Yesterday he was considered a pariah, yet his career epitomises the evolution of Israeli society over three decades. Convicted in 2007 of incitement to violence against Arabs, and of supporting a group considered by Israel as well as the United States to be a terrorist organisation, for years considered even a Nazi, today this ‘controversial’ lawyer is Minister of Security in Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. Who is Itamar Ben-Gvir, what forces and currents are behind him?
The elevation of a self-proclaimed “Jewish supremacist” and advocate of the use of the death penalty, torture, loyalty tests and other most brutal methods against Palestinians to one of the most important, if not the most important post after the Prime Minister, has become a reality. An ultra-racist far-right has always existed within the Zionist movement. However, for a long time it was a very small minority. The more mainstream nationalists at most flirted with them from time to time.
There are two main examples of Zionist fascism. The most disgraceful and radical grouping was a group called Brit HaBirionim, whose name could by translated as The Strongmen Alliance, Alliance of Thugs or The Covenant of the Outlaws. It was as a clandestine, self-declared fascist faction of the Revisionist Zionist Movement (ZRM) in British held Mandatory Palestine. This group split off in 1928 from the movement of Ze’ev Jabotinsky – whose youth wings, interestingly, practised terrorist actions under the tutelage of Italian fascists who wanted to destabilise the British held Middle East. Brit HaBirionim’ members considered right-wing Zionism too soft. One of the group’s leaders, Abba Ahimeir, used to publish a weekly column in the daily Doar Hayom, entitled “Diary of a Fascist”. The group was active until around 1933-34. From the annals of fierce anti-Arab racism and anti-communism, Ahimeir derived support for Adolf Hitler. He acknowledged that Nazis were antisemites, but in his opinion, they were even more anti-communist – and this was a priority for his comrades.
The second one was the Kach party, existing from 1971 to 1994. Founded by Rabbi Meir Kahane in 1971, based on his Jewish-Orthodox-nationalist ideology (subsequently dubbed Kahanism), the party earned a single seat in the Knesset in the 1984 election, after several electoral failures. As you can see, it was named after its founder, who was an american rabbi. First he developed his Jewish Defence League in the United States before moving to Israel in 1971. He adhered to an ideology that mixed Jewish ethnic mysticism based on the cult of the Eretz Yisrael, the Land of Israel and violent racism against the ‘Arabs’, whose expulsion from the Land of Israel he advocated. After three defeats, Kahane was finally elected as an MP in 1984. But the general parliamentary consensus, united right and left, led to his ostracism. In 1988, his party was banned from the elections because it was labelled ‘racist’ by the Supreme Court. The group adhering to Kahanism was estimated to count around 100 members in the 90’. It was considered terrorist by main countires of NATO alliance and Israel.
Rabbi Meir Kahane was killed in 1990 in New York, but his ideas did not die. Kahane Chai, “Kahane Lives” broke away later in 90’ from the main Kach faction. However, the party was barred from standing in the 1992 election, and both organisations were once more banned outright in 1994. And yet the ideological culture of the movement stayed there, and produced people like Itamar Ben Gvir. Even if Kahanism doesn’t exist any more, as a specific ideological mixture with the figure of Rabbi on its front, Itamar Ben Gvir is the direct child of Meir Kahane. His heirs have become the third largest party in parliament in terms of elected members (14 out of 120) . Post-Kahanism, as the movement can be called I guess, is becoming a leading force in radicalising Israeli society.
March of the Jewish Power
Itamar Ben Gvir was born in 1976 in Mevaseret Zion, one of the suburban districts of Jerusalem. From his fathers side he was of Iraqi Jewish descent, from mothers was a Kurdish Jew. He was 14 years old, when Meir Kahane was killed in the USA. His family was secular, however as a teenager he adopted religious and radical right-wing views during the First Intifada. At this point he first joined a right-wing youth movement affiliated with Moledet, a party which advocated transferring Arabs out of Israel, and then joined the youth movement of the more radical, above-mentioned Kach and Kahane Chai party.
His political adolescence was about living in the shade of a dead hero, advocating for expulsion of Palestinians, reconquering Eretz Israel and rebuilding the Temple. All those steps are meant to precede the coming of the Messiah. When he was 14-18, he was in charge of youth circles. When he came of age for conscription into the Israel Defense Forces at 18, he was exempted from service by the IDF due to his extreme-right political background and extraordinary brutality.
