Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s deal last month to bring a right-wing party widely regarded as racist into his governing coalition should he be reelected next month outraged left-wing Jewish groups here and elicited fierce defense from right-wing groups.
It brought rare criticism from centrist groups that walk the line between support for Israel and speaking out on unpopular moves by its elected government.
The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington on Feb. 27 denounced the inclusion of that party, Otzma Yehudit, in the election process. The party, a successor to the late Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Kach party, would forcibly remove Arabs from lands controlled by Israel.
“Racism and hatred are repugnant and must be universally and unequivocally condemned whenever they appear, regardless from wherever they emanate from on the political spectrum,” the council’s statement read. “We call on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to publicly denounce Otzma Yehudit’s views and declare them an unacceptable party for inclusion in any future government.”
“This is only the second time that we have ever issued a statement where we have talked about something in internal Israel [affairs] that we disagree with,” Executive Director Ron Halber said this week. “It takes a very high threshold for our JCRC to get involved.”
He added that Otzma Yehudit “is against Israel’s own fundamental values, against Jewish values. It’s such a gross thing to witness that we felt we had to speak out. We got real universal appreciation for
Rabbi Jonathan Maltzman, of Kol Shalom congregation in Rockville, was in agreement.
“I sent a letter to my congregation in which I reaffirmed the same view expressed by the JCRC,” he said,
adding that his congregants support his position.
“[Netanyahu] disregards any feelings that American Jewish community has, and it feels like he is writing off Jews in the Diaspora by forming a more right-wing coalition in order to keep him in power,” Maltzman said. “I love Israel, too, but I don’t love the Israeli government right now.”
Days after the Otzma Yehudit deal became known, Israel’s attorney general made his long-expected announcement that he will indict Netanyahu on corruption charges, pending a hearing,
Washington, D.C., resident David Wasserstein, who spent a year living in Israel, said that when he looks back, he sees the events leading up to this years’ elections. “When I was there, there were a number of mini scandals [with Netanyahu]. I was deeply concerned that Israel was moving to the right.”
Rabbi Stuart Weinblatt, of Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, said he agreed with the JCRC’s depiction of Otzma Yehudit. But he trusts Israeli voters “to do the right thing.”
“The JCRC, along with a number of American Jewish organizations, have appropriately expressed the concerns about the development and also affirming support for Israel,” he said.“The Israeli political system is difficult and complicated and different than ours.”
For all the outrage over Otzma Yehudit, which sits on the right-wing fringe of Israeli politics, the party has little or no meaningful chance of attaining power, said Joel Griffith, a fellow with the conservative Heritage Foundation.
“The rhetoric of Otzma Yehudit does not reflect my hopeful, long-term optimism for both Jews and Arabs to thrive peacefully together as part of the nation of Israel — particularly in Judea and Samaria,” said Griffith. “Some of the party’s proposals do not reflect the promise this region holds for both peoples.”
“With this in mind,” he added, “the allegations regarding Otzma and the opposition to allowing their
inclusion as a block within the center-right Jewish Home party for the 2019 election are detached from reality.”
Griffith says the party has not been banned by Israel’s version of the Federal Election Commission, proving it is not the same as Kach, a party banned more than 20 years ago, and he doesn’t expect Otzma Yehudit to win more than a single seat in the Knesset.
Sarah Stern, president of the Washington-based think tank EMET, called it “a sad day for the Jewish state. The allegations [against Netanyahu] are very serious. If proven, I think he should step down,” she said.
But the JCRC crossed a line when it released its statement, she said.“I think it’s highly inappropriate for American organizations to make statements about Israel’s internal, domestic process.”