Rejecting Itamar Ben Gvir while reaching out to his voters

A poster and stand campaigning for Itamar Ben Gvir and his Otzma Yehudit party (Wikimedia Commons, 2022).

With the fifth round of Israel’s elections in the past three and a half years in the books, Benjamin Netanyahu seems set to return as prime minister with a solid right-wing majority coalition. In light of this significant event, I decided to write this piece to reflect on my thoughts and feelings on what is likely going to come from the incoming Israeli government.

Let me first and foremost clarify why it is indeed my place as an American Jew (non-Israeli citizen) – and many other Jews in the diaspora’s place – to have an opinion on Israel’s elections: Israel is the Jewish state. It is the homeland of the Jewish people. Where it goes and the decisions it makes affects me and many other Jews throughout the globe who identify with it in one way or another. Israel is our business too.

As for my thoughts on the elections, the results may lead Israel down a path that I – and many other proud Zionists and supporters of the Jewish state throughout the world – will not be able to follow. This was the sixth Israeli election I have consciously followed and – as someone who supports a two-state solution with the Palestinians – I have certainly not been satisfied with any of them, but I still respected the results of the first five elections because it is a value of mine to respect other people’s opinions and try to work with people I disagree with.

This election was different, though.

The results of this election did not just bring rise to politicians and parties many Zionists and pro-Israel advocates like myself disagree with. It saw the rise of a group of people in the Religious Zionist Party who violate the basic norms of democracy and human dignity. The Religious Zionist Party – headed by Bezalel Smotrich – received 14 seats in the Knesset and is likely going to be the second largest party in Netanyahu’s bloc. It is made up of three smaller factions – Tkuma, Otzma Yehudit, and Noam – and is filled with Jewish supremacists, including perhaps most notoriously Itamar Ben Gvir of Otzma Yehudit.

For some background, Ben Gvir and his Otzma Yehudit faction are the disciples of anti-Arab figure Meir Kahane and his Kach party. Ben Gvir has been charged multiple times with inciting violence against Arabs and was, in fact, rejected from serving in the Israeli military because he was considered too radical.

He has even lionized Jewish settler terrorist, Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 Palestinian worshippers in a mosque unprovoked in 1994. Until recently, Ben Gvir held a portrait of Goldstein in his living room and once dressed up as him for Purim stating that “he was my hero.”

Having someone like Ben Gvir and the ideas he represents emboldened in the next Israeli government is something that I – and many other people who deeply care about Israel – just cannot follow or respect. Praising a man who deliberately murdered 29 people while they were praying and continuing to encourage more Jewish terrorist attacks are not “opinions.” They are morally and objectively wrong and placing someone at a high-ranking position, such as the Minister of Public Security that Ben Gvir has requested, will destroy the moral values of the Jewish state, and will likely lead to more violence between Jews and Arabs in Israel.

One might argue that it is still democracy because Ben Gvir was elected in a free and fair election and we should therefore respect him and the results, but the essence of democracy goes deeper than that.

For instance, in their book, How Democracies Die, Harvard University Professors Daniel Ziblatt and Steven Levitsky (2018) argue that one of the ways democracies in modern history have descended into extremist and authoritarian governments has actually been through free and fair elections. The reason for that is because when you have free elections where anyone can run, sometimes people with extremist views can receive a decent amount of support from the public. For example, if there is a security crisis (more on Israel as a case example later) someone with authoritarian and extremist policies may become popular because they may be seen as someone who provides stability and security. However, once they get their foot in the door, even after the security situation stabilizes, they may start to implement authoritarian policies and construct an exclusive narrative that everyone follows.

Ben Gvir and the Religious Zionist Party seem to have similar tendencies. For example, placing the Israeli supreme court under the control of the executive government, stripping citizenship from or even expelling Arabs in Israel who are not considered “loyal” to the state, and unilaterally annexing territory without providing civil liberties to the Palestinians who live there are only some of the ideas they are proposing. These are all anti-democratic policies and the fact that their proponents were elected in free and fair elections does not override that. As Israel Policy Forum Chief Policy Officer Michael Koplow wrote shortly after the elections, “Elections are a necessary component of democracy, but they are not sufficient…What transpires later matters, and the fetishization of elections is precisely why many non-democratic regimes now routinely go through the exercise of holding them, as a way to forestall external criticism.”

Indeed, just because Ben Gvir and his allies were elected in an election does not absolve them of the anti-democratic and extremist policies they may promote, and they are not people we should legitimize.

At the same time, it is also important to understand why Ben Gvir and his allies received such substantial support. Indeed, while we should not legitimize Ben Gvir and his ideas, we still need to understand why many Israelis voted for them because many of them are good people who also care about Israel just as much as we do, and they are worth reaching out to. As Israeli novelist Yossi Klein Halevi – who voted for Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party – wrote the day after the elections, “We will need to reach out to voters in the (Religious Zionist Party and pro-Netanyahu) camp, get to work (on) rebuilding the consensus around our Jewish and democratic identities…We all share a deep love for (Israel); we’ve fought and sacrificed to protect it and will likely be called to do so again.”

There are a variety of reasons why over 10 percent of Israelis voted for the Religious Zionist Party, but there are a couple of factors that we need to understand to reach out to them.

One is that many religious Zionists and Jewish settlers may feel they have no one else to vote for. If you are a religious Zionist and or residing in an Israeli settlement, you are looking for candidates who will at least broadly represent your values and advocate for your daily needs. However, all the other leaders of their communities who may have been considered more “moderate” are either retired or no longer trusted, so they may feel that people like Smotrich and Ben Gvir are their only viable options even if they do not agree with their racist policies.

What this means is that the religious Zionist and Jewish settler communities will need to develop new leadership who can represent them, but who also distance themselves from Ben Gvir and his ideas. For instance, they may uphold the belief that all the Land between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea belongs to the Jewish people and advocate for the basic needs of Jewish settlers, as those are legitimate views that we can and should respect, but they will also need to preach against violence and uphold pluralistic values.

A second factor was the riots in Israel’s mixed cities in May, 2021. What was unique about the Gaza War in May of last year was that it led to tension and violence within the mixed Jewish-Arab cities in Israel-proper, such as Acre, Ramle, and Lod. To be sure, there was violence conducted by both Jewish and Arab mobs, but the latter perpetrated serious terror attacks. According to the Central District Fire Station, during the May riots, Arab mobs had set 10 synagogues, 112 Jewish residences, and 849 Jewish cars on fire, looted 386 Jewish homes and damaged another 673, and killed three Jews and injured about 600 others.

Again, what was unique about these events was that they were in direct relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As Russell Shalev argues after a thorough investigation, these acts of violence were not out of civic and economic grievances, but rather done in the name of Palestinian nationalism. This enabled Ben Gvir to become relatively popular because many Israeli Jews started to become genuinely fearful that the conflict with the Palestinians was coming into their own neighborhoods within Israel-proper through their own Arab citizens.

Nevertheless, while it is certainly understandable why Ben Gvir became popular after the riots in May, 2021, emboldening him is not the answer because collectively targeting Israeli Arabs is neither ethical nor a pragmatic response, as it may only further escalate tension and violence between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens.

Rather, a more appropriate response to address the legitimate concerns and fears of Israeli Jews is by finding and recruiting trusted local religious leaders in the Jewish and Arab communities that were hit by the riots to help build trust between them.

For example, in their Progress is Possible report, the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace made the case for religious peacebuilding and referenced past cases in Israel’s mixed cities as examples. For instance, after a similar case of violence broke out in Acre in 2008 and 2014, Rabbi Michael Melichior and Sheikh Abdullah Nimer Darwish played significant roles in helping reduce the tensions by preaching against violence within their communities. This is something that will need to be replicated in Israel’s mixed cities to help start a process of healing and rebuilding trust between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens.

The rise of Itamar Ben Gvir and the Religious Zionist Party is absolutely a threat to Israel’s democracy and, unless they show they are genuinely willing to change, we must continue to reject them. However, we must also recognize that many of their supporters are good people who are worth reaching out to because that is the only way we can truly unite and save Israel’s democracy.

About the Author
Jonah Naghi is a Boston-based writer and the Chair of Israel Policy Forum's IPF Atid Steering Committee in the city of Boston. A frequent commentator on Israeli-Palestinian and US-Israel affairs, Jonah has spent extensive time in the region and received his Masters in Social Work at Boston College (2020) and LCSW (2021). All the views expressed are his own.
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