In 1984, Meir Kahane, the renegade, openly racist American rabbi who had immigrated to Israel, won a seat in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. His fiery rhetoric and anti-Arab proposals so enraged his fellow lawmakers that nearly all of them walked out whenever he rose to the podium to speak.
Among them was the prime minister at the time, Yitzhak Shamir of the right-wing Likud party, who denounced Kahane as “dangerous.”
Kahane’s continued provocations and attempted assaults on Israeli democracy finally led the Knesset to change its own rules to bar him and any other member of a racist party from a seat in government.
Kahane was assassinated in 1990, but the spirit of his outlawed party lives on in the far-right party Otzma Yehudit, or Jewish Power, which was founded in 2012. Last week, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, invited the fervently anti-Arab party into the mainstream, engineering a merger between Otzma Yehudit and a religious Zionist party to be part of his coalition in the run-up to Israel’s national elections in April.
This dramatic development should mark the breaking point in Netanyahu’s already battered relationship with a majority of American Jews. And the question will be whether those Jews can maintain a genuine connection to the state of Israel while denouncing and distancing themselves from its leader.
In recent years, Netanyahu’s steady shift to ethno-nationalist politics, his denunciation of President Barack Obama and the Iran nuclear deal (both popular among American Jews), his embrace of anti-Semitic European autocrats, his refusal to seriously negotiate with Palestinians, and his utter disdain for American Jews’ pluralistic religious practices had already made him a loathed figure in many quarters.
But until now he has been able to draw standing ovations in some powerful U.S. venues, and he has maintained enviable relations with the White House and the white Christian evangelicals who help direct America’s Middle East foreign policy.
His latest move could change that. For the first time, even mainstream organizations are criticizing Netanyahu’s desperate maneuvering to hold onto office.
Challenged by an unusually strong coalition of centrist candidates and awaiting possible corruption charges, Netanyahu was driven by desperation in arranging for Otzma Yehudit to merge with the religious Zionist party known as Jewish Home, a key member of his governing coalition. But he’s gone too far. Otzma Yehudit entirely rejects the formation of a Palestinian state, calls for the expulsion of Arabs from Israel, and advocates Jewish control of the Temple Mount, now overseen by Muslim clerics under Jordanian supervision.
The outrage from American Jews was swift, stunning and entirely justified. Even mainstream establishment organizations voiced strong objections.
Last Thursday, the American Jewish Committee, which rarely weighs in on Israeli election politics, called Otzma Yehudit’s views “reprehensible.” Later the following day, the powerhouse lobbying group American Israel Public Affairs Committee published a 20-word tweet agreeing with AJC. AIPAC never criticizes the Israeli government.
“It’s just wrong, completely wrong,” Democratic pollster Mark Mellman said of the new alliance. “And it makes our job much harder.”
The “job” he referred to is his role leading the newly formed Democratic Majority for Israel, an attempt to solidify his party’s support for the Jewish state at a time when there is much more willingness to criticize its half-century occupation of the Palestinian territories and the steadily rightward tilt of its leadership.
In that context, Netanyahu’s alliance with Otzma Yehudit could not come at a worse time. As a 2016 presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) slightly opened the door to a more critical conversation about Israel in some progressive circles. Netanyahu just made it easier to walk right in.
And because the Jewish Home party represents a strain of religious Zionism with many adherents in the U.S., the new alliance has cracked open another door: criticism of Netanyahu from orthodox rabbis here.
So far, they have not gone as far as one of their leaders in Jerusalem, Rabbi Benny Lau, who over the weekend publicly excoriated the merger by comparing Kahanism to Nazism. But on Monday, nearly 90 modern Orthodox rabbis signed a letter denouncing Netanyahu.
“The prime minister has a legitimate desire to win victory for his bloc in a hotly contested election,” they wrote in a public statement. “However, in this case, the ends do not justify the means. This deal with a detestable group to get them into the Knesset will give a black eye to Israel and its standing in the world as a moral and democratic state. This is truly a lamentable failure on the part of a leader who has focused his life on Israel’s security and on strengthening its international standing.”
Ironically, in 1988, Shamir was also facing a hotly contested election, and accepting Kahane into his coalition might have given him the seats necessary to prevail. He, however, refused.
Netanyahu’s unforgivable decision, coming at a time when Israel is immeasurably stronger and more secure, could end up costing him his most trusted and advantageous partner: American Jews.
Jane Eisner is writer-at-large for the Forward and the Koeppel Fellow in Journalism at Wesleyan University.