an extreme party, it hurts our efforts. I fear that it will introduce some degree of moral equivalence and serve to rationalize incitement. That’s not helpful.”
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According to Wexler, “Likud is seen by many in the Jewish community today as representing the mainstream of Israeli politics. When this party takes, to some degree, responsibility for promoting a racist group, that makes it harder to defend Israel against unfair criticism. The main damage this will cause is going to be within the Jewish community.” Wexler added that he was particularly concerned because “this is part of a broader trend” that includes calls within the right-wing to annex the West Bank.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism – the largest Jewish organization in North America – told Haaretz, on his way to a work visit in Israel: “It’s deeply distressing to imagine that those who follow in the footsteps of Meir Kahane could be welcomed into Prime Minister Netanyahu’s political circle. Bolstering one’s political strength with the political party Otzma Yehudit, which professes racist views of Arabs, should be unthinkable.”
Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro warned that if Otzma Yehudit's leaders are elected, that could create legal complications if they try to enter the United States. In the past, at least one of the party’s leaders was denied entry becasue of his affiliation with the Kach movement, which was designated as a terror organization by the Americans in the 1990s.
Susie Gelman, a major Jewish philanthropist who has supported Jewish and Israeli institutions for decades, told Haaretz: “As someone who has been involved for decades in Jewish organizational life, with a strong focus on supporting Israel, I find this absolutely shocking.”
Gelman chairs the Israel Policy Forum, which works to promote a two-state solution. She added, “I have had policy disagreements with Netanyahu before, but this raises a new question: Is there any line of decency and morality that he will not cross?”
According to Gelman, “Netanyahu’s actions are feeding the estrangement of young American Jews from Israel, but they are also having an impact on people of my generation – people who have supported Israel for their entire adult lives.” She clarified, however, that “I still feel committed to the Israeli people. I make a distinction between the Israeli government and the people of Israel.”
Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt also weighed in on criticism of the political merger. “There should be no room for racism & no accommodation for intolerance in Israel or any democracy,” he tweeted. “ADL previously has spoken out on hate-filled rhetoric of leaders of the Otzma Yehudit party, it is troubling that they are being legitimized by this union,” he added.
An official in a group that promotes pro-Israel public diplomacy, who asked not to be named because the organization tends not to directly criticize the Israeli government, told Haaretz Netanyahu’s actions will be used by the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. “When I saw the headlines, I immediately knew this thing will stay with us for months, and will reach college campuses and the Jewish community,” the official said.
Rabbi Josh Weinberg, vice president for Israel and Reform Zionism at the Union for Reform Judaism, also voiced concerns over the consequences. “It is simply reprehensible that PM Netanyahu would court Kahanist members of the far-right party Otzma Yehudit,” he said. “Their ideology of racism, sexism and extreme xenophobia should have no place in a Jewish and democratic state. Let us not forget that the Kach party was deemed illegal to run for the Knesset in the 1990s, and one need not look farther than their legislative agenda to understand why. Such extremism threatens the fabric of Israel’s democracy, the feeling of safety of Israel’s non-Jewish citizens, and does great disservice to those of us who are dedicated to defending Israel’s image abroad.”
The progressive Zionist organization Ameinu said it was outraged by the move, calling it “a stain on Israel’s democracy and an affront to Zionism. There are certain ideas, policies and groups that are beyond the pale; Otzma Yehudit, a far-right, ultra-nationalist, racist party, has no place in the Knesset, much less in a potential government coalition. The mainstreaming of hate groups like Otzma Yehudit can only harm Israel’s standing in the international community and further damage the already delicate relations between Israeli and American Jews.”
The American Jewish Committee’s CEO, David Harris, told Haaretz: “It’s not our practice to comment on political parties and candidates in the midst of an Israeli election, just as we don’t, indeed are not permitted to, comment on political parties and candidates in the midst of an American election. As a general principle, though, we use any opportunity to reaffirm our commitment to the core values of Israel’s democratic and Jewish character, which we hope will be the ultimate winners in each election cycle.”
The American Jewish Congress declined to comment, saying it doesn’t comment on Israeli politics.