TEL AVIV (JTA) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expelled a prominent activist from his Likud Party after the activist was filmed calling protesters “whores” and saying that he wishes “another six million would burn,” a reference to the Holocaust.
The activist, Itzik Zarka, directed the epithets at protesters who were demonstrating on Saturday night against Netanyahu’s effort to weaken the judiciary. Weekly protests have occurred nationwide against the planned judicial overhaul, a key portion of which is set to advance to a final vote in the coming weeks.
“You whores, burn in hell, burn in hell,” Zarka screamed at a demonstration near the northern Israeli city of Beit Shean. “It’s not for nothing that six million went. I’m proud, I’m proud. I wish another six million would burn.”
His comments, which were condemned by a wide range of senior Likud politicians, were a crude allusion to a perceived ethnic split in Israel between supporters and opponents of the judicial overhaul, and to a longstanding grievance that supporters of the overhaul hope to address.
The vast majority of the country’s founding left-wing elite was Ashkenazi, or Jews of European descent, and enacted discriminatory policies that disadvantaged Mizrahim, or Jews of Middle Eastern descent, particularly in the country’s early decades. Correspondingly, Mizrahi voters have long formed a key part of the right-wing Likud’s base, while the core of the country’s shrinking left has historically been Ashkenazi.
Some supporters of the overhaul say that the Supreme Court is a holdout of an upper-class Ashkenazi elite, and that it wields disproportionate political sway. The overhaul’s opponents, by contrast, say the proposed legislation sapping the Supreme Court’s power will endanger Israeli democracy.
But for even the strongest proponents of the overhaul, Zarka’s comments seemingly wishing for another Holocaust crossed the brightest of red lines. Zarka is a longtime Likud supporter who has been photographed with the party’s leaders, including Netanyahu.
״We will not accept this kind of shameful conduct in the Likud movement,” read a statement on Sunday from the party, which said Netanyahu ordered Zarka’s ouster. “We forcefully condemn Itzik Zarka’s words and completely distance ourselves from them. We will not accept or include shocking statements of this kind.”
Yariv Levin, Israel’s justice minister and the lead architect of the judicial overhaul, said in a statement that “there’s no place for that type of behavior and comments, anywhere or in any context.”
On his Facebook account, which features a photo of him kissing Netanyahu on the cheek, Zarka has repeatedly apologized for what he called his “terrible words.” He wrote that he was accosted by protesters, that his words were taken out of context and that he is a descendant of a Holocaust survivor. He wrote that as penance, he would like to connect with a Holocaust survivor to provide them with company and food.
“I apologize in the name of all of the Jewish people in Israel and the Diaspora,” he wrote. “We know what the Jews of European countries experienced in the Holocaust, and I apologize from the depths of my soul.”