Itamar Ben Gvir is quintessentially Zionist

A lot of attention is being drawn these days in Israel to the Jewish Power party, and its leader Itamar Ben Gvir. The party, which morphed out of the late rabbi Meir Kahane’s fundamentalist Kach party (Kahane was banned in 1988 from running due to racism), has experienced a meteoric rise from near obscurity (and former illegitimacy) to a large, possible kingmaker for Netanyahu’s Likud bloc. And with Netanyahu’s rightwing bloc leading in the latest polls by 60 to 56, Ben Gvir is a focus (though the New York Times unfortunately seems to be behind on this story, or perhaps just shy).

Jewish Power is currently joined with Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party, under that name (Smotrich is number 1 on the list of candidates, Ben Gvir number 2). But the balance of power according to polls is actually opposite – Ben Gvir is the one who is drawing around two thirds of the votes to the joint party. Religious Zionism is polling an average of nearly 13 seats in the 10 polls of the past two weeks, making it the third biggest party in Israeli politics after Benjamin Netanyuahu’s Likud (average over 32 seats) and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid (average 24).

The just-not-Netanyahu bloc never achieves over 57 seats in the polls, and 61 are needed for a parliamentary majority in the 120-seat Knesset. Netanyahu’s bloc polls in average above the 60. Although that’s one seat too few, the disarray in the left bloc and particularly among Palestinian-representative parties, may well result in some parties falling below the electoral threshold, and the re-distribution of those votes tends to statistically favor the bigger parties. In other words, there is a good likelihood that Netanyahu will just make it beyond the 61-line, with the most fundamentalist right-wing government coalition in Israel’s history. And if that happens, Itamar Ben Gvir is bound to get a considerable prize for his contribution – a significant ministerial post.

Ben Gvir’s rise is one issue that disturbs many Zionists, because Jewish Power are so overtly fascist, and for many Zionists that seems to give Zionism a bad name.

Itamar Ben Gvir (left) promotes the “return to Zion” as he mounts the Haram Al-Sharif in October 2022. Jewish prayer on the plaza is against international agreements protecting the holy space to Muslims.

But if you actually look at their platform (here is an analysis of it from 2019) what Jewish Power is promoting, with all the hyperbole, dovetails with a lot of mainstream Zionist values, albeit more outspoken.

The insistence upon expelling “disloyal” Palestinian citizens (and even potentially “disloyal” Jews), finds an echo in the supposedly liberal Avigdor Liberman, the finance minister of the “government of change”, who has in the past advocated decapitating such “disloyal” Palestinians with an axe. The party’s slogan of “death to the terrorists” — Ben Gvir has trained his disciples to chant “death to the terrorists” rather than “death to the Arabs”– echoes the supposedly ultra-liberal PM Yair Lapid, who in 2015 advocated executing any Palestinian suspect, even if merely holding “a screwdriver”. Lapid’s self-declared principle, too, is “maximum Jews on maximum land with maximum security and with minimum Palestinians”.

The advocacy for annexation of all of historical Palestine is today the essential policy of the state. Yes, Lapid gives lip service to a two-state solution at the U.N. to appease Joe Biden and the liberal Zionists in the U.S., but he goes forward with settlements at record pace. So the annexation is in stages, and the only question is the speed of that annexation.

In general, the advocacy of ethnic cleansing is an arch-Zionist ideal, even when phrased in more delicate terms. It has been a founding principle by which to create the so-called “Jewish democracy”, and practically no Zionist today would abandon that ideal. That is why the denial of the Palestinian right of return is so avidly adhered to by basically all Zionists, including liberal Zionists: for it is central to Zionism. The ideal of a “Jewish majority” and the supposed demographic threat posed by Palestinian babies just by being born– this racist ideal is subscribed to by liberal Zionists too.

Thus, the problem with Jewish Power is not that it is antithetical to Zionism. Nor that it is a bastard child of Zionism. No, the problem with Jewish Power is that it is quintessentially Zionist.

The dilemma that Jewish Power presents for Zionists is simply that of throwing off masks of liberalism, and giving them a hard time defending Israel at the moral level. That, I believe, is what motivates many Zionists to distance themselves from it: They want to believe in another Israel.

But Jewish Power did not rise from a vacuum. It rose from Zionism. And “Jewish power” is the ideal of Zionism, the ideal of the muscular Jew – a centrally Zionist concept coined by Zionist founder Max Nordau already at the 2nd Zionist congress in 1898. The muscular Jew is the ideal behind the emblem of the Kach party– a Star of David with a fist– which was also the emblem of the US Jewish Defense League. Jewish Power took out the fist and kept the Star of David, but the idea is right there in the name itself – Jewish Power.

It can be a very disappointing, or perhaps even a shocking realization, to witness that the ideology you have held dear, gives birth to such a thing. But the truth is that Jewish Power has been in the DNA of Zionism all along. It’s hard to oppose it when you uphold so many of its ideals, but many will try, for the sake of their own self-image, and their dreams.

Personally, I don’t think Apartheid can have a nice face, only a lot of makeup.

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