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Israel elections: Itamar Ben Gvir, the Jewish supremacist on the rise

After a pact brokered by Netanyahu, the Jewish Power party leader and former Kahanist has been catapulted into a potential kingmaker role
Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the Israeli Jewish Power (Otzma Yehudit) party, at a conference organised by the Besheva newspaper in Jerusalem on 15 March 2021 (AFP)

He has been described as the Israeli equivalent of a Ku Klux Klan leader and compared to the head of the Proud Boys, a white supremacist organisation that declared its loyalty to US President Donald Trump during his time in the White House. 

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Itamar Ben Gvir is virulently anti-Palestinian, has been convicted of incitement and support for a designated “terrorist organisation”, and lives in one of the most violent and provocative settlements in the occupied West Bank. 

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And now he has caused a major electoral upset by winning a seat in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset - the first time his Jewish Power (Otzma Yehudit) party has gained representation since its founding nearly a decade ago. 

Jewish Power’s success is largely down to incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who brokered a deal between Ben Gvir’s party and two other extreme far-right factions to create an alliance called Religious Zionism in time for the general election of 23 March.

Netanyahu will need Religious Zionism’s expected six seats if he is to have any hope of cobbling together a 61-seat majority to form a government that can block his corruption trial.

This means Ben Gvir may also be within sight of an even bigger prize: winning a post as a government minister. 

Netanyahu’s political survival is likely to depend on a group of parties that are fervently racist and aggressively homophobic, and that demand Israel become a Jewish theocracy.

Last man standing

A disciple of Rabbi Meir Kahane, an outspoken anti-Palestinian extremist who was assassinated 31 years ago, Ben Gvir has been catapulted into parliament in part because he is the last man standing. 

In the words of Stav Shaffir, a former legislator for the Israeli Labor party, he is the only remaining senior acolyte of Kahane whose “involvement in terror was not proven”. Other Kahane affiliates have been barred from running for election by the courts. 

Kahane’s shadow still looms large over Israeli politics, even though his Kach movement was outlawed in 1994, four years after his death. Kach leaders have simply reinvented themselves, regularly turning up in new garb.

Ben Gvir himself was active in Kach as a teenager, becoming its youth coordinator before the party was forced underground. 

During his single term in parliament, Kahane drafted a series of unapologetically racist bills. One demanded that Palestinians be expelled from the region unless they agreed to pay extra taxes and serve as slaves to Jews. 

Other bills would have barred Palestinians from living in Jerusalem; enforced strict segregation between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis, including on beaches; and made sexual relations between the two an offence punishable by 50 years in prison. 

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As head of Jewish Power, Ben Gvir, 44, claims to have broken with the more extreme elements of Kahane’s platform. “No, I’m not Rabbi Kahane word-for-word. I wouldn’t propose bills for separate beaches,” he said during this election campaign.

But then again, Jewish Power would run afoul of Israel’s election laws if he said anything else. 

In 2007, before Jewish Power’s establishment, Ben Gvir was convicted of inciting racism and supporting a terrorist group after he held up a sign reading “Arabs out”. In his car were found Kahanist posters: “It’s us or them” and “There is a solution - expel the Arab enemy”. 

He has barely tempered his position since. During the electoral campaign he demanded that Palestinian citizens of Israel - who composed a fifth of the country’s population - deemed “disloyal” be expelled

Jewish Power’s official platform is similarly extreme. It calls for both Palestinians in the occupied territories and the large minority of Palestinian citizens inside Israel to be given inferior status and required to declare their loyalty to a Jewish state, or face expulsion as “enemies” - a not-so-subtle reinvention of Kahane’s slavery policy.

The party also urges formal annexation and Jewish settlement of the entire West Bank - in violation of international law - and seizure of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in the Old City of occupied East Jerusalem to place it under Jewish ownership.

Jewish Power expressly abhors “universal values” - the basis of liberal democracy - demanding that the state be run according to Jewish religious law. 

Violent heroes

Despite his protestations, it is hard to give credence to Ben Gvir’s claim that Jewish Power is different from Kach. In 2018, for example, he taunted those who had outlawed Kach by observing that they had “failed”. 

Jewish Power’s co-founder and chairman, Michael Ben Ari, still openly subscribes to Kahane’s views and is barred from entering the US. Another of the party’s founders, Baruch Marzel, was Kach’s spokesman

Ben Gvir himself calls Kahane a “holy man, a righteous man”, while revering his most notorious follower, Baruch Goldstein, who opened fire on the Ibrahimi mosque in the West Bank city of Hebron in 1994, killing 29 worshippers and wounding dozens more.

At the time, Netanyahu was leader of the opposition Likud party. He denounced the massacre: “This was a despicable crime. I express my unequivocal condemnation.” 

