Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich, left, and Jewish Power leader Itamar Ben-Gvir. (Photo credit: Gili Yaari/Flash90)
What is the Religious Zionism coalition?
Religious Zionism is an extreme right-wing Israeli political coalition made up of three overtly racist, Jewish supremacist, homophobic parties: Religious Zionism, Jewish Power, and Noam. They united for the 2022 election campaign under deals brokered by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose Likud party they are allied with.
As with almost all of the other Zionist political parties in Israel, the parties in Religious Zionism strongly support Israel’s illegal settlement enterprise on occupied Palestinian land and oppose Palestinian statehood or self-determination in any part of Palestine/Israel. The two main objectives of the coalition’s official 2022 platform are expanding settlements, including legalizing more than 100 so-called settlement “outposts” built without official Israeli government approval, and further restricting the ability of Palestinians to build homes on their own land in the occupied West Bank, which is already severely limited by Israel.
Religious Zionism is closely associated with Rabbi Dov Lior, who is something of a spiritual leader to Jewish Power. An influential former chief rabbi of the West Bank settlement where Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich and Jewish Power leader Itamar Ben-Gvir live, Lior is notorious for his virulent racism against Palestinians and other non-Jews and for being the spiritual advisor to generations of violent Jewish extremists. Among other things, Lior issued a religious ruling condemning Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin as a traitor worthy of death before he was assassinated and counseled his killer; praised the US-born mass-murderer, also his student, who massacred 29 Palestinians in Hebron in 1994 as “a holier martyr than all the holy martyrs of the Holocaust”; repeatedly called for all Palestinians to be "cleansed" from Palestine/Israel; and described Arabs as "savages" and "evil camel riders”; In 2011, Lior was arrested on suspicion of incitement after he wrote a forward endorsing a book condoning the murder of non-Jewish civilians, including children. Lior is also one of the most prominent religious authorities encouraging messianic Jewish extremists to visit the flashpoint Noble Sanctuary Mosque complex in occupied East Jerusalem, threatening to spark a major religious conflagration in the region and beyond. During his victory speech on election night November 2022, Ben-Gvir called Lior to the stage and thanked him.
The coalition parties
The Religious Zionism party
Established during the 2021 election campaign, the Religious Zionism party was previously known as the Tekuma party and is still officially named National Union-Tekuma.
In 2017, National Union-Tekuma released a plan calling for formal annexation of the occupied Palestinian West Bank, and for Palestinians living in Palestine/Israel to accept permanent subjugation under Jewish Israeli rule by relinquishing their “national aspirations” or voluntarily leave. The plan was aggressively promoted by current Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich, then a Knesset member with the Jewish Home party, who actually called it “the subjugation plan” and said it was intended “to erase all Palestinian national hope.” Under the plan, indigenous Palestinians who don’t accept permanent subjugation under Israeli military rule and resist their occupiers “will be determinedly handled” by the Israeli army “with greater force [violence] than at present and under more comfortable conditions for us,” according to Smotrich.
Jewish Power (“Otzma Yehudit” in Hebrew)
Founded in 2012, Jewish Power is made up of followers of the late New York-born extremist Rabbi Meir Kahane. Jewish Power has been called a “legal rendition” of Kahane’s Kach party, which was banned from Israeli politics in the 1980s due to its virulent racism and extremist policies. Those policies included introducing legislation calling for “taxes and slavery” for Palestinians and other non-Jews in Palestine/Israel and forced expulsion for those who don’t submit, with strict racial segregation between those who remain and their Jewish overlords. In 1994, Kach, the Jewish Defense League, and other groups established or inspired by Kahane were labeled terrorist organizations by Israel and the United States after one of his followers, a Brooklyn-born settler, massacred 29 Palestinians as they prayed in the historic Ibrahimi Mosque in Hebron in the occupied West Bank.
Jewish Power’s platform (Hebrew) calls for establishing “a national authority for encouraging emigration” of Palestinians. It also calls for: “War on Israel’s enemies [that] will be total and without negotiation, concession or compromise… The establishment of sovereignty over all parts of Eretz Israel liberated in the Six-Day War [the West Bank and Gaza] and settlement of the enemies of Israel in the Arab countries that surround our small land.” On the subject of “Government and ethics,” the platform declares “we do not want to lose the Jewish State through war, peace or Western democracy.
In 2019, Jewish Power leaders Michael Ben-Ari, Baruch Marzel, and Bentzi Gopstein were banned by Israel’s Supreme Court from running for the Knesset because of their long history of extreme racism and inciting hatred and violence against Palestinians and left-wing Israelis.
During the 2022 campaign, one of Jewish Power’s candidates was caught on hidden camera admitting that some minor superficial efforts the party made to appear less extreme were just a “trick” to avoid being disqualified from running for overtly promoting racism and violence.
