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ISRAEL: Specter of Meir Kahane continues to haunt politics

November 16, 2009 |  7:15 am
Israel-kahana_meir-knessetTwo decades after his party was banned from running for seats in the parliament, Rabbi Meir Kahane and his ideas are once more on its agenda.

Recently, right-wing legislator Michael Ben-Ari asked to hold a discussion in parliament in memory of Kahane, an American-born rabbi who had founded the Jewish Defense League before moving to Israel and founding the militantly nationalist Kach movement that advocated removal of Arabs from biblical Israel. In 1988, Israeli law was amended to bar candidates who incited racism from running for parliament. Kahane, who had held a seat for four years at the time, was banned, and the party was outlawed altogether in 1994.
Kahane was assassinated in New York in 1990; some still subscribe to his views.

Ben-Ari filed a motion for a memorial discussion in parliament to mark the assassination anniversary. A reporter spotted it on the list and queried parliament speaker Rubi (Reuven) Rivlin, who removed it, calling it a provocation. Ben-Ari has challenged Rivlin's decision and has brought it up before a parliamentary committee that will vote on it coming few days.

It turns out that other parties expressed keen interest in the issue -- but not Israeli political parties.

Rivlin's office received a letter from the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv two weeks ago, asking whether the planned discussion mentioned in the media was indeed going to be held, pointing out that special U.S. envoy Geroge Mitchell was following this closely and with concern. U.S. officials asked for an answer by the end of the day. They got it: Rivlin replied that he would not approve the discussion. Ben-Ari was notified of the decision a week later, when Rivilin informed the right-wing lawmaker that he would not be allowed to bring Kahane to the Knesset through the back door, end of story.

Ben-Ari was outraged to learn of the embassy letter: "Such blatant intervening of the U.S. administration in the Israeli parliament should worry every Israeli citizen, certainly everyone in the Knesset. I wish to remind that I was elected to the Knesset by Israeli citizens in the independent state of Israel and what Mitchell did crossed a red line."

Likud lawmaker Yariv Levine, head of the committee trying to reach a compromise, found the American interest inappropriate. Sure, Israeli lobbyists also try to persuade lawmakers to support or oppose certain issues, he said, but this is different from attempting to determine the parliament's agenda. As for the subject itself, Levine said it's a complicated precedent -- if only for reasons of protocol, which calls for a mourning session to be held in the event of a death of a parliament member. One such meeting was duly held after Kahane's murder, and Levine doesn't think exceptions should be made.

Israel Radio's legal commentator, Moshe Negbi, noted that not only had Kahane's movement and ideas been banished from parliament but that Rabin had outlawed all Kahane offshoots as terror organizations and said they would be dealt with like Hamas. The Knesset wouldn't dream of holding a memorial session for a Hamas terrorist, Negbi said. Kahane's ideas degrade the parliament and democracy, he said, but so does the American intervention, which infringed on the Knesset's sovereignty to determine its agenda -- something even the government is not allowed to do.

Kach (and offshoot Kahane Chai) is listed by the State Department as a foreign terrorist organization. A spokesman for the U.S. Embassy told the Jerusalem Post that commemorating Kahane in parliament would be harmful to the peace process at a time when U.S. officials are trying to get everyone back to the negotiation table.

It's also reported that the embassy was holding up Ben-Ari's request for a visa to enter the U.S., over unfinished police business dating back to the disengagement protests. Some talk-backers pointed out that even Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had been allowed into the U.S.

In a radio spot, Ben-Ari has also invited the public to a Kahane memorial evening. It was promptly removed after a complaint from the left-wing organization Peace Now. The ad ran once on Israel Radio, a public station belonging to the Israel Broadcasting Authority. Barely 20 seconds, it was sandwiched between a dozen or so assorted advertisements and, ironically, an interview with former left-wing legislator Zehava Galon explaining why she wouldn't attend the annual rally in former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's memory, which she said was selling out into the warm embrace of consensus instead of emphasizing the peace platform that got Rabin assassinated. (President Obama attended, sort of, by video.)

Broadcasting in Israel has tangled with sensitive political issues before. Earlier this year, Israel Radio as well as a commercial TV station nixed an ad inviting the public to visit the Gush Katif Museum for a commemoration of what was the Jewish settlement in Gaza until its expulsion during the disengagement. The broadcasting bodies suggested the museum not use the word "expulsion" but perhaps "evacuation" or "eviction." The case made it all the way to the supreme court, which pulled out a Hebrew dictionary and ruled that "expulsion" was in fact accurate -- but vetoed the ad altogether.

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem.

Top: Rabbi Meir Kahane. Credit: Knesset website