Banning parties in Israel and the true test of democracy

An effort to keep Otzma from running for the Knesset, as was the case with Kahane’s Kach Party in the past, raises questions about who has the right to seek office.

Itamar Ben-Gvir (left) and Michael Ben-Ari of the Otzma Yehudit Party outside the elections committee, where political parties running for a spot in the upcoming Israeli elections present their party list, on Feb. 21, 2019. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Itamar Ben-Gvir (left) and Michael Ben-Ari of the Otzma Yehudit Party outside the elections committee, where political parties running for a spot in the upcoming Israeli elections present their party list, on Feb. 21, 2019. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

If the parties of the left had their way prior to last week, it would have spared Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a lot of the trouble he got into over the deal to merge two right-wing parties. By helping to bring together the Jewish Home Party with the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) Party, which is led by followers of the late extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane, he may have increased his chances of winning the next Knesset election on April 9. But by making it also likely that a Kahanist-like Otzma leader Michael Ben-Ari makes it into the Knesset, he stood accused of enabling racism.

Yet according to the Labor and Meretz parties, Otzma shouldn’t be allowed to run at all, whether with its new partner or on its own. The two left-wing parties have filed petitions with the Central Elections Committee seeking to get Otzma off the ballot on the grounds that it is racist and opposes the basic democratic principles of the state. Some have also raised the question of Otzma receiving funding from a yeshivah founded by Kahane that is considered by the U.S. State Department to be part of a terrorist organization.

It’s far from clear if the committee will look favorably on their petition or if an activist Israeli Supreme Court will intervene if they have the chance to oust Otzma. But it calls to mind the original effort to ban Kahane from the Knesset and raises the question of whether this exercise is a defense of democracy or, in fact, undermines it.

In 1988, the same committee voted to remove Kahane’s Kach Party from the ballot. Kahane had won a single seat in 1984, and polls showed that it was likely that total might increase to three in his next try after the outbreak of the first intifada in the previous year. While Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir said that he would never include the volatile Kahane in a coalition, some in his Likud Party believed that letting him run would ensure that the left couldn’t form a government—the same strategy that motivated Netanyahu to bring Otzma into the fold now.

But some in the Likud and other parties viewed Kahane, who had proposed laws banning sexual relations between Jews and Arabs, and prohibiting meetings between Jewish and Arab youths, as a blight on the country’s democracy and wanted him out of the Knesset by any means possible. The same committee had banned him in 1984, but the Supreme Court had overruled it by saying that he had violated no law in advocating the “transfer” of all Arabs out of Israel. In the intervening years, the Knesset passed a law banning “racist” or “undemocratic” parties from running and in 1988, and the high court kept Kach off the ballot.

Kahane was assassinated in New York in 1990; four years later, his movement was banned as a terrorist group in both the United States and Israel after one of his followers, Baruch Goldstein, murdered 29 Muslim worshippers on Feb. 25, 1994 (and was also killed that day), at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron.

But the revival of his movement—albeit under a new name and with a platform that doesn’t include the same demand for mass ethnic cleansing of Arabs—is controversial because Otzma’s leaders still consider Kahane to be their mentor.

As I wrote last week, Netanyahu’s critics aren’t wrong to blame him for making a deal with the devil. Allowing Kahanists into a government coalition crosses a dangerous line, even if the electoral math makes sense under Israel’s arcane proportional voting system. This will make the job of the pro-Israel community in fighting the “apartheid state” lies of the BDS movement that much harder even if, as is likely, Otzma has no influence over a future Netanyahu government.

Yet that doesn’t mean that Labor and Meretz are right to seek a ban on the party or its allies.

Part of the problem with their argument is that it is profoundly hypocritical. Neither Labor nor Meretz seems to have any problem with the presence on the ballot of Israeli-Arab parties that are either anti-democratic—as is the case with the Communists of Hadash and the Islamists of Ra’am, who are aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood movement. The latter’s anti-Zionist stand can be fairly accused of racism. Those two parties and the more moderate Islamists of Ta’al and the secular Arab nationalists of Balad not only oppose the basic Zionist principles of the state, but also seek its elimination. The left has no objections to these parties running or even being part of the government.

Is the Supreme Court really prepared to say that racist and undemocratic parties are out of the question unless they are ethnically Arab in character?

Banning Otzma for its alleged embrace of “transfer” also brings up the fact that many of those running for the Knesset think hundreds of thousands of Jews should be evicted from their homes in the West Bank.

Leaving aside the question of hypocrisy, the idea of keeping anyone from running for office simply because we think their views are despicable is very troubling. It’s true that the Nazis achieved power in no small measure because of their electoral victories in Weimar Germany. Some believe that since democracy is not a suicide pact, it means that fascists and Communists and perhaps also Islamists have no place in a free election rooted in principles they seek to destroy.

If we truly believe in democracy and that good ideas inevitably defeat bad ones, then this is not the path to follow. Whatever we think about Otzma—and those who abhor it and lament Netanyahu’s arm’s length embrace of it are not wrong—keeping it off the ballot will solve nothing.

Talk of banning parties or ideas, no matter how hateful, doesn’t defend democracy. Those who wish to defeat Otzma should do so at the polls, not in the courts.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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