Formed in 2019, Noam is a small ultra-Orthodox party known primarily for its homophobic views, with a platform focused on opposing LGBTQ rights and the “destruction of the family.” During the 2019 campaign, Noam ran an ad comparing followers of Reform Judaism, left-wingers, and LGBTQ people to Nazis.
In November 2022, days after the election, Israeli police opened an investigation into Noam’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Zvi Tau, following allegations from at least eight women that he sexually assaulted them, including when they were children. Over the years, Tau has repeatedly defended others accused and convicted of sexual assault.
Notable members of the Religious Zionism coalition
Itamar Ben-Gvir, Leader of the Jewish Power party
- Ben-Gvir is a devoted follower of the notorious Rabbi Meir Kahane and a former member of Kahane’s outlawed Kach party. He lives in one of the most extreme Israeli settlements, Kiryat Arba, outside the Palestinian city of Hebron in the occupied West Bank. Days after the November 2022 election, Ben-Gvir took part in a memorial for Kahane, where he claimed the violent, virulently racist Kahane’s “main characteristic was love… Love of Israel without compromises or any other considerations.”
- Ben-Gvir wants to establish a “migration ministry” to expel indigenous Palestinian citizens of Israel who he deems “disloyal.” Following the November 2022 election, Ben-Gvir released a statement declaring: “it’s time to show [Palestinians] who is the master of the house here.”
- Ben-Gvir wants to impose full Jewish Israeli sovereignty over the Noble Sanctuary Mosque complex in occupied East Jerusalem, known as the Temple Mount to Jews, and has made numerous provocative visits to the site. Messianic Jewish extremists want to build a temple inside the 1,300-year-old Noble Sanctuary, one of the most sensitive holy sites in the world, threatening to ignite a major religious conflagration. In August 2022, Ben-Gvir visited the Noble Sanctuary and declared: “I am here, we are the owners, Israel is the owner of the Temple Mount.”
- A lawyer, Ben-Gvir is well-known in Israel for working with a group called Honenu that provides legal and financial support to right-wing Jews accused and convicted of violent attacks against Palestinians and left-wing Israelis. His clients include a man convicted of murdering three members of the Dawabsheh family, who were burned alive in their home in the occupied West Bank in an arson attack in 2015.
- In May 2021, Israel’s police commissioner blamed Ben-Gvir for igniting a surge of violence across Palestine/Israel because of his provocative actions in the Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in occupied East Jerusalem, where the Israeli government and settler groups are working to take over the homes of Palestinians and forcibly displace the families that own them. The commissioner told a closed-door meeting with government ministers: “The person responsible for this [violence] is Itamar Ben-Gvir.”
- In October 2022, Ben-Gvir pulled a gun and threatened to shoot Palestinian protesters in Sheikh Jarrah. In December 2021, Ben-Gvir pulled a gun on an Arab security guard who asked him to move his car, which was parked illegally.
- Over the years, Ben-Gvir has been indicted by Israeli courts more than 50 times, and convicted on 12 charges. In 2007, he was convicted of supporting a terrorist organization and inciting racism for promoting Kahane’s ideology.
- For many years, Ben-Gvir had a framed photo of Baruch Goldstein, the Brooklyn-born mass-murderer and fellow Kahane disciple who massacred 29 Palestinians in the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron in 1994, hanging in his living room. Ben-Gvir claims he took the photo down during the 2020 election campaign. He also once dressed as Goldstein for the Jewish holiday of Purim.
- Ben-Gvir was a parliamentary assistant to former Knesset member and fellow Kahane disciple Michael Ben-Ari, who was denied entry to the US in 2012 due to his links to Kahanist groups considered terrorist organizations by the US government.
- In 2010, Ben-Gvir protested the visit of President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel, to occupied East Jerusalem, calling Emmanuel (who is Jewish) an “antisemite” and “hater of the Jewish people.”
- In 1995, Ben-Gvir appeared on Israeli television holding a hood ornament stolen from the car of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, threatening: “We got to his car, and we’ll get to him, too.” At the time, right-wing Israelis were furious with Rabin for entering into negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization as part of the Oslo Accords. A few weeks after Ben-Gvir’s threat, Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist associated with a different Kahanist group.
Bezalel Smotrich, Leader of the Religious Zionism party, Former Minister of Transportation and Safety (2019-2020)
- A notorious racist, self-declared “proud homophobe,” and longtime far-right activist, Smotrich lives in the settlement of Kiryat Arba on occupied Palestinian land outside Hebron in the West Bank in a house that was built in violation of Israeli law as well as international law. As a member of the Jewish Home party, Smotrich was minister of transportation and safety under Netanyahu from 2019 to 2020.
