Otzma Yehudit, what you need to know about the political party of Jewish Extremists

Otzma Yehudit Party (Photo: KNI Staff)

When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.”
Leviticus 19:33-34

The largest political party that didn’t make it into the Knesset this past election was the extreme right-wing Otzma Yehudit. With a little over 80,000 votes, they received 1.88% of the votes, half-way from the electoral threshold of 3.25%

The party was established ahead of the 2013 election, but its members have gotten together in different constellations and reorganizations in the past. One of their members, Michael ben Ari, served as a Knesset member between 2009 and 2013.

In 2012 a Messianic ministry sent Bibles with the Old and New Testament to a number of Knesset members, Ben Ari among them. He protested by publicly tearing it up in front of cameras, saying that “this despicable book caused the inquisitions and the death of millions of Jews.”

The speaker of the Knesset at the time, Reuven Rivlin (who is now the President of Israel), severely reprimanded Ben Ari for it. Eventually the Israeli court ruled that this act as well as other racist remarks he made have disqualified him from running for office again.

Another member of the party is Ben-Zion Gopstein. He is the founder of the anti-assimilation organization Lehava, which organized the violent protest against the Messianic concert in Jerusalem earlier this year. Gopstein was also banned from being a candidate to the Knesset due to racism and violence.

Both Ben Ari and Gopstein, as well as other members of Otzma Yehudit, were all disciples of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, and former members of his political party “Kach.” Kach was founded in 1971 but not elected into the Knesset until 1984, and also then only had one Knesset member, Kahane himself.

Kach advocated for full takeover of the West Bank and Gaza and deportation of all Arabs to neighbor countries. As a Knesset member, Kahane tried in vain to forbid mixed marriages, including forced divorce on the already existing ones, and ban non-Jews from full citizenship. Due to a new law that bans racist parties, Kach was not able to run for Knesset from 1988 and onwards.

Kach activists also initiated “revenge” operations. This was mostly vandalism in Arab neighborhoods, but after Kahane’s death in 1990, more serious attacks ensued. In 1992 four activists murdered two Arabs in the Old City of Jerusalem with a hand grenade, and in 1994 a member of the party, Baruch Goldstein, murdered 29 praying Muslims in Hebron. Kach claimed that he did it on his own accord, but the Israeli court was not convinced. Kach was labeled as a terror organization and banned. The organization was dismantled.

Otzma Yehudit of today does not have any outspoken racism in its program, and is therefore allowed to run for Knesset. It does however include many of the same names as Kach did, including names that are banned from running for Knesset. They have softened their messages somewhat and now advocate for convincing Arabs to leave Israel, in exchange for compensation. Their current leader, Itamar Ben Gvir, was a young activist in Kach in the 80s, but he claims that he is not the same as he was in his younger years, and that he does not condone violence against Arabs.

Before the April 2019 elections Benjamin Netanyahu pushed for a joint run of the Bait Yehudi settler party together with Otzma Yehudit which did occur. Even if this was just an attempt to get their votes to count towards a government rather than being thrown away, it still made many Messianic Jews angry with Netanyahu. Otzma Yehudit’s candidate did not make it to the Knesset.

For the September 2019 elections, the Yamina right wing party negotiated with Otzma Yehudit on running together, but the plan failed. Otzma Yehudit ran on its own as an independent party. This time Netanyahu warned that they wouldn’t pass the threshold and that a vote for them was wasted. They claimed on the other hand that no right-wing government could be formed without them. Now, as they didn’t reach the Knesset and a right-wing government indeed can’t be formed, they are saying “told you so.”

All parliaments have their extremist politicians, and Israel is no exception. Their small numbers and mostly failed attempts to reach the Knesset proves that they are only in the fringes of Israeli society. Enemies of Israel and anti-Semites love to use these activists as proof that Israel is evil, but they neglect the fact that this is only a small extremist party with few voters.

The question is if their softened tone has made them more acceptable, and whether the negotiations around the latest elections has legitimized them. And if so, will it be enough for them to eventually reach the Knesset again?