By Rabbi Steven Garten
It is mid-March and all I want to do is revel in the first signs of spring.
The phenomena know as spring training commenced last month. For the uninitiated or uninterested, this means that professional baseball has awakened from its winter hibernation. Players who have signed major or minor league contracts have gathered in Florida or Arizona to wash off the winter sleep and prepare for the coming season. It is the best of times. No one has lost a meaningful game yet. Past failures or even successes are sublimated to unbridled expectations.
I do not want politics to interrupt my fantasies of a Blue Jays World Series appearance. I do not want stories of political corruption and undo political interference to inhibit my dreams of no-hitters and perfectly pitched nine-inning games. I certainly do not want the chaos of the Israeli election campaign to spoil my hopes for an early spring. Yet, once again, the land of my ancestors reels me back to reality. Once again, against my will, I turn eastward, not to the south or west.
When all eyes should be focused on hateful anti-Semitic statements by U.S. Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, disturbing anti-Semitic acts in France, and accusations of anti-Semitism against British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel makes an alliance with the extremist party Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power).
The choice of the Israeli prime minister to facilitate a merger this racist party – the descendant of Meir Kahane’s outlawed Kach party – into somewhat more mainstream party of religious Zionists, the Jewish Home is more than just politics. Otzma Yehudit’s platform calls for the annexing of the occupied territories, rejecting a Palestinian state, expelling “enemies of Israel” – a euphemism for Arabs – and taking “ownership” of the Temple Mount, a code word for destruction.
The ability of Netanyahu to successfully navigate the arcane Israeli political structure is well known. He has survived criticisms for a decade. Yet this decision has drawn rebuke not just from the usual suspects, but from the American liberal Jewish establishment and middle-of-the-road Jewish establishment. AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee declared Otzma Yisrael ideas “reprehensible.” They vowed not have any contact with its leaders should they enter the next Israeli government. Conservative commentators such as Bret Stephens of the New York Times, Eli Lake of Bloomberg, and Jay Nordlinger of the National Review all wrote denouncements of this action.
“I have admired Netanyahu for decades but now he has stayed too long. His dignity is ebbing away,” wrote Nordlinger.
The crass politics are disturbing, but what is more disturbing is that as we fight to convince the world that anti-Israel sentiment is not a distant cousin to anti-Semitism but a close relative, the Israeli prime minister has given the political agenda of Kahanism, a platform. Recall the 1995 massacre of 29 Palestinians in Hebron by Baruch Goldstein, an avowed follower of Kahane. Yigal Amir, the assassin of Yitzhak Rabin, claimed to be inspired by Goldstein and the writings of Kahane. In 1984, when Meir Kahane, a newly elected MK, spoke from the podium in the Kinneret, the Likud members, led by Yitzhak Shamir, walked out. Shamir called Kahane “a dangerous character.”
It will be written many times that the election in Israel is for Israelis. It will appear in many magazines and newspapers that the chances of this party having representatives in an Israeli government are slim. It will stated by many supporters of Israel that criticism of Israel only gives support to its enemies. All of this may be true. But the paths walked by the government of Israel intersect with our own. How do we stand and call out anti-Semitism in all its forms and not criticize the prime minister of Israel for offering a home to the party of racism? How do we encourage our children to love Israel and to simultaneously teach them to denounce racism when the prime minister makes a political alliance with a racist party? How do we criticize the governments of Poland and Hungary for using any means possible to ensure their election, even the manipulation of historical fact, and not decry the same behaviour by the Israeli prime minister?
I can ignore most politicians during the six weeks of spring training. Soon enough, illusions will fade away and I will once again face reality. But I can’t ignore the rehabilitation of Kahanism. There should be no illusions about its ultimate goal, it is not winning the World Series.