Understanding the rise of Itamar Ben Gvir
Oct 26, 2022 | Calev Ben-Dor
In the March 2020 Israeli election, Itamar Ben Gvir’s “Jewish Power” party was shunned by other right-wingers and managed 0.42% 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 with Ben Gvir having joined up with National Union chair Bezalel Smotrich, the alliance is polling at 10% and could be a key player after the election if the Netanyahu-led bloc gains a majority of Knesset seats. 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.
Itamar 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, Ben Gvir has had countless run-ins with the police and courts. He 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. Due to these convictions, the IDF thought it too dangerous to draft him when he was 18.
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.
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 election, his “Jewish Power” slate managed 83,600 votes before dropping in the March 2020 election to just under 20,000 votes, 0.42% of the total vote. Having teamed up with National Union head Bezalel Smotrich – a union midwifed by then Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, in an attempt to ensure no right-wing party fell below the electoral threshold – the two then soared to 225,000 votes in March 2021 (in Israel’s full proportional representation system, they received 5.1% of the total vote and six Knesset seats). Pollsters estimate that they have now doubled their support, positioning the Religious Zionist party as the third or fourth largest in the Knesset. If Netanyahu returns to become Prime Minister, they will almost certainly 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 infamously murdered 29 Muslim worshippers at Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs in a mass shooting 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% of the vote in the French Presidential election in April. The Swedish Democrats – a political misnomer alongside the Democratic Republic of Korea – 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 19th and 20th 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% landslide. That’s not to say non-establishment comedians in politics are all bad. Without one of them, Putin would now be celebrating his army’s six-month anniversary of occupying Kyiv.
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.
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 it of being responsible for the deaths of IDF soldiers. And in October this year he pulled out his pistol during clashes between Israelis and Palestinians in east Jerusalem.
If politics is increasingly more like the “Big Brother” household than a debate over ideas, who would ever vote out Ben Gvir?
Through his exploits, and the media attention they have garnered, Ben Gvir has become an Israeli celebrity. Political loyalty has come with it.
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’ [a small ultra-radical settler group – ed.] who were looking for someone who could be more rebellious than Naftali Bennett or Ayelet Shaked [the heads of the right-wing 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 ten 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 told 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.”
A move towards moderation?
In the lead up to the current election, 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 election 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.
“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.”
“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
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%. Why should it suddenly rise now?
It was less than 18 months ago that the most significant player in Israeli politics was arguably 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 Government 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 program for Arab society which aimed to address healthcare, social welfare, education and high-tech. This election thus not only comes 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 Nov. 1, we’ll see how successful he has been.