By Curtis Hutt
A right-wing Israeli politician is trying to recast a key part of American history.
That’s not a usual subject for an Israeli Cabinet member. But Itamar Ben-Gvir is trying to make his anti-Palestinian movement seem less extremist and more appealing to Jews and the international community. A rewrite of American history could help him do it.
In a November 2022 speech in Jerusalem after the recent Israeli elections, Ben-Gvir memorialized Rabbi Meir Kahane, an ultranationalist leader from the U.S. who moved to Israel and was both elected to Israel’s Parliament and convicted of terrorism before being assassinated in 1990. Ben-Gvir declared that Kahane and his followers saved Jews from the Soviet Union’s antisemitism during the 1970s and 1980s.
Kahane is best known in the U.S. as the founder of the Jewish Defense League, which was originally headquartered in New York City. From the 1960s through about 2001, this group was responsible for numerous terrorist and racist attacks against African Americans, Muslims, Jewish academics and public figures, as well as foreign diplomats.
The Conversation U.S. asked Curtis Hutt, the executive director of the Leonard and Shirley Goldstein Center for Human Rights at the University of Nebraska Omaha – an academic unit supported by donors who fought to free Soviet Jewry – to review Ben-Gvir’s claim and his motivations.
Who is this person?
Itamar Ben-Gvir is a newly elected member of the Knesset, Israel’s national legislature. He has also been appointed national security minister in the right-wing government led by Benjamin Netanyahu, who in December 2022 again became Israel’s prime minister, a post he previously held from 1996 to 1999 and again from 2009 to 2021.
Ben-Gvir is a longtime supporter of Israeli Kahanist movements fighting for a theocratic Jewish state. The members of those movements support Israeli dominion over the territory they call “greater Israel,” which includes not only present-day Israel but also the Palestinian territories.
What role and power does he have in the Israeli government?
Ben-Gvir is a critical part of the Knesset’s majority coalition led by Netanyahu.
As the new minister of national security with an expanded portfolio, he is now in charge of Israel’s police and border police in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Other members of the political party he leads, Otzma Yehudit, or “Jewish Power,” now hold ministry positions charged with expanding Jewish development in the Galilee and Negev regions, as well as overseeing cultural and religious heritage.
What constituencies does he represent?
In 1971, Kahane came to Israel from the U.S. and founded the Kach Party to bring his views to the voting public, but it was disqualified from participating in electoral politics in 1987 when changes to Israeli law banned groups that incited racism.
In 1994, Kach member Baruch Goldstein, who had also been a member of the Jewish Defense League, massacred 29 Muslim worshippers in a mosque at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, part of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. As a result, both Israel and the U.S. declared Kach to be a terrorist organization.
In 2007, Ben-Gvir was convicted of inciting racism and supporting a terrorist organization – Kach. He also once had a portrait of Goldstein hanging in his living room.
In the 2009 election that brought Netanyahu back into power from the opposition, Kahanist disciple Michael Ben-Ari was elected to the Knesset for the first time. Four years later, he formed a new Kahanist party, Otzma Yehudit, which didn’t win any Knesset seats in the 2013 elections. In 2019, Ben-Ari was banned from running for public office because of his alleged extremist activity.
At that time, Ben-Gvir, who was seen as being more moderate and more politically skilled than Ben-Ari, took over party leadership.
In 2022, an alliance between Ben-Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit Party and Bezalel Smotrich’s messianic Religious Nationalists resulted in their candidates’ winning 15 Knesset seats, becoming the third-largest political bloc in Israel and Netanyahu’s primary coalition partner.
Ben-Gvir’s position as co-leader of this extreme right-wing alliance is so strong that his agreement to join Netanyahu’s coalition government includes a commitment to remove the clause in Israel’s Basic Law disqualifying a person from serving in the Knesset for inciting racism – for which Kahane was first banned, and of which Ben-Gvir has also been convicted.
What is Ben-Gvir saying about Rabbi Kahane and his activity?
