| Power Plays |

The Ben Gvir Phenomenon     

The years of media attacks, parodies, and indictments have only boosted Ben Gvir’s influence

The Gordon swimming pool facing the Tel Aviv marina is frequented by the cream of Israeli society. Many of the nation’s leading doctors, lawyers, and celebrities are among the pool’s patrons. Their delicate sensibilities were offended 11 years ago, when a group of 40 Sudanese refugees led by right-wing firebrand MK Michael Ben-Ari and his aide Itamar Ben Gvir demanded admission to the pool as part of a campaign to prove the hypocrisy of Israel’s secular elite.

At first the pool staff refused to allow the refugees in, pointing out that they didn’t have swimming gear. But when one of the Otzma Yehudit activists pulled out swimsuits for the Sudanese, and Ben Gvir warned the staff that they could be sued for discrimination, the staff caved.

The refugees’ entrance caused consternation, with some swimmers storming out, but others realized what was afoot and welcomed the refugees.

The long-forgotten incident was an early example of Itamar Ben Gvir’s signature, divisive style, featuring legal nous and media-savvy in service of right-wing causes.

In a sense, the phenomenon known as Itamar Ben Gvir — the star of this election cycle — was built by the media, which has amplified his name at every opportunity. The same holds true of his old friends and fellow controversial Kahanist disciples Ben-Ari, Bentzi Gopstein, and Baruch Marzel.

But Ben Gvir’s case is qualitatively different from that of his old friends. An advocate of increased Jewish access to Har Habayis, the Otzma Yehudit leader has used heavily guarded tours of the area to create a media spectacle, drawing attention to the issue.

That in turn has earned him unusually forceful denunciations from both the Rishon L’Tzion Rav Yitzchak Yosef, and Chevron rosh yeshivah Rav Dovid Cohen, who accused him of a “chillul Hashem” in ignoring the opinions of mainstream poskim on a matter of the greatest halachic severity. Rav Dovid went so far as to say, “Those supporting him are toying with their portion in Olam Haba.”

Yet in certain circles, these reckless provocations are the very source of his appeal. The man whose supporters love his pistol-packing advocacy for the use of greater force in restive Arab areas — and who has been accused by opponents of being a provocateur — is about to be appointed a minister in Netanyahu’s new government.

Here to Stay

Already 15 years ago, Ben Gvir understood what many of his hard-right fellows didn’t: the value of using the mainstream media to promote his worldview, rather than simply yelling in the street.

His early talent for working the press meant that as a Knesset aide to Michael Ben-Ari, he had the email addresses of every major reporter — ties that he used to promote his boss leading to a string of prominent journalists beating a path to the door of the otherwise unknown MK.

The media-savvy is a feature of the politician’s down-to-earth folksiness, exhibited through his speaking ability. The seasoned attorney can be sharp and to the point, but he keeps his rhetoric accessible and easy to understand. During an Election Day swing through a Sderot market, Ben Gvir grabbed the microphone and hawked his wares.

“Two for the price of one — Netanyahu will be prime minister, but the government will be completely right wing!”

A vendor answered him: “You’re the king!”

Ben Gvir embraced him and the vendor added, “Twenty seats!”

Ben Gvir called out good-humoredly: “Clementines, come buy fresh clementines!”

Added to Ben Gvir’s instinctive feel for PR is his can-do attitude toward the legal system. Instead of denying Israeli courts’ legitimacy — as previous right-wing firebrands have done — he tried to bring about change through his legal battles for the Greater Israel activists, and by appealing the many indictments filed against him — most of which were in fact withdrawn. Later he became famous for successful libel suits against critics who went too far. Today he runs from one TV studio to another, and his mental agility is a byword — after locking horns with the best of the legal profession all his life, the media is kid’s stuff for him.

The years of media attacks, parodies and indictments have only boosted Ben Gvir’s influence. Unlike his colleagues from Rabbi Meir Kahane’s circles, whose Knesset candidacies were repeatedly struck down by the high court, Ben Gvir is here to stay.


Security Barrier

Media presence alone doesn’t account for Ben Gvir’s meteoric electoral success, which lifted his party — combined with Bezalel Smotrich’s National Religious Party — to a joint 14 seats. Key to that success was the message that I heard on Election Day when I followed the Otzma Yehudit leader as he campaigned across the country. Ben Gvir’s message during his swing through the country’s south was summed up in his oft-repeated phrase: “I’m coming here to restore order — it’s time for order.”

Those simple words — perhaps the most influential of the election — meant one thing: personal security.

Amid an on-off terror wave, and with the IDF battling emboldened terror groups in Jenin and Shechem, many Israelis feel that authorities were failing in their basic duty to ensure personal safety. Ben Gvir has capitalized on this sense of insecurity by showing up to every terrorist attack or riot and demanding answers, whether from Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev or the commanding officer on the scene. He set up his office in Jerusalem’s flashpoint Shimon Hatzaddik neighborhood — site of confrontations over the expansion of the Jewish footprint in the area — and rushed to support victims after every attack.

Ben Gvir’s promise to crack down on Arab violence is the reason that over 516,000 people voted for him.

Many Israelis in the south especially have wearied of the lack of security and want change — and Ben Gvir knew just how to fill this vacuum. It’s no coincidence that Ben Gvir’s swing took him through those very cities: Ashdod, Ashkelon, Ofakim, Sderot, Be’er Sheva, and Bat Yam.

The security message resonated beyond those places, drawing support in  bourgeois Netanya and Herzliya as well. That’s where Ben Gvir brought the votes that the Religious Zionist parties had never before been able to attract. As Amit Segal, a leading political commentator, put it: “Where the long-term national-religious leadership failed, Smotrich and Ben Gvir succeeded, setting an all-time record for the Religious Zionist movement by attracting new voters who aren’t religious Zionists.”


Broad Appeal

That focus on security explains why Ben Gvir shies from the more religious image that Smotrich clings to. The name of Ben Gvir’s party is not the name of a sector, like Smotrich’s (“Religious Zionist”), but Otzma Yehudit, which speaks to a basic demand for safety shared by Jews of all sectors.

“I think our success can be attributed to the fact that we represent everyone: secular and religious, chareidi and traditional, Sephardim and Ashkenazim, rural and urban, farmers, teachers, freelancers, cops and soldiers — and they all demand real change,” Ben Gvir announced in his victory speech. “They want to walk down the street in safety. They want our cops’ and soldiers’ hands not to be tied.”

Cross-sectoral appeal is not merely a political strategy, but a feature of Ben Gvir as a person.

His personal history suggests that growing up, he never really belonged to any sector.

“My family was not religious,” Ben Gvir recounted in one interview. “My parents were traditional with kosher food and kiddush on Shabbos, but after that they would go to the beach. When I was chozer b’teshuvah, my parents did everything possible to accommodate me.”

Ben Gvir has always been an activist, and that’s why unlike his party predecessors he’s folksier, and more in touch with ordinary Israelis.

Many pre-election polls highlighted that ability to draw support from outside the right-wing bloc.

Most of these new voters are right-wing by conviction, but have never been motivated to go out and vote. This time they had found an address.


Actions, Not Words

Days after the euphoric victory that elevated him to the commanding heights of Israeli politics, the party is over and the hard-bargaining of coalition negotiations has set in.

Netanyahu looks set to hand Ben Gvir the internal security portfolio that he’s demanded, to make good on his campaign pledges to crack down on Arab terror.

Actually delivering on those promises in the complexity of Israelis’ real-world relations with a restive Palestinian minority will be far more difficult for Ben Gvir than the last years of street campaigning.

Reports suggest that Netanyahu will seek to give Ben Gvir the resources he seeks to fight terror, and come to understandings with his new minister to limit Jewish ascent to Har Habayis — opposed by mainstream halachic authorities and seen as needlessly provocative by many beyond the hard right.

Whether that compromise proves acceptable for Ben Gvir or his followers will prove key to a stable right-wing coalition.

That’s why, even as the the hero’s welcome that he received in unexpected places like Tel Aviv echoes in his ears, Ben Gvir’s road ahead remains unpredictable.

His emergence is nothing short of a social phenomenon, but as such, he risks disappearing just as quickly. People gave him their votes, and now they want results.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 935)

Oops! We could not locate your form.