Kahanism’s Raucous Return

Knesset member Itamar Ben-Gvir, a follower of far-right ideologue Meir Kahane, is surging in popularity on the promise of realizing ideas like the forced expulsion of Palestinians and leftists.

Joshua Leifer
September 23, 2022

Israeli far-right Knesset member Itamar Ben-Gvir speaks on his cellphone during his visit to the Al Aqsa Compound in Jerusalem’s Old City, March 31st, 2022.

Ilia Yefimovich/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Early last week, Itamar Ben-Gvir, the 46-year-old lawyer and leader of Israel’s extreme-right Jewish Power party, released a short campaign video on social media. “This is a clip you must watch to the end,” he tweeted. The video shows a succession of short quotes attributed to “B.G.,” set against grainy black-and-white footage from the early days of Zionist settlement in British Mandate Palestine. “The Bible is the soul of the Jewish People, from its beginning and for all the generations,” reads one quote. “One does not receive a land, one conquers it,” reads another. “If you put all the values in the world on one hand, and the existence of Israel on the other, I would choose Israel’s existence,” reads a third. At the end, Ben-Gvir himself appears in the frame, wearing a suit and tie, his usually conspicuous yarmulke now only barely visible on the back of his head. “I agree with every word, yet it wasn’t I who said these, but a different B.G.,” he smiles. Then, as a picture of David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding leader, appears in the foreground alongside Ben-Gvir, he says, “Let’s get Israel back on track.”

It was, like much of Ben-Gvir’s rhetoric, partially an act of trolling. For the followers of Meir Kahane—the American-born rabbi who became the leader of an armed, far-right theocratic and racist movement in Israel—Ben-Gurion, a secularist and socialist, has long represented not a hero worth emulating, but an ideological foe. Yet Ben-Gvir’s video was also a challenge to the Israeli center and center-left, which has sought to label him as beyond the pale of acceptability. By comparing himself to Ben Gurion, Ben-Gvir asserted that he and his party are not a deviation from Zionism’s founding spirit but its authentic continuation. Indeed, with little more than a month before Israel’s next elections, Ben-Gvir is no longer campaigning as the leader of the Kahanist fringe; he is making a bid to represent the mainstream. The Religious Zionism list, of which Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power is a major component, is currently polling between 11 and 14 seats, competing to be the Knesset’s third largest party. If Netanyahu’s Likud wins enough seats to form the next coalition, Ben-Gvir could very likely hold a cabinet position in government. He has said he would like to be Minister of Public Security, the office that oversees the police.

The significance of Ben-Gvir’s rise exceeds the purely electoral realm. Earlier this month, students at a secular public school in Ramat Gan, far from his typical strongholds of support—the hardline settlements of the occupied West Bank, the hardscrabble cities in Israel’s south—greeted him with enthusiasm and chants of approval. Later that same day, when a troop of Israeli Scouts from bourgeois north Tel Aviv encountered Ben-Gvir in a public park, the youth movement members mobbed him affectionately, shouting his name with adoration. His popularity among adolescents indexes a deeper cultural phenomenon: Like Trump and other politicians of the populist right, Ben-Gvir promises the catharsis of transgression. He offers, in his own words, an expression of Zionism “without stuttering, without weakness, without lies.” He represents in his person the possibility of reconciling Zionism’s ego and id, of fully unleashing the violent ethnonationalism that the rule of law both channels and represses. As Ben-Gvir has gained prominence, he has brought ideas such as the forced expulsion of Palestinians from Israel—ideas which shaped Israel’s founding but were later confined to the ideological margins—back into the heart of Israeli political discourse.

Itamar Ben-Gvir first pierced mainstream Israeli consciousness in a now infamous 1995 interview in which he threatened Yitzhak Rabin’s life. Together with a group of young followers of Kahane, Ben-Gvir, still in his late teens, had followed Rabin’s driver, surrounded the car, and broke off the metal Cadillac logo that was affixed to the hood. “The symbol is a symbol,” Ben-Gvir told the news reporter sent to interview him about the event. “Just as we got to this symbol, we can also get to Rabin.” Three weeks later, Yigal Amir, a right-wing religious law student, shot and killed Rabin after a Tel Aviv peace rally. That Ben-Gvir’s political allies did “get to Rabin” has given the video a haunting, uncanny quality. It also cemented the persona that Ben-Gvir would continue to perform for the rest of his career. In the video of him as a street activist chasing down Rabin, he appears as half urchin, half clown, his face doughy, his kippah perpetually askance. Ever since, this combination of malice and jest has formed the core of his political brand.

