Itamar Ben-Gvir is our Jewish man of the year because despite all the obstacles placed in his way (many of his own making), he has managed to overcome, bypass, sidestep, circumvent, out-maneuver, or go through them all with his relentless determination to defend Jewish people, their rights and liberty. He promotes his particular Jewish agenda for the people of Israel, and gets in the face of the mainstream media which respond by displaying his messages front and center.
Ben-Gvir has been a work in progress for the better part of three decades, and this year he reached as high as he expected. In 5781 you just couldn’t ignore Itamar Ben-Gvir.
THERE’S RIGHT AND THEN THERE’S EVEN MORE RIGHT
Two right-wing politicians bombard my WhatsApp more than anyone else on the many lists to which I subscribe: Religious Zionism Chairman MK Bezalel Smotrich, and his faction partner, Otzma Yehudit Chairman Itamar Ben-Gvir. But while Smotrich’s frequent messages string together consistent, ever-growing statements that are highly focused and calm to a fault, Ben-Gvir’s are a celebration of catch-as-catch-can commentary, almost always very emotional, reflecting a great capacity for emotion and, as such, occasionally infuriating.
Even at his relatively tender age of 31, Bezalel Smotrich comes across as a thinker, one is even tempted to say, a statesman in the making. His agenda is clear, he doesn’t lie and only rarely fudges. Indeed, his honesty has gotten him into gallons of hot water with the press.
To Ben-Gvir, the hot water is his natural environment. His political activity—and he is on 24/6—is usually two measures of street theater to one measure of political message. The vast majority of his videos includes at least a few frames where he is smiling with undeniable pleasure, a cat-that-ate-the-cream kind of self-satisfied smile. He is grandiose, even bombast, and you know he loves the attention.
Itamar Ben-Gvir, 45, was born in Jerusalem to parents who came to Israel from Iraq (his mother, a Kurdish Jew, was a member of the Irgun and was arrested by the British at age 14). Itamar did teshuva in the 11th grade and attended the Jewish Idea yeshiva that was founded by Rabbi Meir Kahane. The army rejected him over his membership in Kahane’s Kach movement. He gained national fame for his political provocations, the most memorable of which was holding up to the cameras then-PM Yitzhak Rabin’s car emblem (a Cadillac) which he said he had stolen, and warning: “Just like we got to this emblem, we could get to Rabin.” In 2000 he plastered ads around Jerusalem condemning the state visit of Pope John Paul II. And he reportedly tried to register in the Guinness Book of World Records a synagogue in an outpost as the synagogue with the highest number of demolitions and rebuilding.
LAW SCHOOL AND BEYOND
Ben-Gvir graduated from the Ono Academic Campus’s law school, but the Bar Association refused to let him start his internship, citing his criminal record. After several appeals, Ben-Gvir was ready for a new battle but the Bar committee was exhausted and finally let him take the bar exam in 2012, depending on the outcome of his pending criminal indictments. He was acquitted and began his legal career, representing mostly right-wing defendants who were targeted for their ideological beliefs.
In one case, Ben-Gvir channeled Clarence Darrow when he represented a boy accused of assaulting an Arab. Ben-Gvir had a different boy sit next to him during the trial, and after the main prosecution witness pointed to him with great confidence as the perpetrator, the judge was forced to let the real defendant go.
In late 2015, Ben-Gvir represented one of the suspects in the Duma village arson case and claimed Shin Bet interrogators forced a confession out of his client using torture. He set up public torture demonstrations outside the court sessions—vintage Ben-Gvir.
In 2016 he sued the Waqf agents for harassing him during his visit to the Temple Mount, accusing them of violating his rights under the Privacy Protection Act. The Magistrate’s Court awarded him compensation in the amount of NIS 50,000 ($15,500), plus legal expenses.
Ben-Gvir also represented Rabbi Eliezer Berland in 2018 over a dispute between him and the synagogue where he prayed, over Berland’s 2016 conviction on two counts of indecent acts and one assault.
Ben-Gvir is a member of the 24th Knesset, having run and failed for the 19th, 21st, 22nd, and 23rd Knessets. He started the more serious chapter of his political life as the attorney and communications adviser of MK Michael Ben-Ari and the spokesman for Ben-Ari’s National Jewish Front movement.
