An extremist rabbi’s legacy is again haunting Israeli politics

Rabbi Meir Kahane at a New York news conference, Aug. 31, 1984. (Gene Kappock/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images)

(JTA) — In the 1980s, Israel’s right and left fought three fiercely close elections over the direction of the country, splitting the vote so evenly in one case that they were forced to share powers.

Throughout it all, however, the Likud and Labor parties agreed on one thing: Rabbi Meir Kahane, the right-wing extremist, was unfit to serve in Israel’s parliament.

Kahane called for Arabs to be expelled from Israel, and his Kach party had a history of harassing Israeli Arabs. Before coming to Israel, Kahane was the leader of the militant Jewish Defense League in New York City. Kahane served time in prison both in the United States and Israel.

When Kahane was elected to the Knesset in 1984, despite widespread opposition, the other legislators responded by walking out of the parliament en masse whenever he rose to speak. American Jewish groups also frequently spoke out against him.

“This dangerous phenomenon will pass because no public figure or member of Knesset supports it,” Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir once said about Kahane, according to Haaretz. Shamir also called Kahane a “dangerous character.”

More than three decades later, times appear to have changed: The current Likud prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has pushed for Kahane’s ideological successors to run for Knesset. Fearing that Israel’s right wing will lose power, Netanyahu orchestrated a merger between Jewish Home, a religious Zionist party, and Jewish Power, an extremist right-wing party led by Kahane’s disciples. The merger will increase the united party’s chances of gaining enough votes to enter Knesset.

It’s unclear whether any of Jewish Power’s candidates will win election or what influence they might have if elected. But several major American Jewish groups, as well as Israeli public figures, are opposing the move as an endorsement of the extremism once rejected by previous Israeli governments.

“I never thought I would see this day,” Yossi Klein Halevi, an American-Israeli author who was a follower of Kahane in his youth and now stridently opposes the ideology, told i24 News. “Every society has its fringe fanatics. But what Prime Minister Netanyahu has done, because he’s desperate, because he’s in an increasingly tight political race, is open the door to evil.”

A chorus of centrist and liberal American Jewish organizations opposed the merger this week. The Reform movement, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and several other groups called the encouragement of Jewish Power an unacceptable condoning of extremism. Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, called the merger “very disturbing” in an interview with the Associated Press. The statements did not appear to be made on behalf of the conference itself.

“He obviously has some political calculation that drove him to it, but politics can’t dictate everything,” Hoenlein said, referring to Netanyahu. “You have to take into consideration all of the ramifications and all of the concerns.”

On Friday, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, seconded the American Jewish Committee’s condemnation and noted that it has a policy of not meeting with Jewish Power. Centrist Jewish organizations, especially AIPAC, usually hesitate to criticize Israel on internal politics.

“The views of Otzma Yehudit are reprehensible,” read a statement by…

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