Michael Ben Ari, Bugbear of the Left

Ironically, if he bears a resemblance to anybody, it's to his antithesis, Haneen Zoabi. They also both have election ads – in Arabic.

Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter
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MK Michael Ben Ari at a demonstration in Tel Aviv last year. Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Asher Schechter
Asher Schechter

Michael Ben Ari is the meanest, scariest dude you'll ever meet. Or at the very least, he seems to want you to feel that way. His political career ever since becoming a member of Knesset in 2009 has been based on provoking the left and feeding into some of the deepest fears of mankind, including fear of the stranger – anti-migrant sentiment.

Ironically he's also very much like MK Haneen Zuabi. Though they're at the polar ends of the political spectrum, both the right-wing Jewish MK and the Arab member of Balad seem to have decided their raison d'etre for being on this planet is to piss people off. While Zuabi sailed off in the ill-fated Marmara flotilla that sought to break the Gaza blockade, Ben Ari perfected an agent provocateur image, complete with inflammatory statements and stunts so outre that one had to wonder if he's serious.

For instance, take the stunt dating from June 2011: Ben Ari and right-wing extremist and convicted felon Itamar Ben Gvir (who serves as Ben Ari's media adviser) brought dozens of Sudanese refugees to the Gordon Pool in Tel Aviv, frequented by high society elites. His goal: to prove the liberal elites of Tel Aviv - who accuse him of racism for his inhumane views about immigrants and asylum seekers - were hypocrites.

A month later he started a campaign to relocate some of the Sudanese asylum seekers residing in South Tel Aviv to northern, wealthy neighborhoods of the city, such as Ramat Aviv. The campaign was called "Adopt a Sudanese". Some months later, in May 2012, Ben Ari helped provoke a race riot in Hatikva, a neighborhood in southern Tel Aviv, over the issue of African immigration. Together with MK Miri Regev and Dani Danon, both Likud members, Ben Ari spoke at a protest rally held before the riot and galvanized the crowd with incendiary remarks. It took a lot to stand out at a rally where Miri Regev famously called the African immigrants "cancer", but Ben Ari managed to pull it off.

"For three years now women haven't been able to go to the market without getting their handbags stolen. Little girls can't play outside," Ben Ari told the crowd. "Young men can't find work. Sudanese, go back to Sudan! Sudanese, go back to Sudan! Sudanese, go back to Sudan!"

Later, Ben Ari commented, "I am deeply concerned about the violence." But he also said, "People who accuse me of provocation are either evil or stupid or both. We have a powder keg here. A girl in Grade 4 can't go to her rhythmics class alone, or she studies in a class with children of infiltrators and who knows what diseases they carry."

In other words, Ben Ari is extreme. He is a devotee of the late Meir Kahane - the militant Israeli rabbi who founded the Jewish Defense League and the political party Kach - both of which became designated terrorist organizations by the FBI and state of Israel. Kahane was murdered by an Arab gunman in 1990. To serious defenders of the left, Kahane then and Ben Ari now are nightmares; but not all take him seriously, relegating him to status of harmless buffoon thanks to the campy aspect of his antics.

Ben Ari, a married father of eight, was born in 1963. He grew up in Kfar Shalem, a poor neighborhood in south Tel Aviv. He studied education and holds an MA in Talmud studies and a PhD in Israel studies. In his academic work, he specialized increased by the Temple Mount and the two Jewish Temples. Meanwhile, he taught in yeshivas for a living and developed an affinity to Kach, even running the party's election headquarters in Tel Aviv in the 1981 elections (in 1994 the party was banned from the Knesset).

To this day, Ben Ari identifies himself as an adherent of Kahane, and argues that most Arabs should be expelled from Israel. Because of his affiliation with Kach, which as said has been declared a terrorist organization, he was refused an American visa in 2012.

Ben Ari made it to Knesset in 2009, following two unsuccessful attempts to get elected in 2003 and 2006. He won as a member of the Eretz Israel Shelanu ("Our Eretz Israel") party. In 2012 he quit the party and together with his friends Ben Gvir and Baruch Marzel, Kahane's successor as the head of Kach and his longtime spokesman, he reestablished the Jewish National Front party, founded by Marzel in 2004.

In November 2012, He and his sidekick, right-wing MK Aryeh Eldad, formed Strong Israel, which is currently running for the Knesset.

Well-orchestrated provocations

Ben Ari seems to revel in provocations. In June 2009, he was handcuffed and arrested – despite his parliamentary immunity – after refusing to get off an army truck carrying arrested settler minors near the settlement Yitzhar. In 2012, after the UN recognized Palestine and accepted Palestine as non-member observer state, he and Eldad went out and burned the Palestinian flag.

Unlike many of his colleagues on the right who guard their tongues, Ben Ari does not cavil at using big no-no words: words like "hate", or "death", or "payback". "There are no innocents in Gaza," he said last November during Operation Pillar of Defense, during a protest demanding the government escalate the assault on Gaza. "Let the IDF kick ass!", he repeated over and over again, to wild applause, before complaining, "Why is it that after 200 assaults only 15 were killed? It should be 15 assaults and 2,000 killed!".

He also seems highly tolerant of verbal violence around him. During that protest in November, people right next to him were screaming "Kill the leftist traitors", wishing them cancer, wishing they get raped, and he said nothing. That same month, dozens of comments on his Facebook page called for killing Zuabi, after Ben Ari asked his followers "what should be done with her" after she participated in a moment of silence to honor the Palestinians victims of Pillar of Defense. It turns out that 559 of his followers took his question seriously, and offered new and imaginative ways to dispose of Zuabi, not before she suffers great physical pain. "Holocaust her" was one of the comments. Others suggested she be raped, or buried alive. Ben Ari did not delete any of those comments.

But still, Ben Ari doesn’t just want to appear hateful. He wants to appear knowledgeable, to show he knows the enemy better than anyone else and therefore is the best authority on how to deal with it. That's why, in one of the funniest and truly clever campaign ads of the 2013 elections, he and Eldad both brush up on their Arabic in their first campaign video.

In the video, that begins with blaming Arabs for enjoying many luxuries that Jews are not allowed to enjoy, such as not paying taxes, Ben Ari can be seen pouring coffee for his bespectacled friend, saying please in Arabic (Tfadal) with an enormous grin on his face. For the next two minutes he and Eldad speak only in Arabic, ending with their defining message for the Arab community: no obligations, no rights.

But to his opponents Ben Ari is, for all his provocations, pathetic. He's even derided by most right-wingers. His party Otzma LeYisrael doesn't quite make it into Knesset, according to the latest polls; Ben Ari is in danger of losing his Knesset seat. The big parties don't want him: he's too extreme. Thus this man with the turn of tongue may find the career he built on fear of minorities, leftists and Palestinians to be all but over. For now. 

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