In the March 2020 elections Itamar Ben Gvir’s Jewish Power party was shunned by other right wingers and managed 0.42 per cent of the total votes. Vetoing him was so self-evident, Naftali Bennett wrote at the time, that he was amazed he even had to explain it. But having joined up with National Union chair Bezalel Smotrich, the alliance is polling at 10 per cent and could be a key player after the elections if the Netanyahu-led bloc gains a majority of Knesset seats. Fathom Deputy Editor Calev Ben-Dor explores the reasons for Ben Gvir’s rise.
What do you get when you cross teenage scouts from a bourgeois Tel Aviv neighbourhood, with a religious right-wing politician formerly charged with support for a terrorist group?
It’s not the beginning of a joke. Nor, unfortunately, is it funny.
The answer – as can be seen in this video – is that the scouts treat the politician, 46-year-old Itamar Ben Gvir, like a rock star. First, they surround him while chanting his name football style. Then both boys and girls in their tan shirts and orange and green kerchiefs seek selfies.
Ben Gvir first came to infamy as a teenager when he stole the Cadillac emblem from the car of Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin. ‘Just as we got to his car’ the earnest Ben Gvir told the camera, ‘we’ll get to him too.’ Within weeks Rabin had been assassinated. Over the years, he has had countless run-ins with the police and courts. Ben Gvir was convicted of incitement to racism, interfering with a police officer performing his duty, and support for a terrorist organisation, Meir Kahane’s Kach Movement (he has also successfully sued the state for hundreds of thousands of shekels in compensation for wrongful accusations). Due to these convictions, the IDF thought it too dangerous to draft him when he was eighteen.
Before being banned in 1988 for inciting racism, Kahane’s political party had successfully entered the Knesset in 1984. While he promoted legislative proposals such as revoking citizenship for non-Jews and banning Jewish-Gentile marriages and sexual relations, other parliamentarians shunned him. Whenever he approached the podium to speak, Likud Prime Minister Yitzchak Shamir would lead the Likud faction in a demonstrative walkout. Kach never gained mainstream popularity – at its electoral height in 1984 it garnered 25,000 votes. As Shaul Magid writes in his book, Meir Kahane: The Public Life and Political Thought of an American Jewish Radical, Kahane was ‘known as an ideologue and a voice for a disenfranchised and angry segment of the Israeli population.’
The son of an Iraqi father and a mother whose family came from Kurdistan, Ben Gvir was also a relatively peripheral figure in Israeli politics. In the September 2019 elections, his Jewish Power slate managed 83,600 votes before dropping in the March 2020 elections to just under 20,000 votes, 0.42 per cent of the total vote. Having teamed up with National Union head Bezalel Smotrich – a union midwifed by then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in an attempt to ensure no right-wing party fell below the electoral threshold – the two soared to 225,000 votes in March 2021 (in Israel’s full proportional representation system, they received 5.1 per cent of the total vote and 6 Knesset seats). Pollsters estimate that they have now doubled their support placing the Religious Zionist party as the third or fourth largest in the Knesset. If Netanyahu returns to become Prime Minister, they will be an integral component of his coalition.
It has been quite a turnaround.
It wasn’t that long ago that Naftali Bennett had refused to run in the same list as Ben Gvir due to the latter hanging a picture in his living room of Baruch Goldstein, who was condemned across the political spectrum for murdering 29 Muslim worshippers in Hebron in 1994. ‘It is so self-evident’ added Bennett, ‘that I’m amazed that I have to explain it at all.’
That was March 2020. Yet now – at least for many within the Israeli public – it is seemingly far from self-evident. What has changed, and why?
Politics as entertainment
The rise of extremist parties is not unique to Israel, as the far-right has made gains all over Europe. Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front party, captured more than 40 percent of the vote in the French Presidential elections in April. The Swedish Democrats – a political misnomer alongside the Democratic Republic of Korea and the Israeli religious ‘family values’ (homosexuals are perverts) party Noam (meaning pleasantness in Hebrew) – are the second largest party in the country and hold the key to the next government.
