MESOP MIDEAST WATCH: THAT’S THE QUESTION NOW! / Why So Many Young Israelis Adore This Racist Politician
Itamar Ben-Gvir could become a member of Israel’s cabinet after November’s election, with young voters among his most ardent supporters – even, it seems, in liberal enclaves like Tel Aviv Judy Maltz HAAETZ – Sep 13, 2022 In 1977, just before the right assumed power for the first time in Israel, a high school in Ramat Gan successfully called the race. At a mock election held at Blich not long before the big day itself, Likud emerged as the big winner.
In 1992, Blich once again appeared to have its finger on the nation’s pulse, predicting Labor’s return to power after 15 years of nearly continuous Likud rule.
Although they haven’t always been on the mark, the students of Blich did foresee two of the biggest political upheavals in Israel. For good reason, it is often said that as Blich goes, so goes the nation.
Hence, all the soul-searching and hand-wringing that went on last week when Itamar Ben-Gvir, the leader of a far-right party that often incites against Israel’s Arab community, was greeted at the school by wild cheers and racist chants. Not by all the students, to be sure, but by a very vocal minority.
Ben-Gvir leads Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power), a far-right party that will be running in the upcoming November 1 election (as it did in March 2021) together with Bezalel Smotrich’s no-less extreme Religious Zionism party.
According to recent polls, Religious Zionism – as their joint slate is known – could become the third or fourth largest party in Israel, and Ben-Gvir could become a minister if Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu succeeds in forming the next government.
A disciple of Meir Kahane – the racist, American-born rabbi whose Kach party was eventually banned from the Knesset – Ben-Gvir has threatened to deport “disloyal” Israelis, including two current Arab lawmakers. Up until just a few years ago, he had a photo hanging in his home of Baruch Goldstein, the Israeli doctor who massacred 29 Palestinians at Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994.
He first came to the attention of the public in 1995, shortly before the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, when he was televised brandishing a Cadillac emblem ripped from the prime minister’s car and threatened: “We got to his car. We’ll get to him too.” Fifteen years ago, he was convicted of incitement to racism and supporting a terrorist organization.
Ben-Gvir’s recent surge in the polls is often attributed to his growing appeal among young Jewish Israelis – particularly ultra-Orthodox men and traditional Mizrahi voters from the country’s geographic periphery. What became abundantly clear last week was that his appeal is spreading to less likely quarters – in this case, one of the last bastions of the secular left in Israel.
About 30 students from Blich waited outside for Ben-Gvir when he arrived at the school, greeting him with the notorious anti-Arab chant “Your village should burn.” He also earned himself a loud round of applause when he entered the auditorium to address the student body.
Soon afterward, he happened upon a group of Tel Aviv Scouts on an outing in the park – and this time it was an even a more enthusiastic reception. The encounter, which was caught on camera and went viral on social media, shows the young middle-schoolers jostling for selfies with Israel’s most racist right-wing politician.
That members of a youth movement that has produced many of Israel’s best and brightest would be fawning over such an extremist was jolting enough. That it happened in the center of Tel Aviv – a city synonymous with liberalism and tolerance – was mind-boggling. But it came as no surprise to Israel Democracy Institute researcher Or Anabi, who has been tracking the growing popularity of the right in Israel – especially among young people – in recent years.
His brand-new analysis, based on the results of half a dozen surveys conducted this year, shows that about 60 percent of Jewish Israelis identify today as right-wing. Among young Israelis (ages 18 to 24), it tops 70 percent.
Indeed, according to his analysis (published here for the first time), Ben-Gvir’s party performs significantly better among young voters.
The figures show that among this particular age group, 7 percent voted for Religious Zionism in the March 2021 election. This compares with 5.6 percent among 25- to 44-year-olds; 2.9 percent among 45- to 64-year-olds; and 3.4 percent among the over 65s.
The percentage of young Israelis who voted for Religious Zionism was more than double the percentage voting for either Labor or Meretz – the two left-wing Zionist parties.
The usual explanation for the popularity of right-wing parties among young Israelis is demographic: religious Israelis vote overwhelmingly for the right, and religious families tend to have far more children than nonreligious families.
Anabi believes this is only part of the story, though. Ben-Gvir’s recent surge in the polls, he says, reflects growing racism in Jewish society as a whole. “In the past, Jewish Israelis defined themselves as right or left based on how they viewed the conflict with the Palestinians and its solution,” he says. “But nobody is talking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or the status of the territories anymore. Increasingly, Jewish Israelis are defining themselves as right or left based on their attitude to the Arab minority living within Israel.”
The violence that broke out in Israel’s mixed Jewish-Arab cities in May 2021, which was unprecedented in scope, was a pivotal factor in Ben-Gvir’s rising star, Anabi says. “It raised deep questions about whether Jews and Arabs could ever live together peacefully,” he adds.
The fact that, for the first time in Israeli history, an Arab party joined the ruling coalition a month after these events might have served as a mitigating factor. But, actually, says Anabi, the opposite is true.
