Shivtei Yisrael Synagogue lies at the border between Ramat Gan and Givatayim, two suburbs on the eastern edge of Tel Aviv, separated by a long road named after Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion. A modest building, it stands amid a typical middle class area that, in recent years, has seen an influx of young Israelis who couldn’t afford rent in Tel Aviv, and have instead opted for cheaper residences a couple of miles away.
But the people gathered in front of the synagogue on a warm Sunday evening in early September represent an older, less affluent generation. They are mostly Mizrahi men, some wearing a kippah, along with a few Haredim and several teenagers. They have come to hear Itamar Ben Gvir, the 46-year-old Knesset member who has been dominating the news cycle ahead of Israel’s fifth election in three years.
A lawyer by profession, Ben Gvir is the current leader of the extreme right-wing Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”) — the political heir of Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Kach party, which was designated as a terrorist organization both in Israel and in the United States. His faction recently merged with the pro-settler National Union party, led by Bezalel Smotrich, who was once considered Israel’s most radical politician but is now overshadowed by his junior partner.
The united list, simply named Religious Zionism, has wiped out all its competitors to the right of the Likud, the long-time ruling party led by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Current polls show the list garnering between 12 to 14 seats, which could make it the third largest party in the next Knesset.
Pundits are unanimous in attributing this success to Ben Gvir, who has enjoyed unprecedented media attention over the past year. Once a provocateur who trolled the political system from the sidelines, Ben Gvir believes he can break new ground — including among the more centrist residents of Ramat Gan, and even the left-leaning Givatayim. And while he has seemingly moderated his discourse and abandoned some of Kahane’s original ideas, many believe that his ascent represents a dangerous new stage in the Jewish-Israeli public’s never-ending journey toward the hard right.
A suit and a smile
It’s late in the evening, and the small room on the ground floor of the synagogue is almost full. A wooden screen separates the larger men’s section from the women’s, but a handful of women are sitting among the men. Nobody seems to care, not even the Haredim; they didn’t come here to pray. Israeli law forbids holding political events at religious institutions that receive public funding, so there is no music, no signs or banners. Two police cars parked outside are the only evidence of what is, by all other accounts, a campaign rally.
Such decor proves to be unnecessary. When Ben Gvir enters, almost on time, the room erupts into applause. Smiling, he takes his seat, and a few fellow candidates from Religious Zionism begin to work the crowd.
The more effective of them is Almog Cohen, a 35-year-old former member of the Negev branch of Yasam, Israel’s riot police, and who is now number seven on the list, guaranteeing his Knesset seat. Before joining Otzma Yehudit, Cohen founded the “Barel Force,” a private militia that promised to “bring law and order” to the south; his nickname in the party is “The Sheriff.” When he entered politics, Cohen deleted his social media accounts, but a left-wing watchdog group kept screenshots that included calls for soldiers and policemen to kill, rather than arrest, Palestinian suspects, and “to wash the streets of Gaza with blood.”
Speaking in the synagogue, Cohen is more careful with his words, but his tone remains furious, as if he is about to explode. He tells a story about a rape of a 10-year-old Jewish girl by a Palestinian Bedouin. It was this event, he said, that turned him into an activist. “This could happen here, in peaceful Ramat Gan!” he warns the crowd. People sitting around me are visibly shaken.
Ben Gvir, who stands up to speak next, is more relaxed. The change from his days as a Kach activist is noticeable. In his infamous media debut, shortly before the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, a 19-year-old Ben Gvir stood in front of the television cameras holding an emblem he ripped from the prime minister’s Cadillac. “Just as we got to his car, we can get to Rabin,” he said. When Rahm Emanuel, U.S. President Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, visited the Western Wall for his son’s bar mitzvah in 2010, Ben Gvir yelled at him “antisemite” and “hater of the Jewish people,” before being dragged away by police.
In the past, Ben Gvir would proudly show off to reporters a framed photo of Baruch Goldstein hanging in his living room in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba (he once also dressed like Goldstein for Purim). Goldstein, a prominent member of Kach, massacred 29 Palestinian worshipers in Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque/Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994.