Maturity did not temper Ben-Gvir’s views. Banned from army service because of his membership in the Kahanist “Kach” group, which was designated an illegal terrorist organization by the state, Ben-Gvir eventually became a lawyer, although his admission to the bar was delayed due to his voluminous rap sheet (he has been indicted 53 times, seven of which ended in convictions, including once for supporting a terrorist organization). He soon emerged as one of the Kahanist right’s most prominent legal advocates, specializing in the defense of Jewish terror suspects. His clients have included one of the extreme-right militants involved in the arson attack in the Palestinian village of Duma that killed three members of the Dawabshe family, including an 18-month-old.

Ben-Gvir entered the parliamentary arena as an aide to Michael Ben-Ari, the only other Kahanist—besides Kahane himself—ever to win a seat in the Knesset. Ben-Ari was part of the older generation of Kahane’s followers, a cohort of imposing, grizzled, even frightening figures. Each marked their own territory. For Ben-Ari, it was the blighted districts of South Tel Aviv, where, during the 2010s, he routinely led demonstrations against African asylum seekers and refugees that ended in physical assaults and shattered storefront windows. (Ben-Ari has since moved to a settlement in the occupied West Bank.) For Benzi Gopstein, leader of Lehava—an organization ostensibly committed to breaking-up mixed Jewish-Arab couples—it is downtown Jerusalem, where, on Thursday nights, his young disciples fly their billowing black flags and chant “Death to Arabs” at passersby. For the Boston-born Baruch Marzel, it is the rocky hills of the Tel Rumeida, the notorious settlement in Hebron, where he and his followers have proudly brawled with Palestinians and attacked human rights activists. In March 2019, Israel’s High Court barred Ben-Ari from running for Knesset because of his long record of racist incitement. In August 2019, the Court barred Gopstein and Marzel on similar grounds.

As the November 1st election approaches, Ben-Gvir has been careful to avoid the fate of his Kahanist elders. While no less ideologically extreme, Ben-Gvir has made a self-conscious stylistic break with his predecessors. After years of stubbornly defending his choice to hang a portrait of Baruch Goldstein—the American-born Kahane supporter who shot and killed 29 Palestinians at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron in 1994—in his living room, Ben-Gvir announced during the winter 2020 election campaign that he would remove it so that Jewish Power would be allowed to merge into a parliamentary list with other right-wing parties. He appears to take pride in having narrowed the scope of his animus but not its intensity. Instead of deporting all Arabs, as he once advocated, now he calls only to deport those deemed “disloyal.” During a campaign stop last July to Jerusalem’s Machene Yehuda market, long a bastion of the hard right, Ben-Gvir publicly chastised a supporter who began to scream “Death to Arabs.” It’s “death to terrorists,” Ben-Gvir corrected him. Yet there is little reason to view this surface-level moderation as anything but instrumental. When asked in a September 6th interview on Israel’s Channel 13 if such changes reflected a new relationship to Kahane’s legacy, Ben-Gvir was quick to respond that they did not. “You asked me about Rav Kahane,” Ben-Gvir said. “The answer is his picture is still in my home. Yes, I believe he was a hero.”

In tandem with these small rhetorical shifts, Ben-Gvir has demonstrated a political savoir faire that none of his predecessors possessed. Even when they sought seats in the Knesset, Kahane’s followers maintained the pose of a revolutionary vanguard. Not only did they make no effort to appeal to the Israeli mainstream, as journalist Anshel Pfeffer has observed, they openly expressed their disdain for it and reveled in their role as outsiders. They were coded American in the Israeli imagination, often speaking Hebrew with American accents. Kahane’s central preoccupations—Jewish racial purity, intermarriage—were, as the scholar Shaul Magid writes, “American ideas, or fears, that Kahane transplanted into Israeli society,” and that initially found only a limited audience. As Kahane grew disillusioned with the secularism and hedonism of Israeli society of the 1980s, his extreme Zionism “deconstruct[ed] itself and [became] its opposite,” morphing into a “militant and apocalyptic post-Zionism” that sought an overthrow of the existing order and its replacement by a fascist state governed by halacha, or Jewish law.

