Two weeks ago, Israeli right-wing political party Bayit Yehudi (The Jewish Home) joined forces with the extreme-right party Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Strength). Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pushed for this deal in order to help him build a right-wing coalition with Likud. He promised Bayit Yehudi two ministerial posts and the 28th place on the Likud “list” if they team up with Otzma Yehudit. Bayit Yehudi voted to incorporate Otzma Yehudit largely for these arrangements and in order to increase in number to reach the threshold of obtaining Knesset seats.
In the days since the merger, Jews of all stripes – religious and non-religious, Israeli and non-Israeli – have voiced their intense dismay and opposition. Many are appalled that Israel’s right is allowing this ultra-nationalist party, whose members are disciples of the controversial Rabbi Meir Kahane, to join mainstream politics. Others defend the deal on the basis of free speech and realpolitik, and as a way to ensure the center-left and left do not grab hold of the Knesset. Read on for the full analysis.
Why Does it Matter?
- What does this mean for Religious Zionism? This is a pivotal moment for Religious Zionism. Who will back Otzma Yehudit, and who will not? Will the party become more mainstream or be condemned by religious Zionists? Prominent religious Zionist Rabbi Benny Lau wrote that we should be “horrified” by Otzma Yehudit, saying: “We, the descendants of Jews who were murdered in the name of the Nuremberg law, must safeguard our one and only state, our irreplaceable home, and distance it from these racist values.” Rabbi Aryeh Deri of Shas, defended Otzma Yehudit’s right to participate in elections on the basis of free speech and said it is forbidden to discredit the party.
- The Israel-Diaspora relationship – In October, we covered this topic in depth and addressed the changes in and implications of the current Israel-Diaspora relationship. AIPAC (American-Israel Public Affairs Committee) and the AJC (American Jewish Committee), staunch supporters of Israel who rarely involve themselves in Israel’s internal politics, expressed outrage in this case. In response, Otzma Yehudit called on AIPAC members to first immigrate to Israel before getting involved in Israeli politics.
- Internal Israeli politics – As mentioned above, Netanyahu pushed Bayit Yehudi to incorporate Otzma Yehudit in order to secure more votes and build a right-wing coalition. The majority of Bayit Yehudi members acquiesced for these reasons, and not out of support for Otzma Yehudit itself. Elections will ultimately bring to light how many voters support Otzma Yehudit.
Diversity of Perspectives within Israel
There are many perspectives on this topic, perhaps because the topic of Jewish extremism is one that strikes a sensitive chord in many. (See our archives for our past article on the topic.)
- Politicians on Israel’s left are outraged by the prospect of an extreme-right party advancing in Israeli politics, and Haaretz reported that the Central Elections Committee has considered barring Otzma Yehudit from April’s elections.
- Public intellectual Yossi Klein Halevi wrote a strongly critical piece in the Times of Israel condemning Otzma Yehudit for advocating a “racist theology that sanctifies hatred.”
- Within the Religious Zionist camp, figures such as Rabbi Benny Lau (see above) and Rabbi Shlomo Brody have spoken out against Bayit Yehudi’s deal with Otzma Yehudit.
- Some, who do not necessarily support Otzma Yehudit, understand why Bayit Yehudi and/or Likud are using the party to strengthen their own parties, as a way to ensure the government does not go to the centrist or left wingers, as they see it. In essence, they view this as realpolitik. See Dov Fischer’s op-ed in Arutz Sheva.
- Others point out that outcry over the extreme-right party is disproportionate to the attention that extreme-left parties get. See this op-ed in the Jerusalem Post and this article. Netanyahu himself posted on Facebook: “What hypocrisy and double standards by the left. They’re condemning [the formation of] a right-wing majority bloc with right-wing parties, while the left acted to bring extreme Islamists into the Knesset to create a majority bloc.” He cited several instances of this.
- Should a party like Otzma Yehudit be allowed to run for office? Why or why not?
- Should Diaspora Jews have a say in Israeli politics? This is a central theme in this instance and in Israel’s elections and affairs in general. Many American and other Diaspora Jews voice their opinions about Israeli politics and policies. Are they entitled to views about a country they are not citizens of? Why or why not?
- The world contains many forms of extremism – radical Islam, white supremacy, Marxist-Leninism, to name a few. Does Jewish extremism feel similar or different to you?
- In America, preeminent historian and scholar Deborah Lipstadt resigned from her synagogue, which is part of the National Council of Young Israel (NCYI). NCYI defended the deal in a statement, before announcing that its statement did not necessarily reflect all of its synagogues’ constituents. This brings to mind the question of allegiance to an institution if one strongly disagrees with an institution’s stance on something. Should one stay or leave?
Practical Classroom Tips
- Look at the diverse perspectives cited above and use this an opportunity to applaud Israel for having such divergent ideas all come to the fore within a proud democracy. Watch this video and then discuss why diversity of perspectives leads to a flourishing society. Break the filter bubble!
- Have students research the history of Kahanaism (this is a good place to start). Ask them to write three salient points on the topic, and answer these question at the end: Do you identify with this political view or not? Should we extend empathy to extreme activists?
- Jonathan Golden of Gann Academy in Boston mentioned in our Facebook groupthat his strategy in teaching this would be to follow their school’s approach of connection, knowledge and stance. For this topic, he would ensure students have knowledge on AIPAC and Otzma Yehudit and then consider their own stances. If the group shows hesitance, he would have them “imagine being an advisor to a key player in this story: Bibi, Otzma, Gantz, AIPAC, etc. and pose the question ‘Given what has happened, would you advise your person/party/organization to do next?’” Golden notes that he finds this “a safe and authentic way to deal with tough issues and to have students try on points of view that may be different than their own.”
- Read aloud the following quotes. Students who agree should go to one side of the room and those who disagree should go to the other.
- “The observant Jew has his own sense of values. Torah Judaism is his blueprint for this life, his target for existence.”
- “But the Jew is not a cripple. God made him with two legs, and the authentic healthy Jew walks on both of them.”
- “I prefer a powerful and proud Jewish State that is hated by the entire world than an Auschwitz that is loved by one and all.”
- “One does not deal with terrorists; one does not bargain with terrorists; one kills terrorists.”
- “Democracy and Zionism cannot go together… You just can’t, on the one hand, want a Jewish state and at the same time give non-Jews the right to become a majority.”
Afterwards, tell students that it was Meir Kahane who said each of these. Discuss with the class whether this changes anything, and, if so, why. Do they feel more or less empathy towards him? Does it change their views in any way?