In his job as a lawyer, Ben Gvir has represented numerous Jewish-Israelis accused of conducting violent attacks against Palestinians, including the convicted murderer of the Dawabshe family, who were burned in their home in the West Bank village of Duma in 2015. An Israeli television investigative report recently brought testimony of a woman describing how Ben Gvir assisted in destroying evidence of such attacks by Israelis against Palestinians; Ben Gvir has sued the show. Over the last 30 years, the attorney has faced over 50 criminal charges and been convicted on 12 of them, including racist incitement and support of a terrorist organization — two charges that are rarely pursued against Jews in Israel.
These days, however, Ben Gvir wears a suit and a smile, already used to his status as the man of the moment. In his speech in the synagogue, he speaks about Jewish heritage and pride, giving free land to ex-soldiers, and reforming the judicial system “not in order to help Netanyahu, but because legal advisors are now running this country.” Even a heckler in the audience, wrapped in an Israeli flag, doesn’t cause him to lose his temper.
Ben Gvir’s appeal is immediately noticeable. He has a natural charisma that his Kahanist predecessors lacked: Michael Ben Ari, to whom Ben Gvir was a parliamentary aide, presented his angry views in a soft-spoken manner that created an odd dissonance; his colleague Baruch Marzel was too religious, too extreme, and too alienating even for right-wing Israelis.
Ben Gvir belongs to a different generation. Unlike many in the radical right, he loves the media spotlight and has decades of experience in dealing with journalists. He talks in a simple, street-level manner, and commands the most important quality in politics: he seems to genuinely enjoy speaking to his audience. Rabbi Kahane had those qualities as well.
‘This is where democracy stops’
In his 40-minute presentation and friendly Q&A session, Ben Gvir devotes most of his time to talking about “the Arabs,” but almost never mentions the West Bank; Hebron, where he lives today, is not referred to even once. His focus, like much of the right wing these days, is on Israeli citizens in the Negev and in what are known as “mixed cities,” where Palestinians and Israeli Jews live in the same locality. It is a conversation about control: how to eliminate Arabs from the public space and deprive them of agency.
The clashes between Jewish and Palestinian citizens in some mixed cities in May 2021 is often cited as the immediate pretext for the increasing salience of this political message, but the roots of the trend go deeper. While Israel has all but formally annexed the occupied West Bank (using the Palestinian Authority as a subcontractor), the growing visibility of Palestinian citizens inside Israel challenges the very notion of a Jewish state, requiring an updated discourse on ethnic control. The Jewish Nation-State Law, which the Knesset passed in 2018, and the return of Kahanism onto the political stage, are operating in the same national context.
“I met a family from Akko (Acre),” Ben Gvir tells the audience. “They have the best beach in Israel there, but they don’t dare to visit it. I ask them why, and what do they say? ‘Because the Arabs pick on us.’ A child from Nof Hagalil [what is today a mixed town previously called Upper Nazareth] tells me he left school because kids shout at him ‘Ithbah al Yahud [slaughter the Jews].’ We will not tolerate this.”
Jews are an absolute majority in both Acre and Nof Hagalil; the latter didn’t see any violent incident during the May 2021 events. But Ben Gvir, just like Kahane, adamantly rejects the idea of joint living between Jews and Arabs. “Kahane was the first to say ‘the emperor wears no clothes’,” he told filmmaker Ilan Rubin Fields in the documentary “The Prophet.” “We need to stop with this nonsense about coexistence. This is our land. Anyone who wants to live here needs to acknowledge that.”
“I am not against all Arabs,” he adds in Ramat Gan, to some applause. “But those who want to do harm… those who throw stones, those who throw molotov cocktails, will first be sent to prison — and then we will strip them of their citizenship!”
Stories of Arabs picking on Jews at the beach were a favorite topic for Kahane, too. A television ad for his Kach party, during his successful Knesset campaign in 1984, showed a Palestinian staring at a Jewish woman in a bathing suit. Others warned against Palestinians using Jewish names to seduce Jewish women. “Where is the Jewish honor?” the ads asked. Then Kahane would appear on the screen, promising: “Give me the power, and I will take care of them.”
Born in Brooklyn in 1932, Rabbi Kahane founded the Jewish Defense League in the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War, riding on a new sensation of Jewish nationalism among diaspora communities. The JDL’s violent attacks against Arab, Black, and leftist targets turned it into a target of the U.S. authorities, which sentenced Kahane to a year in prison (served mostly in a hotel room, due to his insistence on eating kosher).
Immigrating to Israel in 1971, the Kach movement that the rabbi founded brought to Israeli politics a form of racism which until then was largely unheard in the public sphere, wrapped in maximalist and religious discourse. Kahane argued that there is an inherent contradiction between the state’s Jewish nature and democracy. “When 20, 30, or 40 Arabs will sit in the Knesset, all according to the rules of democracy,” he said in one of his parliamentary speeches, “What would you say then? Then you would stand up and say: ‘this is where democracy stops.’ What I say is [let’s do it] here and now.”
When his initial attempts at entering the Knesset were met with failure, Kahane decided to modify both his message and his target audience. From an elitist discourse that dealt with the Israeli constitutional arrangement and that called for annexation, Kahane gradually turned to the Israeli periphery, and specifically to Mizrahi Jews, in an attempt to capitalize on inter-Jewish rifts and alienation. His ads and speeches talked about Arabs hitting on Jewish girls; his TV spots featured Mizrahi men who lost their jobs to “an Arab.”
In 1984, against the backdrop of a deep financial crisis and a disastrous invasion of Lebanon, Kahane was finally elected to the Israeli parliament. He immediately put forward a bill that would strip non-Jews of their citizenship and force them to pay a special tax, or otherwise be deported. Another law sought to forbid non-Jews from living among Jews unless they received special authorization, create segregated beaches, and forbid marriage or sex between the groups.
Likud and Labor joined hands in blocking Kahane and his legislative proposals, which some aptly nicknamed “The Nuremberg Laws.” When he spoke in the Knesset, almost all members would leave the plenum; amendments were passed to limit the number of bills a single parliamentarian could raise; and the election law was modified to allow the disqualification of an explicitly racist list from the elections. Under pressure from the right, though, the Knesset also banned parties that objected to the existence of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state” — a provision that would later be habitually used to try disqualifying Arab parties from elections.
By the time Kahane was assassinated at a 1990 event in New York, his influence in Israel was already waning, and after Goldstein’s Hebron massacre in 1994, Kach was designated a terrorist organization. But the party left offspring at the margins of the Israeli political system: Lehava, an organization that uses scare campaigns and intimidation tactics to prevent “unwanted” affairs between Jews and non-Jews; La Familia, the ultra-nationalist fans of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, which for years prevented the club from accepting Muslim players; and Otzma Yehudit, of which Ben Gvir took the helm ahead of the September 2019 elections.
Turning the radical into the normal
For years, many right-wing politicians saw Kahanists as a political liability: when they didn’t pass the Knesset threshold, they were seen as throwing away precious votes that would have gone to the right, and when they did cross, it was considered taboo to bring them into a coalition. Naftali Bennett, who headed the pro-settler New Right party, refused to include the Otzma Yehudit faction in his list in 2020, saying, “I will not cooperate with someone who has a picture of a murderer hanging in his living room.”
This all changed in the spring of 2021. Fearing election loss, then-Prime Minister Netanyahu pushed for a union between the settlers’ National Union party, the anti-LGBTQ party Noam, and Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit. The merger guaranteed that all three factions would enter the Knesset. It wasn’t enough to save Netanyahu, who was ultimately ousted by the Bennett-Lapid coalition, but the precedent was set.
Since then, Ben Gvir has been walking a thin line, careful not to give the Knesset’s Central Elections Committee any reason to disqualify him from running again. “Kahane was my rabbi and teacher,” he often says, “but I am not him.” (Still, in a recent video, he swore by Kahane’s memory and promised to “continue his way.”) He made sure to tell the media that he has removed Goldstein’s picture off his wall and doesn’t share Kahane’s ideas; the fact that the party’s two previous leaders, Baruch Marzel and Michael Ben Ari, left Otzma Yehudit in protest of Ben Gvir’s new style plays to his advantage.