In his November 2022 speech in honor of Kahane, Ben-Gvir credited Kahane and the Jewish Defense League for leading the successful fight against antisemitism and, specifically, in freeing Jews from the USSR.
During the Cold War, it was extremely difficult for Soviet citizens to leave the country. This put religious minorities like Jews, Protestants and Roman Catholics – all of whom were persecuted by the atheist regime – at great risk. In the 1970s and 1980s, Jewish communities across the U.S. mobilized on behalf of Soviet Jews, seeking to get them safely out of the country, often to Israel.
Throughout this period, the Jewish Defense League repeatedly physically attacked Soviet officials and cultural figures in the U.S. The group took over a New York City synagogue to demonstrate against Soviet diplomats whose offices were across the street.
Members poured blood on a Soviet official in Washington, D.C. They also set off an explosive device during a performance by a Soviet dance troupe. A bomb planted in the office of an agent finding work for Soviet entertainers killed the secretary, Iris Kones.
In my view – and the views of many Jewish leaders at the time – these efforts did not encourage the Soviet Union to change its policies or to release imprisoned dissidents. They were also exclusively focused on Russian Jews, rather than other religious minorities in the USSR, who were in a similar position as Roman Catholics and evangelicals. For the Jewish Defense League and others in Israel like new Israeli Cabinet member Avi Maoz, it was a battle to protect Jews from threats, not a struggle to improve human rights for all.
At the same time, the human rights aspect of the struggle in the USSR was a central focus of a U.S. political movement. A wide range of groups, including the Jewish community and its allies, but also Christians in the United States who were likewise aware of abuses against their own churches in the USSR, pushed Congress to act.
In 1975, that effort – not the work of the Jewish Defense League – achieved the enactment of the Jackson-Vanik amendment, which curbed U.S. trade with countries that restricted freedom of movement and other basic human rights. As a result of Jackson-Vanik, by the year 2000, 573,000 refugees, including large numbers of Jews, were able to come to the U.S. Another million Jews made their way to Israel.
What is Ben-Gvir trying to claim credit for?
Ben-Gvir wants to rehabilitate Kahane’s terrorist legacy to gain support among the larger Jewish public in Israel and the U.S. For Ben-Gvir, Kahane’s so-called past successes – as exemplified in the fight to free Soviet Jewry – justify contemporary violent Kahanist tactics on behalf of Israeli Jews against Palestinians, political and religious opposition, the LGBTQ community and others.
He claims that the Jewish Defense League’s violence, even against innocent people, freed the Soviet Jews. In doing so, he is seeking to take credit for what was really a human rights effort. In the meantime, Ben-Gvir and his allies claim that human rights organizations and activists are a danger to Israel because of their advocacy for Palestinian rights.
Ben-Gvir wants people to think that Kahanists were responsible for rescuing Jews from the USSR. History shows that this is not true. Kahanists acted at odds with the human rights activists and politicians responsible for the victory. Ben-Gvir and his allies act to only protect the rights of those they consider to be observant Jews in Israel. In my view, Ben-Gvir, as Israel’s new national security minister, sees Kahane-style aggressions as the best way to protect the Jewish nation-state.
Just as Kahane was uninterested in advocating for the rights of non-Jews in the USSR or elsewhere, I see Ben-Gvir promising aggressive “Jews First” governance for Israel, and a Jewish state expanded at the expense of Palestinians.
Curtis Hutt is Executive Director of the Leonard and Shirley Goldstein Center for Human Rights at the University of Nebraska Omaha.
The Conversation arose out of deep-seated concerns for the fading quality of our public discourse and recognition of the vital role that academic experts could play in the public arena. Information has always been essential to democracy. It’s a societal good, like clean water. But many now find it difficult to put their trust in the media and experts who have spent years researching a topic. Instead, they listen to those who have the loudest voices. Those uninformed views are amplified by social media networks that reward those who spark outrage instead of insight or thoughtful discussion. The Conversation seeks to be part of the solution to this problem, to raise up the voices of true experts and to make their knowledge available to everyone. The Conversation publishes nightly at 9 p.m. on FlaglerLive.
Israel is under threat 24/7 by Palestinian terrorists so, of course, Israel must be supremely guilty of supporting terrorism. But the Palestinians…mysteriously, in the eyes of some people, not so much.
In fact, the Palestinian governments still use global aid $$$, including the ever-growing amounts of “Humanitarian aid” that the Biden Adminsitration gives them (despite the provisions of the Taylor Force Act), to FUND the Palestinian governments’ terorrist stipend program and the continued construction of their terror tunnels. But let’s just look the other way when it comes to all that.
Somebody should inform Mr Hutt that Jews defending and taking their own is not the biggest Human Rights sin going on in the world today.
And Projection ain’t pretty.
Pierre Tristam says
Only took two hours and four minutes from publication time before ASF found a way, any possible way, to defend the indefensible, yet again. Let’s not pay attention to the devolution represented by Ben-Gvir and the Netanyahu cabinet, let’s not even question Ben-Gvir’s defense of a convicted terrorist, let’s never, ever cast a critical eye on apartheid Israel no matter what, and let’s deflect, deflect, deflect, with bullshit deflections to boot, because god forbid Palestinian health care, food aid and economic aid should be handed those repulsive good-for-nothing Arabs when we could be erecting a monument to Kahane and handing over more billions to the Netanyahu anti-democracy regime.
I am concerned about the ongoing settler colonialism in the West Bank as well as the settler violence against Palestinians there. Seems to me that the two-state solution is fairly well passé. When will we begin to see that Israel cannot be a democracy AND a Jewish state. Ben-Gvir is outright provoking confrontation by, for example, his entering the Al-Aqsa mosque.
Long live Palestine and down with Stael baby killing occupation
Deborah Coffey says
Sounds exactly like Donald J. Trump…Part II…in Israel. But, the haters will blame the Palestinians because that too, is what Trumpism demands. When will the Earth stop putting up with corruption by the right wing?
I am not a Trump supporter and I am a registered Democrat. But your penchant for labels (in my case, misapplied) is duly noted.
Deborah Coffey says
I didn’t apply anything to you, ASF. But, you might want to reconsider your party affiliation.
I suggest that you re-read your original post and note the timing of it.
No one, including myself, is asking you to define what being a Democrat means. You might want to consider whether that, in itself, sounds like a “prejudcial” statement.
Recently, Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh was killed by Israeli forces.
She was shot in the head. Naturally, Israel denies this.
I love how the “homesteaders” call upon the IDF to bulldoze Palestinian homes
when Israel gets the bug to expand their borders. The homes are usually occupied…
No problem shooting stone-throwing Palestinian kids either.
Palestinians are third-class citizens in their own land!
9/11 was firmly rooted in US support for Israel. Do you think not?
Oh sure, Israel is strategically important to the US so we look the other way when they
commit atrocities. Israel is a terrorist nation, and we bankroll them by sending
billions of dollars to prop up their lackluster economy every year.
Israel is a stolen country, plain and simple.
No one consulted the Palestinians in 1948.
Can we steal your country?
Meant to say: Israel is a stolen territory, plain and simple.
