So much of what has been tearing Israel apart in the last several months can be traced back to public opinion about one man—and his last name isn’t Benjamin Netanyahu. The list of issues dividing Israelis since protests ostensibly against judicial reform began in January is long. But there can be no underestimating the way that attitudes towards National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir have influenced the debate about the international campaign to delegitimize the government that was formed after last November’s Knesset election.
Ben-Gvir was back in the news this week when his comments during an interview on Israel’s Channel 12 made him the focus of renewed controversy. In discussing the recent surge of Arab terrorism with Israeli-Arab journalist Mohammad Magadli and whether more stringent measures should be taken to stop the bloodshed, Ben-Gvir said, “My right, the right of my wife and my children to move around Judea and Samaria is more important than freedom of movement for the Arabs. The right to life comes before freedom of movement.”
Most media sources quoting Ben-Gvir didn’t include the last sentence in the quote they used. Shorn of that line and taken out of the context of a discussion of a series of murders of Jews by Palestinians who are then celebrated by their community and its leadership as heroes, the comment came across as unabashed racism. The notion that a Jewish right to free movement takes precedence over similar rights for Arabs is repugnant.
That was the way it was interpreted by numerous media outlets, as well as the U.S. State Department, which took the trouble to specifically condemn Ben-Gvir for what it described as “inflammatory comments” and “all racist rhetoric.”
The contretemps also caused a furor on social media where Palestinian-American supermodel Bella Hadid posted a video of Ben-Gvir’s statement on an Instagram story to her 60 million followers to which she appended the pious sentiment that: “In no place, no time, especially in 2023 should one life be more valuable than another’s. Especially simply because of their ethnicity, culture or pure hatred.”
Ben-Gvir pushed back at the model, calling her an “Israel-hater,” something that is easily proved by reading her own history of inflammatory and mendacious comments about the Jewish state. But in this case, Hadid’s sentiments were shared by many centrist and liberal Jews who consider Ben-Gvir to be not merely an embarrassment to Israel, but believe his rise to power is a sign of the country’s decline into right-wing extremism.
A right-wing provocateur
Throughout his career, Netanyahu has been demonized by political opponents who have shown that they are willing to do just about anything, including pursuing bogus corruption charges, to topple him. But the fact that he named Ben-Gvir as national security minister was enough to convince many in Israel and elsewhere that the current government is one that shouldn’t be merely opposed but resisted as illegitimate. Regardless of whether or not he was taken out of context, Ben-Gvir’s controversial words simply act to confirm the belief that those leading the Jewish state have abandoned the values that Jews have traditionally upheld as well as those that unite Israel with Americans.
The problem with these assumptions is that those condemning Ben-Gvir are ignoring not only the context of his comments but also why a heretofore marginal figure has risen so far in Israeli politics. What’s at stake in this discussion isn’t whether he thinks Arabs deserve to be treated with dignity or as having the same rights as Jews. Rather, it’s whether there is an intrinsic right for Palestinian Arabs to attack and murder Jews that trumps the latter’s right to live in security in their own country, let alone their freedom of movement.
There’s no mystery about why Ben-Gvir is having trouble making himself understood by anyone but those who already share his opinions. The leader of the Otzma Yehudit Party, which together with Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionist Party won 13 seats in the last election, is easy to dismiss as an extremist.
As a youngster, Ben-Gvir was a disciple of the late American-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, who advocated for the “transfer” of Arabs from Israel and the territories. Ben-Gvir was labeled as an extremist and denied the right to serve in the Israel Defense Forces—something still thrown in his face today. He went on to become a lawyer, best known for defending those accused of violence against Arabs and others associated with extreme right-wing activism. He has acknowledged having a picture hanging in his home of Dr. Baruch Goldstein, who perpetrated the massacre of 29 Muslim worshippers at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron (though apparently, the portrait was taken down as he advanced in politics). That picture and all it symbolizes is responsible for the fact that few are willing to give Ben-Gvir the benefit of the doubt when he stirs up controversy.