Ben-Gvir boasts that he has been the subject of 53 indictments—out of which he was convicted of eight criminal offenses. He was cleared of 46 indictments and claims to have won a total of NIS 250,000 ($78,000) in counter lawsuits against the police.
STREET THEATER POLITICS
The first time Itamar Ben-Gvir caught my attention was back in 2011 when he and then MK Michael Ben-Ari assembled a group of illegal Sudanese migrant workers and brought them to the Gordon public pool near the Tel Aviv marina. They paid for their entry tickets and reaped the results they had hoped for: liberal Tel Avivians rushing out of the water lest they be soiled by the incoming half-naked Africans. As far as street theater goes, it was absolutely brilliant. Unfortunately, because it was intended to shame and humiliate, that was also the extent of this lesson on the Israeli reality of racial harmony. It didn’t create a dialog.
What followed was with a long list of street theater episodes, none as brilliant as the Gordon pool, but all of them magnets for media coverage, because Ben-Gvir, like Ben-Ari, learned their stuff from the master, the late Rabbi Meir Kahane. With one major difference: in one Knesset term, Kahane managed to rise from a single seat to a projected eight seats—before a terrified Knesset, most notably the right-wing factions, ganged up on him and expelled for good the brilliant orator and gifted politician. Ben-Ari and Ben-Gvir never succeeded in using their stunts to gain Kahane’s kind of burgeoning support. Ben-Ari failed to win a second Knesset term and was later banned from running by the Supreme Court. Ben-Gvir never crossed the 3.25% threshold vote and only made it to the Knesset this time thanks to then PM Benjamin Netanyahu who acted as his personal campaign manager, diverting at least one Haredi seat to him – to the raging anguish of United Torah Judaism.
But even though Itamar Ben-Gvir desperately needs to boost his voter ranks, he doesn’t appear to try any strategy other than the frontal, unabashed, aggressive punches which he delivers several times a day, every day. He mixes those with the occasional street theater scene that nowadays often end in violence, or getting evicted from the Knesset plenum.
The Otzma Yehudit chairman has been attacking the new Lapid-Bennett government every single day, several times each day. He is indefatigable following this strategy, like a heavyweight who knows he must land a barrage of blows for some of them to do serious damage. It started with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s first appearance before the Knesset plenum, where he faced incessant booing from Ben-Gvir and the entire cadre of right-wing, Haredi, and Arab politicians, and continues without pause. These are the press releases he has released between August 24 and August 30 (my apologies for the lack of context, we would be here all day):
- MK Ben-Gvir in response to the terrorist’s request from the High Court to open the soldier’s grave: “In Israel, terrorists are given paradise and this is what makes them think they can make hell for the families of the murdered.”
- MK Ben-Gvir in response to the (Beitar Jerusalem) lawsuit against La Familia: “Instead of fighting their dear fans who are the heart and the symbol, and filing inflated and stupid intimidation lawsuits, start doing procurement (of talent), combining and connecting.”
- MK Ben-Gvir: “I did not celebrate the death of MK Al-Kharomi this morning, but I will not forget for a moment that he is an enemy of the State of Israel and IDF soldiers.”
- MK Ben-Gvir in response to the attempted snatching of a soldier’s weapon: “The IDF should investigate how the terrorist managed to come out of the incident alive.”
- MK Ben-Gvir in response to MK Shehadeh’s speech calling for the release of Lod detainees: “The nucleus of the Muslim Brotherhood is here in Israel and threatens to explode again within us.”
- MK Ben-Gvir in response to Dabour’s return to the Israeli national soccer team: “Shame and disgrace to the team that a player who supported the terrorists returned to play for the team even without an apology, I despise him.”
- MK Ben-Gvir in response to the release of the suspect who harassed a young woman and posted it on TikTok: “The court harms the residents of the south and the deterrence.”
- MK Ben-Gvir in response to Prime Minister Bennett’s statement on his opposition to the nuclear deal: “What’s left for Iran is to continue preparations for pressing the red button on which Bennett’s name is engraved.”