[Warning: the comment below is replete with errors and inaccuracies and should not be read at face value. Some examples: Gaza was not “given up.” Its 2 million Palestinians on 140 square miles have been compared to the world’s largest open air prison. Palestinians are barred from travel and are as much part of the rest of the occupied territories as the West Bank, an enduring example of stolen land where Palestinian “autonomy” is ever shrinking. The killing of Shireen Abu Akleh was found to have been the result of gunfire from Israeli positions. It was the Israelis who resisted the investigation. Palestine is, in fact, one of the five top countries with the most killings of journalists over the last 20 years, along with Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Yemen–Iraq and Afghanistan subsequent to the American invasions, which also destabilized Syria, and Yemen as a result of the American-backed, American-armed Saudi War on Houthis. In 2022, Mexico topped the list of journalists’ killings, but Pakistan was not in the top 10. Of course Israel is the United States’ most-favored nation: it is the recipient of more aid than any other nation, by far, since 1948. The claim that US aid to Israel is contingent on spending the majority of that money on American companies is patently false: in 2021, for example, the US provided direct, offensive military aid to Israel to the tune of $3.8 billion. It is that US aid that has “helped transform Israel’s armed forces into one of the most technologically sophisticated militaries in the world,” according to the Congressional Research Service, and that has enabled Israel to enforce its illegal occupation of Palestine, repressing 5 million Palestinians, and, according to Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem, killing and murdering a steady number of them month after month, year after year, in immensely disproportionate numbers compared to Israeli casualties: 10,341 Palestinians killed by Israeli forces since 2000, compared to 855 Israeli civilians killed by Palestinians, and 447 Israeli security forces killed by Palestinians in that span. Israeli civilians have also killed 86 Palestinians. As in the Jim Crow South, they rarely pay the price. Just as there is Holocaust denialism, which is appropriately scorned, ridiculed and discredited, there is Palestine denialism, which Israel engages in by policy, incessantly. We do not permit Holocaust denialism. Nor do we permit Palestine denialism. ASF’s comment is published here as an example of the latter, with refutations, but further examples will not be allowed. We repeat: Do not use this site to disseminate disinformation. Persist, and you’ll be banned–FL]
How, exactly is Israel, “stolen land”? Israel has been a legitimate sovereign state for over 70 years. They have given up swaths of “land for peace” repeatedly (Gaza is but one example) and the threats leveled against Israel (as well as the demands) only get more strident and more violent. They have defneded themsleves ceaselessly and successfully all that time–and without American boots-on-the-ground support, I might add.
Here is the bottom line: It is not contingent upon Israel (or Jews-excuse-me-Zionists) to be the only nation/ group of people in history or on earth to bow down and have to humbly submit to the terms of surrender meted out to them by those who eternally threaten to agress against them…and lose.
But, I’ll tell you what, maybe Americans like us can feel more entitled to lecture Israelis about how they are morally impelled to return all that allegedly “stolen” land when we Americans return all the land we stole from the Native Americans. We did THAT, without question. Are you ready to turn over YOUR keys, Mr. Geezer?
As far as your above mentioned screed about 9/11…No, it was not simply “rooted in US support for Israel.” The forces of Jihadism don’t call us “The Big Satan” for nothing. Israel is just “The Little Satan”, as they are concerned. Our freedoms and what we stand for as a democracy are a threat to them. If you think that Israel biting the dust is going to satisfy their unending need to scratch that bloody itch, you are seriously mistaken.
It is unfortunate how mankind has forgotten the lessons of World War II and the Holocaust. The hatred that starts with Jews at its epicenter never ends with Jews as its only victims, You can count on that.
If you think that Israel’s disppearance as the one sole functioning democracy in that region of the world will make the world a more stable peaceful place and not pose a greater risk for other global democracies in the future, you are, quite frankly, delusional.
As for Shireen Abu Akleh, it was the PA which prevented any open investigation into her death and which refused access to any and all evidence for months, literally. She was a journalist working for the state-run media operation of Al Jazeera (Al Jazeera is owned and iperated by the Qatari Royal Family.) As such, she chose to secrete herself amongst Palesitnian militants who were actively engaged in militant conflict with Israeli security forces. The circumstances of her death are still not clear. Her death is unfortunate but Al Jazeera has lost many more journalists in other conflict-ridden regions without as much as a peep or wail of protest or outrage–on anyone’s part, including Al Jazeera. And many of those deaths happen to occur in the majority Muslim world.
