Following Israel’s fourth election in two years, a muddy picture emerges. Though despised by many voters, Benjamin Netanyahu remains the most potent force in the country. Still, the political situation remains so fractious that forming a government will require the leaders of one or more small parties to join a coalition with groups they had pledged to shun, and Israeli politics have moved so decidedly to the hardline right that peace with Palestinians wasn’t an issue for the overwhelming majority of politicians and those who voted for them. Yet none of this is new.
What is new and portends danger is that a grouping of racist extremists, including “Jewish Power,” a party created by the disciples of the late Meir Kahane, won seats in the Knesset. During the campaign, Netanyahu courted that party and promised one of its leaders, Itamar Ben-Gvir, a ministerial post in his government. Having had a long history with the violent anti-Arab racism of Kahane and Kahanists, this prospect fills me personally with fear and disgust.
The morning of April 30, 1971, my wife’s birthday, we found an envelope under the door. Eileen opened it to find a threatening note 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.” A few days later, a group of Kahanists attacked the classroom where I was teaching a course on “Introduction to Religion”. They were driven away by a group of Black students, but their threats and harassment were to continue for months.
In the years that followed, I would become more 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. On one occasion, Kahane himself led a group of his followers to my office, pounding on my door and chanting that he knew who I was, where he could find and take care of me.
In the late 1980s, Kach, the political party Kahane founded in Israel, 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. Another follower assassinated then prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. This resulted in the two groups being declared terrorist organisations by the US and Israel.
Not long ago, Kahanists were pariahs on the margins of Israeli society. Now they will be in the Knesset and possibly the government. What’s shocking is that this fact has barely registered with Israel’s supporters in the US or the US government.
To understand just how virulently racist Netanyahu’s ally Ben-Gvir is, one need only look at his record. Ben Gvir a lawyer who represents right-wing Jews charged with violent crimes against Palestinians and liberal Jews. He 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 won a seat in 1984. 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.” He also called for strict separation between Jews and Palestinians, with draconian penalties including 50 years imprisonment for gentiles who have sexual relations with Jews.
Just a few weeks ago, Ben-Gvir spoke of Kahane as his “hero” and called for the expulsion of “disloyal” Palestinian citizens of Israel. He has been indicted for incitement over 50 times and was convicted of supporting a terrorist organisation in 2007. He’s also called Baruch Goldstein, whose framed photo hangs in his office, a “hero.” This is the person Netanyahu and his Likud Party are doing business with and legitimising.
To some, it may seem like threats by Ben-Gvir and other Kahanists to expel Palestinians are nothing more than sick fantasies. But he is now in the Knesset and has been promised a role in a Netanyahu government. This should set off screaming alarm bells and red flags for Israel’s supporters in the US and a wakeup call to the Biden administration and to all Americans. It is unacceptable to remain silent and pledge continued aid and diplomatic support in the face of this dangerous drift towards extremism. To do so makes us complicit because, while we rightly object to terrorist groups being in other countries’ governments, we have so far been silent about this one.
*The writer is president of the Arab American Institute.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 1 April, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly