The origins of the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) Party are deeply rooted in the Kach movement, established by Rabbi Meir Kahane. Kahana’s public career commenced in 1968 with the creation of the Jewish Defense League in the United States, which operated on the principle that Jewish violence is a legitimate response to violence against Jews. In 1971, Kahane immigrated to Israel, shifting his focus toward Arabs and positing that Jewish terrorism was a necessary counter to Arab terrorism, exempt from the constraints of democratic state laws.[1]

Central to the political platform of his movement was the notion of retribution against Israeli Arabs, a theme Kahane often revisited following terrorist incidents and other violent events.[2] His agenda included the expulsion of Arabs from Israel, Judea, Samaria, and Gaza; the imposition of Israeli sovereignty over all the Land of Israel territories; and the establishment of a Halachic state, replacing the democratic-secular regime with a theocratic Jewish governance. Kahane’s anti-establishment stance put him at odds with the religious national statism approach (Mamlachtiyut), and his actions toward Israeli Arabs were met with resistance from the Religious Zionism rabbinical establishment.

Kahane’s political journey led to a Knesset election run in 1973, under the “League List,” originating from the Jewish Defense League in Israel, which came to be known by the acronym “Kach.” In 1984, Kahane was elected to the 11th Knesset under the “Kach Movement (Founded by Rabbi Meir Kahane),” securing 1.2% of the votes. His entry into the Knesset, despite the Election Commission’s failed disqualification attempt, triggered a significant response. This led to the 1986 amendment of Section 7a of the Basic Law of the Knesset, stating that a list promoting racism is ineligible for general election participation. Key figures in this amendment included Knesset Member Zevulun Hammer of Mafdal, who articulated the struggle against Kach and Kahanism as a fight for “our very moral existence . . . for the spiritual and Jewish image of the State of Israel and Israeli society.”[3] This amendment ultimately led to the disqualification of the list from the 1988 elections.

In November 1990, after Kahane was assassinated in New York, the party split into two factions: “Kach,” led by Baruch Marzel and Noam Federman, and “Kahane Hai,” headed by his son Binyamin Kahane. Both factions were barred from participating in the 1992 elections for the 13th Knesset. Pedahzur views this disqualification as evidence of the effectiveness of the  “vaccinating democracy” doctrine’s against “disguised parties”—extremist parties that use subterfuge to gain legitimacy. The 1994 massacre in the Cave of the Patriarchs by Dr. Baruch Goldstein, a member of the Kach Party in the 11th and 12th Knesset, led to the Party being declared a terrorist organization and subsequently outlawed.

Over the years, veterans of the Kach movement ran in several Knesset elections under varying list names, leadership, and ideological platforms. In the 18th Knesset elections in 2009, the movement’s representative, Dr. Michael Ben Ari, was elected as the fourth member on the National Union list.


Current Iteration—Otzma Yehudit

The party adopted the name “Otzma Yehudit” in preparation for the 20th Knesset elections in 2015, led by Dr. Michael Ben Ari and aligned with “Yahad,” headed by Shas veteran Eli Yishai. Baruch Marzel, a member of Otzma Yehudit, secured the fourth position on the Knesset list but failed to surpass the newly raised electoral threshold of 3.25% of the votes.

The transformation of the Kach movement into various entities, under new names and changing agendas, can be interpreted as a process of moderation within a religious ideological movement striving for broader electoral appeal or alternatively as part of the ongoing “party in disguise” strategy. The perception of these incarnations as merely a “party in disguise” has been reinforced by repeated attempts to disqualify the renewed versions of the party and its candidates over the years.

Otzma Yehudit’s current guiding principles emphasize two main identity aspects: a right-wing political stance and religious identity. The party’s earlier focus on establishing a Halachic state, a hallmark of Rabbi Meir Kahane’s ideology, has been replaced by emphasizing Otzma Yehudit’s non-sectoral character, most of its members being described as “wearers of a transparent Kipa,” indicating a connection to Jewish tradition without strict observance of Torah and mitzvot.

As of August 2022, Otzma Yehudit’s website highlights its political right-wing orientation, Jewish identity, and non-sectoralism, replacing the former “Our principles” page. The previous page presented the party’s commitment to the three foundational principles—the Land of Israel, the Torah of Israel, and the people of Israel—the golden triangle of Religious Zionism. Currently, the party emphasizes a pan-Israeli-Jewish identity, moving away from the previous call for the expulsion of those opposing the Jewish state, which was on the website under the title “Emigration of the enemies of Israel.”[4] This shift is a contentious point in the debate over Otzma Yehudit’s affiliation with the Religious Zionism camp. According to Hellinger, the removal of these messages from the website could indicate political moderation or a reissue of a “disguised party” aiming to assimilate Rabbi Meir Kahane’s ideas among the general Israeli public in a more acceptable manner.[5]


2019 General Elections

In the lead-up to the April 2019 general elections, Otzma Yehudit, under the leadership of Michael Ben-Ari and Itamar Ben-Gvir, joined the “Union of Right-Wing Parties” list. The list also included “The Jewish Home,” led by Rabbi Rafi Peretz, and “The National Union,” led by Bezalel Smotrich. Previous alliances with far-right parties did not resonate significantly within the national religious sector. However, the inclusion of those perceived as Rabbi Meir Kahane’s successors into a list that also included Mafdal’s “successor” sparked widespread protests within the National Religious sector. This controversy ignited a debate about the political dilemma of whether cooperation with Otzma Yehudit exceeds the boundaries of legitimacy for parties identifying with the Religious Zionism camp.


