Radical rabbi's followers rise in Israel amid new violence

Josef Federman and Joseph Krauss
Associated Press

Jerusalem — In the 1980s, Rabbi Meir Kahane's violent anti-Arab ideology was considered so repugnant that Israel banned him from parliament and the U.S. listed his party as a terrorist group.

Today, his disciples march through the streets by the hundreds, chanting “Death to Arabs” and assaulting any they come across. This week, they took part in a wave of communal violence in Jerusalem and mixed cities across Israel in which Arabs and Jews viciously attacked people and torched cars.

Israeli paramilitary border police officers stand guard as Jewish right-wing demonstrators demand the release of three Jews arrested in the shooting death of Mousa Hasoona, outside the District Court in Lod, Israel, Wednesday, May 12, 2021.

On Thursday evening, there was more ethnic strife. In Tel Aviv, two Jewish men attacked a journalist covering a gathering of ultranationalists. In the central Israeli city of Lod, a Jewish man was shot and seriously wounded by an Arab man. In Jaffa, an Israeli soldier was attacked by a group of Arabs and was hospitalized in serious condition.

Israelis shocked by the violence have cast the right-wing extremism as a nasty aberration or a reaction to Palestinian violence. But to Arab citizens, who make up 20% of Israel's population, the heirs of Kahane are a natural outgrowth of a discriminatory system — normalized by some mainstream leaders who largely share their views.

Admirers of Kahane were elected to parliament in March as allies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party, and one of the most prominent has become a fixture on Israeli TV.

Their resurgence has injected another element of volatility to the conflict. It's also part of a broader shift to the right in Israel, where Kahane's disciples are hardly alone in adopting a hard line toward the Palestinians and trafficking in anti-Arab rhetoric.

Right-wing parties that support Jewish settlements and oppose Palestinian independence won a large majority of seats in March, and Netanyahu and other right-wing leaders have often cast Israel's Arab minority as a fifth column — unless they needed their votes.

During his lone term in parliament in the mid-1980s, before he was banned, Kahane was shunned by colleagues, including the Likud, and frequently gave speeches to an empty chamber. His racist agenda called for banning intermarriage between Arabs and Jews, stripping Arabs of their Israeli citizenship, and the mass expulsions of Palestinians. At one point, he was suspended for waving a noose at an Arab lawmaker.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Israeli border police on Thursday, May 13, 2021 in Lod, near Tel Aviv after a wave of violence in the city the night before.

Kahane was banned from running in 1988, and two years later, he was assassinated by an Egyptian-American in New York. But his hate-filled ideology has remained influential in Israel.

In 1994, Kahane follower Baruch Goldstein opened fire in a holy site in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron, killing 29 Muslim worshippers and wounding over 100. That led both Israel and the U.S. to label his Kach movement and an offshoot, Kahane Lives, as terrorist groups.

In March, another admirer of the late rabbi, who for years had hung a picture of Goldstein on his living room wall, was elected to Israel's parliament.

Itamar Ben-Gvir joined the Knesset as part of Religious Zionism, a bloc of far-right parties that came together at Netanyahu's prodding so none would fall below the electoral threshold.

Since then, Ben-Gvir has made frequent media appearances, displaying a cheerful demeanor and a knack for deflecting criticism as he banters with TV and radio hosts.

It's working: Ifat, a research firm, says Ben-Gvir is the third most interviewed politician on Israeli TV and radio, behind Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett, another right-wing politician.

“He’s a good speaker and he knows how to play the game,” said Shuki Friedman, an expert on Israel’s far right at the Israel Democracy Institute. “On one hand, he is addressing his supporters. ... On the other hand, he knows not to make mainstream Israelis too angry.”

Rabbi Meir Kahane, right, founder of the militant Jewish Defense League, said that he would try to establish an Israeli settlement in the largest Arab city on the West Bank of the Jordan River. At left is Victor Vancier, executive director of the Committee Against Israeli Retreat (CAIR), joining Rabbi Kahane for a New York news conference, June 8, 1977.

He has staged provocative visits to Arab areas and been a near-constant presence on the sidelines of recent clashes, rallying ultranationalist supporters to confront Palestinians and assert “Jewish Power” — the name of his party.

Last week, he set up an outdoor parliamentary “office” in an Arab neighborhood of east Jerusalem where Jewish settlers are trying to expel Palestinians from their homes, setting off a melee. He later called for police to use live fire against Palestinian protesters at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, a site sacred to Jews and Muslims.

A long-range Hamas rocket, fired at Jerusalem on Monday, disrupted the Jerusalem Day parade, which celebrates Israel’s annexation of east Jerusalem.

The mob violence erupted the next day. A Telegram channel displaying the Kahanist emblem — a yellow fist inside a black Star of David — swelled from a few hundred members to more than 6,000.

It was used to organize a crowd in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bat Yam on Wednesday that pulled an Arab from his car and beat him severely. The attack horrified Israelis and was widely condemned, including by far-right politicians. Israeli media reported the country's police chief blamed Ben-Gvir for inciting a Jewish “intifada,” the Arabic term used to refer to two Palestinian uprisings.

As a lawyer with a long history of defending Jewish extremists accused of attacking Arabs, Ben-Gvir has been careful not to run afoul of laws against incitement. He calls Kahane "righteous and holy," but has tried to distance himself by saying he doesn't agree with everything the rabbi said.

Israeli riot police tries to block a Jewish right-wing man as clashes erupted between Arabs, police and Jews, in the mixed town of Lod, central Israel, Wednesday, May 12, 2021.

Ben-Gvir first became a national figure when he famously broke a hood ornament off then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s car in 1995.

“We got to his car, and we'll get to him too,” he said, just weeks before Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist opposed to his peace efforts with the Palestinians.

Israel has shifted even more to the right since then, driven by the failure of peace efforts, repeated rounds of violence and demographic shifts. Ben-Gvir’s supporters are largely religious and ultra-Orthodox Jews, who tend to have large families.

Netanyahu hoped to tap into that by assembling a far-right bloc with Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, another ultranationalist. Ironically, they foiled Netanyahu's plan by blocking his outreach to a small Arab party needed to secure a parliamentary majority.

Dan Meridor, a former justice minister and Likud heavyweight who helped lead efforts to ban Kahane from parliament in 1988, believes Netanyahu made a grave error in rehabilitating his followers.

“You can just see the dramatic and very harmful change the Likud went through when they legitimized the Kahanists,” he said. “It changed very tragically to me.”

Palestinian citizens of Israel, on the other hand, view Ben-Gvir as the latest in a long line of Israeli politicians — including Netanyahu — who have treated them as second-class citizens, if not enemies of the state. It's one of many grievances they point to in explaining the recent protests and clashes with police.

Diana Buttu, a lawyer and analyst who is a Palestinian citizen of Israel, says it's easy for Israelis to dismiss the Kahanists as a fringe group.

"But if you step back and look at this country through the eyes of a Palestinian, you see that at every single political level, in every single political party, there’s been some form of anti-Palestinian racism.”

Associated Press writer Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem contributed.