The Knesset: is it open to racists?

Mideast Israel Palestinians Rahm Emanuel

How far right should Jews go to defend themselves? Itamar Ben Gvir is an attorney and leader of far-right Oztma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, known to the public chiefly for his defense of far-right activists accused of hate crimes against Palestinians and other minorities. His clients have included several youths suspected of burning a Palestinian family alive in their home
(AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

A DEMOCRACY cannot be judged by the nature of every party in its government. Its power is its ability to encompass widely different viewpoints. Even in extreme cases such as apartheid South Africa, where democracy only existed among whites, every white South African could not be classified as racist. Now it is Israel’s turn to be tested.

For power’s sake, politicians do foolish things which can be exploited against them. In the western world, the most potent accusation which can be hurled against a society today is that it is racist. Political leaders need to tread very carefully on this territory; whether true or not, the stain of the accusation remains.

Black populist politicians in South Africa who hate Israel would be delighted to get a story from reputable sources questioning whether Israelis are racist. BDS South Africa, which has lost a lot of its punch recently, would revel in this and blow it sky-high.

Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave them some of this weaponry in deciding to merge two rightwing parties for the upcoming Israeli elections, the one completely acceptable, the other so militantly extreme and racist that it has provoked massive reaction among Jews worldwide, particularly Americans. He couldn’t have predicted the virulence of the reaction, both for and against his move. Eminent rabbis in America and Israel are at each others’ throats. His opponents have said: “Shame on you!” for joining hands with despicable people.

Where do South African Jews stand? Must they take a position? As this country tries to heal its racial wounds, which easily provoke volatile reactions, this Zionistic community is moderately right wing in Jewish affairs. Jewish leaders say forcefully that they want to live in harmony with others, including Arabs if they make peace with Israel, and declare support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But when Israel’s most fervent own proponents are arguing so intensely about its nature, which way should they turn?

According to Netanyahu’s plan, Israeli national religious party, The Jewish Home, will merge with the extremist party Jewish Power, which embraces the ideology of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, head of the Jewish Defence League founded in 1968. Kahane’s party, Kach, was designated a terrorist group by Israel and the United States in 1994 for its violent, racially motivated actions. Its blunt platform was to brutally expel all Arabs from Israel, in a way which makes people in the western world recoil. It perpetrated violent acts in different countries, and Kahane received jail sentences in America and Israel. His spectre has hung over Jewish affairs ever since, influencing modern Jewish far-right groups and promoting further violence, including in recent decades: In July 2003 the Shin Bet said “the threat to the life of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had grown” and “there was a threat from several dozen Kahanist extremists.”

Although Netanyahu’s motives were politically legitimate – to strengthen the rightwing bloc in the Knesset, rather than directly supporting Kach – it will not be judged this way by the world. Netanyahu feared that without the Kahanists joining them, The Jewish Home might not reach the electoral threshold to form a right-wing majority bloc.

An urgent statement by South African Jews on this issue would be important, even if just to deflect the accusation here that they support the Kahanists. Militant racism is part of South Africa’s history. It is dangerous for that genie to be let out of its bottle. Not only Israel must take great care on this, but the ball is also in the court of Jewish leaders in SA and elsewhere.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: 

Looming elections: Can the centre hold?

beit el clashes

Settlers and police: who will they vote for on April 9? Israeli settlers are on the right of the political spectrum and will play a key role in elections on July 8. In the picture, Israeli security forces clash with settlers at Beit El trying to prevent demolition of illegally constructed buildings, on July 28, 2015 (FLASH90). South African national elections are also due in on May 8, with the ANC likely to win, but with huge problems in the country


TWO ELECTIONS coming up will provoke serious arguments around South African Jewish dinner tables about values. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose rightist Likud party which has been in power since 1977, alternating with Labour, has declared a snap election for April 9; he leads a confident country at the pinnacle of its economic and political power. South African President Cyril Ramaphosa heads the African National Congress and presides over a depressed country in desperate economic and political crisis, which wants him to save it from going over the cliff. Elections will be on May 8.

Every democratic society has radicals on the extremes, and a centre holding it together. It is instructive to compare the two countries. Centrist South Africans fret over Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema, who claims to be on the left, but behaves like a fascist thug in a red overall, playing to the masses’ grossest emotions, like Hitler once did. Israel has radicals who would throw all the Palestinians out of their land, but a powerful centre skilled at knowing where the red lines are, and what would lead to war.

Netanyahu’s motives for calling the election are not so much about policies, but very personal: his concern about criminal charges against him for bribery, which the police have already recommended. If it was possible, he would probably have held elections sooner, so he would be doing so as leader of a popular, recently re-elected party. The Likud will almost definitely win. It’s a sad development: Israel’s previous great leaders, such as Menachem Begin, lived in small apartments and would never have flirted with corruption.

Netanyahu is a man accustomed to the trappings of power, but with his tail between his legs. According to polls, more than 50% of Israelis want him out. And his fight with the radicals, whether settlers or the ultra-Orthodox, constantly threatens to bring his government crashing down.

Ramaphosa represents the moderate left in his country, and is a resolute firefighter with a clean record, aiming to douse the meltdown from the failure for nine years of disgraced former president Jacob Zuma to govern effectively. But he has powerful political and tribal enemies; will he have sufficient time in office to do that?

The left in Israel is in disarray, both the moderate left and the radicals. It won’t recover anytime soon. But the centrist and extreme right has risen dramatically.

Bezalel Smotrich, for example, is leader of Israel’s furthest-right faction, the National Union party, and part of what he calls the “strong backbone” of the tent of the right. He could be called the Israeli equivalent of the racist, anti-white Malema. The media call him the “blue-eyed, bearded settler,” the youthful face of unashamed political and religious extremism. A second-generation settler, he was born in the Golan Heights and grew up in Beit El.

He is criticised as racist, homophobic, messianic and undemocratic – serious charges in Israel’s democracy. In 2005 the Shin Bet arrested him on suspicion of organising violent protests against the Gaza disengagement. He declared himself a “proud homophobe” and organised an anti-gay “Beast Parade” in Jerusalem to protest a gay pride parade, featuring goats and donkeys to ridicule the celebrating of so-called “deviant acts.”

To South Africans and the vast majority of ordinary Israelis, this comes across as bizarre. Smotrich would be unwelcome in South African politics – his views would be declared unconstitutional and branded as hate speech.

What attitude should Jews adopt towards the Malemas and Smotriches of this world? They vote in South Africa but think hard about Israel. Everyone must straddle the line between distaste and support.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: