When the last election in Israel brought Netanyahu back into power, he had to reach to the far-right in order to create a coalition to keep him there. That coalition sparked an immediate conflagration in which the tenuous unity of Israelis went through a baptism by fire. From language in the coalition agreement threatening women with jail time for dressing immodestly or encouraging the removal of women from public spaces, to the extremist version of judicial reform that brought vast numbers of Israelis out to protest, the fundamental notion of Jewish peoplehood seemed to be drastically undermined. And at the centre of all of this is one politician, Itamar Ben Gvir, whose adulation of a dead terrorist clearly underpins many of his actions today — actions that have done, and continue to do, the government and world image great harm. And it is his affiliation with said dead terrorist, Baruch Goldstein, that is the most alarming window into who Ben Gvir is, and what his future portends for him and all of us.
In 2020, Itamar Ben Gvir grudgingly agreed to take down a prominent picture of Baruch Goldstein in his living room after being pressed about it by then-PM, Naftali Bennett. Bennett publicly declared Ben Gvir to be unfit for leadership, and in response, he said he would take it down for the sake of “unity,” all while carefully avoiding condemning Goldstein at all. Netanyahu later said that Ben Gvir would be in a coalition, but wasn’t fit to become a minister — because his beliefs were so extreme that even Bibi declared they “were not his own.” How ironic that the man is now the Minister of National Security. To be clear at the outset of this, I am a passionate Zionist. But I’m also a historian who believes that if studying history and how it informs today makes you comfortable, you’re doing it wrong.
So, who is Baruch Goldstein and why is Ben Gvir’s adulation of him alarming? Baruch Goldstein was a mass murderer and religious zealot, who is, in my opinion, a stain on the history of the Jews. Belonging to a group called the Jewish Defense League (a militant Jewish organization) and affiliated with the Kahanist party, Kach, he was part of an ultra-extremist right-wing organization that many Israelis disavowed. Kach, among other things, advocated for allowing only Jews to be citizens in Israel, for Israel to forcibly take all of Israel Shleima (as given by God), and for the incitement of terror against Arabs.
In the 1988 election, Kach was barred from running because they incited racism and violence. In 1994, when then-PM Yitzchak Rabin signed onto the Oslo Accords as a first step towards an independent Palestinian state, Baruch Goldstein responded to this by committing an atrocity that I would normally associate with Islamic fundamentalists. Purposely dressed in his former army uniform, giving the appearance of being someone on active duty, he walked into the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and opened fire, killing 29 and wounding some 125 worshipping Muslims. The Cave of the Patriarchs is a hotly contested site in the West Bank, which has been home to Jews for thousands of years as the place where Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and others were buried — all with the express purpose of ending the promise of peace and any notion that Israel should give an inch.
Israel’s reaction to this act is where I see the fundamental difference between Israel and some of its surrounding states and groups: the rule of law won the day. Recognizing the horrific events, Goldstein was not permitted to be buried in Hebron, and was buried near his settlement, Kiryat Arba. When it was discovered that some fellow zealots were using his grave as a shrine, Israel bulldozed his grave, just in case anyone thought it was acceptable to honor a man who was declared by Rabin to have “placed himself outside the wall of Jewish law” and was a “shame on Zionism and an embarrassment to Judaism.” Shortly thereafter, Kach was declared a terrorist organization by the Israeli government. Still, an adoration of Goldstein persisted underground in some quarters. There even became a tradition in some extremist parties to dress like Goldstein and celebrate the anniversary of the massacre, often bedecked in Holocaust-era “Jude” yellow stars. Despite these followers, however, Goldstein is seen by most Israelis as a reprehensible monster who defied the most fundamental of Jewish laws: the preservation of life. And yet, his recently rebuilt grave in Kiryat Arba was the scene of Ben Gvir and his wife’s first date. Who says terrorism and romance don’t mix?
It is this adulation of Goldstein that should have been the first warning sign when Ben Gvir attempted to enter politics. Indeed, Naftali Bennett in 2020 refused to align with his Otzma Yehudit party due to this affiliation, risking his own political future. When Netanyahu won the next election, he crawled into bed with Ben Gvir and Smotrich in an effort to stay in power, creating one of the most divisive political situations of the modern age. Near-fatally weakened by internal protests and strife, Israel was struck on 7 October 2023, and despite the fact that Ben Gvir was clearly outside a position of influence in the war, somehow, he still manages to create a furor around him.
One of my close friends, who is extremely liberal and yet relatively even-handed when it comes to Israel describes what is on the lips of many North Americans during this war: that the need for this war is undermined because the intentions of this government are not to be trusted. While I don’t think that’s true and certainly don’t believe that the war and its conduct is of their making, Ben Gvir is certainly not making things easier for Netanyahu. One example is how he downplays settler violence: Israel is Israel because it does not allow its citizens to hurt or maim Israeli Arabs or Palestinians freely without serious legal consequences. This is not some sort of honky-tonk nonsense extremist country, it is one bound by rule of law. When Ben Gvir described it as mere “graffiti,” Netanyahu shot back quickly that it was actually far more serious. The dance between the two continued.
He allowed thousands of gun permits without the normal checks after the declaration of war, arguing that armed Israelis were safer Israelis — perhaps adopting the NRA perspective that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Netanyahu was not happy with this either. And, while he’s outside the war cabinet, his inflammatory rhetoric about Gaza and the Palestinians ended up being used against Israel in the ICJ case. Those in the know may understand him to be outside the circle of power, but to anyone else, he’s a minister in the government and the words can be taken as policy.
Then, alarmingly, in the middle of the war he spoke at a conference about how the only path forward was the resettlement of Gaza and the “voluntary evacuation” of Gazans — which Netanyahu had to refute as being Israeli policy. He then leveraged his party against government stability by threatening to break up the coalition if a hostage deal was accepted. And in a shockingly stupid turn of events, Ben Gvir publicly got up and accused Biden of inadequate support and help, arguing that under Trump, the war would have fared better (does he not understand the definition of the term ‘isolationism’)? Netanyahu was again called out to do damage control and to thank the United States for all of its efforts and support.
But far from the sole concern being Netanyahu’s need to tread a fine line between keeping his coalition intact and maintaining American support, Ben Gvir remains in power and advocates for many of the same policies that Baruch Goldstein once killed for. How is it that in thirty years, a man upholding these values went from being seen as a terrorist to a minister? Because he was brought into power by someone who thought that he could control him, who could use his voter base to become PM but for his inflammatory and violent tendencies to be mitigated. Unfortunately for Netanyahu, he seems to have underestimated the man’s obsession with a terrorist of old. Ben Gvir’s vision of the future is one that puts Western support for Israel at risk. The question of support for Israel’s war against Hamas (however unjustified that criticism is) is undermined by having a cabinet minister who could turn the lies people tell of us — apartheid, supremacy and violence — into reality. A man, who, for a religious Jew seems to know nothing of the warnings against Sinat Chinam (baseless hatred) in the Torah. And far from just looking at a picture of Goldstein on his wall, it’s almost as if he sees Goldstein reflecting back at him when he looks in the mirror. A golem with the tenuous (and hopefully short-lived) power of government behind him. God help us all.