- MK Ben-Gvir in response to the High Court ruling to grant Israeli citizenship to the widow of a person entitled under the Law of Return: “The High Court has issued another precedent-setting ruling that’s dangerous for the interpretation of the Law of Return and destroys the law. I will have to propose amendments and additions that will block the loopholes that High Court judges created.”
- MK Ben-Gvir in response to suspicions against Chairwoman of Ben & Jerry’s Board of Directors for embezzling to support pro-Palestinian activity: “Dismiss her immediately. The ice creams may taste good to the palate, but it is repulsive to the soul.”
- MK Ben-Gvir in response to Ganz’s meeting with Mahmoud Abbas: “The government is spitting in our faces and advancing extreme left-wing agendas.”
- Otzma Yehudit Chairman MK Itamar Ben-Gvir: “It is time for revenge. The Israeli government must eliminate Ismail Haniyeh tonight.”
Like I said, all of the above messages to the press were delivered in a span of six days. Being on the receiving end, like hundreds of other press folks who subscribe to his WhatsApp group, is often annoying, on occasion funny, but always useful. He stays in your face, he has something to say about everything, he sometimes offers a tidbit you were not aware of – and you end up inserting his quote and his brand into your story.
WHEN THE GAME GETS DANGEROUS
Last spring, MK Ben-Gvir was not a commentator on the news – he was the news.
In May, Ben-Gvir established his office at the heart of the hottest real estate dispute in eastern Jerusalem – the Shimon HaTzadik (Sheikh Jarrah) Neighborhood. It was the kind of street theater that grew into an outright provocation and could end up in serious harm. As it were, after the conclusion of the daily Ramadan fast, dozens of Arabs gathered in front of Ben-Gvir’s new office to yell and hurl stones, plastic chairs, and garbage at him, at his office, and at the activists who had assembled around him.
Ben-Gvir has had an ongoing battle with Commissioner Shabtai, which reached its peak over the Arab riots in Israel’s “mixed cities.” On May 13, Ben-Gvir demanded Shabtai’s sacking, a short while before the latter depicted him as one of the main culprits in the escalation of violence between Arabs and Jews.
Shabtai was livid when he told a large gathering of the press: “The person responsible for this intifada is Itamar Ben-Gvir. It started with the demonstration of Lehavah at the Damascus Gate, continued with the provocation in Sheikh Jarrah, and now he’s hanging out with Lehavah activists in the mixed cities. Yesterday we managed to calm down Akko until he showed up with activists on the bus and caused unrest. The police do not have the tools to deal with him.”
Ben-Gvir responded the next day with a meme which has since been shared by thousands on the social networks: “Kobi Shabtai / You abandoned the residents of Lod / Abandoned our security / And now you blame Ben-Gvir? / YOU FAILED. / GO HOME!”
A few weeks later, on June 10, Ben-Gvir filed a petition with the High Court of Justice demanding an injunction against the police commissioner’s decision prohibiting him from going to Damascus Gate in Jerusalem. Ben-Gvir announced that “the commissioner’s decision was given without authority.”
The day before, Commissioner Shabtai informed MKs Ben-Gvir and Mai Golan (Likud) that they were forbidden to march to the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem with Israeli flags, for fear of provoking riots in the area.
Ben-Gvir stated: “Decisions on restricting movement for reasons of state security should be made by those in charge of state security, namely the prime minister and the minister of defense, and not by those responsible for maintaining the public order. The commissioner’s decision is unprecedented, seeing as, for the first time, the commissioner decides to deny access to Knesset members in violation of the Immunity Law, and in the absence of the legal authority to do so.”
Needless to say, MK Ben-Gvir showed up at Damascus Gate as planned, surrounded by a police security detail. And, as promised, a major riot ensued, which continued even after he had left. The police used stun grenades against Jewish demonstrators raising Israeli flags and Arab demonstrators with flags of Palestine. Three were arrested for disorderly conduct – which is a surprisingly low number, considering the enormous media and social media coverage.
