Meet the ‘Bibists’: Netanyahu Loyalists Say There’s a Reason They’re Not Out in the Streets Defending Him

They may be his staunchest supporters, but their outlook predated Netanyahu’s rise to power and will probably outlast him, too

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
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Proud "Bibist" Ronit Levy of Afula.
Proud "Bibist" Ronit Levy of Afula. Credit: Gil Eliyahu
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

She referred to Yair Lapid, in a tweet posted earlier this week, as an “idiot.” It was after the opposition leader delivered a particularly stinging address in the Knesset aimed at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In another, she called Moshe Ya’alon, the former defense minister and current opposition member, a “lying coward.” That was in response to his ongoing campaign to implicate the prime minister in a major scandal involving German submarines sales to Israel.

The large protests outside Netanyahu’s official residence have been a particular source of angst for her. In one tweet, posted a few days ago, she charged that the thousands of young Israelis taking to the streets in recent weeks are merely “looking to get laid.” In another, she went so far as to praise La Familia, a far-right group of soccer fans whose members, on several occasions, have physically assaulted and injured anti-Netanyahu protesters. “Say what you want,” she wrote “what the police couldn’t do with hundreds of troops and water cannons, La Familia accomplished with just 60 people. They [the protesters] are no longer threatening us with civil war. The fear is killing them.”

‘Ronit the Bibist’

Her real name is Ronit Levy, but she is better known on social media as “Ronit the Bibist.” If it isn’t already clear, her approach to defending the Israeli prime minister is no holds barred.

“People used to call us Bibists to mock us,” she tells Haaretz in a phone conversation. “I decided I was going to add it to my name and turn into a matter of pride. It seems to have caught on.”

Supporters of Benjamin Netanyahu hold a rally for him outside the Jerusalem court that is hearing the corruption case against the prime minister, in May. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Levy is a 50-year old divorcee from Afula, a town that has gained notoriety as a hotbed of anti-Arab racism. She lives an otherwise ordinary life, working as a supervisor at a local insurance outfit and helping out with the grandkids in the afternoons. Although she has voted for Netanyahu’s Likud party her entire life, she says, as have all her close friends and family members, she only became active politically in recent years. “I started to feel more and more persecuted because of how I vote, and that has nothing to do with the fact that Bibi is an outstanding leader,” she says, explaining what prompted her.

Besides going after Netanyahu’s critics on social media, Levy also organizes rallies in support of the prime minister on the ground. A recent example was the demonstration held outside the Jerusalem courthouse several months ago, the first day of his trial on corruption charges. Her work on behalf of the prime minister has not gone unnoticed: As a sign of gratitude, Netanyahu extended an invitation to Levy to join him and his family at their official residence on election night a year ago in April.

Fierce loyalty to the prime minister and sneering contempt for his opponents are the hallmarks of the “Bibists” – a group that has emerged as a force on the Israeli political landscape in recent years. Levy, who has proudly adopted the term as part of her alias, embodies much of what defines them.

Not all Likudniks

Quite naturally, there is considerable overlap between Likud voters – aka Likudniks – and Bibists. Still, although Netanyahu has been successful in eliminating much of the opposition to him within the party, not all Likudniks are Bibists. By the same token, there are many Bibists out there who don’t necessarily vote Likud.

“Even though they aren’t his voters, I think many supporters of Otzmah Yehudit [a party founded by followers of the racist rabbi Meir Kahane that didn’t win any seats in the Knesset in the recent elections] are hardcore Bibists,” says Gayil Talshir, a senior lecturer in political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who specializes in Israeli voter behavior.

Members of the extremist La Familia holding a protest to counter anti-Netanyahu demonstrators in Jerusalem on July 30.Credit: Emil Salman

But not all right-wingers, she cautions, are Bibists. “The settlers, for example, they have a cause that is greater than the man.”

Sammy Smooha, a professor of sociology at the University of Haifa, says it is impossible to talk about Bibists without addressing the ideology that goes hand-in-hand with it: “Bibism.”

“Those who support Bibism support strengthening the Jewish character of the state at the expense of its democratic character,” says Smooha, whose research has focused on internal divisions in Israeli society. “What they want is less democracy, less liberalism and fewer gatekeepers.”

Jewish before Israeli

In essence, he says, Bibism is the antithesis of Tikkun Olam [“Repairing the World”], an idea that epitomizes progressive Jewish values. “Bibism focuses on what is good for the Jews,” he says. “It is an ideology that sees Jews in Israel as first Jews and only after as Israelis. And Netanyahu has succeeded in making such ideas the dominant platform of the Likud.”

Although Netanyahu has been in power on and off for more than 20 years, the Bibists are a relatively recent phenomenon. Their emergence on the scene appears to have coincided with the various investigations launched against Netanyahu on charges of corruption.