Tamar Hermann, Israeli professor of political science at the Open University and a Senior Fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute argues that Ben Gvir’s rise in popularity must be partially seen in the context of the rise of the European right. ‘On the meta level’ she tells Fathom, ‘people don’t feel democracy has delivered. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, citizens expected that liberal democracy would be very effective in dealing with a wide range of issues. But people have now begun to wonder what they gain from this system of governance.’
Waiting to take advantage of this are populists, provocateurs, and anti-establishment figures. For example, the representative of the state of São Paulo in the Chamber of Deputies of the National Congress of Brazil is Tiririca, a professional clown and stand-up comedian with no clear ideology. In 2015, Jimmy Morales, a TV comedian without a clear platform, won the presidency of Guatemala with a 67 percent landslide. In the Philippines, former mayor, Rodrigo Duterte, openly ran (and won) on a pledge to institute death squads against drug dealers. That’s not to say non-establishment comedians are all bad. Without one of them, Putin would now be celebrating his army’s six month anniversary of occupying Kiev.
In The Revenge of Power, How Autocrats are Reinventing Politics for the 21st Century, Venezuelan commentator Moisés Naim writes that ‘in a world where policy debates put everyone to sleep, the wall between policy and entertainment collapses. As politics devolves into pure spectacle’ notes Naim ‘people begin to relate to their political leaders in the same way they relate to their favourite entertainers and sports stars. They cheer them on as fans, rather than engaging with them as citizens or even as political clients.’
Politicians always had fans and admirers. But what’s new, argues Naim, is the extent to which people look at politics first and foremost as spectacle, as a battle where celebrities face off with each other in an antagonistic contest for supremacy.
And indeed, there are few politicians who do spectacle – and provocation – like Itamar Ben Gvir. In May 2021, he was accused by Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai of fanning the flames of violence between Jews and Arabs in mixed cites such as Lod and Acre. In October 2021, he faced off with Joint List leader Ayman Odeh during Odeh’s visit to a Hamas operative on hunger strike in an Israeli hospital. In February, he set up a parliamentary ‘office’ in the east Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah at a time of increased tensions. In May 2022, he interrupted a live interview with the Public Security Minister at the scene of a terrorist attack in Hadera to shout that the minister was a leftist and a failure. He also barged into a press conference of the Islamic Movement’s Shura Council to accuse them of being responsible for the death of IDF soldiers.
If politics is increasingly more like the Big Brother household than a debate over ideas, who would ever vote out Ben Gvir? If, as professor of media at Huddersfield University Cornel Sandvoss writes, today’s ‘political fans reason a lot like sports or music fans,’ then it’s only natural that teenage scouts would request selfies.
Naim discusses how ‘the current crop of populist leaders tap into a celebrity culture that feeds on itself, as the familiarity of a name and the outrageousness of a celebrity’s exploits draw people’s curiosity, fascination, and, ultimately, political loyalty.’ Through his exploits, and the media attention it has garnered, Ben Gvir has become an Israeli celebrity. Political loyalty has come with it.
A candidate for the ignored, rebellious and frightened
In Trump and Us: What He Says and Why People Listen Roderick Hart argues that Donald Trump and his persona successfully tapped into the public’s feelings along four powerful axes: their feelings of being ignored, of being trapped, of being under siege, and into their overall weariness about politics.
Similarities abound with Ben Gvir supporters. Many hadn’t voted before and were not historically part of the political game. ‘Ben Gvir gave disenfranchised Ultra-Orthodox youth an outlet for their high energies and nationalistic sentiment and for their sense of being marginalised by the Ultra-Orthodox establishment,’ explains Hermann. ‘Meanwhile Ben Gvir also became a candidate for ‘hilltop youth’ who were looking for someone who could be more rebellious than Naftali Bennett or Ayelet Shaked (the heads of the Yamina party).’