The sign of that might be the portrait of Baruch Goldstein, that used to hang in his living room till 2020. Goldstein was a settler kahanist who, in 1994, after the Israeli-Palestinian agreement in Oslo, murdered 29 Muslims praying at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, injuring 125 others. In 2020, on the advice of some relatives, Ben Gvir removed the photo from the wall to polish his own image. But the photo of the revered Kahane is still on the wall, autographed by the Rabbi and dedicated to him. In addition, he never hid his respect for Yigal Amir, the fanatic who assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
Of course all of this violence is targeted at “Arabs” and treacherous Israelis who don’t share his fascist views. The name of his party, founded in 2015 is Otzma Yehudit – Jewish Power. Ben Gvir in the end is a personalisation of the history and heredity of the so- called Jewish Suprematism. Accusations of racist remarks and actions have accompanied his entire political career. In the interview in 2015, he said he counted 53 of them. His list of clients he serves as an attorney, the Haaretz daily wrote, looks like a list of suspected Jewish terror and hate crimes in Israel.
During the last election campaign, he toned down his words, but the content remained the same. If a Palestinian throws a Molotov cocktail, or a pebble at a soldier, “he must be imprisoned and then, after serving his sentence, expelled” from the country. Of course we have to note that he has “nothing against Arabs” at all. Nevertheless, in his eyes the Palestinians are almost all terrorists…
His remarks in populistic spirit enforce his mechanistic vision of his fellow nationalist activists, racism of the others and hatred toward the establishment. He lives in Kiryat Arba, a Jewish settlement bordering Hebron. Sometimes he paints out a really manichaeistic vision of Jews being treated right now in the lands of historic Israel just like the Jews in Eastern and Central Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. Of course right now the oppressors are Arabs and a traitorous establishment that’s running the state of Israel. The main diameter of this narrative is Jerusalem, which should be, according to him, cleansed from any form of Arab culture, with the demolition of the Mosque on the Rock and the rebuilding of the Temple on its ruins.
This puts the Palestinian minority inside Israel, so the people who have Israeli passport and citizenship, in the center of his resentment. He believes that the main peril that threatens Israel is not from Iran, or from West Bank, Gaza. No, the danger come from treacherous Palestinian citizens of Israel. In the end, what might be seen as a paradox, the vast majority of Israelis do not know Palestinians living under occupation. They don’t know people from Gaza or the West Bank. The only “Arabs” they meet are Palestinians in Israel. This people they mean when they say that they want to live “separately” from the Arabs
This narrative and strategy brought him the popularity that enabled him to be hair on the scales that will reveal the fate of the future government. In the end his 6 MPs are needed to sustain Netanyahu’s majority in the Knesset.
The main question is how big space for any kind of manoeuvre Itamar Ben Gvir has? Netanyahu helped him push his way into parliament in exchange for support guaranteeing him parliamentary immunity. By offering him the position he was hoping for – that of police chief – Netanyahu was only trying to protect himself.
We have to remember that Netanyahu still has a lot of judicial battles to win in the future. But Netanyahu’s majority hangs on 6 MPs of Itamar Ben Gvir, with them he has a majority of 64 MPs. Five people less – and the government collapses.
The Second Nakba
Amid all chaos coming after the coalition agreement of the upcoming Netanyahu’s government, this government might have a very clear idea of what it wants to do in the future. Journalist’s from +972mag call it The Second Nakba. As they write: “The attempt to strengthen annexation and apartheid in the occupied territories can immediately be seen in Netanyahu’s consent to giving control of the Civil Administration and the Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), which run the day-to-day affairs of millions of Palestinians under occupation, to Bezalel Smotrich, and to reallocating the Border Police to the authority of Itamar Ben Gvir as the new “national security minister.”
It seems like the main idea behind all of this is to bury, this time definitely, the old agreements with Oslo, and create a new reality with the power of facts. The so-called status quo approach firmed by Netanyahu ended with the events of 2021 May, when Gaza was bombarded and the Palestinians responded to this with a huge non-violent uprising. At the same time, the eruption of violence in Israel’s so-called “mixed cities” took place.
As +972mag puts it: “Ben Gvir and Smotrich are proposing an antidote to this situation in which both the Oslo and status quo paradigms are crumbling before our eyes. Both politicians seek to force the Palestinians to kneel by giving them two options: either a complete surrender and the acceptance of Jewish supremacy throughout Greater Israel, or emigration. Smotrich’s detailed plan for Palestinian surrender, published in 2017, includes a clause for Israeli security forces to treat anyone who opposes those two options “with greater force than we use today and under more favorable conditions for us”. In short, a new Nakba”.
To see this plan unfold we have to still wait a couple weeks. And we might only expect (hope?) that this new Nakba will meet fierce resistance, not only from the side of Palestinians, but also from the side of the global Jewish community and citizens of Israel. After all, they also don’t want to see their countries once more embroiled in the brutal civil war.