Lubavitchers and Kahanists

The final results of the Israeli election showed that the Likud failed to emerge as the largest party, but that its leader Benjamin Netanyahu took one more recommendation from MKs as their preferred prime minister than Benny Gantz’s centrists.

Though appointed on Wednesday by President Reuven Rivlin to form the next coalition, Mr Netanyahu is in a profoundly weakened position to control the political horse-trading involved.

Yet had the Kahanist group Jewish Power, like other Israeli far-right parties, decided not to stand in last week’s election, the present deadlock in the Knesset may have been reversed.

The party, known in Hebrew as Otzma Yehudit, garnered over 83,000 votes — and if half of those had otherwise voted for the Likud or supported United Torah Judaism, then Benjamin Netanyahu would confidently be preparing for his sixth term as prime minister this week.

Mr Netanyahu made strenuous efforts to ensure no right wing vote was wasted. He effectively bribed Moshe Feiglin with a cabinet post if his Zehut party did not run, but Jewish Power, regarded as racist, unpredictable and unredeemable, would not budge.

The Supreme Court accused its leaders Benzi Gopstein and Baruch Marzel of blatant racism and barred them from standing in the election. Visits by Likud representatives, appeals in the freebie pro-Netanyahu daily Yisrael Hayom, and pleas by sympathetic rabbis were to no avail.

One central factor was the disproportionate support of many Lubavitcher Chasidim for this controversial party.

Despite appeals by the Chabad Council of Rabbis not to waste their vote, many Lubavitch members disregarded the advice. Polls indicate that 22 per cent of people of Kfar Chabad in central Israel and 37 per cent of the Jews in Hebron, where there is a Lubavitch enclave, voted for Jewish Power.

This alliance between Lubavitch Chasidim and the ideological disciples of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane — who once worked as a kippah-less informer for the FBI under the name of Michael King — was forged by a Lubavitch rabbi, Shalom Dov Wolpo.

At the suggestion of the late Lubavitcher rebbe, who was opposed to any territorial concessions to the Palestinians, Wolpo wrote Da’at Torah in 1979 to oppose the Camp David peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. Wolpo was also an early believer that the rebbe was the messiah.

He followed a career of opposing any negotiations to return territory. This was accompanied by threats and incitement — he believed that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s stroke could be interpreted as divine retribution for the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. As an anti-Zionist, he also refused to mark Israel’s Independence Day.

Wolpo formed the Eretz Yisrael Shelanu party in November 2008, which eventually merged with Kahanist factions to form Otzma Yehudit.

Mr Netanyahu’s efforts to integrate Otzma Yehudit into a potential right wing bloc was criticised throughout the diaspora but most strongly in the United States, where the Kahanist doctrine emerged as the Jewish Defence League in the late 1960s.

The normally staid Aipac, the prime advocacy organisation for Israel in the US, said it would refuse to meet the party’s representatives even if it was in government. 

Schisms within the Lubavitch movement after the rebbe’s passing in 1994 produced a lack of central authority and a clear inability to direct its followers to vote for Mr Netanyahu and a right wing coalition. The continuing relationship with Jewish Power will undoubtedly harm its outreach movement worldwide. It flies in the face of Lubavitch’s public welcome to all Jews.

And so it proved only too accurate when Ayelet Shaked, leader of the right-wing Yamina party, warned a wasted vote for Jewish Power might prevent the formation of a right wing government.

Benny Gantz may soon be thanking many Lubavitchers for their shortsightedness in placing him in the prime minister’s chair. As his deputy, Yair Lapid commented: “Followers of Meir Kahane do not belong in a knesset under the portrait of Herzl.”

Jewish Chronicle 26 September 2019

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