Ideological Defiance

Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein, a prominent figure in the liberal subgroup of Religious Zionism and head of the Mount Etzion Yeshiva, urged his students not to vote for the list that included Otzma Yehudit, stating that “the addition of Otzma Yehudit to the Jewish Home’s Knesset list is not a political issue but a religious and moral one.” He criticized Otzma Yehudit for being “a group that idolizes power, is indifferent to violence, venerates a mass murderer (Baruch Goldstein, who killed 29 Arab worshipers and wounded over a hundred in the Cave of the Patriarchs on Purim 1994), and harbors deep hatred towards many Jews and non-Jews.” According to Rabbi Lichtenstein, embracing this group within the Religious Zionist parties would constitute “blasphemy.”

Rabbi Benny Lau, also from the liberal faction of Religious Zionism, strongly condemned the intention to include Otzma Yehudit in a joint list with the Jewish Home party, likening it to “a racial doctrine akin to the Nuremberg Laws.” Rabbi Rafi Peretz’s pragmatic justification, aimed at preventing the loss of right-wing votes, was rebuffed by Rabbi Lau, who criticized Peretz’s approach: “Rabbi Rafi Peretz seeks to extinguish a fire, but his chosen ally brings a fuel can.”

Rabbi Yehuda Gilad, rabbi of Kibbutz Lavi and head of the Kibbutz Ma’ale Gilboa Yeshiva, disagreed with Rabbi Benny Lau’s comparison of Otzma Yehudit to the Nazis but categorically rejected the idea of associating the Jewish Home and National Union parties, followers of Rabbi Kook, with Otzma Yehudit, which adheres to Meir Kahane’s “racist and hateful teachings.” Rabbi Gilad also dismissed the pragmatic argument for the alliance, stating that “even the apparent danger to the Jewish Home party cannot justify such an obscene connection. The risk to the Jewishness and morality of Israeli society is great and worse than that.”


Rabbinical Compromise and Pragmatism

Rabbi Yaakov Medan, co-head of the Mount Etzion Yeshiva, proposed a compromise regarding Otzma Yehudit’s inclusion. Despite disagreeing with Otzma Yehudit’s ideology, he accepted the coalition as a “technical bloc” due to time constraints and concerns over wasted votes. However, Rabbi Medan insisted on one non-negotiable condition: the removal of the portrait of Dr. Baruch Goldstein, displayed in Itamar Ben-Gvir’s living room.

Rabbi Eli Sadan, founder, and head of the Bnei David Pre-Military Academy in Eli, initially struggled with Otzma Yehudit’s inclusion. He noted a divergence in their approach from the more “mamlachti” stance of his faction. Rabbi Sadan’s adherence to the hyper-state philosophy of Rabbi Zvi Tau, which sanctifies all state institutions, made him especially resistant to those opposing these institutions.[6] Nevertheless, Rabbi Sadan was eventually persuaded by the pragmatic need to secure votes for the right wing, particularly after Naftali Bennett’s departure from the Jewish Home to form the New Right Party, and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s insistence on the necessity of the union of the parties for a right-wing government. This pragmatism overrode Rabbi Sadan’s sectoral considerations.


Political Dynamics within Religious Zionism

The controversy over Otzma Yehudit’s place within the national religious sector extended to political figures in the sector. Rabbi Rafi Peretz, chairman of the Jewish Home, shared Rabbi Sadan’s concerns regarding statehood. In contrast, the Jewish Home’s CEO, Nir Orbach, opposed the unification, viewing it as a fundamental change to the party’s identity. Despite these reservations, the party institutionally approved the alliance as a “technical bloc.”

Naftali Bennett, chairman of the New Right Party, opposed any partnership with Otzma Yehudit, citing a significant ideological chasm. Itamar Ben-Gvir of Otzma Yehudit countered Bennett’s stance, arguing that those who abandon their party will also abandon the Land of Israel.

Two political figures publicly opposed the inclusion of Otzma Yehudit in the “Union of Right-Wing Parties” list. Amiad Taub, chairman of the Jewish Home’s Council of Branch Heads, resigned, stating that the party no longer served as a unifying force among Jews. Yifat Ehrlich, a Jewish Home Knesset candidate, also withdrew, citing both ideological and pragmatic concerns.

To counter objections, Itamar Ben-Gvir of Otzma Yehudit emphasized pragmatic reasons for the union, arguing that without it, no Religious Zionist party might make it into the Knesset. He also defended Otzma Yehudit’s credentials as a Religious Zionist party, highlighting its support for the IDF, including military service and charitable acts toward soldiers.