A young Itamar Ben Gvir, left, and fellow Kach activist Avishsai Raviv pass under a poster of their leader Meir Kahana in the movement office in Jerusalem on 13 March 1995 (AFP)
A young Itamar Ben Gvir, left, and fellow Kach activist Avishsai Raviv pass under a poster of their leader Meir Kahane in the movement's office in Jerusalem on 13 March 1995 (AFP)

Ben Gvir has a very different view. For years, he hung a portrait of Goldstein on the wall of his home in the violent settler enclave of Kiryat Arba, next to Hebron. He only took the photo down last year, reportedly in the forlorn hope of persuading another settler leader, Naftali Bennett, to ally with him in last year’s election. 

A recently unearthed clip from 1995 shows Ben Gvir dressed as Goldstein for the Jewish holiday of Purim saying: “He is my hero.”

That same year, a teenage Ben Gvir gained national notoriety when he flourished on Israeli television a hood ornament stolen from the car of then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, in protest at the Oslo Accords. “We got the car. We’ll get to Rabin too,” he said at the time. Weeks later, another far-right activist shot Rabin dead.

Ben Gvir has since trained as a lawyer to acquit those accused of anti-Palestinian incitement and attacks. His most high-profile case was defending two teenagers charged with an arson attack on a Palestinian family in the village of Duma in 2015. An 18-month-old baby was among the victims burnt to death.

Another of Ben Gvir’s closest allies is Bentzi Gopstein, a former Kach activist who now heads the Lehava anti-miscegenation group. Its members regularly assault Palestinians they suspect of dating Jewish women. Three members were found guilty of an arson attack on a joint Jewish-Palestinian school in Jerusalem in 2015. 

Lehava’s efforts to prevent sexual relations between Jews and Palestinians echo Kahane’s own platform.

‘Smiling from heaven’

Ben Gvir made clear during the campaign he intends to leverage his electoral success into government influence.

He urged the creation of a new government post of “security minister of the Galilee and Negev” - two regions that have significant populations of Palestinian citizens of Israel - especially for him. He vowed to protect Jewish Israelis from “theft of national lands” and alleged “Bedouin terrorism”.

If he becomes a minister, Ben Gvir would gain access to confidential government information of the kind that would prove invaluable to fellow Kahanists as they carry out attacks on Palestinians and seek to evade law enforcement. 

Netanyahu publicly stated during the campaign that he would not appoint Ben Gvir as a minister, saying he was “not fit” for such a position - but the current parliamentary maths may make that promise all but impossible to keep. In any case, Religious Zionism has said Netanyahu’s private messages to the alliance said otherwise.

If Ben Gvir does not find a place in the cabinet, Netanyahu has promised that a member of Religious Zionism would have a seat on the Judicial Appointments Committee. Given his legal training, Ben Gvir would be an obvious choice. 

That would be a valuable prize for a coalition keen to get extreme religious settlers appointed as judges, helping to keep fellow lawbreakers out of jail.

'What Ben Gvir says is what many Israelis think, even if they didn’t vote for him'

- Gideon Levy, Haaretz columnist

Ben Gvir will have every incentive to prove to Israel’s ever expanding far-right that he is a man of action, whether in parliament or government, and not just words. His aim will be to become a permanent fixture in the Israeli Knesset. 

As Nahum Barnea, a columnist for the Yediot Aharonot newspaper, wrote: “The Kahanists want to join the government not just for the ministers’ plush seats, the salary and car, an army of aides and funding for their supporters. They have an agenda.” 

For Barnea, Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party will now be “a hostage in the hands of an anti-democratic, racist, homophobic, terrorism-sponsoring group of people.” 

Describing Jewish Power as a “neo-Nazi” party, Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy nonetheless saw a silver lining in Ben Gvir’s success.

“What Ben Gvir says is what many Israelis think, even if they didn’t vote for him,” he wrote. “So Religious Zionism’s entry into the Knesset isn’t necessarily bad news. Because it will make hidden intentions very plain in their crudest form, and perhaps finally awaken opposition.” 

Certainly, a series of Netanyahu-led governments over the past 12 years have shifted Israel’s political agenda ever close to that of Kahane and Jewish Power. 

Kahane would have undoubtedly celebrated current moves towards annexing the West Bank, the 2018 Nation State Law that declared exclusive Jewish sovereignty over the land and the downgrading of the Arabic language, Israel’s obsession with Jewish identity and education programmes dedicated to “Jewish values”, its intensified efforts to grab control of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, the ever-louder demands of “loyalty” from Palestinian citizens, and a renewed campaign of Judaisation of Palestinian lands inside Israel.

Ben Gvir has previously noted how mainstream Kahane’s ideas have become in Israel’s major righ-twing parties, including Netanyahu’s Likud.

In a memorial service to Kahane a few months ago, the Jewish Power leader gave a speech honouring his late teacher.

He concluded: “I think he’s looking down from heaven and smiling.”

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