Staunch Netanyahu supporter, Transportation Minister Miri Regev, at a protest outside the Jerusalem District Court that is hearing the corruption trial against the prime minister. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Last November, a week after Netanyahu was indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three separate cases, about 7,000 of his ardent supporters attended a rally in central Tel Aviv to express their solidarity with him. In a sense, it was the coming-out party of the Bibists.

In a column published in Ma’ariv the following day, senior political commentator Ben Caspit noted the differences between Likudniks and Bibists. “Likudniks love the State of Israel and will not lift a hand against it,” he wrote. “If they are asked to choose between the state and the leader, they will choose the state.” Likudniks raised on the teachings of Revisionist Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, people like former Prime Minister Menachem Begin, he wrote, are “Israeli patriots, who know there can be no state without a judicial system and the rule of law.” These old-time Likudniks, noted Caspit, also “believe in democracy and distance themselves from idol worship.”

By contrast, what he had witnessed the previous night was a group of people convinced that the police and state prosecutor had joined forces with “haters of Israel” and the media to overthrow Netanyahu. “This was pure, unadulterated Bibism, consisting of sheer hatred wrapped in burning incitement.”

They’re in government too

The Bibists also turned out, albeit in much smaller numbers, to show support for Netanyahu on May 24, the day that his trial opened. Among them were several journalists – Talshir prefers the term “so-called journalists” – known as fierce defenders of the prime minister. The Bibists have infiltrated government circles as well, with Transportation Minister Miri Regev and Public Security Minister Amir Ohana probably the two most notable examples.

Another component of the Bibists are La Familia, the far-right group of Beitar Jerusalem soccer fans, and Fanatiks, its Maccabi Tel Aviv equivalent. Both groups, which emphasize Jewish supremacy, have had members detained in recent weeks for attacking anti-Netanyahu protesters. Although La Familia and the Fanatiks predate Netanyahu, they, too, are seen as part of the diehard group of loyalists.

Public Security Minister Amir Ohana. Credit: Emil Salman

The main battleground for the Bibists is not the streets, however, but social media. “A good place to find them is on Netanyahu’s Facebook page,” says Talshir. “And he definitely has his finger on their pulse.”

By way of example, Talshir recalls that in April 2018, Netanyahu had reached a deal with the United Nations that would have prevented the mass deportation of African asylum seekers based in Israel. A few hours after it was publicized, the prime minister announced that he was pulling out of the agreement.

“His Facebook page was inundated with angry responses from loyalists saying they wouldn’t be able to support him anymore if he went through with the deal,” recounts Talshir, noting that south Tel Aviv, where many asylum seekers live, is also a stronghold of the Bibists.

The Bibists active on twitter are well known for trolling journalists, academics and virtually anyone critical of Netanyahu, with Levy the undisputed leader of the pack.

When asked if Bibists hate leftists, Levy says: “We don’t hate them – what we hate is their agenda and their behavior, like the stuff you see going on at the protests outside the prime minister’s home.”

“In fact,” she adds, “it’s just the opposite. They hate us. They say they vote rationally, while we vote emotionally, when in fact, it’s just the opposite. I have good reason to vote for Bibi. He’s a great leader. But they grimace and vote for Gantz even though they know he’s not suited for the job. They say we’re the ones who vote as a herd, when in fact, they’re the ones who vote as a herd.”

Levy describes the growing protest movement against the prime minister as a “horror show.” The fact that Bibists like her are not out in the streets counter-protesting, she says, is no coincidence.

“I keep saying that we should not allow ourselves to get dragged into this because it would be playing right into the hands of the left,” she says. “They’re just waiting for one of theirs to get killed at the protests so they can go blame it on Bibi and on our entire camp. But Bibi knows we still support him. He sees it on social media and in the polls.” (According to recent polls, were elections held today, Likud would remain the largest party, but the number of seats it would win is down.)

Talshir is not convinced that is the reason the Bibists are not that visible in the streets these days. “You would have expected thousands of his supporters to be out there counter-protesting, so it’s quite surprising that there are only a few dozen showing up, and they are the real hard core,” she says. “To me, this seems to suggest that Netanyahu’s power over the Likud is on the wane.”

Even if Netanyahu is ultimately ousted, predicts Talshir, that won’t necessarily bring an end to the Bibists. “This is one of the dangerous features of his legacy,” she says. “Like Trump, he gave legitimation to extremist elements in his party. After he is gone, these people will probably just move from Likud to parties to the right.”

In a column in the Hebrew-language Haaretz this week, human rights lawyer Michael Sfard cautions that Bibism would probably continue even without the man after whom it was named. “As strange as it sounds,” he wrote, “Netanyahu did not start Bibism. Bibist elements were part of the Israeli soul way before Netanyahu returned from New York and took over the Likud. Discrimination against weaker groups, most prominent among them Arab Israelis, and their exclusion from the centers of power; the unjust division of resources (not just economic); and the tendency to monitor criticism, those things were always there.”

Elements of Bibism, concurs Smooha, began as far back as 1977, when Likud first rose to power. “But under Netanyahu, and especially in recent years, it has become much stronger.”

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