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Aug
22
2023

Israel’s TikTok Extremists

Welcome to the Tuesday News Bulletin! Every Tuesday, we publish original reporting on Israel/Palestine by our staff and contributors, which goes directly to our newsletter subscribers. The Tuesday News Bulletin also serves as a forum for aggregating stories Jewish Currents staffers are tracking, with plenty of links to other publications so you can keep up with everything happening on our beats.

Newsletter
Israel’s TikTok Extremists
Far-right content has taken Israeli TikTok by storm, rallying the country’s youth in support of Jewish supremacy.
Sophia Goodfriend

In a fortified settlement nestled in the hills overlooking Hebron, the largest Palestinian city in the occupied West Bank, an Israeli politician explains to his son the importance of allowing citizens to bear arms in self-defense. Kippah-clad and portly, he leans back in an office chair as he preaches the tenets of Israeli right-wing extremism—Jewish supremacy, ethnic cleansing, and annexation—in terms simple enough for a child to understand.

The video is from the TikTok account of Itamar Ben Gvir, Israel’s Minister of National Security and the most popular mouthpiece of the extremist settler movement. Ben Gvir’s TikTok underwent a makeover earlier this year when he handed the account’s reins to his 16-year-old son, Shuval. The younger Ben Gvir had previously gone viral by broadcasting Nick Fuentes-style monologues from his childhood bedroom in the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, amassing some 26,000 followers in the process. Shuval’s most popular content on TikTok—which enables users to make and share videos of no more than 30 seconds—featured him trolling left-wing politicians and defending his father from critics. Impressed by his son’s social media savvy, Ben Gvir reportedly asked Shuval to take over his own TikTok; since May, Shuval has featured in nearly every video posted by his father’s account.

The collaboration has imbued Ben Gvir’s faux populism with a disturbingly paternal flavor. Shuval begins many of the videos by training the camera on his father’s face and asking brightly: “Dad, what did you do at work today?” Ben Gvir, in his role as attentive parent, leans in and explains that he is passing expansive self-defense laws aimed at arming a settler militia, or granting immunity to soldiers who shoot at Palestinian civilians. The scenes present the minister as a classic patriarch and his genocidal politics as protective and nurturing. With almost 90,000 TikTok followers, Ben Gvir’s dad brand has captured the attention of TikTok’s overwhelmingly adolescent user base in Israel, often garnering more than a million likes on posts. Already, 73% of Israeli youth identify as right-wing; Ben Gvir’s steady stream of content is now rallying them around his particularly extreme settler ideology.

Ben Gvir’s TikTok was popular even before Shuval’s participation. During the 2022 general elections, Ben Gvir went viral with a video in which he kicked a soccer ball that he claimed symbolized Arab Palestinian politicians in the Israeli parliament. “I’m practicing kicking [Ayman] Odeh, [Ahmad] Tibi, and [Mansour] Abbas to Syria,” he shouted with glee. But since his son became involved, Ben Gvir’s content has increasingly filtered this trademark militancy through innocuous scenes of settler life. One recent clip begins at dusk, with a shot of a Kiryat Arba playground. “Dad it’s almost Shabbat, time to reflect,” Shuval begins. “Aren’t you scared of the threats from Hamas you’re receiving?” The camera pans to Ben Gvir, who is standing in front of a red play structure. “Islamic Jihad, Hamas, they don’t scare me,” he replies, before going on to outline his commitment to degrading prison conditions for political prisoners. “[The prisoners] are cursed damned terrorists,” Ben Gvir closes, adding with a scolding wag of his finger that for such people, “the celebration is over.” Another clip opens with Ben Gvir leaving his house for work, briefcase in hand. “Dad, what happened just an hour ago?” Shuval inquires. “A terrorist tried to enter the settlement,” Ben Gvir explains as he shuts the front door, “but the [security forces] caught him. It’s a shame they didn’t kill him . . . we need the death penalty for terrorists.” He heads toward his car, brow scrunched in fatherly consternation.