- Smotrich wants to formally annex the occupied Palestinian West Bank and violently expel indigenous Palestinians who don’t accept permanent subjugation under Israeli rule. In 2017, while promoting a scheme he called “the subjugation plan,” Smotrich told a right-wing religious gathering: “according to Jewish law there must always be some inferiority,” and that any Palestinians or other non-Jews remaining in Palestine/Israel who accepted second-class status would be considered “resident alien.” He went on to say that the Israeli military “will know what to do” with Palestinians who resist. When asked whether this included killing whole Palestinian families, he replied: “In war, as in war.”
- During a Knesset debate in October 2021, Smotrich told Palestinian members of the Knesset that Palestinian citizens of Israel only remained inside Israel’s borders after the state’s establishment in 1948 because Israel’s first prime minister didn’t “finish the job” of ethnic cleansing them, stating: "You're only here by mistake, because [David] Ben-Gurion didn't finish the job, didn't throw you out in '48.” Approximately 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes and land during Israel’s establishment as a Jewish majority state, in what is known to Palestinians as the Nakba (“catastrophe” in Arabic).
- Smotrich has called for the building of a synagogue in the flashpoint Noble Sanctuary Mosque complex in occupied East Jerusalem and like Ben-Gvir supports the imposition of full Jewish Israeli sovereignty over the site. Both men are pushing for Jews to be allowed to pray openly in the Muslim holy site, despite the fact that traditionally Jews have prayed at the Western Wall adjacent to the Noble Sanctuary and Jewish religious authorities have opposed Jews visiting the Noble Sanctuary for theological reasons.
- Smotrich wants to enact a shoot to kill policy for Palestinians, including children, who throw stones at their Israeli occupiers. In 2018, he was temporarily banned from Twitter for tweeting that 16-year-old Palestinian Ahed Tamimi “should have gotten a bullet, at least in the knee,” for slapping an Israeli soldier who invaded her family’s property in the occupied West Bank shortly after her 15-year-old cousin was shot in the face by a soldier. In 2015, Smotrich claimed that an arson attack by Jewish extremists that killed three members of the Dawabsheh family, including an 18-month-old baby, was not an act of terrorism.
- In 2016, Smotrich, then a Knesset member from the Jewish Home party, which was part of Netanyahu’s coalition government, made headlines when he said Arab and Jewish mothers should be separated in maternity wards after his wife gave birth, stating: “My wife really isn’t a racist, but after giving birth she wants to rest and doesn’t want those mass parties that are the norm among the families of Arab women after birth.” He went on to explain: “Arabs are my enemies, and that’s why I don’t enjoy being next to them.”
- In 2015, during a Knesset committee meeting, he urged Jews not to mix with Arabs and claimed God ordered Jews not to sell homes to them, declaring “anyone who wants to protect the Jewish People and opposes mixed marriages is not a racist… I believe in God’s words… I prefer that Jews make a living and wouldn’t sell a house to Arabs.”
- Smotrich co-founded and was director for a right-wing NGO called Regavim that is funded by settler groups, which works to prevent Palestinians from building homes in Palestine/Israel, targeting construction that is “illegal” under racist Israeli laws.
- Prior to Israel’s withdrawal of settlers from occupied Gaza in 2005, Smotrich was imprisoned for three weeks by Israel’s internal secret police, the Shin Bet, who suspected he was conspiring with four other right-wing extremists to prevent the withdrawal by blowing up cars using gasoline to block major roadways.
Orit Strock, Member of the Knesset from the Religious Zionism party
- Strock is a longtime far-right activist who lives in an illegal settlement in the middle of the Palestinian city of Hebron in the occupied West Bank. Israel’s settlers in Hebron are among the most extreme and violent in the occupied Palestinian territories.
- Strock is also active in the messianic Temple Mount movement, which is working to build a Jewish temple in the Noble Sanctuary Mosque complex in occupied East Jerusalem, the third holiest site in Islam. In 2013, during a Knesset debate on a bill that would allow Jews to pray openly in the Noble Sanctuary, something that is currently prohibited under Israeli law, Strock called Palestinians “savages,” stating: “When King David bought the Temple Mount you were savages in the desert. You have no rights on the Temple Mount, that’s a historical fact. Nothing will help you. Even now you are savages.”
Almog Cohen, Member of the Knesset from Jewish Power
- Cohen is a former riot police officer who formed a private militia called “Barel Force” to “bring law and order” to the Negev (Naqab to Palestinians) desert in southern Israel, where Israel has been destroying the communities of Bedouin Palestinians and forcing them from their homes in order to build settlements for Jewish Israelis.
- During the 2022 campaign, Cohen was caught on hidden camera admitting that minor efforts by Jewish Power to appear less extreme were just a “trick” to avoid being disqualified from running for overtly promoting racism and violence, explaining: “Whoever doesn’t use tricks, loses.”
