Hall of infamy: Itamar Ben-Gvir
JOB: Israeli National Security Minister
REPUTATION: Fanatical religious zealot bent on destroying Palestine and fomenting hate
To understand this jolly warrior of the Israeli far right you need to go back to his mentor and hero – the ultranationalist Rabbi who pushed for the expulsion of all Palestinians from their homeland and founded US-based terror group the Jewish Defense League.
A hero of the settler movement, New York-born Kahane went on to found the extremist Kach party in Israel. He served one term in the Knesset in the 1980s before the party was eventually barred for inciting racial hatred.
For his trouble, Kahane was assassinated in New York in 1990. But times have changed since that period, when such views were considered intolerable even by Israel’s standards. Today the Kahanists, led by Ben-Gvir and his ultranationalist Jewish Power party, have reached the highest levels of Israeli politics. With the support of nationalist warhorse and recently returned Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the pair are launching an assault not only on the Palestinians but on Israeli institutions capable of checking executive power, starting with the judiciary.
Ben-Gvir, 46, who resides in an illegal West Bank settlement near Hebron, joined his hero’s Kach party at an early age, becoming its youth coordinator. His far-right activities led to multiple arrests, and over 50 indictments – which he’s happily boasted about. In 2007 he was convicted for incitement to racism and supporting a terrorist organization, leading the Israeli Army to exclude the young fanatic from mandatory service.
After he graduated from law school, his googly-eyed charisma and his provocative enthusiasm to support ultra-orthodox extremism served him well as a defence attorney for terrorists, mostly accused of hate crimes against Palestinians. Newspaper Haaretz described Ben-Gvir as the legal ‘go-to man’ for Jewish extremists, and said his client list ‘reads like a “Who’s Who” of suspects in Jewish terror cases and hate crimes’. Ben-Gvir has also represented several members, including the CEO, of the far-right Israeli anti-assimilation organization Lehava, which opposes intermarriage with non-Jews.
Since launching his political career, Ben-Gvir has endeavoured to up his credibility quota, muting his anti-Palestinian rantings and referring to them simply as ‘terrorists’. He even took down a portrait of the Israeli-American murderer Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 massacred 29 Palestinian Muslim worshippers and wounded 125 others in Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque, from its long-standing place of pride in his living room. These days the far-right activist-turned-politician sees himself as more ‘refined’.
Now the former pariah has achieved the once unthinkable – a cabinet position in Israel’s government, in charge of national security no less. As hundreds of thousands of Israelis hit the streets to protest changes that would weaken the supreme court, Ben-Gvir has been thrust onto centre-stage. The extremist has been able to wrestle from Netanyahu approval for launching his own 2,000-strong ‘national guard’ which will target Palestinian citizens of Israel and Israeli anti-government protesters. The new force will focus in part on rooting out ‘nationalistic crimes’, which for Ben-Gvir includes such awful practices as waving the Palestinian flag.
LOW CUNNING: Ben-Gvir has set himself up as the provocateur-in-chief renowned for symbolic gestures to whip up Palestinian rage – typically followed by harsh Israeli repression. One of his favourite targets is occupied East Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque. He has ‘visited’ this holy Muslim site many times under heavy police protection including after being minted Minister of National Security. Ben-Gvir is a leader of the extremist Temple Mount movement whose aim is to remove or destroy the Muslim holy sites and replace them with a Jewish temple.
SENSE OF HUMOUR: It’s hard to beat Le Monde’s description of Ben-Gvir; ‘He storms around smiling, his eye constantly seeking the camera lens. He does not lack humour. He is violent. Homophobic, anti-liberal and anti-democratic. He believes in the supremacy of divine law and the Jewish people.’ Good material for the satirical Israeli TV show A Wonderful Land, which portrayed the racist prankster with a reworking of the old Mel Brooks song-and-dance number Springtime for Hitler. Itamar was not amused.
Sources: Le Monde; Dissent; Haaretz; The Times of Israel; The Guardian; MERIP; Portside magazine; +972 Magazine; The New York Times; Tablet magazine; The New Yorker. In These Times.