Ben Gvir isn’t alone in using TikTok to reach Israel’s youth. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself has taken to the platform to engage the youngest members of his base, as have Likud politicians Miri Regev and Dudi Amsalem. “TikTok is the most important political arena for us,” 14-year-old activist Uri Malron wrote of young Israelis in an op-ed after the 2022 elections, which brought Israel’s most far-right government in history to power. Malron noted that before the election, TikTok had saturated young Israeli voters’ feeds with militant settler ideology, while “the few left-wing organizations that operate on TikTok . . . do so in a tedious and outdated way, which is not suitable for the platform.” “If the trend continues,” he warned, “the election results are just the beginning.”

Israel is one of many places where right-wing extremists have embraced TikTok. In a 2021 report, the Institute for Strategic Dialogue—a London-based think tank that tracks online extremism—observed that the platform is regularly used to disseminate provocative political content, and that an interface “built by TikTok to encourage engagement, creativity and virality [is] being exploited to help spread hate and extremism.” In countries like Poland and Hungary, politicians championing misogynist family values and racial purity have used the platform to galvanize Gen-Zers, and even prominent authoritarian leaders such as Italy’s Giorgia Meloni and Brazil’s Jair Bolsanaro have gravitated toward TikTok’s truncated video format. In Europe and North America, journalists have tracked an upsurge in Christian nationalist discourse across the platform; many US feeds feature videos by Christian trad-wife and “Sigma Male” influencers and clips of right-wing talking heads declaring a holy war on Islam.

Like his fellow right-wing populists, Ben Gvir is using this addictive interface to increase his political influence. “He speaks in very simple terms, ‘us vs. them,’” analyst Tamar Hermann, who tracks political trends for the think tank Israel Democracy Institute, told Jewish Currents. Hermann said this style caters to Ben Gvir’s political base, which is overwhelmingly composed of young people from two pivotal and growing demographics—religiously motivated settlers, and socioeconomically disadvantaged Mizrahi communities far from Israel’s monied urban centers. Both communities have long resented Israel’s historically secular and Ashkenazi ruling class. “They feel that Ben Gvir gives them a voice, the voice they couldn’t get from the political establishment,” Hermann said. “He talks the way yeshiva students in the periphery talk.”

But Ben Gvir’s message is also taking hold among young Israelis who fall outside these demographics. According to Jewish studies scholar Shaul Magid, many Israeli youth want an exclusively Jewish state that stretches from the Jordan river to the Mediterranean Sea. “There’s a growing number of secular and moderate Israelis who are fed up with [Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories],” Magid told Jewish Currents. Past right-wing governments have campaigned on euphemistic pledges to “shrink” the occupation rather than ending it. In contrast, Magid said, Ben Gvir’s Jewish Power Party promises an end to the Israeli occupation through nothing less than full annexation and population transfer in the West Bank. This chauvinism resonates with Israel’s youth. As Maraiv Zonszein, who covers Israeli politics for the International Crisis Group, told Jewish Currents: “Ben Gvir campaigns on the notion that ‘we’ [Jewish Israelis] are going to reestablish order.” The success of this message can be measured in part by the frequency with which Ben Gvir is invoked by young Israeli influencers in videos that deny Palestinians’ existence and champion a Jewish supremacist ideology. “In many popular videos,” Malron wrote in his op-ed, “Ben Gvir is repeatedly presented as a kind of savior against the Arabs, terrorists, and leftists.”

The extremism proliferating across TikTok is also permeating the Israeli public sphere as a whole, according to Achiya Schatz of Fake Reporter, an online watchdog group. “Public discourse has become more hostile and violent,” Schatz said. Ben Gvir has been at the forefront of this escalation. Just this summer, he praised a right-wing activist who violently attacked liberal protestors and Palestinian civilians. Ben Gvir also lauded two settlers who fatally shot and killed a Palestinian man in the West Bank. “When you have politicians calling for violence against leftist protestors in Tel Aviv or against Palestinians in the territories, right-wing activists think they can do the same without consequence,” Schatz said, adding that while right-wing extremists would once hide behind pseudonyms and in private groups on encrypted messaging platforms, these days they incite violence shamelessly in the open. In recent months, Israeli settlers have used Facebook groups as well as WhatsApp and Telegram channels with hundreds of members to organize pogroms across the West Bank. And unlike Palestinian social media users, who face draconian censorship and criminalization for even the most innocuous content, Jewish Israeli extremists are confident they can organize these lethal riots and broadcast death threats with impunity; indeed, in viral TikTok and Instagram videos of the pogroms, settlers torching Palestinian homes and property often go unmasked.

