On Religious Extremism in Israeli Politic

Jews visit the Temple Mount, August 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)
Jews visit the Temple Mount, August 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

The far-right Israeli politician named Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the infamous Otzmah Yehudit (Jewish Power) political party, tried to exploit the tensions in the region on Sunday by demonstratively going up to the Temple Mount, which he hoped would anger Palestinians to resist him, thus inflaming Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. He did a similar thing a little over a year ago, at the outbreak of the mini-war with Gaza in May 2021. Fortunately, his provocation did not work, and relative calm reigned within Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, the sad reality is that religious extremism is spreading in Israeli politics in recent years in very dangerous ways, the likes of which Israeli society has never seen before. The right-wing bloc now represents nearly half the country (and much more among the Jewish population). Candidates for political office, who were previously considered beyond the pale are leading far-right political parties, and garnering more and more support among Jewish ultra-nationalist and ultra-“religious” voters.(They are not actually “religious”. Rather, they are “observant” but unethical).

One of the most dangerous leaders of these extremist groups is Ben Gvir, whose political party made it into the Knesset in the last elections as part of a mini-coalition misnamed “Religious Zionism” (it is neither religious nor Zionist in the real senses of these words). This was accomplished thanks to the support of Bibi Netanyahu who, as it happens, is  currently on trial for major crimes of corruption. In the last elections, a little over a year ago, he was so desperate to be Prime Minister again (to get out of his trial!) that he catalyzed the arrangements that led Ben Gvir to be elected as an M.K. (member of Knesset) for the first time.

Ben Gvir is an avowed follower of the extremist racist rabbi Meir Kahane, who was elected once to the Knesset, in 1984, and then barred from running again because the authorities in Israel decided that his party was too racist and too anti-democratic to be allowed to be a part of Israel’s parliament. Back then, Kahane was boycotted by just about everyone in the Knesset! In addition, the Israeli news (which was only state-run then) did not cover any of his activities. There was an attempt by the Central Elections Committee to prevent Kahane from running in the 1984 elections, but this ban was overturned since there was no law to support it. However, the Knesset—which was much more moderate  than it is now—approved an ad hoc law, which banned parties who were “racist” and “undemocratic.” Therefore, Kahane was banned from running for the Knesset in 1988.

Now, all these years later, Ben Gvir’s party Jewish Power (a very Kahanist name!), which is every bit as racist and anti-democratic as Kahane’s Kach party was, is allowed to run with no problem. Why? Why hasn’t his party been barred by the Supreme Court or other institutions from running?

Why are Ben Gvir and his followers (Baruch Marzel, Bentzi Gopstein, and others) so dangerous?

They are well-known radical anti-democratic extremists in Israeli society. Many of them are actually thugs. They have incited to violence—and committed violence—against minorities, especially the Arab minority in Israel, Palestinians in the West Bank, homosexuals regard as liberals, leftists, peaceniks and many others. They have caused havoc via illegal demonstrations for decades, for which they used to be closely watched by Israel’s security services. They support and defend Jewish terrorists who commit acts of vandalism and personal injury (sometimes even resulting in death) to innocent Palestinians. I could go on and on.

Why are Ben Gvir and his  buddies, “kosher” (legitimate) now, as opposed to Kahane who was declared illegitimate more than 30 years ago?

I asked Professor David Ohana, who is senior research fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute and has written a great deal about the history of Israeli society, to explain this to me. I found what he told me to be very interesting:

Firstly, Ben Gvir is a lawyer and he is very cunning. He does not break the law [any more]. Secondly, he has changed some of his messaging—he does not call for the transfer of Israeli Arabs any more [as he used to do, and as Kahane did], and he took down the photo of the Jewish terrorist Baruch Goldstein from the living room in his home. It is OK to be a racist in Israel today, as long as one does not break the law. In addition, there has been tremendous erosion in Israeli society (and elsewhere) during the last 30 years. Who would have believed back then that an openly racist “religious” political party could get 10-13 seats in Israel’s parliament? And, in France, who would have believed that Le Pen could get 40 percent of the votes in the country of Liberté, égalité, fraternité!?

At any rate, Ben Gvir and his followers are not kosher for me. They are complete traif (illegitimate). They represent the worst in Israeli society with their distorted interpretation of Judaism, which is totally tribal and chauvinistic, which treats minorities unfairly by trampling on their rights and on their dignity all the time. They are an embarrassment to the state of Israel and do tremendous harm every day via their outrageous statements and actions.

It is important to state clearly that the problem here is not only with this fanatic politician Ben Gvir and his very dangerous political party. It is also very much with Netanyahu. This is why Prime Minister Lapid has correctly lumped them together in the beginning of his election campaign: Bibi and Ben Gvir are the two most dangerous politicians in Israel today (even though they have a lot of competition!). It is Bibi that brought Ben Gvir into the Knesset and it is he who needs him and his fanatic friends to become Prime Minister again under Israel’s complicated and convoluted coalition system.

What happened to Bibi? You may remember that he was once a sane, intelligent, normal politician in a political party that had intelligent people like Benny Begin, Dan Meridor, Ehud Olmert, Yuval Steinitz and others, who have all abandoned him. Why has he sunk so low? Does he have no self-respect? Why does he think that Ben Gvir and his friends are good for Israeli society, for the democratic future of this country?  The answer: self-preservation. He wants to have his trial cancelled! He is ready to burn down the country so he can survive!

Many pundits in Israel attribute Bibi’s slippage to his family, to his crazy wife, Sara, and his even nuttier son, Yair, who incites to hatred and violence all the time on social media (and even lost a libel suit that was brought against him).

This is undoubtedly part of the problem. But something more has happened here, such that a once responsible statesman has lost his way so badly and has become so irresponsible in his diatribes against the press, the courts, the left and so much more.

Bibi and Ben Gvir and the movements that they represent—Bibism and Ben Gvirism, both of which challenge the foundations of a stable society in Israel—must be defeated in the November 1st election. All sane people who care about the future of Israel must get out the vote for all the other political parties that oppose them and their ultra-nationalist and ultra-“religious” bloc.  They are a clear and present danger to the democratic future of this country, not to mention to moral foundations of our society.

In addition, Jews in the Diaspora, must make it clear that they can not tolerate a government with the likes of Ben Gvir in it, as Rabbi Eric Yoffie did recently in a courageous and forthright op-ed in Haaretz, in which he urged that Ben Gvir should be boycotted if, God forbid, he becomes a minister in the government of Israel. Jews in the Diaspora, who are mostly liberal, must speak out against these very dangerous phenomena in no uncertain terms. Otherwise, they will be forced to deal with an unrecognizable Jewish homeland, one that will be very difficult for them to support or identify with.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr Ron Kronish is the Founding Director the Interreligious Coordinating Council in Israel (ICCI), which he directed for 25 years. Now retired, he is an independent educator, author, lecturer, writer, speaker, blogger and consultant. He is the editor of 5 books, including Coexistence and Reconciliation in Israel--Voices for Interreligious Dialogue (Paulist Press, 2015). His new book, The Other Peace Process: Interreligious Dialogue, a View from Jerusalem, was published by Hamilton Books, an imprint of Rowman and LIttlefield, in September 2017. He is currently working on a new book about peacebuilders in Israel and Palestine.
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