Tuesday, 26 February 2013

‘We’ll take over the Likud, we’ll take over the country’: Far-right Israeli MK Moshe Feiglin honored in NY

Moshe Feiglin was the star last night in Queens, New York. The far-right Israeli activist, West Bank settler and newly minted Member of Knesset (MK) wined and dined with some of his most ardent supporters in Fresh Meadows, an affluent neighborhood in Queens with a large Jewish community. Feiglin wore a white shirt with a red tie and worked the room, shaking hands and taking pictures with American Jewish supporters of his Manhigut Yehudit (Jewish Leadership) movement. Feiglin was in his element, even though he had only recently touched down in New York and was heading right back to Israel that same night.

Members of the audience received free professional pictures, which Feiglin signed throughout the night.
The mostly forty-and-up crowd had paid good money, and they now got to spend an intimate evening with their hero, who spoke about his plans to lead Israel and also touched on President Obama’s upcoming visit. The dinner was the latest example of how the far-right of the American Jewish community--a minority that remains influential--play an outsize role in fueling some of the most destructive elements of Israeli politics. In this case, the dinner, and the cash that went along with it, was held for the purposes of honoring a politician who advocates paying Palestinians to leave their land as well as destroying Palestinian infrastructure.
“We’ll take over the Likud, we’ll take over the country,” vowed Feiglin.

The event cost at least $120 to get in, and some paid even more with a “diamond” reservation going for $1,000. The money, according to one attendee who was a supporter of Feiglin, was going to the U.S. arm of Manhigut Yehudit, which has helped Feiglin’s political campaign with money from American supporters. They have a PO Box in Cedarhurst, New York (on Long Island), the location of what the party calls its “international” home.

The scene played out in Fresh Meadows' Chateau Steakhouse and the room was packed with about 100 supporters of Manhigut Yehudit. Feiglin was being honored by the Americans who had backed him every step of the way, a journey that has taken him from riling up right-wing Israeli activists in protest of the Oslo Accords to the halls of the Knesset.

“Here’s our member of Knesset, standing in the heart of Queens,” announced Shmuel Sackett, a longtime friend and associate of Feiglin who was born in the U.S. and also lives in a West Bank settlement in addition to his New York home. Both Sackett and Feiglin were supporters of the virulently racist Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was assassinated in 1990. In 2010, Feiglin said “I believe most of the things Rabbi Kahane said were true” and just recently reaffirmed his support for Kahane. Sackett is the former executive director of the banned Israeli political party Kahane Chai.

It was a “special evening” for Feiglin, as Sackett put it. Feiglin frequently comes to New York for annual dinners with his supporters. But this was the first time he was coming as a Member of the Israeli Knesset.
The audience, which was composed of people who, for the most part, knew each other, clapped at Sackett’s introduction to Feiglin.

The dinner attendees represented a vibrant right-wing Zionist community in New York that rears its head every time a prominent Palestine-related event is announced. Helen Freedman, the executive director of Americans for a Safe Israel and a ubiquitous presence at right-wing Israel events, was thanked for her longtime support of Feiglin by Sackett; she was part of the gaggle of Israel advocates who stood with Assemblyman Dov Hikind to smear and intimidate the students organizing the Brooklyn College event on the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

A Jewish Leadership movement supporter sitting next to me struck up a conversation and explained that Feiglin visits them every year. He, along with the other audience members, were big supporters of Feiglin who had given money to Feiglin’s most recent successful primary campaign, which led to his seat in the Knesset. According to the Jewish Daily Forward, Feiglin garnered $20,000 from American Jews in 2012 in the run-up to the Likud primary, which Feiglin rival Benjamin Netanyahu won.

While the $20,000 is not a large sum, it is only a fraction of the amount that American Jewish supporters have given to Feiglin’s movement over the years. According to a New York Times feature on tax-exempt American funds used for West Bank settlement growth, the U.S. arm of Manhigut Yehudit has raised $5.2 million over the past few years. Some of that money has gone to Mahigut Yehudit “community facilities,” some of which are indeed located in illegal settlements, like the extremist Kiryat Arba colony in Hebron. The Times reported that the U.S. group “skates close” to violating American law, since it is prohibited to use “charitable funds for political purposes at home or abroad.”

Given Feiglin’s ambition to be Israel’s prime minister, he will need a lot more cash in the future from his supporters in the U.S.

Before Feiglin took the stage, Sackett introduced a promotional film lauding Feiglin. When an image of Meir Kahane came on the screen, some audience members clapped. And when the film intoned that the Israeli mainstream derided Feiglin as someone who wants to “expel” Palestinians, one audience member yelled out a “woo!” while another clapped. The film followed Feiglin from his early days as the leader of the Zo Artzeinu (This is our land) movement, which used civil disobedience to protest the Oslo Accords. Feiglin was arrested and tried for sedition for his acts with Zo Artzeinu, and was sentenced to six months of community service.