Centrists like Yair Lapid often deride Ben Gvir as a “TikTok clown,” but as Magid puts it, “behind the provocation is a real political program.” Ben Gvir’s canny use of social media is galvanizing his base around an overt campaign of Jewish supremacy. Mona Shtaya, a researcher at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy with expertise in Palestinian digital rights, told Jewish Currents that “the violence inflicted by Israeli settlers on Palestinians is intrinsically tied to the digital sphere . . . When social media platforms tolerate Israeli incitement, real-world violence escalates.”

Palestinians confront Israeli soldiers during an army raid in the West Bank town of Beita on August 22nd. Israeli forces shot and wounded at least eight Palestinians with live ammunition.

Wahaj Bani Moufleh / Activestills

As part of the Tuesday News Bulletin, Jewish Currents is publishing a photograph taken by members of Activestills every week, archiving ongoing dispossession and resistance from the river to the sea. You can find more information on this collaboration here.

Here’s what else we’re tracking:
  • On Saturday, a gunman thought to be a Palestinian shot and killed an Israeli father and his son at a car wash in Huwara, a Palestinian town in the West Bank. The gunman then fled, and is now being sought by the Israeli army in a manhunt. After the shooting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to “settle accounts with” the shooter, while Israeli settlers stormed Huwara, attacking homes and cars. On Monday, another gunman, also thought to be Palestinian, shot and killed a 42-year-old Israeli woman who was driving on a highway in the southern West Bank. After the shooting, Netanyahu claimed that Iran was funding and guiding the Palestinian militant groups allegedly behind the spike in shooting attacks against Israelis, while another far-right Israeli lawmaker from Netanyahu’s ruling coalition called for “revenge.” Earlier today, Israeli forces arrested two Palestinians allegedly involved in the shooting attack.
  • An Israeli soldier shot an unarmed Palestinian in the back of the head on Monday, leaving him in critical condition. The shooting, which was filmed during confrontations between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers raiding the town of Beita, was similar to another filmed shooting that occurred on Friday, when an Israeli soldier shot an unarmed Palestinian man standing near Israel’s separation barrier in the West Bank city of Qalqilya. After footage of the shooting circulated online, the Israeli military police said it opened an investigation into the incident.
  • Last Wednesday, 16 Israeli police officers brutally beat a Palestinian man named Arwa Sheikh Ali, whom they had arrested on suspicion of drug offenses. After the incident, Ali’s attorney said that the officers had branded a Jewish Star of David on Ali’s cheek; the attorney further said no body-camera footage of the encounter exists, even though Israeli officers are required to turn on such cameras during policing activities. In response, the Israeli police said that its officers had used “reasonable force” on Ali, who they claimed was resisting arrest, and indicated the mark on Ali’s face was the result of an officer’s footwear pressing on his face, rather than a branded Star of David. On Sunday, an Israeli judge denied a prosecutor’s request to hold Ali for another five days and released him on bail to house arrest. “From the photos shown to me, it appears that the arrest was accompanied by severe violence,” the judge said.
  • On Thursday, Israeli forces demolished a Palestinian elementary school in the West Bank village of Ein Samia. The village was largely abandoned in May because of settler violence, and the school served the few remaining residents. “Before the new school year’s opening, the formal arms of Israel’s apartheid regime cement the transfer [of Ein Samia] by making sure residents have no reason to come back,” Israeli human rights group B’Tselem tweeted in reaction to the demolition.
  • New York City Mayor Eric Adams landed in Israel on Monday as part of a trip sponsored by the United Jewish Appeal–Federation of New York and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York. Adams said he would “learn about Israeli technology and discuss combined efforts to combat antisemitism” during his trip. Earlier today, Adams met with both Netanyahu and leaders of the protest movement demonstrating against Netanyahu’s push to gut the power of the Israeli judiciary. Adams also met with Yisrael Gantz, a senior settler leader. The pair discussed possibilities for cooperation between New York City and Israeli settlements as well as a future settlement visit by Adams, according to Gantz’s office. In a press briefing with reporters, however, Adams said the issue of settlements did not come up in his meeting with Gantz.