His accessibility to the media, meanwhile, has turned Ben Gvir into a superstar. Last March, on the backdrop of a wave of attacks which killed 11 Israelis, he became the most interviewed Israeli politician. Today, he is the hottest story in the current election cycle, receiving daily coverage on all networks. To be sure, not all items present him in a positive way; Eretz Nehederet, the Israeli version of Saturday Night Live, recently staged a satirical clip inspired by the musical “The Producers,” which showed Ben Gvir — in place of Adolf Hitler — dancing with killers and promising to release Rabin’s assassin. It remains to be seen whether such attention slows or assists his rise.
In recent election events, Ben Gvir has been extremely prudent. He is an expert at dog-whistling and in saying something without explicitly pronouncing it. He promises a police crackdown, but “only against the bad guys.” He talks about Arabs who privately admit to supporting him, because he will bring law and order to their villages and neighborhoods. He calls for the death penalty against terrorists, an end to investigations of soldiers who wounded or killed Palestinians (investigations which are extremely rare), and for arming citizens as an answer to crime and terror.
In short, he recycles and amplifies ideas which can be heard from senior Likud members such as former Interior Security Minister Amir Ohana and former Culture Minister Miri Regev. Like them, Ben Gvir is Mizrahi — an identity that was suppressed under Ashkenazi-dominated Labor governments, and rose in power and appeal under Netanyahu. In recent media appearances, Ben Gvir seems to be playing less on religion and more on the cultural identity card — a strategy Kahane pursued decades before, too.
Ben Gvir himself is the first to admit that he isn’t bringing new ideas. “The difference is that I mean what I say, and this is why the left hates me,” he says. He has a point: Ben Gvir is not inventing a new political language, but skillfully navigating an existing one, gradually pushing the boundaries of the acceptable rather than trying to break them altogether. His ability to turn the radical into the normal, the marginal into the mainstream, is what makes him so dangerous.
Several days after the Ramat Gan event, Ben Gvir was invited to Blich High School, a prestigious institution in the city which has became a sort of a bellwether for Israeli elections after its students predicted two changes of government: from Labor to Likud in 1977, and from Likud to Labor in 1992 (they were dead wrong on other occasions, but it never stopped the media from going back to the school). Asked how she invited a known racist to appear before her students, Blich’s principal answered: “We as an educational institution cannot ignore social-political processes that are occurring in the country.”
On the day of his visit, Ben Gvir’s student supporters and opponents gathered at the school gate, with his fans singing “May your [Arab] village burn,” a dominant anthem of far-right Israelis. Later that day, in what seemed like a genuinely unscripted moment, Ben Gvir was walking in a park in wealthy north Tel Aviv when he met a group of boy scouts. Wearing their uniform, the kids treated the Kahanist like a rock star, hugging him and taking selfies.
For Ben Gvir, this must have been the sweetest moment of the entire campaign. In 1985, after entering the Knesset and with opinion polls seeing him potentially rise to around 10 seats in the future, Kahane arrived at a rally in Givatayim, a few hundred meters from the synagogue that would host Ben Gvir three decades later. With only a handful of supporters by his side, Kahane faced over 10,000 angry protesters, among them thousands of members of youth movements — myself included, in my very first political protest — who blocked Kahane’s car and booed him throughout his speech. Not a word he said that night was heard.
It was a watershed moment — the beginning of Kahane’s downfall — around the time the Knesset passed the law which ultimately prevented him from participating in the next elections. I still remember the euphoric feeling of that evening — the sense that political mobilization can make a change, and how proud we were that it was our city that rejected the most outwardly racist politician Israel knew. The following day, it was all we talked about at school.
There will be no such victories against Itamar Ben Gvir. Politics is about making coalitions and isolating rivals, and the right has been skillful in putting aside its public ideological conflicts in order to organize and take over power. The left, with all its fragmentation and purism, is abetting its own isolation.
Amid this setting, Ben Gvir and his allies have stormed through the door opened by Netanyahu, and they are here to stay. Ben Gvir is now a symptom that has turned into a cause: as Palestinian citizens rise up to assert their rights, more Jewish-Israelis are turning to candidates who promise to further shrink the country’s democratic space and champion the fight against shared living. In some twisted way, Kahane — who predicted this choice would come — was right.