Israel Pulse

Legitimization of racist party sullies Israel’s reputation

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Article Summary
Israel’s reputation has been sullied by the courting of Itamar Ben-Gvir, a disciple of the racist Rabbi Meir Kahane, by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and United Right leader Ayelet Shaked in the run-up to Knesset elections in September.

The United States is reeling from the massacre of 31 innocent people in mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, in recent days. Twenty-nine, the initial body count in the US attacks, was also the number of Muslim worshippers slain by the Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein in a Hebron mosque over the Cave of the Patriarchs on Purim in 1994. Today in Israel, Jewish Power (Otzma Yehudit), the party of Goldstein admirers, is running in the Sept. 17 Knesset election. Not only that, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his henchmen worked tirelessly to ensure that the attorney Itamar Ben-Gvir, Jewish Power’s leader and a disciple of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, would deign to join the United Right alliance. In the April 9 election, for the 21st Knesset, Ben-Gvir had occupied the seventh slot on the United Right's list of candidate.

According to the latest polling, there is little risk of Jewish Power polluting the benches of the Israeli parliament, given its eventual decision to run alone in the September election. Netanyahu and his ruling Likud’s courtship of Ben-Gvir, however, has already sullied the reputation of the State of Israel.

The Likud was not particularly troubled when former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked tried in recent days to entice Ben-Gvir to join the United Right alliance that she now heads by offering him the position of deputy Knesset speaker along with deputy ministerial government positions and the chair of a Knesset committee for his friends.

Likud Knesset member David Bitan, who excels at reciting the talking points compiled for Netanyahu associates, explained in an Aug. 1 radio interview that the Likud had missed embracing Ben-Gvir, that is, adding his party to Likud’s Knesset list, because Likud had finalized its list in primaries earlier in the year. Bitan and his masters are unperturbed by the moral stands of the man who hung a photo of Baruch Goldstein in his living room. They were also unfazed by the March 2019 statement by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to the Supreme Court that Ben-Gvir had come “dangerously close to the forbidden line” that would have disqualified him for an election run.

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“[The] Ben-Gvir of eight years ago is not today’s Ben-Gvir,” Bitan argued. Really? In March 2014, only some five years ago, the journalist Hanoch Daum walked out of Ben-Gvir’s house over his refusal to take down Goldstein’s photo. In a February 2015 Jewish Power video, Ben-Gvir is seen overturning Palestinian stalls in the Hebron market and telling one of the traders, “Go to Syria. We are the lords of the land here.” In December that same year, Ben-Gvir was filmed at the “Hate Wedding,” an event during which men and children danced and sang with fervor, “O Lord GOD, please strengthen me that I may be avenged on the Palestinians.” The ditty is a paraphrase of Samson’s entreaty to God to help him avenge the gouging of his eyes by the Philistines (Judges 16:28). As Ben-Gvir and company danced about, they repeatedly stabbed a photo of Ali Dawabshe, a Palestinian baby murdered in an arson attack by radical Jews on his parents’ West Bank home days earlier.

The current platform of Jewish Power — the party whose fate Netanyahu fears for in the upcoming elections and to which he had offered seats in his government in a bid to form a coalition after the April election — includes the following incendiary items among others: a “total” war against Israel’s enemies, without negotiations, compromises or concessions; the imposition of Israeli sovereignty over all of the Land of Israel “liberated” in the 1967 war; the establishment of a national agency to encourage the migration of Israel’s enemies to their lands of origin; and denying Israeli citizenship to the immediate family members of Israeli Arabs.

Ben-Gvir has not changed. Israel society has. It reacts to racism with equanimity bordering on acceptance. The media has also changed, playing a role in legitimizing Kahanism and its representatives by slathering generous coats of disinfectant on the ugly stain of bloodthirsty racism. Less than six months ago, on Feb. 21, Ben-Gvir told the Ynet website that the only difference between Jewish Power and Kahane’s Kach movement — other than in style and, in his opinion, in Kahane being a great leader — was that nowadays “there are microphones.” As a reminder, Israel declared Kahane's Kach movement a terror group in 1994 (and it is also considered such in the United States).

Indeed, in recent months reporters have not budged from Ben-Gvir's side, as if he were some kind of rock star politician rather than a self-proclaimed Kahanist (i.e., a racist). On Aug. 1, Channel 12 News political analyst Amit Segal went so far as to equate the photo of Goldstein in Ben-Gvir’s home to that of PLO leader Yasser Arafat in the office of Arab Knesset member Ahmad Tibi.

Producers of the top-rated reality show “Big Brother” courted Ben-Gvir, even offering him a room sanitized of women so as not to offend his religious sensibilities. “I must confess to being positively surprised by the program’s people,” Ben-Gvir said. “I thought of settling myself on the show in order to appeal to viewers’ hearts, but then the elections upended my plans.”

Ben-Gvir, in his defense, argues that “Jewish Power is like other Knesset factions,” with the only difference being that his party “plans to carry out its declarations.” We can only hope that the Israeli voter does not provide the party with access to operational roles. The similarities between Ben-Gvir and United Right Ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Rabbi Rafi Peretz from Netanyahu’s government is far greater than the differences between them. This week we learned that the two will grace with their presence a ceremony honoring US-born Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh, who authored the pamphlet “Baruch the Man,” in which he proclaims the mass murderer Goldstein “a saint” whose act “exemplifies deep-rooted, pure Jewish action.”

The moral stain has also spread across the Atlantic. The Israel Project, one of the leading pro-Israel organizations in the United States, recently closed its Israel office. In a lengthy Facebook post, the organization's leader, Lior Weintraub, wrote that support for Israel had become a complex issue for Democratic donors, whereas Republicans “chose to support projects that express their worldview more sharply and clearly,” a hint at their support for East Jerusalem and West Bank settlements. “There were no buyers for anything in the middle ground in 2019,” wrote the director of the public diplomacy project, which he said was “the first victim of the polarization of the pro-Israel system in America.”

How can worshippers at the Pittsburgh synagogue who lost 11 of their co-religionists in an anti-Semitic hate crime last October identify with the state whose leaders hand a seal of approval to admirers of the killer who murdered 29 worshippers in their house of prayer? The April elections almost brought the Arab-hating, ultra-rightist racist party into the Knesset. On Sept. 17, the party will have another chance. Every vote it gets will serve the racist, Jew-hating right around the world.

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Found in: Israeli elections

Akiva Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, French, German and Arabic.

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