Yet Ben Gvir has also successfully tapped into feelings of fear and vulnerability within wider parts of the Israeli public. These feelings were exacerbated during the riots that swept mixed Jewish-Arab cities in May 2021, in which 10 synagogues and 112 Jewish residences were set ablaze and three Jews murdered. As many Israelis were holed up in safe rooms against Hamas rockets from Gaza, others felt threatened from Arab neighbours in Lod, Ramle, Jaffa and Acre. ‘Israeli Jews glimpsed a vision of their worst nightmare: Arab citizens of Israel violently undermining the most basic stability of the country,’ journalist and best-selling author Yossi Klein Halevi tells Fathom. ‘When I speak to Ben-Gvir supporters I hear over and over references to those riots and the sense that we are dealing with a fifth column.’ The violence as well as the erosion of trust in the police led to worrying consequences. ‘Both Jews and Arabs felt that the police were not able to effectively protect them’ explains Hermann. ‘That sense of insecurity brings people to rely on vigilantes. Some Arabs tried to get support from criminal families, while some Jews sought protection from settlers from illegal outposts and Ben Gvir and his crew.’
The decline of Likud and the slow-boiling frog
Dan Meridor, former Likud MK who also served Deputy Prime Minister, Minister of Finance and Minister of Justice, also sees comparisons with the rise of the European far right, as well as bemoaning the changes within the Likud party.
‘The Likud formed by Menachem Begin was officially called the national liberal movement, and the concepts of human rights, democracy, the rule of law and the courts were an integral part of its DNA which made it unique,’ Meridor explains in a conversation with Fathom. ‘Yet the liberal element which was balancing the national component no longer exists. None of the current MKs would likely describe themselves as liberal. The essence and political direction of this party has changed.’
One consequence is disagreement within Israeli society over basic values. ‘What allowed us as Israelis to stay together despite deep disagreements over major issues’ says Meridor, ‘was the feeling of basic agreement on the values of democracy and human rights – no one cast any doubt over institutions and how decisions were made. Today there has been a change not in the politics, but in the acceptance of the system. What we increasingly see are attacks on the basic values and the rules of the game, which are extremely dangerous.’
As belief in the system has eroded and institutions weakened, the public has slowly become immunised to radical statements – like a frog slowly boiling in a pot. During the 2015 elections, Netanyahu warned (without any shred of evidence) that the Arab citizens were going to the polls in droves. The Defence Minister and IDF Chief of Staff came under fire for condemning Elor Azaria, a soldier who shot an injured terrorist as he lay injured on the ground. Likud MKs have referred to asylum seekers as a cancer, called the Supreme Court corrupt, crooked and racist, and demanded former top law enforcement officials involved in the Netanyahu corruption charges sit in jail. In this context, the public may have fewer qualms about supporting those like Ben Gvir who were previously considered beyond the pale. ‘People who no longer believe in the establishment – the courts, police, government, mainstream media,’ Hermann says, ‘seek someone who represents the opposite – who doesn’t speak her majesty’s Hebrew.’
Meridor is highly critical of Netanyahu for helping to legitimise Ben Gvir. ‘We had a man who hung a picture of a Jewish terrorist in his home,’ Meridor notes, ‘and the then Prime Minister made a concerted effort to make him a legitimate participant in the political game in order to further his own purposes – to get 61 seats and keep him in power.’ Such an act, says Meridor, ‘was the final stamp to the dramatic change within the Likud.’
‘Unfortunately, Netanyahu as Prime Minister [unlike his tenure as Finance Minister] never led anything, but was rather always led by polling and by public opinion. And he has been very successful. But without leadership, people go back to their basic instincts. The phenomenon of racism always existed in Israeli society – as in every society – but the leadership used to fight against it and now it seeks to harness it,’ Meridor laments.
A move towards moderation? The European far right playbook
In the lead up to these elections, Ben Gvir has been at pains to paint a more moderate picture of himself. Former ally Baruch Marzel, whom the Supreme Court disqualified from running in the 2019 Knesset elections due to incitement to racism, suggested Ben Gvir’s ideology was ‘flexible’. When supporters broke out in a chant of ‘death to Arabs’ he corrected them, saying ‘death to terrorists.’ On a visit to a Tel Aviv high school he admitted that he had been a teenage extremist, but subsequently emphasised that now he is a father and a lawyer, and no longer believes ‘Dr Goldstein’ is a hero. And how can he be racist, he argued, if he not only wants to expel all disloyal Arabs but also disloyal Jews? When asked last year about his links to Kahane, Ben Gvir denied that Jewish Power was the continuation of Kahane’s path but was at pains to emphasise that he saw ‘Rabbi Kahane’ as a righteous and holy man. In the same vein, he attended and spoke at a memorial service for Kahane, behind a large slogan saying ‘Kahane was right.’ If he wanted to disabuse the notion of a connection, Ben Gvir has a strange way of showing it.
