Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Israeli Democracy Still Haunted by the Ghosts of Meir Kahane and Baruch Goldstein
Israeli Democracy Still Haunted by the Ghosts of Meir Kahane and Baruch Goldstein

Israeli Democracy Still Haunted by the Ghosts of Meir Kahane and Baruch Goldstein

As Israel prepares for its second election this year, there is one party that deserves extra attention—despite its relatively small size. Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) is a secular party; its leadership and platform are rooted in the ideology of the Kach Party, founded by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane in 1971 and banned, in addition to Kahane himself, from participation in the Knesset in 1988 because of its racist views.

But “racism” hardly goes far enough to describe the dangers of Kahanism, which was the impetus for the 1994 massacre of 29 Muslims praying in a mosque in Hebron by Baruch Goldstein, a fanatic lionized to this day by some elements in Israeli society, including some in the leadership of Otzma Yehudit. Kahanism was also the impetus for the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and at least some of the killings and beatings of Palestinians that persist today.

Otzma Yehudit was briefly elevated in the run-up to the April election in Israel when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu encouraged its merger with another party to help prop up his own prospective coalition, which was never formed. Attempting to include Otzma within his coalition shows Bibi’s legitimization of Kahanism, and until he and other right-wing politicians sever ties with this dangerous ideology, hate and racism will permeate throughout the Israeli body politic. 

Meir Kahane and the Kach Party

Many members of Otzma still believe Rabbi Meir Kahane’s teachings to be their guiding principles. Kahane, a native of Brooklyn, created the Jewish Defense League, which utilized Jewish fears of anti-Semitism to promote violence and terrorism towards Soviet, Arab, and African-American communities in New York. Later, he moved to Israel and started the Kach Party. Kach’s platform centered around the belief that Israel should annex all conquered territory and forcibly remove all Palestinians through violent means. Kahane joined the Knesset in 1984, but the Kach Party was not allowed to run for the Knesset again in 1988, as it had violated Israel’s Basic Law by running on a platform meant to incite racism and anti-democratic sentiment. The U.S. government currently lists Kach as a terrorist organization. Since Kahane’s assassination in Manhattan in 1990, many have used his extremist ideology to justify acts of terror, including the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.  

Otzma Yehudit’s Ideology and Policies

Although Otzma aligns with Rabbi Kahane’s belief system, the party differs, or at least claims to, on how to achieve its goals. Otzma asserts that it does not believe in violence to solve any conflicts, but that other methods can be used to remove disloyal Arabs. Its goal is to wage war on the enemies of Israel. Many believe, however, that the phrase “enemies of Israel” is just code for all Israeli Arabs. According to Baruch Marzel, one of the party’s leaders, Otzma believes the majority of Arabs are enemies of Israel, but “not all of them.” Otzma will try to annex land won in the Six-Day War, including the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Golan Heights, and East Jerusalem. The party believes Israel should be a “Jewish Democracy”—with Jews prioritized over other citizens.

Otzma also would freeze negotiations with the Palestinian Authority and increase Jewish history education in elementary schools to ensure Israeli citizens have a deep appreciation for their Jewish identity and to foster nationalism.

The party also has its own peace plan for the region. Its “plan for peace” consists of three phases: Aliya, Construction, and Emigration. The first phase, Aliya, would promote Jewish settlement and immigration into Israel, especially into areas in the West Bank. For Jews exclusively, the party would provide financial compensation for living in settlements, although exact numbers and details have not yet been explained.

The second phase, Construction, would entail building in four key locations, including the West Bank (or in their terminology, Judea and Samaria). In many of these areas, they would build new cities and infrastructure to accommodate the new residents. The plan also would erase the Green Line, the de facto border of the West Bank created from the demarcation line of the 1949 ceasefire. Otzma has also noted that once it dissolves the Green Line, it would not grant Israeli citizenship to the Palestinians there.

The final phase of Otzma’s peace plan, Emigration, would be finding nonviolent means to get the so-called enemies of Israel out of the country. This phase would help to establish a Jewish majority in the nation, ensure all Israeli citizens are loyal, and demonstrate clear Israeli sovereignty over all contested regions.

What This Means for Israel

In the run-up to the election in April, Netanyahu had encouraged Otzma to merge with the Union of Right-Wing Parties (URWP)—earning him harsh criticism from many international organizations, including the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). The merger did occur, but Otzma never received representation in the Knesset even though the URWP won five seats. Indeed, many argue that Netanyahu never intended for Otzma to be seated in the Knesset, as he may recognize how extreme it is; nonetheless, Otzma served a purpose for him.

For the upcoming September elections, Otzma tried to carry out another merger to try to get seats within the Knesset. Encouraged by Bibi, Ayelet Shaked and Rafi Peretz’s United Right proposed to Otzma a deal in which Otzma would most likely receive two seats in the Knesset on their joint list. Party leader Itamar Ben-Gvir rejected the deal because Otzma did not receive enough high spots on the list. After rejecting the deal, Otzma registered to run independently. On August 25, two of Otzma’s leaders, Bentzi Gopstein and Baruch Marzel, both Kahane followers, were banned by Israel’s Supreme Court from running in the Knesset election though the party itself may still participate.

There is little chance Otzma will end up in the Knesset. But, does that mean its extremist roots and ideology are no longer a danger to Israeli democracy? Judging by the turn toward extremist ideologies in much of the Western world, this is no time to be complacent about right-wing fanaticism anywhere, including Israel.

Perhaps, it is not trivial that Rafi Peretz and Bezalel Smotrich, who will be occupying the second and third seats in the United Right’s joint list respectively, recently attended a Torah symposium to honor Yitzchak Ginsburgh, a rabbi who has written about his admiration for Baruch Goldstein. By signaling their support to this man, Peretz and Smotrich help to legitimize Kahanism.

When Bibi encouraged Otzma’s inclusion in the URWP in April, he legitimized Otzma’s existence. Since then, others, like Peretz and Shaked, have also succumbed to using Otzma for their own purposes. Bibi set a dangerous precedent, and now it is clear that his actions are causing a ripple effect for a group that not long ago was on the fringe of Israeli politics.

Otzma Yehudit presents a clear danger to Israeli society. By Bibi utilizing the group for his own purpose—regardless of whether he believes in its ideology—could prove to be Israel’s undoing as a democracy. Unless he and others on the right can act now to remove Kahanism from the mainstream, its disastrous effects will forever damage Israel.