“Radical right wing activist turned bodybuilder!” trumpeted the tantalizing headline in Maariv recently, advertising an unusual story about settlers in the occupied territories. In full disclosure, I wrote my dissertation on Jewish-American immigrants who settled beyond the Green Line, so this seemingly fantastic account was right up my alley. I read with interest the quixotic saga of Michael Pollack, a former New Yorker and Wall Street employee, who immigrated to Hebron in 2003 with his wife, two children, and a passion for hardline ideological Jewish-Zionist activism.
Over the better course of a decade, Pollack bounced from one settlement campaign to the next, making the right-wing activist circuit from Gush Katif to Beit Ha-Meriva, until exiled from the territories for his extremist activities by the Shabak in 2008. After no less than twelve attempts to return to the settlements, Pollack inexplicably shaved his peyus, left the religious and activist world he knew behind, and became a professional bodybuilder, winning second place in last week’s “Mr. Israel” physique contest. As outlandish as his tale may appear, I argue that Pollack is in fact “Mr. (Greater) Israel” indeed and his strange story may be an allegory for the new face of the Israeli ultra-nationalist movement.
While the portrait of settlement activism in Israel today more likely conjures up the image of gun-toting skinny men with oversized multi-colored knitted kippot, tallit shirts, and hippy-style baggy trousers than speedo-clad bodybuilders — perhaps a great irony of Zionism, given Max Nordau’s call for the creation of a new race of Muskel Judentum [Muscle Jewry] that would build the national home in Israel — Pollack’s secular urbanite persona may increasingly cut the figure of the new ultra-nationalist movement.
With the unification of “Bibi Beytenu” bringing a bloc of largely non-religious Russian immigrants who primarily live within the Green Line into the party alongside traditional Likud voters, the demographic profile of the Israeli right is swiftly changing. However, the recruitment of new and disenfranchised groups to both the Israeli nationalist and ultra-nationalist right is not a recent phenomenon. Menachem Begin rose to power on the votes (if not the actual backs) of mizrachim (Sephardic Jews), and more radical politicians such as Meir Kahane and Moshe Feiglin successfully mobilized their constituencies on racial and class lines. As the left-wing in Israel increasingly becomes the bastion of an affluent, secular “white” Ashkenazi vote, there is great zeal for identity politics and opportunities for an expanded right-wing coalition.
Moreover, apart from electoral politics, it is a mistake to relegate ultra-nationalist ideology to the exclusive realm of the national religious sector in Israel. Pollack himself reflected on the stereotype, as “back in the day, when I used to talk to chiloni [secular] people about political issues with my kippah, beard, and peyus, they used to say (discountingly), ‘fine, there’s a dos [religious follower], we won’t pay attention to him.’ Now, when I say ‘Kahane was right,’ without a kippah, everyone realizes it isn’t just rhetoric.”
In fact, there is a desperate need for a re-evaluation of the ways in which academics and pundits construct the right. While it is in vogue to dismiss this group as religious fundamentalists or fanatics of the faith, I prefer the terminology of ultra-nationalism, which conveys that this is an “imagined community” of adherents — not necessarily to any divine creed however— who share extreme views about territorial expansionism, ethno-nationalism, and cultural hegemony.
The paradigm has moved beyond what pioneering scholar Ehud Sprinzak once described as “the iceberg model of political extremism” of settler leaders with thousands of national-religious followers. Today, this political colossus is not necessarily capped by a kippah and these positions cut across religious, economic, racial, and social lines to build the exoskeleton of a new coalition. While comfortable leftists may want to caricature the “settlement problem” as wild yeshiva bochers in the West Bank, the growing reality (and one can check the voting record in recent elections) is that many members of this community may be sitting next to you in the cafes of Tel Aviv. If moderates can’t entertain the idea of a dynamic and heterogeneous ultra-nationalist coalition, the right wing does and understands it is their future.
As for Mr. Israel himself, it is clear that Pollack is unapologetic in his views and will continue to strike a defiant political pose. But the Israeli electorate and populace should not be fooled by the distraction of beauty over brains. The nationalist right — especially its ultra-nationalist coalition — are keen to exploit disenfranchised constituencies that may be dazzled by shiny incentives and loud rhetoric that opposes the Ashkenazi elite. With new elections approaching, Israeli society must recall that the body politic can only be built from the ground up and strive to exercise the diversity and pluralism that make Israel a strong democracy. This would be the greatest prize of all.