In fact, Mexico and Pakistan are numbers one and two for journalist deaths–not that you hear much of an outcry about that, as well as the journalists who are captured and worse by Iran, Russia and China. Even more hypocritically, the Biden Administration has just given a free pass to Saudi Arabia for the up close and personal slaughter of Jamal Khashoggi. So, let’s not pretend that Israel is favored by the US above all other nations. Even the defensive Aid the US gives to Israel is conditioned upon their spending a majority of those funds employing American comapnies to develop intelligence and advanced technologies that the Isralis then share with us–to OUR mutual benefit.
In contrast, what do we get in return for the vast amount s of $$ we give to the Palestinians and others in the majority Muslim worfld?
Oh God, it’s a dissertation!
There’s an opening in Florida somewhere in the DeSantis administration for Minister of Propaganda.
You certainly meet and exceed all qualifications, but you’ll need help with grammar and spelling. :-)
As a bonus, you will likely receive a generous stipend for crayons and Poppycock Popcorn.
“The forces of Jihadism don’t call us “The Big Satan” for nothing.”
You are correct! It’s because we support Israel.
But don’t let that go to your head—even a stopped clock is right twice a day
“If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it.”
—Joseph Goebbels and Fox News
You said: “they have given up swaths of “land for peace” repeatedly.”
Good golly! That boom that was heard in Flagler County recently…
was that you belching up nonsense near an open flame?
Let’s proffer you a corollary (no, not a “coronary”) that you’ll comprehend:
Your next-door neighbor builds a garage on your lot without your permission.
He points a Mauser K-98 at you and does very bad things to intimidate you.
He kills the squirrels on your lot. One of your squirrels, Donald, lies belly-up and expires before your weary eyes. Suddenly you eye an invasion of conscripted flying Palmetto bugs coming for you. Oh, the humanity!
Now the well-armed neighbor routinely parks his Hyundai in his lovely garage on
your lot, for which you pay the property taxes. Those big roaches keep tabs on you.
For shame, you cry!
Are you still with me? OK, good.
Your neighbor, to show the world he’s peace-loving, offers to let you mow his lawn for a fee payable to him. If you’re extra nice: you can fuel his Hyundai on your dime. Good deal, eh?
The neighbor now scoops up some dirt in proximity to his new garage, then puts the dirt
in a box with a pretty bow, then proudly presents it to you and says: “I offer you this olive branch symbolic of peace.” (Ironically, he’s killed all your olive trees.)
“I’m a peace-loving, dude.” So sayeth your neighbor…
You received a scoop of your own dirt!
Your neighbor’s expansionist traits have been rationalized and re-packaged to make him appear as the good guy. You—you’re the terrorist!
I notice you did not manage to disprove, in any way, the actual FACTS that I presented previously.
Facts are facts: (1) The Palestinians have been offered statehood five times and refused every one of those two state, while the Israelis agreed to all of them. (2) The Palestinians’ violent and obstructionist conduct does not vary whether a Liberal or a Conservative Israeli government happens to be in office at any given time. The rocket fire, the threats and the terror attacks continue regardless. (2) The Palestinians have refused to sit down, for over a decade, to negotiate anything of any substance with the Israelis face-to-face–even when John Kerry, on behalf of a notably Palestinian-friendly American administration, begged Abbas to at least consider the possibility of doing so. That was after Barack Obama insisted that the Israelis halt all settlement construction and the Israelis complied with that demand. The Palestinians still wouldn’t budge from their obstructionist/rejectionist position. After ten months, the Israelis gave up on the flase promises that the Obama Admonistration made that that would “Unstick” the process. (3) Despite the fact that American citizens have been killed as a result of Palestinian terror attacks, prompting the passage of The Taylor Force Act in response to the PA’s defiant refusal to stop using the “humanitarian aid $$$” that the US government gives them to pay lifetime terrorists stipends, the US keeps sending the Palestinians more $$$. (3) Two terror attacks were committed by Palestinians in just the past couple of days that these posts have been exchanged alone. In one of them, a six year old girl’s head was grazed by a stray Palestinian militant bullet. (4) Many of the rockets launched by Palestinian militants/The Islamic Jihad towards Israel fall back into Gaza, causing Palestinian causlaties that are then blamed on Israel. (5) When Israel responds with targeted strikes to the rocket and terror attacks they are relentlessly bombarded with, the IDF roof-knocks, leaflet-drops and sends computer and even telephone warnings ahead of time so that Palestinian civilians can get out of the line of fire. Unfortunately, Hamas is in the habit of using their civilian populace as Human Shields while their senior militants hide out in the tunnels they build underground (mainly for terror purposes, with global “Infrastructure aid funds.”) Not only does this result in increased Palesitnian casualties, but Hamas is also in the habit of dumping their militant casualty numbers in with their civilian casualty count, resulting in an artifically “enhanced” civilian casualty count. (6) The Palestinians celebrate “martyrdom” to their children and train them to serve as their De Facto terrorist army…then bewail the picture they paint of how Israel deliberately goes out of its way to kill Palesitnian children, just for kicks and giggles.
You can mock all the above as a “dissertation” and continue to try to divert attention away from inconvenient facts that do not support your “Anti-Zionist” narrative. But the truth is what it is. I stick to facts because, in my estimation, “shoot the messenger” personal insults are neither called for or credible. It is my hope that we can at least remain respectful.
Pierre Tristam says
I am beginning to think our Aipac emissary has a side gig as a stand-up comedian. Not a bad thing of course: maybe she’ll run into my son on the circuit, though I hope she works on quality: she’s more Andrew Dice Clay trying out his tongue at politics (or a reverse Dieudonné, that putrid anti-Semite: she just fills in “Palestinians” instead of “Jews”) than Bill Mahrish. Anyway, I just read the opening joke, “The Palestinians have been offered statehood five times and refused every one of those two state, while the Israelis agreed to all of them,” and have been Roombaing on the floor laughing since, which is what took me so long to get back here. Palestinians have never been offered statehood. They have been “offered” approximations of severely shrunken autonomous zones in the occupied territories, as autonomous zones, never as independent states–that is, as an independent nation with its own right to foreign policy, treaty-making, an army, freedom of movement, and the rest of it–all those things apartheid Israel permits itself, but not the 5 million Palestinians under its boot. Maybe in the spirit of compromise Arafat could have accepted the deal in 2000, which he came close to doing, but in retrospect, considering the way Israel kept screwing with the Oslo accords, he looks to have been right to hold off. Israelis weren’t serious about even that. While it is true that Palestinians have had an incredible knack for shooting themselves in the foot, it’s like blaming them for tripping over themselves as they attempt to escape gang-rapists. The rapists who always catch up and gang-rape them. The disproportion, as with all things Arab-Israeli, is that obscene. Just in case you don’t get the sledge-hammer allusion: the Israelis are the gang-rapists, then as, ever, now. Anyway, I didn’t get past that line and have better things to do, so beware the usual fabulism, but no thanks for the morbid laughs.
Ray W. says
Is it possible for anyone to adequately conceive, much less comprehend the fullness of the hatred, venom, malice, and never-ending vengeance that compels one populace to attempt to push an entire other populace into the sea and the other populace equally committed to attempting to force an entire populace into a form of diaspora that is unwelcome in all corners of the world? For over 2000 years, each populace has wasted lives, fortunes, the moral high ground and all credibility in each other’s endless effort to both polish and grind away a sheen of righteousness, to the point that neither side possesses the capacity to recognize righteousness anymore.
Any two-state solution would almost certainly result in endless acts of barbarity on both sides. A one-state solution would require the Israeli government to give up its rule that keeps the Arab population from ever gaining a political majority, particularly in Jerusalem, meaning that to ensure an Israeli democratic majority in Jerusalem and all lands not subject to IDF occupation, Arab homes must be bulldozed, and Arabs evicted by whatever means possible, in order to ensure Israeli majorities in all facets of the Knesset.
Maybe I don’t fully understand, but neither religion seems built on cruelty in philosophy, but both seems fully capable of engaging in cruelty in practice. Such seems to be the eternal fate of the vengeful.