- During the 2022 campaign, Cohen posted a photo on his Facebook page taken during his time as riot police officer, showing him kneeling on three Palestinian men tied up on the ground with the caption: “those on the ground remember what I did in the army” and a winking emoji. The three men in the photo, a father and two sons, were severely beaten and abused by Israeli police in 2013 during protests against Israel’s attempts to force Bedouin families from their homes in the Negev. At the time, the three men filed a complaint alleging that 10-15 police officers assaulted them with clubs and fists while they waited for a ride home from the protest, kicking the two sons in the groin and urinating in the face of one. The police threatened to “give them each a bullet in the head,” and said: “We need to transfer them, take them to Arab countries... In Egypt they would have killed you,” “Soon they’ll fuck you in jail, stinking Arab son of a bitch.” The initial complaint was dismissed after police claimed there was a lack of evidence. After Cohen posted the photo, the men called on the Israeli government to reopen the investigation.
- Shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Cohen expressed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin, stating: “We learned from him what leadership is - make a decision and the world explodes."
Bentzi Gopstein, Jewish Power member
- Gopstein is a disciple and former student of Meir Kahane. In 2019, he was banned by Israel’s Supreme Court from running for the Knesset because of his extreme racism but he remains active in the party and is close to Jewish Power leader Itamar Ben-Gvir. In his victory speech following the 2022 election, Ben-Gvir thanked Gopstein, who he called a “friend.” Gopstein lives in and is a leader of the extremist Kiryat Arba settlement near Hebron in the occupied Palestinian West Bank, where Ben-Gvir and Religious Zionism leader Bezalel Smotrich also live.
- Gopstein is best known for being the leader of a notorious hate group called Lehava that tries to prevent the mixing of Arabs and Jews, particularly Jewish women. Its members are infamous for roaming the streets of Jerusalem wearing black shirts and violently assaulting Palestinian men, particularly those in the company of Jewish women. In 2015, two Lehava members pled guilty to an arson attack against a bilingual Jerusalem school dedicated to coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians. Gopstein is also a central figure in another racist group called Hemla, which is funded by the Israeli government and closely associated with Lehava. Both are Kahanist organizations.
- In November 2019, Gopstein was charged with incitement to racism, violence, and terror, following a series of racist statements about Palestinians. One of the charges was based on a 2013 television interview in which he said that Palestinian men who are dating or married to Jewish women should be dealt with violently, stating: “There are those who deserve to have violence used against them. Yes, if an Arab hits on a Jewish woman, talk is not what’s needed.”
- In addition to his anti-Arab racism, Gopstein is also virulently anti-Christian. In 2015, he publicly called for the burning of churches and the expulsion of Christians from Palestine/Israel. When asked during a debate whether he was advocating the burning of churches, Gopstein replied: “Of course I am.” The same year, he published an article on a religious website calling Christians “vampires and blood suckers” and concluding: “Christmas has no place in the Holy Land… Let us remove the vampires before they once again drink our blood.”
- In 2014, Gopstein was arrested by Israel police and held on suspicion of incitement to violence and terror after several Lehava members set fire to a bilingual mixed Jewish and Arab school in Jerusalem and defaced it with racist graffiti, including the slogans “Kahane was right” and “Death to the Arabs.”
- Following the 1994 massacre of 29 Palestinians in Hebron by a US-born Kach follower, whom Gopstein has called a "hero," Gopstein was jailed without charge or trial, a practice Israeli authorities usually reserve for Palestinians, because of his ties to the Kach movement.
- According to Haaretz newspaper, in 1990 Gopstein was arrested on suspicion of murdering an Arab couple who were shot to death not long after Kahane was assassinated by an Egyptian national in New York City. Gopstein was later released, and no one was convicted of the crime.
Chanamel Dorfman, Senior advisor to Jewish Power leader Itamar Ben-Gvir
- Dorfman is a lawyer who was tasked with leading Jewish Power’s negotiations to enter the government and is a close advisor to party leader Itamar Ben-Gvir, who called Dorfman his “right-hand man” during his victory speech on election night in November 2022.
- Shortly after the 2022 election, Israeli media revealed that Dorfman was acting as a legal advisor to an extremist group, Shlom Asiraich, that raises money for Jewish Israelis convicted of terrorism offenses. In a recent flyer, the group boasted of having raised $43,000 (USD) for a man convicted of kidnapping, beating, and burning to death a 16-year-old Palestinian boy in 2014; a man convicted of murdering a Palestinian couple and their one-year-old baby with a firebomb in 2015; and an Israeli-American convicted of murdering a Palestinian taxi driver and a Palestinian shepherd in 1997. Shlom Asiraich is so extreme that Honenu, another far-right group that provides legal services to right-wing Israelis who have committed acts of violence (which Ben-Gvir is closely associated with), has distanced itself from them.