Holocaust survivors join pro-marijuana activists in unlikely Israeli parliament bid

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) _ Even in the world of politics and its strange bedfellows, this coalition is odder than most.

On Tuesday, a party representing Israeli Holocaust survivors joined forces with the pro-marijuana Green Leaf party for a run at Israel’s parliament. The new party launched its campaign in a near-empty, underground, graffiti-filled nightclub in south Tel Aviv, pledging to pursue two primary goals: to financially assist elderly Holocaust survivors and to legalize the consumption of cannabis.

While most of the attention in the run-up to Israel’s Feb. 10 general election is focused on its three major parties _ Likud, Kadima and Labor _ and their high-profile candidates for prime minister, many Israelis are considering voting for the smaller, and quirkier, of the 34 parties officially registered.

Parties need to win just 2.5 percent of the vote, or roughly 70,000 votes, to win a seat in the notoriously fractious parliament.

Most participants won’t even pass that threshold, though TV ad campaigns that premiered Tuesday will give them an opportunity to present their offbeat agendas to an electorate fed up with lofty issues such as war and peace. Parties receive government subsidies for the commercials, so even minor political movements can get air time.

Israel is no stranger to fringe, obscure political parties. Previous candidates vying for parliament have included a group that campaigned for men’s rights, the establishment of a national casino and a group led by a fishmonger and puppeteer that tried to abolish banking fees.

The alliance between Holocaust survivors and marijuana advocates is not the only long-shot bid for parliament. The “Power to Change” party is promoting rights for the handicapped. It launched its campaign with an online video showing a couple in bed. The woman then gets up and hands her mate his prosthetic limbs. The party said it hoped to send a message that the handicapped are a functioning part of society.

Members of the smokers and survivors’ bloc say their union is less loopy than it seems. The merger adds an air of credibility to the younger members, and it gives a boost of energy to the older members who say medical marijuana has helped some of their cancer-stricken friends.

Yaakov Kfir, 74, who survived the Holocaust as a child in Yugoslavia, said he welcomed the efforts of youngsters to push the campaign for Israel’s estimated 350,000 survivors, many of whom struggle financially.

Kfir, the party’s No. 2 candidate, said he has never experimented with drugs, but after learning much from his new colleagues was eager to try. “But only when it is legal,” he said.

Wearing a T-shirt reading “cannabis is safe medicine,” Ohad Shem-Tov, the party’s 29-year-old, ponytailed leader, said he naturally levitated toward Kfir’s life story. Kfir’s parents were killed when he was 6. He emigrated to Israel, became an air force officer and later an activist for the rights of survivors.

“They know what it feels like to be persecuted for no reason. They can identify with us,” Shem-Tov said.

The ultraliberal Green Leaf movement has run for parliament three times before, narrowly missing out in the 1999, 2003 and 2006 elections.

Internal bickering led the party to split after the last election with the Israeli comedian Gil Kopatch taking over the reins of the mother party. He recently made headlines for filming an election ad of himself sitting on the grave of Israel’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion, while rolling and smoking a marijuana cigarette.

Ben-Gurion’s descendants condemned the ad, as did the breakaway faction, known as the “Grown-Up Green Leaf,” now running with the Holocaust survivors.

Most pollsters don’t give either party much chance of passing the election threshold. But Israel does have a history of protest parties pulling off election upsets

In the previous election of 2006, a group of retirees became the trendy antiestablishment vote. Led by a quirky, bespectacled ex-spy chief, the pensioners’ party garnered seven seats out of the 120 in parliament and joined the Cabinet.

The Holocaust Survivors and Grown-Up Green Leaf Party hope to be the chic choice this time around.

Michelle Levine, the No. 3 candidate on the joint list, said they chose the word “grown-up” to distinguish themselves from the other Green Leaf party. She said this time around the issue of legalization will take a back seat to the rights of Holocaust survivors.

“We want to show the public that we will be elected not just by the nation’s pot smokers but by people of all ages and all backgrounds,” she said. “We will never drop the issue of legalization, but the issue of Holocaust survivors is more urgent.”