What’s really so dangerous about Ben-Gvir

By all reports, Yuri Volkov was a good man. The 52-year old hospital worker and his wife were just trying to cross the street last month when they were cut off by a motorcyclist ignoring a red light. Yuri’s wife Lena had some words with the cyclist, who then followed and rode right up to her. Yuri got in between his wife and the cyclist — who then stabbed him in the chest. Yuri collapsed moments later (if you can stand to watch it, there is a video here of the gruesome killing).

There’s so much here that’s shocking, but one thing that really surprised me were his daughter’s tearful words about the killer: “We ask the new national security minister [Itamar] Ben Gvir to turn the case into a flagship case [דגל מדינה] in the State of Israel, that he go to prison and that there be no mercy for him.” 

For just a moment, I’m ashamed to admit, I lost all sympathy for her. My brain was stunned. One part of my brain saw her as this innocent victim who had suffered an inconceivable loss for no discernible reason. The other part was saying, “who is this young woman who could support this hateful, dangerous, violent politician?”

But then I realized there was something important here to pay attention to, something that was new to me: While Ben Gvir may be a religious politician whose extreme nationalism is based on his theology, his appeal is not limited to people who want Israel to annex the West Bank for religious reasons. He’s the “law and order” candidate. Daria Volkov, in her extreme grief, was looking to him for help, for him to bring order to the streets of places like Bat Yam and Holon (where her father was killed). 

There’s nothing explicitly nationalist in Daria looking to Ben Gvir, it has nothing to do with the conflict with the Palestinians. By all accounts, Yuri Volkov was killed by a Jewish Israeli (a 22-year old with a criminal background, Adi Mizrahi, is reported to have confessed to the crime).

And this is what makes Ben Gvir so much more dangerous than his fellow religious nationalists like Bezalel Smotrich. Ben Gvir is a populist. Unlike Smotrich, he can appeal to voters who have no interest in a religious agenda. He can bring secular and religious voters together under the single banner of bringing “order” to a country that many see as one full of disorder, one where crime — while still very low by American standards — is on the rise, and where more and more criminals have guns.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Israel in many ways is a liberal country, a country that looks a lot like a liberal European social democracy. It’s still a country where income and wealth inequality is much less than in the States. It’s still a country where there’s a strong basic trust in government, especially in the military.

But underneath there are big resentments brewing, and not just among the Arab population. “[T]he military is experiencing nothing less than an uprising by Israel’s social-cultural peripheries,” wrote political scientist Yagil Levy in a Haaretz piece about Ben Gvir’s appeal to combat soldiers. “They send their children to the military and feel frustration at a service perceived as thankless: dirty policing work that bestows no prestige on those who perform it, breathes no life into the ethos of bravery and racks up no glorious achievements, but only the maintenance of the status quo. That is why they rebel against the military’s official cultural codes.”

Those cultural codes include the importance of allowing Israelis to engage in peaceful protest without being assaulted by soldiers. But that’s not what one soldier did in Hebron recently, throwing an activist to the ground and punching him. “Ben Gvir is going to sort things out in this place,” another soldier is reported to have said there. “That’s it, you guys have lost… the fun is over.”

The fun is over.

I’m terrified that Israel is entering one of the most dangerous times in its history. Ben Gvir has the potential to ride his populism straight to the position of prime minister. What the “order” he would bring in that position would look like is so frightening to contemplate. My guess is that it would actually look like disorder. Populists like this feed on the fears of people. And, often, their policies actually increase those fears by fueling the tension, and potential for violence, in a society. Under Ben Gvir, we may not just be violently fighting with the Palestinians, but among ourselves.

But there’s still room for hope. But only if we address the inequities that underlie the resentments that Yagil Levy highlighted. The sons of families from poorer neighborhoods should not have to serve in Hebron, for example, and do our ‘dirty work’ for us there. No one should have to serve in Hebron. It’s long past time that we get out of Hebron. And, through a two-state solution, the West Bank as a whole. The price on our collective soul of having our young people serve there is just too high.

About the Author
Alan Abrams is a spiritual care educator who made Aliyah in 2014. He and his wife live in Jerusalem with their two "sabra" children. Alan is the founder of HavLi and the HaKen Institute, spiritual care education and research centers based in Jerusalem. A rabbi, Alan received a PhD in May 2019 from NYU for his dissertation on the theology of pastoral care. He was a business journalist in his first career.
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