Ben-Gvir, by contrast, presents his ideology as authentically Israeli, aimed not at subverting Zionism but at its full realization. His rhetoric is bluntly, relentlessly nationalist, and he appears in public always accompanied by an Israeli flag. He positions himself not as a threat to the state but as its truest defender. His working theory might be described as an Israeli version of the Nazi stab-in-the-back conspiracy: that Israel’s enemies and their allies (always figured as Arabs and leftists) have seized control of key institutions like the Supreme Court, the Attorney General, and even the army. He has thus dubbed his campaign tour “the quest to save the state of Israel.” For soldiers and police, he demands full legal immunity from indictment for misconduct. He decries the army’s existing rules of engagement, which he claims are “killing” soldiers in the field. He insists the army be given a “free hand to crush the terrorists.”

It is this aspiration to represent the broader Jewish Israeli public that also sets him apart from Betzalel Smotrich, nominally the leader of the Religious Zionism list, the far-right parliamentary bloc that includes Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power as well as the vociferously anti-LGBT party Noam. Smotrich is the product of the right-wing yet conventional world of religious nationalist (and largely Ashkenazi) yeshivas; he does not come from the Kahanist tradition, even if his anti-Arab racism brings him close to it. His rhetoric, while no less extreme than Ben-Gvir’s, is devout and messianic; he gives off the impression of an overgrown yeshiva bochur, clever if somewhat humorless. He is, in Israeli parlance, a “sectoral candidate,” a representative of a discrete sociological niche. But Ben-Gvir, raised in a non-religious suburb outside of Jerusalem by immigrants from Iraqi Kurdistan, represents a different Israeli story. He was not raised strictly Orthodox but became religious as a teenager. For this reason, he can speak authentically to a wider swath of the Israeli public. He has been explicit about his aspiration for Jewish Power to represent Israeli society as a whole—an aspiration that Smotrich does not share. Smotrich resisted merging his party with Ben-Gvir’s, until polls showed the likelihood that Ben-Gvir would pass the electoral threshold while Smotrich would not. In the drawn out haggling between Smotrich and Ben-Gvir over the composition of the parliamentary list, one of the sticking points, according to Ben-Gvir, was that he wanted to guarantee spots on the list for representatives from Israel’s sociogeographic periphery, from Sephardic traditionalist communities, and from Haredi communities. He got the first two but not the third.

Ben-Gvir’s rise is inseparable from the steady rightward march of Israeli society. In the 1980s, there was broad opposition, including on the right, to Kahanist proposals. That is no longer true today. In 1984, for instance, polls showed that approximately 15% of Jewish Israelis endorsed the idea that “Palestinians should be deported to Arab countries and Israeli Arabs induced to emigrate.” In 2016, a Pew Survey found that 48% of Israeli Jews agreed “Israel should deport or remove Arabs from Israel.” The same 2016 survey found that 79% of Jewish Israelis agreed that Jews should receive preferential treatment over non-Jews. Against this backdrop, past efforts by politicians on both the right and the left to quarantine Kahane and limit his influence appear prescient—and insufficient. After Kahane won a seat while leader of Kach, the Knesset passed a law banning any party that “incites to racism” from participating in elections. But this move was not simply realpolitik or image-management. Was not Kahane, journalist Bernard Avishai wrote in The New York Review of Books at the time, “doing no more than carrying to its logical extreme what had become the conventional wisdom under Begin?” There were fears that the tendencies to which Kahane gave expression came from somewhere deep within the Israeli collective psyche, and that, if left unsuppressed, the phenomenon would almost surely grow.

Such fears have been borne out. Over the last decade, in particular, Netanyahu’s Likud and the Israeli right more broadly have undergone a process of Kahanization. The culmination of this shift was Netanyahu’s efforts in 2019 to broker a merger between Smotrich and Ben-Gvir’s parties, which resulted in Likud guaranteeing a spot on its list to a representative from Religious Zionism. With this deal, the wall between the far right and what had once been the mainstream right collapsed. At the same time, Likud politicians have moved beyond territorial-maximalist positions on the occupied territories to an explicit embrace of ethnic cleansing and extra-parliamentary violence. Often in response to acts of Palestinian resistance, leading Likud politicians, such as former Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, have begun threatening to carry out a second Nakba—the 1947–1949 expulsion of more than 700,000 Palestinians by Israeli forces—as retribution. “Remember 1948, remember our War of Independence and your Nakba,” Katz warned in June. “Ask the elders among you, the grandfathers and grandmothers, and they will explain to you that eventually the Jews wake up and know how to protect themselves and the idea of a Jewish state.” Likud MK Dudi Amsalem has threatened that when his party returns to power, they will “pulverize the bones of the left.” Kahane’s rhetoric has found a comfortable home in today’s Likud.

