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Just Like Senator McCarthy

Raviv Drucker
Raviv Drucker
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Farr-right lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir at his makeshift office in Sheikh Jarrah, in April.
Farr-right lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir at his makeshift office in Sheikh Jarrah, in April.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Raviv Drucker
Raviv Drucker

He has a rare understanding of how the media works. He knows exactly what the reporters need and when. He understands very well that the op-ed pages will pulverize him, but that isn’t what’s important. What’s important are the headlines, the news pages – and at this, he’s an artist.

He knows how to give every reporter a dollop of sweetener, something exclusive, and especially those who constantly have to feed the media monster. He’s friendly to journalists, even those who criticize him. Mainstream journalists explain that this is news, and it’s not their job to filter it – that there are editors and op-ed pieces, and they’ll deal with him. And lo and behold, you have the precise mechanism by which a radical, polarizing, disturbing figure has amassed great power.

The two paragraphs above appeared many years ago – not in those precise words – in David Halberstam’s book about the American media. He was talking about Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy, who drove American politics crazy, destroyed the careers of many good people and received a tailwind from the media. Not from the op-ed pages, heaven forbid; only from the truly important pages – the ones with the big headlines.

Anyone who wants to report stories from the deep right knows that without Itamar Ben-Gvir, it won’t work. A sensational recording? The settlers’ “hilltop youth”? Police evidence against a far-right activist? If Ben-Gvir isn’t on your side, you can forget about all of it. If you want those stories, don’t mess with him.

The media is his home court, and he plays on it better than any other politician does. He’s an artist at creating headlines and a serial litigant.

A lawsuit is a headline, always. He sues Facebook, the police, MK Yair Golan, a public broadcasting photographer, an interviewee from Elad, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s wife Gilat, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, the editorial board of the investigative television program “Uvda,” Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman, Arutz Sheva. Ben-Gvir is a lawyer, and filing a lawsuit is easy.

Lawsuits make headlines, but they also have a deterrent effect. Be leery of me, I have nothing to lose. If I lose a case, nothing will happen. After all, everything has already been said about me. But if I win, oh, the shame of it – losing to Ben-Gvir.

The media is addicted. He’s always available, he’s willing to be interviewed, he hugs you. And now he’s such a cutie, a teddy bear. He has no problem with Arabs; only terrorists bother him. His previous positions have been obscured, his disturbing partners – Benzi Gopstein and Baruch Marzel – have disappeared. Ben-Gvir is just on the Jews’ side. What could be bad about that?

In McCarthy’s case, media credit for the justice that eventually caught up with him was given to Ed Murrow, the legendary CBS broadcaster. But the truth is that Murrow’s famous report about McCarthy was very belated. Murrow was afraid to confront him for a long time. The one who actually did the work in real time was a Washington Post reporter who insisted on putting McCarthy’s statements in context and reminding readers of what he said in the past, and who virtually forced the U.S. Army to tell the truth about McCarthy’s statements – thereby driving him toward his political end.

McCarthy never recovered from that conflict with the army. Will the Shin Bet security service and the Israel Defense Forces dare to say what they think about Ben-Gvir and the dangers he poses?

Ben-Gvir would be the first to admit that ultimately, the only thing he has changed is his style. “I don’t regret anything I did,” he said in an interview with “Uvda.” “Today, it’s simply that my style is different, but ideologically, I haven’t changed.”

He also said he’s not willing to represent rapists or other sexual offenders, but he had no problem representing the person who burned three members of the Dawabsheh family to death in the West Bank village of Duma. “That’s something completely different, because it’s not murder for the sake of murder,” he said. “The claim is that it was an ideological murder.”

We don’t need to boycott Ben-Gvir. It’s impossible to do so, and it would only benefit him. But to contend with the enormous danger he and his party constitute, his media appearances should put less focus on the headline du jour he’s selling and remind readers more of his past actions, which he doesn’t regret, and of his true ideology, from which he says he has never deviated.

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