On June 27, after Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai had issued a specific ban against Ben-Gvir’s ascending to the Temple Mount, and after a threatening video in Arabic that circulated on the Internet and called for harming the MK, Ben-Gvir returned to the Temple Mount and toured the place, as he gleefully informed his press list. It was an unmistakable in-your-face to the commissioner, who loathes him. Ben-Gvir circumvented Shabtai by approaching the Knesset Officer and getting his consent, after which the police were forced to send a large force to accompany the MK as he entered the holy compound.
THE TRICKY POLITICS OF KAHANE’S HEIR APPARENT
MK Ben-Gvir is a thoroughly political creature, whose personal life is completely entangled with his political agenda. As such, however, he has on occasion shed his abrasive persona and projected a softer—albeit still completely political—attitude. On August 21, Ben-Gvir was hospitalized with serious coronavirus symptoms. He told Ynet TV that he had been to five weddings the week before, where he shook hundreds of hands. “I wore a mask but it wasn’t enough,” he said, and, without skipping a beat, delivered a political message: “I call on the public to go get tested and get vaccinated. I don’t know what would have happened if I had not been vaccinated. Friends, this is a cursed disease, we must not bury our heads in the sand.”
But wait, there was more: Ben-Gvir wished a speedy recovery to MK Gilad Kariv (Labor), who was also hospitalized with Corona, and added an ecumenical message: “Despite our disagreements from here to next Tuesday, in this disease, there is no right or left, religious or secular.”
Except Kariv is not secular, he is a Reform Jew…
Later, upon his release from Hadassah, Ben-Gvir issued a press release thanking the medical staff and adding: “I have seen how they treat each patient in the most professional way and with great dedication. I thank everyone who inquired about my health and I call on you, go get vaccinated for your sake, for your environment, and for the strength of our health system.”
In February 2019, when the Habayit Hayehudi party was still intact, there were discussions of adding two political leaders who could bring in a few thousand votes and were both not expected to cross the threshold vote on their own: former Shas chairman Eli Yishai, and Itamar Ben-Gvir. At some point, Rabbi Yaaqov Medan, the co-Rosh yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion in Gush Etzion, vetoed the Ben-Gvir pick, saying it was impossible to run on a joint list with him as long as there’s a picture of Dr. Baruch Goldstein hanging in his house (Goldstein carried out the massacre of 29 Muslims in the Cave of the Patriarchs on February 25, 1994).
Ben-Gvir responded in an interview with Reshet Bet radio: “I will not take down the picture of Baruch Goldstein from my living room. He is a doctor who saved the lives of Jews and that is why his picture hangs there.”
This, I believe, is the essence of Ben-Gvir’s political path, and the reason why his appeal will likely not extend outside his current circle of followers. He has all the talent and energy of a successful political animal, he is tireless, he is persistent, he is extremely clever, and sensitive. But he has no idea how (or perhaps, no desire) to appeal to an audience of the uninitiated. He preaches only to the choir.
Since 2019, the Baruch Goldstein portrait has come up numerous times in interviews, and Ben-Gvir has given a number of other tortured explanations, including, in 2020, a declaration that he decided to take the picture down to prevent the establishment of a left-wing government.
I believe he honestly doesn’t understand why the vast majority of Israelis, including many on the right, are horrified by the notion of hanging Goldstein’s portrait in his living room, where guests debate the issues of the day with a cup of tea and biscuits. In my opinion, this is what differentiates Ben-Gvir from Smotrich. Ben-Gvir, despite his mercurial qualities, is frozen in the rebel’s stance he inherited from Rabbi Kahane and he does not have the desire to grow beyond that.
Ben-Gvir will continue to influence right-wing politics in Israel for many years to come, even if he fails to make it to the 25th Knesset. But his ability to rise to a position of leadership outside his limited, sectoral sphere is doubtful. And he may not care, he’s a street fighter for the Jewish people, and that’s where he is most effective.
Smotrich, on the other hand, has what it takes to expand his ranks and gain the trust and affection of new voters. Smotrich is here to stay in establishment politics, Ben-Gvir is a circus train – extremely noticeable until the show is over and the train heads out to the next town. But not to worry, he’ll keep coming back on the next tour with the same tried and true act.