Indeed, to take Ben Gvir at his word is to enter some sort of Alice in Wonderland-type universe where one believes as many as six impossible things before breakfast. One would need to ignore the fact that Goldstein’s picture hung in Ben Gvir’s living room until two years ago. Or that it took him decades to announce that a mass murderer was not someone to be respected. Calling him Dr Goldstein is like referring to Harold Shipman with his professional title.
‘Consciously or not’ Yossi Klein Halevi tells Fathom, ‘Ben Gvir has taken a page out of the European far right playbook who have worked hard to rid themselves of their overt antisemitism and to present themselves as normative right-wing parties. Ben Gvir is doing the same with his anti-Arab racism.’
Klein Halevi, whose first book, Memoirs of a Jewish extremist, tracks his younger days as part of Kahane’s group, is unimpressed with the rhetoric. ‘Ben Gvir’s slogan [death to terrorists] still has the word death in it,’ he says. ‘That’s what he is about. I don’t think that most of his voters understand this – the hardcore do – but most kids who greet him in the street like a popstar aren’t responding to that ideology that is below the surface. They are responding to a guy who talks straight and who validates their fears of Arabs and who seems to be a fresh force.’
Yet the obfuscation serves an important role in adding an extra layer of doubt about his intentions. The dog whistle remains clear for anyone nominally interested in hearing. But the ‘moderation’ allows potential voters a certain amount of plausible deniability. They can convince themselves that he has changed.
The evolution of Ben Gvir from Kahane is arguably similar to that of Marine Le Pen from her father Jean Marie. The ugly overt racism has been blunted. The campaigns are less rough around the edges. And they appeal to legitimate fears amongst the public. ‘Ben Gvir isn’t saying that he is a disciple of Kahane, a man who created an ideology and theology of racism and Jewish revenge’ says Klein Halevi. ‘He never talks about the real core, but instead talks about security. He understands what his mentor didn’t or wasn’t interested in understanding – that the public isn’t going to buy into theological [religiously sanctioned] racism. But anger, power, and to some extent revenge those are coin of the realm.’
Different sides of the scales – a battle of visions
Much could change before election day. Netanyahu has a habit of cannibalising his own ‘bloc’ – trying to siphon votes away from smaller right-wing ‘satellite’ parties in favour of enlarging Likud (while making sure they still pass the electoral threshold.) When looking at the numbers, one could make the argument that the percentage vote share of Likud and its nationalist ‘satellite’ parties sympathetic to Netanyahu over the last four elections has remained more or less constant at approximately 35 per cent. Why should it suddenly rise now?
It was less than 18 months ago that the most significant player in Israeli politics was Mansour Abbas, leader of the first Arab party to join a coalition. Yet now his mantle has been taken by Jewish Power head Ben Gvir. Abbas and Ben Gvir are on opposite sides of the same scales. They represent mutually exclusive models for how Israel relates to its Arab minority. Victory for one signals defeat for the ideology of the other.
‘The irony’, notes Klein Halevi, ‘is that Ben Gvir’s rise comes after the best year in Jewish-Arab history with the coalition.’ Indeed, Abbas’ entry into the Bennett-Lapid created a rainbow coalition spanning religious and secular pro-annexationists, long-standing anti-occupation politicians, and Abbas’ religious Muslim party. The November 2021 budget approved a programme for Arab society which aimed to address healthcare, social welfare, education and high-tech. These elections thus not only come down to which model Israeli citizens believe is preferable, but which memory has deeper resonance. ‘In one way this election is about a contest about which model of Arab-Jewish relations Israeli Jews believe in – is the real story the Bennett-Lapid-Abbas coalition or the violence in Lod?’ says Klein Halevi. ‘Ben Gvir is tapping into the latter.’ On the 1st of November we’ll see how successful he has been.