I confess that I never thought I would ever find myself writing a defense of Itamar Ben-Gvir. Nonetheless, there are times when even those one opposes most passionately must be defended.
Such a case is the scandal prompted by Ben-Gvir’s remark last week that “My right, the right of my wife and my children to move around Judea and Samaria, is more important than freedom of movement for the Arabs. The right to life comes before freedom of movement.”
Ben-Gvir was immediately savaged for allegedly saying that Jewish lives are more important than Arab lives. Well-known Israel-hater fashion model Bella Hadid, for example, proclaimed, “In no place, no time … should one life be more valuable than another’s.”
More serious was a statement from the US State Department:
“We strongly condemn Israeli minister Ben-Gvir’s inflammatory comments on the freedom of movement of Palestinian residents in the West Bank. We condemn all racist rhetoric; as such messages are particularly damaging when amplified by those in leadership positions and are incongruent with advancing respect for human rights for all.”
All of this, one is compelled to point out, was nonsense. Ben-Gvir was clearly not saying that Jewish lives are more important than Arab lives. He was saying that the right to life is more important than the right to freedom of movement, something that is axiomatic and undeniable. The thunderstorm of criticism was, at best, cynical opportunism.
None of this is to say that Ben-Gvir is a particularly admirable person. In my view, he is at best a buffoon and at worst a suicidal messianist—akin to the zealots who burned the storehouses of Jerusalem and brought on the Temple’s destruction. Still, there is a reason Ben-Gvir exists and for his relative success in electoral politics, and the scandal currently surrounding him is a perfect illustration of it.
This is because what Ben-Gvir’s most extreme critics are saying is fairly clear, though they are too cowardly to say it outright. They are asserting that Jewish lives are not more important than Arab freedom of movement. If Jews must die so that Palestinians can continue to travel unmolested, so be it.
This is hardly unprecedented. At least since the Second Intifada began in 2000, a great many people have held that the Palestinians have earned the right to maim and murder Jews with impunity, and that the Jews have no rights except to sit there and take it.
This is not new, either. For centuries, it was believed that non-Jews had the right to do more or less whatever they wanted with the Jews, while the Jews had no rights whatsoever. The repercussions of this for the Jews have been considerable, and they explain Ben-Gvir far better than an analysis of Israeli politics.
This is because Ben-Gvir is a Kahanist, or at least was until almost yesterday. Kahanism is a profoundly ugly ideology with its sanctification of violence, total rejection of democracy and constant need to condemn and vilify any Jew who dissents from it. Still, it is an important movement to understand because it is the only pure and undistilled expression of Jewish rage at what has been done to us.
The movement’s founder, Meir Kahane, was in many ways a despicable man. However, in his vilification of the non-Jewish world and his insistence on violent resistance to it, he expressed something all of us feel from time to time: A blinding hatred of a world that has long denied us even the right to life. Do as you damn well please, Kahane was saying, but if you mess with us, get your checkbook, because you’re going to pay for it.
It is a heady brew, if not a very realistic one. The truth is that not all non-Jews are antisemitic, a great many do believe the Jews have the right to life, and hating everybody else—including Jews who don’t get with the program—is pathological and, at its extreme, suicidal. It is a double-edged sword whose edges are razor-sharp. But nonetheless, this hate is there, we all feel it at times and there is no sense in pretending it doesn’t exist. Indeed, if there is anything remarkable about Kahane, it is that it took so long for a figure like him to emerge.
But Jews, perhaps unfortunately, are not very good at dealing with our hate. We ignore it, deny it, push it down as deep as we can. This may have many causes. Perhaps it is because we are so intimately acquainted with the dark consequences of hatred. Perhaps we are afraid of the vast non-Jewish world’s retaliation. Perhaps we are simply afraid of the volcanic power of 2,000 years’ worth of accumulated rage.
Perhaps it is all of those things. But it is eminently human to hate, and we are human beings like everybody else. We would often be better off admitting to our hate and confronting it in a healthy manner. Ironically, hate is more likely to destroy when it goes unexpressed.
Moreover, hatred may, to some extent, be not only inevitable but also essential. The world-famous Israeli philosopher Yuval Noah Harari—who would no doubt be horrified to be quoted in a defense of Ben-Gvir—wrote in an analysis of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, “Hatred is the ugliest of emotions. But for oppressed nations, hatred is a hidden treasure. Buried deep in the heart, it can sustain resistance for generations.”
I do not think the Jewish people has been sustained by hate, but it must be, at the very least, a silent factor in our survival. We need it as much as any other oppressed people does. Sometimes this hate expresses itself quietly, in small acts like boycotting German products. In the person of Ben-Gvir, however, it is screaming and absolute. That some of us find this appealing is not a surprise, if only because it expresses something upon which we would never act but nonetheless have to acknowledge. It may be that we have Ben-Gvirs among us because, on some level, we need them to keep us sane.
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