Israeli politics would be more civil and more presentable to the outside world if Ben-Gvir and Otzma Yehudit, which while not advocating for the transfer of Arabs is still seen as neo-Kahanist, had not risen to prominence. But the reason why Netanyahu felt obliged to include him in his cabinet is that Ben-Gvir’s support is too great to ignore. And the reason for that is not due to the rabble-rouser’s personal appeal. Instead, it is the anger among voters about Palestinian support for terrorism and the belief that the security establishment doesn’t take that threat seriously enough.
Stopping terror shouldn’t be controversial
Were Ben-Gvir actually advocating for a position in which one people’s right to free movement should be protected and another’s denied irrespective of terrorist threats, the accusations of racism would be correct. But that’s not what he was saying. His position was that if the right of Jews to live in Judea and Samaria was to be preserved, then they had to be protected against terrorism by means that would inevitably inconvenience the population that both produced and supported the terrorists.
This is not an extreme position. Support in Israel for the checkpoints and security fence that helped to prevent terrorist attacks and essentially ended the horror of the Second Intifada in the early 2000s is a matter of national consensus. Actions taken by all governments to curtail terrorism inevitably involve some impingement if not abrogation of rights.
But in the case of the Jews who do live in Judea and Samaria, the position taken by most Palestinians and their foreign cheerleaders is that Jews have no right to be in the “West Bank” and are therefore legitimate targets for attacks, be they civilians or soldiers.
In most discussions of the situation in the territories, the onus is on the violence allegedly committed by Jews, coupled with the notion that the presence of Jews in Judea and Samaria is illegal. That is what the international community thinks, but that position is itself mistaken. Jews were guaranteed the right to live in the land that is now called the West Bank by the United Nations’ predecessor, the League of Nations, dating back to the 1920s and the San Remo agreement. No other country has a recognized legal title to the land and, at best, Palestinian ambitions for statehood make it disputed rather than “occupied.”
Even if you think it’s unwise for Israel to build communities in what is the heart of the ancient Jewish homeland, the idea that the hundreds of thousands of Jews who live there should be treated as legitimate targets for terrorism is both legally untenable and immoral.
Yet that is exactly the position that Palestinians assert.
It is demonstrated by celebrations held by Palestinians on the streets of their cities—handing candy to children to encourage them—as well as on social media every time there is a terrorist attack on Jews. Were terror against Jews not such a routine occurrence—and if they were treated as the act of deranged outliers by the Arabs—then measures like checkpoints or fences would be unnecessary. Yet not only are they commonplace, they are widely supported by the Palestinian street and financially rewarded by the Palestinian Authority.
So, when Ben-Gvir says that the right of Jews “to life” takes precedence over the right of Arabs to freedom of movement, he’s not making a theoretical racist statement. If Palestinians think that it’s open season on Jews—something clearly shown by the unending string of lethal terror attacks and the applause they generate—then the authorities are obligated to take measures that limit their ability to carry out those murders.
Whatever one may think about Ben-Gvir, he was doing no more than stating the obvious about an intolerable situation that is in no small measure responsible for the support he has among Israelis. At stake in this debate is not the right of Palestinians to freedom of movement or even the right of Jews to settle in Judea and Samaria. Rather, it is whether there is a right to commit terrorism against Jews.
Unless you support such an immoral “right” (and those who believe Palestinians are justified in murdering Jews who have the temerity to live in the one Jewish state on the planet do just that), then what Ben-Gvir said is not only not racist, it’s entirely reasonable. More than that, it’s also not a question of him being, in the State Department’s words, “inflammatory,” he’s actually shining a light on an issue that can’t be ignored. While Ben-Gvir’s presence in the government and the things he says are always bound to be controversial, it is imperative that this debate not be about him, but instead, about the belief of Israel’s enemies that every Jew on either side of the “Green Line” is fair game.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him at: @jonathans_tobin.