On Wednesday, Feb. 20, a coalition of the Jewish Home and National Union (two right-wing Israeli political parties) voted to include Otzma Yehudit, or Jewish Power, in the coalition for Israel’s upcoming national elections on April 9.
While the Israeli right wing already poses an issue for more liberal-minded Jews, the Otzma party is another beast altogether.
Otzma is the political vehicle for activists descended from Kach, a racist far-right party that was so extreme it was banned from Israeli politics in the 1980s. Kach was started by American-Israeli Rabbi Meir Kahane, who advocated deporting all Arabs from Israeli territory and for Israel to become a Jewish theocracy. Kahane was assassinated in 1990.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delayed a visit to Russian President Vladimir Putin that Wednesday in order to pressure the Jewish Home and National Union coalition to accept Otzma. The merger is an open effort by the PM to stay in power. Election polling shows that, if the right wing parties ran separately, they most likely wouldn’t get enough votes to win any seats in the Knesset (Israeli parliament). Right wing representation in the next Knesset is crucial for Netanyahu to be able to create a governing coalition of parties and continue as Prime Minister.
Critics in Israel, and especially in America, are berating Netanyahu for bringing Kahanist extremism back into the political mainstream. But (WARNING: here comes some opinion) I think this event strikes at one of the biggest political divides between Israeli and non-Israeli Jews.
Here’s the complicated reality: Yes, an insane fascistic Jewish nationalist party has just been guaranteed anywhere between 1-3 seats in the Knesset. But most likely, there will only be one representative of that party – out of 120 members of the Knesset.
That Otzma representative will likely get a lot of news coverage for saying hateful, racist, intolerable, and horrible things. American Jewry will be a loud voice of outrage. But Otzma will also have just about zero power to influence policy, particularly when most of the right wing, including Netanyahu, doesn’t actually like Otzma at all. They’re just trying to stay afloat politically by including the Kahanists.
The whole thing is a matter of dirty politics, without a doubt. But many Israelis are used to it. Lahav Harkov, a Jerusalem Post reporter, tweeted that “I think we can handle a handful of extremists in the Knesset in the name of democracy and free speech. After all, the Knesset didn’t implode because we had Zoabi and Ghattas [two anti-Zionist Palestinian Knesset members who supported terrorism].” In my experience, that kind of shrugging is fairly common in Israel.
Take, for example, Yitzhak Herzog, current head of the Jewish Agency for Israel. For years, he was an Israeli politician on the left, and now he represents diaspora Jewry through one of the largest Jewish non-profits in the world. In January, I interviewed him briefly at the World Union of Jewish Students Congress. One of my questions was about Naftali Bennett, the Minister of Diaspora Affairs and a political right-winger.
In December, Bennett spoke at a cabinet meeting about the rift between Israel and diaspora Jewry, saying “we’re often told this is because of the Western Wall and because of the Palestinian issue and because of other ideological disagreements. That’s not true. There’s a dire assimilation crisis and growing apathy among Jews in the Diaspora toward their Judaism and toward Israel.”
Bennett’s comment drew criticism for completely dismissing the concerns of diaspora Jewry. But Herzog was more annoyed at my question than at Bennett, disassociating a member of the government from, well…
“So [Bennett] leaked a speech he had in the government,” Herzog said. “Does this mean that that’s the voice of the government of Israel? No, it’s his voice…But that doesn’t mean everything somebody says has to be a great crisis. It’s not a crisis. So Bennett said, so what?”
This is the stark divide. A crisis for American Jewry is just another day of political chatter for many Israelis. All a matter of sensitivity to political rhetoric in democracy.
Right now, a host of American Jewish organizations, and a large number of American Jews, are publishing statements, op-eds, Facebook posts, and tweets denouncing the Otzma party and Netanyahu’s political machinations. I would say they’re on the right side of history.
But it’s worth noting that if, at the end of the day, there does end up being an Otzma member of the Knesset, that person’s rhetoric and views will be dismissed by many Israelis much like Herzog dismissed Bennett’s views. And within context of that, American Jewish outrage about Otzma will only annoy Israelis and make them less likely to pay attention to the legitimate views of Jews in the diaspora – much like I annoyed Herzog by asking about Bennett.