“Until Mansour Abbas joined the government,” he says, referring to the head of the Islamist United Arab List, “Jews were used to the idea that Arabs are never part of the power game. But once they did become part of it, as we’ve seen, they’re drawing much more fire.”
Blich High School in Ramat Gan during Pride week in 2018.Credit: Moti Milrod
Drawn to extremists
Zeev Degani is the principal of Gymnasia Herzliya, one of Tel Aviv’s best-known high schools. A proud leftist, he believes it was a huge mistake to allow Ben-Gvir access to a school.
“I obviously believe in free speech,” he says, “but free speech is only one element in a democracy. Something even more basic is knowledge, and when you have kids, like we have here, who grow up quite ignorant about what’s going on around them, you’re asking for trouble when you invite a fascist propagandist like Ben-Gvir in – especially considering that kids by nature are drawn to extremists.”
When asked if he was surprised by the warm reception Ben-Gvir received in a place that isn’t his natural turf, Degani admitted he was a bit. “I know I shouldn’t be, because surveys have shown that young Israelis are far more racist than their European counterparts. But still, the admiration these kids showed for him was a bit shocking.
“I guess that’s what happens when there’s so much emphasis on nationalism in the educational system,” he adds. “And as we know, there’s a very small distance between nationalism and fascism.”
The Israel Religious Action Center – the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel – led a campaign to disqualify Ben-Gvir from running for the Knesset in 2019. It failed, however, with the High Court of Justice ruling in his favor.
IRAC Executive Director Orly Erez Likhovski is concerned that many Israelis have been taken in by Ben-Gvir’s recent charm offensive and the toning down of his rhetoric. He no longer talks about deporting all Arabs, for instance, but instead only those who are “disloyal.”
“Maybe this makes some people calmer, but this is just a mask he has put on,” she says. “His intentions have not changed.”
Erez Likhovski attributes his popularity among young Israelis to ignorance.
“First of all, it’s important to point out that most of the kids at Blich were against him – not for him,” she says. “But I’m sure many of them have no idea what he’s all about. From my experience, when you talk to them about Kahanism, they can’t even tell you who [Meir] Kahane was. There are a lot of lost kids out there looking for something, and when someone like Ben-Gvir comes along who makes everything sound very simple, this appeals to them.”
Still, she believes that most young Israelis would never entertain the idea of voting for him and recoil from his views.
A case in point is 18-year-old Shira Yehiel, a recent graduate of Blich who is spending the year before she joins the army volunteering in the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Acre. It was an ideological decision, she says, born out of her desire to foster shared society in Israel.
“I don’t know if I can say that most of the kids at Blich have delved as deeply into these issues as I have,” she says, “but I’m sure many more identify with me than with the ‘Burn their village’ crowd.”
If the past is any indication, she’s probably right. In the last mock election held at Blich in early 2019, Ben-Gvir’s party captured barely 2 percent of the vote. Had this been the actual election result, it wouldn’t have crossed the electoral threshold.
Oz Balas Bareket grew up in the Scouts movement and spent a few years teaching high-school students before transitioning into high-tech. He is not at all shocked by the warm reception Ben-Gvir received last week from the crème de la crème of Israeli youth.
“I’d be concerned if these were people in their thirties or forties, but we’re talking about kids – and that’s the way kids are,” says the 36-year-old, who describes himself as a leftist. “They like provocations, and they like hotheads. I’m pretty sure that if you ask them why they’re singing about burning down Arab villages, most of them wouldn’t know. Nor would they even know where an Arab village exists on the map.”
What concerns him is that Ben-Gvir has become normalized. “He’s been trying to infiltrate the mainstream for years,” says Balas Bareket. “What changed now is that Bibi [Benjamin Netanyahu] has legitimized him. Let’s not forget that Kahane got a cold shoulder from Likud. Ben-Gvir, by contrast, is getting a big hug. If it weren’t for this, I think he would have remained nothing more than a curiosity – just like the Green Leaf party [which supported the legalization of marijuana] used to be.”
Blich high school students during the announcement of the mock election results there in 2019. Itamar Ben-Gvir’s party received only 2 percent of the youngsters’ votes at the time.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Noa Lavie, head of the political communications division at the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Academic College, was involved in a large study several years ago comparing the political views of young people in developed countries. The study found that after young Hungarians, young Israelis were more right wing than their peers in any other country.
Lavie attributes this to several factors, including Israel’s religious radicalization, an educational system that focuses on a narrative of the Jews and Israelis as victims while ignoring the narrative of the Palestinians, and growing incitement against the left.
“If Israelis are shocked by what’s happening, they need to get over it and face the fact that right now, the bon ton for young people is to be right wing and see the Arabs as the enemy,” she says. “That’s why Ben-Gvir is so popular.”
She adds: “Perhaps the biggest failure of the so-called ‘government of change’ was that it wasn’t able to delegitimize this man.”