Reflections on the rise of Ben-Gvir and Israel's radical rightwing government, a full version of my piece in The Washington Monthly
Have I just met the Jewish Hitler? This is the question that ran through my mind, as I stepped out into Jerusalem’s chilly night air, after attending a small gathering with Itamar Ben Gvir, two days before he became the foretold surprise in Israel’s latest election. Returning to Israel only a week earlier, from three years teaching in the US, I wanted to understand his appeal to Israel’s public, my mother and sister included.
Prologue: A dangerous analogy
A spoiler: I have no answer to my opening question. But I don’t want to do away with it. Of all punctuations, the question mark is indispensable to the human spirit.
The toothbrush moustache in the poster above is too easily drawn. We rush to compare in order to denounce instead of using potential analogies to help us clear our mind, and approach truth. I want this questionable analogy to linger in our minds. Granted, Ben-Gvir is not Hitler, but redemptive rage, triggered by fear, frustration, and humiliation, is a common denominator not only of these leaders, and Netanyahu too, but of many people. No person, or a people, are exempt.
Hitler and Nazism are not an extra-human phenomenon, they express something fundamental that lurks within us all, myself included. Comparison, by its very nature, is never between identical things. Such “comparison” is pointless. Comparison is always between that which feature qualified resemblance, enough so we can learn from the instances about their underlying phenomenon, and back. When we avoid comparison to Hitler or Nazism, we divorce them from humanity. This is a mistake, much graver than the analogy it spurns. They were all human. Each and every single one of these murderers.
In his 1946 book Salamandra (Sunrise over Hell), and during his testimony in the 1961 Eichmann Trial, the Israeli author and Holocaust survivor Ka-Tsetnik (Yehiel De-Nur), famously depicted the Auschwitz concentration camp as “another planet,” apart from the human realm. Following an LSD treatment, in a 1987 interview, Ka-Tsetnik portrayed a transformation: “It became apparent to me that Auschwitz was not a different planet as I once thought. Auschwitz was created by neither Satan not God, but by (Hu)Man… I realized that the atom [bomb] was created in Auschwitz… the finger that will press the button, turning the world to chaos will not be God’s but man’s.”
We should heed Ka-Tsetnik’s later realization. Without acknowledging what we all (and certainly Ben-Gvir and Netanyahu) share with Hitler and Nazism, we cannot hope to truly understand neither, nor prevent atrocities, on our planet.
The third assassination
When Netanyahu became prime minister for the first time, in 1996, many Israeli liberals saw it as the second assassination of Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin. Now, with the rise of Ben Gvir, it feels like the third time, and, for many of his supporters, that’s definitely part of the charm.
Ben Gvir sat next to me, the only secular in a room filled with dozens of ultra-orthodox, when he heard of a deadly attack near his house in Hebron. He fell silent for a moment, then, apparently believing he was the intended target, and that leftist politicians and media have something to do with it, went on to say: “That’s the result of incitement; words can kill!”
A key instigator against Rabin, Ben Gvir should know what he’s talking about. A month before the assassination of Rabin, at a mass protest in Jerusalem, headed by Netanyahu, Ben Gvir distributed a photomontage of Rabin in an SS uniform. Shortly thereafter, he stole an ornament from Rabin’s car, proudly declaring, “we got to his car, and we’ll get to him too.” The assassin Yigal Amir testified how en route to murder Rabin at a peace rally, he heard that “Itamar Ben Gvir wants to kill Rabin during the rally,” but laughed at the prospect, thinking Ben Gvir is just “a little boy.”
Well, Ben Gvir is no longer just a little boy, and when I listened to him warning against noxious rhetoric, he looked like a ventriloquist’s dummy, unwittingly giving words to his own subconscious – and to over half a million voters’. I wanted to listen to these words. I had failed to do so before, and after, Rabin’s assassination, refusing to read what my own people wrote on the wall. I still lament that failure.
Ben Gvir says he has softened, something he attributes to becoming a father of six and meeting kind Arabs, not least in nurseries (where his political partner, Bezalel Smotrich, demanded a segregation between Jews and Arabs). Today Ben Gvir only plans to expel the disloyal, not all, Arabs. When people shout, “Death to Arabs,” he shushes them, “Death to terrorists,” he corrects. Many voted for him because they believe him; others voted for him because they don’t.