Some of the film was devoted to his quest to gain leadership of the Likud party from within, a choice that some other right-wing Zionists have questioned.

Benjamin Netanyahu is quoted in the film as saying “he doesn’t belong” in Likud. Netanyahu is surely worried that Feiglin’s brazen disdain for Palestinians and ardent advocacy for Jewish control of the Temple Mount--Feiglin wants to

“expel the Moslem wakf from the Temple Mount and restore exclusive Israeli sovereignty over the Mount”--can only mean trouble for Israel’s international image. Feiglin seems to cares little about Israel's image and wants the country to stop receiving American aid. While Feiglin's vow to "take over the country” may appear to be electioneering bluster his power has certainly increased in recent years. Feiglin is part of a right-flank in Likud that wants to expel the old-guard members who cared for the semblance of Israeli democracy (for Jews only, of course), and they have had some success. The Likud party establishment even promoted Feiglin during the last campaign as a way to stave off the threat from the Jewish Home party.

Feiglin took the stage as members of the audience ate dinner. Although he didn’t make any surprising remarks, his disdain for President Barack Obama and the Palestinians shone through. His most controversial ideas were left out of the speech. Feiglin advocates for paying Palestinians to leave their land, whom he has described as “inferior” and “parasites.” He refuses to acknowledge that the Palestinians are a people, and has said that Israel should cut off water and electricity to those living in the occupied territories. In response to attacks from Palestinian militants, Feiglin wants to conquer “the area whose residents instigated the violence, their deportation and destruction of the area's infrastructure.”

“We’ve just reached the beginning,” of a journey, Feiglin told the adoring crowd. “I feel like you’re family. What can I tell you? I love you all.”

Feiglin said that “if I will not be the head of the Likud next time, the Likud will lose.” Towards the end of his remarks, he turned to the upcoming Obama visit. It was striking that Feiglin would refer to the president as “Barack Hussein Obama” in New York; you could feel the racism directed against a man who has protected Israel from diplomatic opprobrium time and time again and whose administration is giving Israel more aid than past administrations. Feiglin’s constant advocacy for Jonathan Pollard, the American spy for Israel who is a cause celebre on the Israeli right, was also on display. “If God forbid [Obama] will come without Pollard, he will speak to my empty chair, and I hope my chair will not be the only empty chair,” Feiglin said to applause, repeating an earlier vow to boycott Obama’s speech if Pollard remained in jail. He predicted that Obama’s visit will bring “tremendous pressure” and that “we should all be prepared for rough times.”

Only a short part of his prepared remarks were devoted to the “enemies” of Israel, but the question and answer session garnered a vow from Feiglin to never say hello to MK Haneen Zoabi--a sentiment that sounds similar to the so-called moderate Yair Lapid’s sneering remark that he would not work with the “Haneen Zoabiz.” Feiglin also predicted that both Lapid’s Yesh Atid party and Naftali Bennett’s HaBayit HaYehudi (Jewish Home) party would join Netanyahu’s coalition. And Feiglin reaffirmed his commitment to continue to pray at the Muslim holy site of the Noble Sanctuary, which the MK frequently visits and prays at, for which he has been arrested. Due to the sensitive nature of the religious site, Israeli authorities prohibit Jews from praying in the area.

Before I left for the night, I caught up with Feiglin for a brief interview, though he was reluctant since he was tired. Our conversation turned to Obama and how Feiglin thinks the visit will bring “a plan” for a two-state solution, which the MK called a recipe for “bloodshed.”

I asked, what should happen to the Palestinians if there is no two-state solution?
He looked at me like I was an idiot.

Feiglin then responded with something to the effect of, “who are you talking about?” (Since the restaurant was loud this part of my interview is jumbled in the audio.)

Feiglin pointedly refused to say “Palestinian” throughout the evening, which is no surprise considering he is on the record as saying:

“there is no Palestinian nation. There is only an Arab-speaking public which has suddenly identified itself as a people, a negative of the Zionist movement, parasites.”
When I said that Palestinians live under military occupation and have no rights, he asked me, “where did they live before?” After replying that they lived in historic Palestine, he lectured me to “go learn history” and read Joan Peters’ From Time Immemorial.

Feiglin also reaffirmed his plan to pay Palestinians to leave the occupied territories, and said that 50% would willingly leave.

That’s one of the signature ideas of the man who is a member of Israel’s ruling party and who has vowed to take it over. Last night in New York Feiglin made clear he does not want to stop at taking over the Likud -- he wants the whole country.


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