In remarks that implied racial tensions lay beneath a constitutional crisis, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the expulsion of a Likud party activist on Sunday. The activist had heckled anti-government protestors while making jokes about the Holocaust.
Social media users shared a video of Itzik Zarka yelling and spitting at protesters on Saturday at a traffic light close to the working-class settlement of Beit Shean.
“It’s not for nothing that six million were killed,” he shouts. “I’m proud that six million of you were burned!”
“We will not tolerate such disgraceful behaviour in the Likud movement,” Netanyahu said in a statement on the ouster of Zarka, for years a towering figure at party campaign events.
By framing the mostly European Jewish victims of the Nazi genocide as adversaries, Zarka appeared to be distinguishing between them and Mizrahi Jews of Middle Eastern descent who have been a traditional core of support for the conservative Likud.
Some members of Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition have cast the prime minister’s push to overhaul the judiciary as redressing elitist overreach by the Askenazi, or European-descended, Jews who dominated the country’s founding generation.
The Mizrahim who make up around half of Israel’s Jewish majority – a figure hard to pin down due to widespread intermarriage with Ashkenazim – have at times complained of discrimination and socio-economic disadvantage.
Denying the Holocaust, questioning its scale or celebrating it is punishable by five years’ in jail under Israeli law. The historical catastrophe is an issue that generally unites Jews, and Zarka’s remarks were condemned across the political spectrum.
Zarka, who is Jewish, said in a statement circulated on social media that his comments had been “taken out of context” and described himself as the grandson of a Holocaust survivor.
Critics of the proposed judicial reforms argue that Netanyahu seeks to curb court independence even as he argues his innocence in a long-running corruption trial. The veteran premier says the overhaul would balance branches of government.
Some anti-government demonstrators have drawn comparisons to the march to tyranny in 1930s Germany – prompting Galit Distal Atbaryan, a Likud lawmaker and Israel’s minister for information, to accuse them of trivialising the Holocaust.
“It was your families who were burned there,” Distal Atbaryan, who is of Persian Jewish descent, told opposition politicians in parliament in March. “How is this possible?”