15 November 2022, Israel, Jerusalem: Israeli far right Knesset member Itamar Ben Gvir speaks to the media ahead of the swearing in of Israel's 25th parliament (Knesset). Photo by: Ilia Yefimovich/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Have I just met the Jewish Hitler? This question ran through my mind as I stepped out into Jerusalem’s chilly night air earlier this month after attending a small gathering with Itamar Ben Gvir. Just three days earlier, it became clear that the far-right Otzma Yehudit party leader would join a new Israeli government led by Benyamin “Bibi”  Netanyahu, soon to be prime minister for the third time. (This week, Ben Gvir emerged as the likely national security minister.) I had returned to my native Israel only a week earlier, after three years of teaching in the United States, and I wanted to understand Ben Gvir’s appeal and his growing number of supporters, which include my mother and sister.

In 1996, when Netanyahu became prime minister for the first time, many Israeli liberals saw it as the second assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, whose quest for a peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority cost him his life. A far-right Jewish settler had slain the giant of Israeli politics and the military. Now, with the rise of Ben Gvir, it feels like the third time, and for many of his followers, that’s part of the charm. The 46-year-old politician is an attorney who made a living defending Jewish terrorists. He calls Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 perpetrated a massacre against Muslim worshippers in Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs, “a hero.”

I was the only secular Jew in a room filled with dozens of ultra-Orthodox when I was seated next to Ben Gvir. During the evening, arranged by his Jerusalem patrons, we heard of a deadly attack near his house in Hebron. The father of six fell silent for a moment, then, apparently believing that he was the intended target and that leftist politicians and media had something to do with it, declared, “That’s the result of incitement; words can kill!”

Ben Gvir should know. 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 after that, 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 was just “a little boy.”

Ben Gvir is no longer just a little boy, and I wanted to listen to his and his supporters’ words. I had failed to do so before and after Rabin’s assassination, and I still lament that failure.

Ben Gvir says he has softened, something he attributes to fatherhood and meeting kind Arabs, not least in baby nurseries (where his political partner, Bezalel Smotrich, demands the segregation of Jewish and Arab newborns). Today, Ben Gvir only plans to expel the disloyal Arabs, not all of them—an insult to the Zionist dreams of Israel’s founders, who guaranteed equal rights for Arab citizens of Israel. When people shout, “Death to Arabs,” Ben Gvir shushes them. “Death to terrorists,” he corrects. Many voted for him because they believed in his kinder, gentler death threats; others voted for him because they didn’t.

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. In the wake of Netanyahu’s rise to the party’s helm in the early 1990s, I gradually became marginal amid 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 Jerusalem in traditionalist households to Iraqi-Jewish mothers. Certainly, our youth rebellions set us apart. Ben Gvir became observant; I turned agnostic. Both Ben Gvir and I would attribute our political awakening to the violence of the late 1980s. But while Ben Gvir joined the Jewish supremacist movement Kach (which has since been banned in Israel), zealously shaping Israel’s path, I became a leftist academic, studying his ascent to power from the sideline.

My study led me to realize how citizens turn to politics for therapy and solace for their souls. And it is the souls we must seek out and study if we ever want to understand Netanyahu, Ben Gvir, bedfellows like Donald Trump, and their mass appeal.

These souls speak of fear, shame, and humiliation seeking redemption through rage and domination—but also the love of God, “the people,” and the protective leader. Of course, there is nothing new in the electoral magic of fearmongering. 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 waiting for the bus in a diverse city, for Ben Gvir Israeli Jews are victims, constantly targeted, harassed, and degraded by Arabs. At the same time, the Jewish state is paralyzed by law and liberals. In Ben Gvir’s world and words, Jews need “equality.”

This makes little sense. Israel is mighty—militarily, politically, and economically. Yet being strong doesn’t equal feeling strong, and humans often feel frail. Indeed, Kach’s symbol features a Star of David with a clenched fist. Politics allows us to cast our resentments and aspirations with leaders who fuse victimhood and heroism in an ingenious political alchemy.

Over the past decade, one chant became popular at Israeli right-wing rallies. The lyrics are taken from the biblical story of Samson: “Please, God, remember me, and strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for one of my two eyes.” Betrayed by Delilah, his eyes gouged, the humiliated Samson asks God for one last exercise of his superhuman powers to bring the Philistines’ temple down on them and himself. Today, ultranationalist Israeli Jews enthusiastically sing his vengeful last words, targeting Palestinians.

But if the religious Ben Gvir finds 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.” The protagonist, David, a meek intellectual played by Dustin Hoffman, realizes that humanity is a veneer and that jealousy, cruelty, and betrayal, not least by his wife, lay all to waste. Humiliated by home invaders, he defends his fort, wife, and 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 the concluding words of George Orwell’s 1984—“He loved Big Brother”— for Netanyahu (Bibi, or BB)  himself.

Both Netanyahu and Ben Gvir tap effortlessly into Israeli Jews’ Straw Dogs–like sense of vulnerability, rising on the tailwinds of the revolt of Israeli Arabs in May 2021, which—like the Second Intifada two decades earlier—significantly undermined Israelis’ sense of security.

When I asked Ben Gvir about his long-term vision, he 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 then, I asked Ben Gvir if his misplaced nostalgia echoed that of 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,” referring to the Arab slaughter of some 70 Jews in British Mandate Palestine fueled by rumors that the sacred Temple Mount would be taken from them.

Nearly a century later, Ben Gvir not only lives in Hebron but cannot see past its history to a better future. Anger brings no redemption. 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.

Uriel Abulof

Uriel Abulof is an associate professor of political science, teaching at Tel Aviv University and Cornell University.