A fist of redemptive rage
The rise of the “Jewish Power” party leader has been long in the making. Until the mid-1990s, Ben Gvir’s kindred spirits were marginal, boycotted even by the Likud (though tellingly not by the Mizrahi ultraorthodox Shas). In the wake of Netanyahu’s rise to the helm of the Likud in the early 1990s, it was I who gradually became marginal, amidst the vanishing Zionist left. Israeli Jews, my own family included, turned right. Why?
Why didn’t I? After all, Ben Gvir and I are of the same generation, born in the ever-tumultuous Jerusalem to Iraqi Jewish mothers, growing up in a traditionalist household. Yet our youth rebellions set us apart. Ben Gvir became observant; I turned agnostic. That itself, TS Eliot might have commented, reveals the liberal wasteland. And the proof is in the pudding of the First Intifada. Both BG and I would attribute our political awakening to the violence of the late 1980s. But while Ben Gvir joined the Jewish supremacist movement Kach, zealously shaping Israel’s path, I became a leftist academic, studying from the sideline his ascent to power.
My study led me to realize how people often turn to politics for therapy – politico-therapy, if you will – seeking solace for their souls. And it is the souls we must seek, and study, if we ever want to understand Netanyahu, Ben Gvir, bedfellows like Trump, and their mass appeal.
These souls speak of fear and shame, of humiliation seeking redemption through rage, domination – and love: of God, of “the people,” and of the protective leader. Of course, there is nothing new in the insidious, electoral magic of fearmongering. Netanyahu is a master of that dark art; Ben Gvir is his most successful apprentice to-date, appending fearmongering with kinfolk-authenticity.
Ben Gvir firmly frames Jews, a clear majority within Israel, as a persecuted minority. Whether a soldier guarding a West Bank outpost, or a girl awaiting the bus in a mixed city, for Ben Gvir, Israeli Jews are constantly targeted, harassed and degraded by Arabs, while the Jewish State is paralyzed by law and liberals. In Ben Gvir’s world and words, Israeli Jews suffer from "racism" and desperately need “equality.”
This may make little sense. Israel is a mighty country, militarily, politically, and economically. Yet being strong – collectively, objectively – doesn’t equal feeling strong – individually, subjectively. Humans often feel frail. Unlike God, we do not have total power. Without great power, comes great frustration, and with frustration, we raise a clenched fist against the universe, the system, and some people around. Indeed, Kach’s symbol fittingly features a Star of David, foregrounding a clenched fist.
Lords of the wasteland
Psychology can help us see what’s inside. Sigmund Freud’s pleasure principle and Alfred Adler’s inferiority complex are not just personal drives. We often seek the former and overcompensate for the latter through politics, which, Harold Lasswell famously said, is about “who gets what, when, how.” And with Keith and Mick we might add, “You can’t always get what you want,” but you can make others suffer for it!
Politics allows us to cast our personal frustrations, resentments, and aspirations, into the public sphere – through our leaders. These are the “mighty martyrs,” who in an ingenious political alchemy fuse victimhood and heroism in their words, actions, even their body.
Over the past decade, one chant became all the rage in Israeli rightwing rallies. The words are taken from the biblical story of Samson. Betrayed by his beloved Delilah, his eyes gouged out, the humiliated Samson asked God for one last exercise of his superhuman powers to bring the Philistines’ temple down on them, and himself. Today, ultra-nationalist Israeli Jews enthusiastically sing his vengeful last words, targeting Palestinians.
But if the religious Ben Gvir finds redemptive inspiration in Samson, the secular Netanyahu, we recently learned, finds it in his favorite film, Sam Peckinpah’s 1971 Straw Dogs. The title takes its cue from the classical Chinese text, Tao Te Ching, where “Heaven and Earth are not humane,” both regarding all people as nothing but disposable “straw dogs.” It takes time for the protagonist David, a meek intellectual, to realize that humanity is but a veneer, and that jealousy, cruelty, and betrayal, not least by his wife, lays all to waste. But when his manly humiliation crosses the threshold of his hearth and home, he finally understands, and turns to defend his fort, his wife, and virile honor in a bloodbath.
With Ben Gvir’s popular slogan, demanding that Jews become “homeowners… Lords of the land,” and Netanyahu’s obsession with retaking Balfour, the residence of Israeli premiers, their bond is not merely instrumental, it’s mental. Interestingly, while both bask in a world where “man to man is a wolf,” they readily dress their pursuit of power in love: Netanyahu for his supporters, Ben Gvir for the Jewish people, Meir Kahane, and indeed, not unlike Orwell’s 1984’s concluding words, for Netanyahu (aka BB) himself.
Both tap effortlessly into Israeli Jews’ sense of collective and personal vulnerability, rising on the tailwinds of the intercommunal violence of May 2021, which – like the Second Intifada two decades earlier – greatly undermined Israelis’ sense of security. That Netanyahu headed the government at the time, and Ben Gvir lit the match, matters less. Like Ariel Sharon in the wake of the Second Intifada, Ben Gvir reaped the electoral fruits of the escalation he instigated.
A tale of two massacres
Anxiety and humiliation can annihilate reason, and empathy. When I asked about his long-term vision, Ben Gvir spoke of reviving the “peaceful days” from before the 1993 Oslo accords, when “everybody knew their place.” “But there was no peace,” I protested, “these were the days of the First Intifada.” Recalling how I felt at the time, I asked Ben Gvir if he doesn’t see that his plight and plea resemble the Palestinians’. Ben Gvir was mortified: “How can you ever compare? We would have never done what they did to us in the 1929 Hebron massacre.”
Nearly a century later, Ben Gvir not only lives in Hebron but also with the shameful scar of that humiliating trauma. He calls Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 perpetrated a massacre against Muslim worshipers in Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs, “a hero.”
In his review of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf, George Orwell wrote, looking at Hitler’s photograph: “It is a pathetic, dog-like face, the face of a man suffering under intolerable wrongs. In a rather more manly way it reproduces the expression of innumerable pictures of Christ crucified, and there is little doubt that that is how Hitler sees himself… He is the martyr, the victim, Prometheus chained to the rock, the self-sacrificing hero who fights single-handed against impossible odds.”
The pledge to substitute vengeance for vulnerability, collective power for personal pain, is a vain promise. Anger brings no redemption. But a cursory look at history, and human nature, reveals that that lesson can only be learned the hard way. Sometimes, the hardest. To taste it, Netanyahu and Ben Gvir should spend some time bonding over Straw Dogs, and pay close attention to the final scene, when David emerges from the carnage triumphant only to realize he has lost his way home.
A discardable epilogue
The year that saw Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, also saw Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange. Based on the titular dystopia by Anthony Burgess, published in 1962, it follows Alex, a juvenile delinquent who indulges in “ultra-violence,” and upon imprisonment undergoes an extreme conditioning that breaks his free spirit, until, at the last moment, he regains his daydreams of orgiastic violence and merrily concludes, “I was cured all right.”
The original British version ends differently. Its epilogue, the twenty-first chapter, has Alex having second thoughts: “It was like something soft getting into me and I could not pony why,” Alex tells us, and imagining his would-be children becoming as violent as he’s been, tiredly sums, “I knew what was happening, O my brothers. I was like growing up.”
As if reversing Straw Dogs, Alex’s transformation – seeking redemption by renouncing violence – seems implausible, indeed more Clockwork than Orange. And yet, Burgess’s own reflection on the ending is worth reading:
The boy is conditioned, then deconditioned, and he foresees with glee a resumption of the operation of free and violent will. ‘I was cured all right,’ he says, and so the American book ends. So the film ends too. The twenty-first chapter gives the novel the quality of genuine fiction, an art founded on the principle that human beings change… Readers of the twenty-first chapter must decide for themselves whether it enhances the book they presumably know or is really a discardable limb.
I prefer the epilogue-less work. Whether Hitler-like or not, Alex’s blood orange, like Ben Gvir’s, is part of our humanity. Understanding its origins is the only way to have our twenty-first century bear better fruits.