Kahanism’s triumphant makeover

Itamar Ben Gvir, the star of Israel’s most far-right party, is thriving off of a national political discourse that allows him to accomplish what his predecessors could not: bringing Kahanism to the mainstream.

Noam Sheizaf writes in +972 October 3, 2022

Shivtei Yisrael Synagogue lies at the border between Ramat Gan and Givatayim, two suburbs on the eastern edge of Tel Aviv, separated by a long road named after Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion. A modest building, it stands amid a typical middle class area that, in recent years, has seen an influx of young Israelis who couldn’t afford rent in Tel Aviv, and have instead opted for cheaper residences a couple of miles away.

But the people gathered in front of the synagogue on a warm Sunday evening in early September represent an older, less affluent generation. They are mostly Mizrahi men, some wearing a kippah, along with a few Haredim and several teenagers. They have come to hear Itamar Ben Gvir, the 46-year-old Knesset member who has been dominating the news cycle ahead of Israel’s fifth election in three years.

A lawyer by profession, Ben Gvir is the current leader of the extreme right-wing Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”) — the political heir of Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Kach party, which was designated as a terrorist organization both in Israel and in the United States. His faction recently merged with the pro-settler National Union party, led by Bezalel Smotrich, who was once considered Israel’s most radical politician but is now overshadowed by his junior partner.

The united list, simply named Religious Zionism, has wiped out all its competitors to the right of the Likud, the long-time ruling party led by former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Current polls show the list garnering between 12 to 14 seats, which could make it the third largest party in the next Knesset.

Pundits are unanimous in attributing this success to Ben Gvir, who has enjoyed unprecedented media attention over the past year. Once a provocateur who trolled the political system from the sidelines, Ben Gvir believes he can break new ground — including among the more centrist residents of Ramat Gan, and even the left-leaning Givatayim. And while he has seemingly moderated his discourse and abandoned some of Kahane’s original ideas, many believe that his ascent represents a dangerous new stage in the Jewish-Israeli public’s never-ending journey toward the hard right.

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