We must beware the modern-day Meir Kahane

Itamar Ben-Gvir is the heir to the extremist’s dark legacy, and is dangerously close to power

September 05, 2022 11:57

In 1980, Israeli intelligence learned that Meir Kahane, later banned from the Knesset for incitement to racism, was planning a terror attack against Arabs. Prime Minister Menachem Begin agreed to an administrative detention order for Kahane. Why did he do so, despite a deep-held belief in the right to trial? “I had no peace with myself for days,” the premier reportedly told American Ambassador Sam Lewis. “I agreed because he could have brought disaster — not on our people but on Arabs. We had no choice. He is a crazy man… a dangerous man.”

Forty-two years later, an heir to Kahane has arisen who is every bit as crazy and dangerous. Arguably, Itamar Ben-Gvir, who leads the far-right Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”) party, is the biggest internal danger Israel currently faces.

But no right-wing politician has displayed Begin’s moral backbone and Ben-Gvir is currently making his way into the heart of Israel’s establishment. The implications for Israel are ominous. And here in the diaspora — whatever your political persuasion — we must do better.

Ben-Gvir was an extremist from his youth, exempted from army service because of his radical political background. Following dozens of indictments, he trained as a lawyer, finding notoriety defending Jews suspected of terrorism and hate crimes, including two people — one a teenager — who burned an Arab baby to death.

He was filmed calling Kahane “our holy teacher and rabbi”, adding: “He was a prophet… And we continue in his path.” And so he does. Until it was no longer politically expedient, Ben-Gvir hung a portrait of reviled Arab-murderer and fellow Kahanist Baruch Goldstein on his wall. He is currently advocating a law to deport anyone he perceives as disloyal to the state or IDF, non-Jews only.

Polls show that this extremist may gain as many as eight seats in the next parliament. Wherever he goes, he is treated like a messiah, with supporters dancing, singing and waving flags. This seems to be a reaction against lawlessness in the Arab sector and the anti-Zionism of many of the Arab MKs. He holds particular appeal to strictly Orthodox youth, many of whom see their own MKs as soft on nationalist issues.

Ben-Gvir’s rise has been cynically encouraged by opposition leader Binyamin Netanyahu. He apparently brokered a deal for Ben-Gvir to run with another far-right extremist, Bezalel Smotrich, to maximise his chances of establishing a coalition.

If Netanyahu wins, he will have to include Ben-Gvir in the next government. This is a catastrophic scenario. Israel’s government will be tarnished as racist and, for once, this will be irrefutable. It’s hard to see how Israel’s diplomatic relations, moral authority and the already strained relationship with American Jewry could survive a Kahanist minister.

Ben-Gvir’s presence in government will also tear at the fabric of Israeli society, as aggression towards Israeli Arabs is a central plank of his appeal. Whatever the problems in this sector, Israeli Arabs are Israeli citizens whose welfare and cooperation are essential to Israel’s future.
As a far-right extremist, he is also an enemy of secular and centrist Israel and would inflame social tensions.

This is not just “politics as usual”. He would endanger Israeli democracy. Ben-Gvir is also bad for Israel’s right-wing. Yes, he may enable the establishment of a right-wing government. But his divisive politics would push that government in directions that, until recently, the mainstream right found abhorrent and they would be tarnished by association for ever. Those who genuinely have the interests of the right at heart cannot hope for Ben-Gvir to be part of it.

That Netanyahu has facilitated all this for selfish reasons is a shameful part of his legacy. Here in Britain, Ben-Gvir still has a relatively low profile and many will be unaware of his true nature. But if he does enter government, our community must not be naïve in our attitude towards him.

He cannot be made welcome here, ever, especially while we ask British society to do more to combat antisemitism. And we must be vocal in rejecting everything he stands for. Those who believe that the Board of Deputies was showing left-wing bias when it condemned MK Smotrich last year must not allow residual anger to cloud their judgment on this.
Rejecting Ben-Gvir is beyond party politics. Israel’s democratic future depends on it.

September 05, 2022 11:57

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive