The High Court of Justice ruling to disqualify Otzma Yehudit candidate Michael Ben-Ari from running in the April 9 election is unprecedented, in that it was the first time an individual candidate approved by the Central Elections Committee was banned.
Otzma and other parties led and later inspired by Rabbi Meir Kahane have a long history of losing in court, and in that way it seems like history has repeated itself.
However, a lot has changed since 1988, and perhaps the fact that Otzma is still allowed to run without Ben-Ari is the greatest proof of that.
There’s a concept in political science known as the Overton window, which is the range of ideas that the public considers politically viable and not too extreme for someone expressing them to reach public office. The ideas that got Kach banned are still outside the acceptable and legal political discourse in Israel, but quite a few of Kahane’s other proposals are present today and – apparently – within the Overton window.
Commenting on his Kach Party’s disqualification from the 1988 election, Kahane said in a speech in English now available on YouTube: “What appears to be a defeat in transient terms is a victory in eternal terms, in Jewish terms. Our victory was that we did not change a single word or a single letter in our platform in order to win in the court, because we understood full well that this was not a struggle against Kach, Kahane. This was essentially the real struggle between Judaism and Hellenism... This is their greatest defeat, because it is based upon fear.”
Kach experienced the same “victory” after Kahane’s assassination in 1990 when, along with the breakaway Kahane Chai Party, it was disqualified from standing in the 1992 election. In 1994, both were banned outright as terrorist organizations.
But then things started looking up for Kahane’s followers. In 2003, Kach reared its head again, returning to political action under a different name, when its former leader and Kahane’s former spokesman Baruch Marzel ran as the number-two candidate in Herut. In 2006, Marzel ran as the leader of the Jewish National Front.
The turning point came in 2009, when Michael Ben-Ari – a Kahane student who had been involved in Kach – ran and won as a part of the National Union list, serving as an MK until 2013.
After Ben-Ari and former MK Arye Eldad broke off from National Union to form Otzma LeYisrael, they didn’t make it into the Knesset in 2013 and – renamed Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) – their merger with former Shas leader Eli Yishai to form Yahad in 2015 didn’t get them any seats either, though they came very close to the 3.25% threshold.
All along, the post-Kahane parties met and overcame challenges in the High Court – not just in the “eternal terms” their inspiration discussed, but in that they were allowed to take part in the elections.
Now, in 2019, the party is still allowed to run; longtime Kahane activist Itamar Ben-Gvir is on the Union of Right-Wing Parties list, and the Central Election Committee will weigh allowing Ben-Gvir to be bumped up into Ben-Ari’s highly realistic fifth place.
In brief, Otzma’s platform calls for total war against “enemies of Israel... without negotiations, without concessions and without compromises,” along with “the imposition of sovereignty over all parts of the Land of Israel that were liberated in the Six Day War and the resolution of the status of Israel’s enemies in the Arab countries surrounding our country.” They seek to “remove the enemies” via a “national authority for encouraging emigration.”
An enemy of Israel, according to Ben-Gvir, is “someone who doesn’t want a Jewish state, someone who doesn’t want Jews in Israel... someone who throws stones and petrol bombs and someone who murders Jews.” Marzel added that an enemy is “someone who supports Hamas or the PLO” and “anyone who thinks it is forbidden for Jews to live in every place of the Land of Israel” – which could describe significant portions of the Israeli Left.
The Overton window hasn’t moved to entirely include Kahane’s views, which we see from the Ben-Ari ban – despite the outrage on the Right over the ruling, most right-wing politicians don’t say the sort of things that got him disqualified – but also from what Kahane did in the Knesset.
Even Ben-Gvir himself said to the Central Elections Committee earlier this month that despite the famous bumper sticker saying “Kahane was right,” in some cases he was wrong. Several laws proposed by Kahane were banned from even being brought to a vote in the Knesset during his 1984-1988 tenure there. For example, Kahane sought to outlaw sexual relations between Jews and non-Jews, and ban non-Jews from any position of power in Israel or from living in Jerusalem, among other bills. When Ben-Ari was an MK, he did not propose any such legislation, and none of his bills were banned. In Kahane’s view, that may have been a shameful capitulation.
But to a great extent, the Overton window has migrated much more than the Kahanist ideology has.
Otzma is not the only party with these ideas. Zehut is polling over the electoral threshold, and its platform says essentially the same things on those topics, just worded differently. The differences between the parties are great in social and economic matters – Zehut leans libertarian, Otzma leans theocratic – but not when it comes to Palestinians. The non-Otzma parties in the Union of Right-Wing Parties bloc are also in favor of annexation, but without the pay-to-deport part.
Looking at the 11 bills that Kahane was permitted to present to the Knesset, several of them would not be considered beyond the pale in Israel today. One calls to cancel the institution of the presidency, something that none other than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself considered in recent years. Another would not allow civilian courts to intervene in how security forces treat terrorists – something that has been a rallying cry on the Right since Elor Azaria was put on trial for shooting a subdued Palestinian stabber in 2016. Another bill would kick the Jordanian Wakf Islamic religious trust off the Temple Mount and have the rabbinate take it over, which is now a part of the Zehut platform.
Another way in which the idea of acceptability has changed is in the media. In his post-disqualification speech, Kahane lamented: “It’s a mind-boggling thing for people to speak of democracy, knowing what they did to us for four years. A member of Knesset was barred from appearing on even one radio or television program on state radio or state TV. What an outrage that is.”
Even after he took his case to the High Court, and it ruled that he must be allowed to be interviewed, the TV and radio stations continued to snub Kahane.
But we no longer have just one TV channel run by the state, and Ben-Gvir is a media star – and has been since he was filmed making threats to then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in the early 1990s.
It seems that today, Israel’s Overton window has room for Otzma.
Only Ben-Ari reached what Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit called a “critical mass” of proof for racist statements that would keep him out of the running.
The evidence was drawn mostly from video clips found on the Otzma Facebook page of Ben-Ari speaking, including the following from last May: “The Arabs in Haifa are in no way different from the Arabs in Gaza... They are enemies from the inside... They are fighting a war against us in the state; this thing has a name – it’s called a fifth column... They want to destroy us. Of course, there are loyal Arabs, but they amount to 1% or less... There is no coexistence with them.”
In August, Ben-Ari said that “anyone who dares to speak out against a Jew... won’t live! A firing squad should kill him, eliminate him, like Arabs understand. That is their language.”
There is no indication that Ben-Ari has changed his ideology since he was a member of Knesset. Nor does it seem that Ben-Gvir’s views are significantly different; perhaps he is better at avoiding saying things that would get him in trouble, because he’s a lawyer.
It’s not a stretch to say that the “critical mass” argument is really that we have Facebook now, so it’s easier to keep track of what Ben-Ari says.
Or maybe it’s that the Overton window will allow these views to be strongly implied – but saying them outright is moving too far into Kahane territory.