Accordingly, Kahanist talking points have found a wider audience than ever before. Ben-Gvir’s ubiquity on Israeli television over the last two years has meant that ideas such as mass population transfer and stripping Arabs and leftists of their Israeli citizenship are now discussed during prime time with some regularity. They are also rarely rebutted. “A responsible media would at least confront the man,” the academic Tomer Persico lamented in Haaretz. “Instead, Israelis can’t avoid seeing his smiling mug everywhere, with journalists vying to outdo one another in their obsequiousness to him.” But while it is true that Ben-Gvir has received an amount of airtime far disproportionate to the electoral strength of his party, the platforming of Ben-Gvir cannot on its own explain the often overwhelming support his ideas seem to garner. In a recent media stunt, Ben-Gvir filmed a TikTok inside the cabin of an Israir plane where he pointed out empty seats for the Arab and left-wing MKs whom he has been calling on Israel to deport: “Tibi, Odeh, Ofer Casif,” he smirked, “just send them away!” A poll conducted shortly after the video in late August found that 64% of Israeli voters support Ben-Gvir’s proposal to deport anyone who “acts against the army or the state”; the number was close to 80% among voters identifying with the Netanyahu camp. Among Lapid supporters, it was 47% .

Israeli liberals, the few that remain, have responded to Ben-Gvir’s ascendance much as their American counterparts did to Trump, repudiating his extremism and denying that his rhetoric has any place in Israeli parliamentary politics. From Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid to Zehava Galon’s Meretz, preventing Ben-Gvir from returning to the Knesset with a larger mandate, and perhaps even holding a ministerial position, has become a rallying cry, a disaster that must be avoided at all costs. Their response, in essence, echoes the Trump-era liberal refrain, “This is not who we are.” Last spring, for instance, former Meretz MK and retired IDF general Yair Golan called Ben-Gvir “a pathological lover of violence, a racist man with clear fascist tendencies. It’s simply an abnormal error that this man is in the Knesset, he shouldn’t be there.” Lapid, in his public remarks, has referred to Ben-Gvir as a “convicted criminal” and called him “the greatest danger to the state of Israel.”

Yet one reason why Ben-Gvir has appeared so frightening is that he is willing to admit what the Zionist mainstream long denied. For all their distaste for Ben Gvir’s rhetoric, the MKs of Yesh Atid and Meretz remained in a government that oversaw the shuttering and persecution of leading Palestinian civil society organizations in the West Bank, enabled the ongoing mass transfer of the Palestinian communities of Masafer Yatta, and voted to extend the emergency legislation maintaining the two-tiered, apartheid legal system in the West Bank. And they did so while mouthing rhetoric about the importance of democracy, equality, and rule of law. What Ben-Gvir offers, then, to the Israeli public is—to use another Trump-era phrase—the permission to “say the quiet part out loud”: to do away with obfuscation, euphemism, and politesse, to align intention and deeds. If there will be no two-state solution, Ben-Gvir says, then Israel will annex all the occupied territories. If Palestinians refuse to accept their permanent second-class status and instead fight back, he warns, they will be removed, one way or another, from their land. Population transfer, ethnic cleansing, ethnonationalism, Ben-Gvir asserts, have been part of Zionism since Israel’s inception. And not only that, he argues, they are a part of the Zionist legacy that Israelis should openly embrace again.

A previous version of this article stated that Baruch Marzel was born in Brooklyn. He was born in Boston.

Joshua Leifer is a Jewish Currents contributing editor and a member of the Dissent editorial board. His essays and reporting have also appeared in The Guardian, The Nation, Jacobin, +972 Magazine, and elsewhere. He is currently working on a book about American Jewish identity. He lives in New Haven, CT, where he is a history PhD student.