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Use your imagination before you condemn Israel

You may not like politicians like Itamar Ben-Gvir, but there’s a reason they’re successful.

Otzma Yehudit Chairman Itamar Ben-Gvir speaks to supporters at party headquarters in Jerusalem on Election Day, Nov. 1, 2022. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Otzma Yehudit Chairman Itamar Ben-Gvir speaks to supporters at party headquarters in Jerusalem on Election Day, Nov. 1, 2022. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.
Fiamma Nirenstein

Use your imagination before you moralize, before your pretense of righteousness devolves into a form of cynicism—or worse still, contempt for human life.

Are you currently scandalized by the fact that Itamar Ben-Gvir, a right-wing, religious politician often described as an extremist, will likely be national security minister in the next Israeli government? Well, it might be worth taking a look at what led to his success.

Since the start of 2022, Israel has seen 30 of its citizens killed by Palestinian terrorists. They have been shot while sitting in cafes, run over in the street, stabbed while walking with their children and blown to pieces in bus stop bombings.

Israel has been hit hard by this new wave of terrorism. It is the worst since 2015, and bitter memories and ghosts of the second intifada—which claimed over 1,000 Israeli lives in the early 2000s—loom large in the public mind.

Ben-Gvir has pledged to change this situation. As a result, he was democratically elected to the Knesset on a party list that won 14 seats. He has already declared that he will not change any laws, but does want more support for Israeli security forces and a larger budget for the police. He wants to reform the IDF’s rules of engagement so that soldiers can more effectively respond to potential threats. He also wants to stamp out the epidemic of violence in the Israeli-Arab community, which has killed dozens of innocent people.

It is true that Ben-Gvir has a fiery and populist disposition. He expresses himself with pointed and nationalist rhetoric. I admit that he is not the kind of politician I particularly like, because one can be a stronger patriot if one does not engage in demagoguery. Nonetheless, while he may not be a British gentleman, Ben-Gvir has already retracted his most extreme past statements and positions, and disavowed membership in movements that have been proscribed under Israeli law.

In this, he simply echoes numerous European politicians, particularly former fascists or communists, who have renounced their pasts when they felt their new institutional responsibilities demanded it.

Should we be worried that Ben-Gvir will use his authority to fundamentally change Israel’s way of life, society, constitution or political norms? I do not think so. Benjamin Netanyahu won the last election, not Ben-Gvir. Netanyahu will be the prime minister, and he is a statesman, a secular reformer who has succeeded in keeping his country more or less at peace and created a space for the Abraham Accords to develop. He has never shown any inclination to censor or suppress views different from his own. Indeed, a profoundly antagonistic press and political opposition have flourished throughout his long tenure at the top.

Ben-Gvir has been criticized for an anti-LGBT attitude that is fanatically dedicated to the traditional family structure. But while Israel is traditionalist in many ways, with strong family values and an unusually high birthrate, it also has progressive and admirable laws that protect the rights of LGBT individuals. One of Netanyahu’s closest colleagues, Amir Ohana, is a prominent member of the gay community. Palestinian gays often flee to Israel for refuge.

Moreover, the Haredi parties, which are also set to join the next government, may be seen as a public bogeyman, but they do not determine Israel’s social or educational norms outside of their own communities. They may attempt to impose their values on Israel with demands to amend the Law of Return or permit gender segregation at publicly-funded events, but they will not succeed.

Finally, the media has made much of a recent incident in which Ben-Gvir brandished a gun at a rally in eastern Jerusalem. However, it is not unusual for Israelis who live in Judea and Samaria to be armed, because they risk their lives every day. And indeed, armed civilians have often prevented terror attacks or stopped terrorists from killing more victims. We may not like this situation, but survival is morally superior to allowing oneself or others to be killed.

Unfortunately, international public opinion does not care about the reality of life in Israel and its very real challenges. Instead, it wants to blame and insult a country that seeks only to defend itself from relentless enemies.

To prove your moral superiority, I invite you to wait at a bus stop in the so-called “territories” or Jerusalem tomorrow morning, alone and unarmed, without checking to make sure there is a policeman or a soldier nearby.

Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies. She served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including Israel Is Us (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and is the author of Jewish Lives Matter.

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