The Debate over Otzma Yehudit’s Legitimacy

The discourse about Otzma Yehudit’s inclusion in the Religious Zionist camp, especially regarding its ethos of statehood, was polarized. The more liberal faction opposed the move based on ideological grounds such as racism, xenophobia, and a lack of statehood, while the conservative faction sought justifications to ease the act by referencing support for the IDF. The decision to include Otzma Yehudit was primarily driven by pragmatic concerns, particularly the shock from Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s departure from the Jewish Home and fears of diminishing right-wing power in the subsequent elections. These concerns were linked by many in the Religious Zionism camp to the 1992 sectoral split, which they believe led to the Oslo Accords. Added to this was the intense pressure from Prime Minister Netanyahu to forge the union to ensure a right-wing victory.

In the ensuing elections, the Union of Right-Wing Parties list secured only five seats, and Otzma Yehudit’s Itamar Ben-Gvir, who placed eighth in the list, did not enter the Knesset. The discourse on Otzma Yehudit’s legitimacy resurfaced for the 22nd Knesset elections in September of the same year. This time, the national religious parties ran on a joint list called Yamina, led by Ayelet Shaked, but without Otzma Yehudit, which chose to run independently.

The debates surrounding Otzma Yehudit shifted to technical considerations, such as the potential impact of a separate run on the right-wing bloc and the risk of Otzma not crossing the threshold, potentially leading to a left-leaning government. Ben-Gvir, Otzma Yehudit’s chairman, justified the independent run by emphasizing the party’s distinct right-wing stance and aiming for realistic placement in the Knesset.

Leaders of other national religious sector parties continued to focus on technical arguments for running on a single list without delving into value-based reasoning.


Otzma Yehudit in Subsequent Elections

Ahead of the 23rd Knesset elections, the debate intensified. This time, Naftali Bennett, leading the “right-wing” list, refused any agreement with Otzma Yehudit. He emphasized the unbridgeable gap between his right-wing stance and Otzma Yehudit’s glorification of Baruch Goldstein and alienation from state institutions: “I am Jewish. Israeli. Right-wing . . . it’s not right-wing. It’s anarchy.” Bennett’s statement marked a definitive stance against attempts by Otzma Yehudit to align with the religious-nationalist list.

Itamar Ben-Gvir responded defiantly, asserting Otzma Yehudit’s Religious Zionist identity independently of external validation and highlighting the religious Zionist background of his list’s members.

The Knesset elections held on March 24, 2021, saw a repeat of the dual-running pattern of national religious sector parties, with the right led by Naftali Bennett on one side and the ‘Religious Zionist’ list, including Otzma Yehudit, on the other. The latter was presented as a “technical bloc” aimed at ensuring the establishment of a right-wing government post-election.

In these elections, the ‘Religious Zionist’ list won seven seats, one belonging to Otzma Yehudit’s chairman, Itamar Ben-Gvir. Ahead of the November 2022 elections, polls indicated a significant increase in Otzma Yehudit’s strength, leading to an agreement between Bezalel Smotrich, chairman of the Religious Zionist Party, and Ben-Gvir, granting equal power to both parties in the Knesset list composition. The list won 14 seats, with six allocated to Otzma Yehudit, including key ministerial positions led by Ben-Gvir as the minister of National Security.

The 2021 and 2022 elections saw no significant discourse within the national religious sector regarding Otzma Yehudit’s legitimacy, neither ideological nor pragmatic. This absence of debate suggests either exhaustion of the repeated discourse or a gradual process of legitimization for Otzma Yehudit within the national religious sector, fueled by value-based arguments heard in the first round of elections and the endorsement from the right-wing bloc leader, Benjamin Netanyahu. Hellinger views this as evidence of the qualified acceptance of Kahanism, at least in its softened form, within the Israeli right.[7]

[1] Ehud Sprinzak, Brother against Brother: Violence and Extremism in Israeli Politics from Altalena to the Rabin Assassination (New York: Free Press, 1999), 207–210.

[2] Ami Pedahzur and Dafna Canetti-Nisim, “Kahane Is Dead, and He Lives in Israel,” Panim, 20 (2002): 219 [In Hebrew].

[3] Yechiam Weitz, “Kahane Was Seen as an Abomination. His Successor Ben-Gvir Is a ‘Celeb Running From Studio to Studio,’” Haaretz, June 28, 2021 [In Hebrew].

[4] Koenig & Rahat, 2022, p. 632.

[5] Moshe Hellinger, State of Israel to Where?: Challenges to the Jewish and Democratic Identity of the State of Israel and an Outline for Dealing with Them, with the participation of Baruch Zisser (Jerusalem: Magnes, 2019) [in Hebrew].

[6] Anat Roth, “Theories of Fundamentalism Tested against Reality: The Torani Stream of Religious-Zionism and its Struggles against the Disengagement Plan and the Destruction of Houses in Amona,” (PhD diss., Bar Ilan University, 2011) [in Hebrew].

[7] Hellinger, State of Israel to Where?