The Nation / March 23, 2021
A follower of Meir Kahane may join the government this week. And the Biden administration has had nothing to say about it.
It was April 30, 1971, when I received my first death threat from Meir Kahane’s followers. I remember the date because it was my wife’s birthday. We were living in Temple University graduate student housing in Philadelphia and woke up that morning to find an envelope under our door. Eileen opened it to find a threatening note, like those you see in movies, with the letters cut out from magazines and pasted on plain white paper. It read: “Arab dog you will die if you set foot on campus again.”
In the years that followed, I would become all too familiar with Kahane, a Brooklyn-born rabbi who preached a virulently racist, violent ideology, and his adherents in the Jewish Defense League. They would firebomb my office, murder my friend and colleague Alex Odeh, and injure hundreds more in a decades-long campaign of violence targeting Arab-Americans, Palestinians, and Jews who disagreed with them.
In the late 1980s, the political party Kahane founded in Israel, Kach, was banned because of its extreme racism and incitement to violence. A few years later, a former JDL and Kach member also from Brooklyn, Baruch Goldstein, massacred 29 Palestinians as they prayed in the historic Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron in the occupied West Bank, leading to the two groups and offshoots’ being banned as terrorist organizations by the United States and Israel.
Now, nearly 50 years to the day after my first encounter with Kahane’s followers, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made an electoral pact with Kahanists in the Jewish Power party for the second time in as many years. Public opinion polls show Religious Zionism, a coalition of extremists including Jewish Power that Netanyahu helped engineer, winning at least four Knesset seats in the March 23 vote. If they do enter the Knesset and Netanyahu manages to form another governing coalition, Kahanists will be part of it. Imagine if Donald Trump had brokered a formal agreement with the Ku Klux Klan or neo-Nazis in exchange for their electoral support. That’s the equivalent of what Netanyahu is doing, again.
Not long ago, Kahanists were pariahs on the margins of Israeli society. In 2021, their presence barely causes a ripple of controversy in Israel. And many of Israel’s American supporters—including some who expressed outrage when Netanyahu first got into bed with Jewish Power in 2019—are now silent.
What’s especially disturbing is that the Biden administration, while condemning extremists and human rights abusers in other parts of the world, has remained conspicuously silent with regard to these developments in Israel. Instead, it has signalled to Israeli leaders that we will continue to provide Israel’s military with massive amounts of US taxpayer dollars and diplomatic protection regardless of their grave violations of international law or Netanyahu’s partnership with dangerous, violent radicals.
President Biden may find it illuminating to learn about Jewish Power leader Itamar Ben-Gvir. A lawyer who represents right-wing Jews charged with violent crimes against Palestinians and liberal Jews, Ben-Gvir joined Kach in the 1980s and quickly became a devoted student of Kahane and his racist ideas. Those ideas were spelled out in a set of proposed laws Kahane introduced to the Knesset after he managed to win Kach’s only seat, in the 1984 election. One of the laws stipulated, “Non-Jews will be obliged to assume duties, taxes and slavery. If he does not agree to slavery and taxes, he will be forcibly deported.”
Another declared, “A non-Jew will not live within the jurisdiction of the city of Jerusalem.” Echoing American segregation of the Jim Crow era and slavery, they also called for strict separation between Jews and enslaved Palestinians, with draconian penalties including 50 years imprisonment for gentiles who have sexual relations with Jews. At the time, some Israelis compared them to the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws of Nazi Germany.
Just a few weeks ago, Ben-Gvir once again called for the expulsion of Palestinian citizens of Israel deemed disloyal and called Kahane a “hero.” Ben-Gvir has been indicted for incitement more than 50 times and was convicted of supporting a terrorist organization in 2007. He’s also a professed admirer of the mass murderer Goldstein, whose framed photo hangs in his office. In a recently surfaced video from 1995, Ben-Gvir is shown dressed as Goldstein for the Jewish holiday of Purim and calling him a “hero.”
This is who Netanyahu and his Likud party are doing business with and legitimizing. To some, it may seem like threats by Ben-Gvir and other Kahanists to expel Palestinians are nothing more than sick fantasies. When Palestinians hear such talk, however, they recall Israel’s establishment in 1948, when approximately 750,000 of them were expelled from their homeland to make way for a Jewish majority state, as well as subsequent calls for “transfer” emanating from other more mainstream Israeli figures. Palestinians know that if it happened before, it can happen again.
While the first deal Netanyahu made with Jewish Power in 2019 might have been dismissed as an aberration, this second agreement and the Religious Zionism coalition’s strong polling numbers are alarming and undeniable proof of how far to the right Israel has moved and how mainstream Kahane’s ideas have become.
Regardless of whether they make it into the Knesset this week, the pact between Jewish Power and Netanyahu’s ruling Likud should set off screaming alarm bells and red flags for Israel’s liberal supporters in the United States—and serve as a wake-up call to the Biden administration and to all Americans. Our silence and pledges of continued aid and diplomatic support in the face of this dangerous Israeli drift toward extremism make us complicit.
James Zogby is the founder and president of the Arab American Institute and was a member of the executive committee of the Democratic National Committee from 2001 to 2017