Benjamin Netanyahu invited a far-right, extremist political party to help form his coalition

Young Israel synagogues in Metro Detroit protest Otzma Yehudit statement by national Young Israel president.

By Louis Finkelman

The two Young Israel synagogues in Metro Detroit reacted swiftly when the president of the National Council of Young Israel (NCYI) defended Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s invitation to have Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), a party the descends from Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Kach party, join a projected coalition after the upcoming April 9 election.

Jewish organizations in Israel and around the world expressed dismay at Netanyahu’s offer, which seems to legitimize right-wing extremism.

Yet, in a Feb. 25 statement to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, NCYI President Farley Weiss said, “Prime Minister Netanyahu acted to get right-wing parties to merge in order to meet the threshold necessary to secure a victory in the election … We understand what Prime Minister Netanyahu did, and he did it to have ministers of the national religious and national union parties in his coalition.”

In Israel, no one party has ever won enough seats in the Knesset to govern the country on its own.  The prime minister always depends on a coalition of disparate parties to make up a majority. In the run-up to an election, leaders of every party negotiate with other parties to choose their potential partners. After the election, the negotiations usually continue with each party bargaining for its place.

Except that certain parties never get invited in. In 1988, the Knesset entirely disallowed Kahane’s Kach party because of its racist platform (see sidebar). Successor parties with modified versions of the platform, headed by former Kach members or their disciples, have received permission to run in Israeli elections, but they have never been invited to form part of a governing coalition.

Until now.

At Young Israel of Oak Park, President David Barth, in consultation with the executive committee and interim Rabbi Aaron Leib, has sent a forceful message to Weiss of the NCYI, with a list of objections, including that they were not consulted about the statement; if consulted, they would not have agreed; that as far as they know, this statement was issued without consulting any YI member organizations; and that aside from the “doubtful merits (to put our sentiments mildly) of the statement,” they find it inappropriate for Young Israel to get involved in internal Israeli politics.

On Feb. 28, the executive committee of Young Israel of Oak Park sent an email message to congregation members expressing similar sentiments, adding that YIOP does not associated itself with Weiss’ statement and that they have strongly communicated YIOP’s concerns to the NCYI.

Taking a lower public profile on this situation, Rabbi Yechiel Morris revealed only that Young Israel of Southfield has been in contact with the NCYI to express its concerns.

Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt responded to the statement by resigning from her synagogue, the Young Israel of Toco Hills in suburban Atlanta. In a public letter on Facebook, Lipstadt provided her rationale: “I cannot be associated with an organization that gives such racism, celebration of violence and immoral policies a ‘hechsher [certification].’”

On Thursday, Feb. 28, Weiss sent an email to member congregations saying, “The short NCYI statement released in response to two news outlet requests concerning Prime Minister Netanyahu represented my personal views and that of many on our Board but may not reflect the view of all of the Young Israel synagogues.”

On Friday, March 1, a letter was issued by rabbinic and lay leaders in the Young Israel community calling upon “NCYI leadership to immediately cease making all political pronouncements” without consulting individual Young Israel synagogue communities. Rabbis and presidents of Metro Detroit’s two Young Israel synagogues put their names to the letter that represented 21 other congregations.

Federation Locked Kahane Out

Rabbi Meir Kahane served as a member of Knesset from 1984-88, when his Kach party won a single seat in the 1984 elections. The party symbol was a clenched fist — kach, meaning “thus” because “only thus, by force, can we succeed.” Its platform included enforcing Jewish law on Israeli citizens, outlawing intermarriage between Jews and gentiles, expelling Arab citizens from Israel unless they promise submission to Jewish rule. In 1988, Knesset outlawed his party as racist.

On Oct. 24, 1985, then-MK Meir Kahane came to Detroit and the Jewish Welfare Federation refused to let him enter the building. The Jewish News reported Nov. 1, 1985, that Federation President Joel Tauber and Executive Director Wayne Feinstein concurred on this decision. Tauber explained that the Federation would offer “no home to Meir Kahane and his racist ideology.”

Asked about that decision now, Tauber said, “I do not actually recall the specific incident right now, but those were my feelings ever since Meir Kahane became a public figure. Barring Kahane was consistent with my belief. In my opinion, then and now, our tradition stands for compassion, understanding and improving the world. We are in favor of Israel as a Jewish democratic state. There is no room in the Jewish community for what he stood for. I feel the same way about Otzma Yehudit, the successor to Kahane’s party.”

Feinstein, who now lives in San Mateo, Calif., similarly defends the decision and provides context: “It wasn’t just the Detroit Federation. By then, all the leading Jewish organizations had recognized that Meir Kahane’s positions were so far outside the mainstream that they amounted to hate speech. We all had agreed to refuse to offer him a platform for hate speech.”

In his Nov. 11, 1985, “Purely Commentary” column, JN Editor Philip Slomovitz wrote, “There has to be an understanding that no one will be permitted to say that a resident in Israel who is not of Jewish birth is to be driven out of the land. That’s the Kahanism for which there can never be sanction.”

 

 

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