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A Game-changer Called Itamar Ben-Gvir

Rogel Alpher
Rogel Alpher
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Lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir at Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, on Friday.
Lawmaker Itamar Ben Gvir at Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, on Friday.Credit: Ohad Zweigenberg
Rogel Alpher
Rogel Alpher

Itamar Ben Gvir is the biggest TV star in Israeli politics since former Benjamin Netanyahu. He is the perfect embodiment of an eternal “hilltop youth,” a type of contemporary Srulik in biblical sandals. Srulik was a cartoon character who symbolized the State of Israel in the caricatures of illustrator Dosh (aka Kariel Gardosh), which were published for years in the daily Maariv. He wore a kova tembel (bucket-style hat), from which his curly hair peered out in a way that sometimes recalls Ben Gvir’s unkempt locks, which peer out from under the large kippa on his head – the continuation of the kova tembel by divine means – as a symbol of his pioneering nature.

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“With his curly forelocks,” wrote Shalom Rosenfeld in Maariv in 2001, on the first anniversary of Dosh’s death, “his confident stance, his kova tembel and his sandals, Dosh’s Srulik is perceived by his many admirers as the ultimate sabra [native-born Israeli].”

“A young Jewish lad, clever and agile, sarcastic and combative. A total contrast to the tired and persecuted ‘Yisrael Saba’ [the historical Jew] and primarily to ‘the eternal Jew,’ until it developed into the horrifying artistic version in Der Sturmer.” The description is true today of Ben Gvir, a manifestly Srulik-like character, a perpetual “young Jewish lad” who is seen by his followers as “a clever and agile son of a gun, sarcastic and combative.” Especially with a bandage, suffused with perspiration and stained by a little blood, wound around his forehead.

Israeli cartoon character 'Srulik' in the museum of cartoons and comics in Holon.Credit: Dr. Avishai Teicher

Replace “Yisrael Saba” and “the eternal Jew” – the demonization of a lazy, parasitic and deviant Jew designed and burnished by Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels – with “traitorous leftists” and “auto-antisemites,” and you get the symbols of submissive and rotten Judaism, with Ben Gvir portrayed as their opposite. Sometimes while he is hushing activists who are shouting “death to the Arabs,” and ordering them to scream only “death to the terrorists,” we could have thought that he is a character from the children’s book series “Hasamba,” which makes fun of the British. Death to the Arabs? No, officer, that’s not what we were screaming, we’re only in favor of death to the terrorists!

A mischievous sabra, a rascal who plays catch with the wind, pursuing his kippa over the hills of Samaria. And yes, he is capable of being elected prime minister in the future, thanks to the combination of his opinions, his wishes and his tremendous natural charisma, which is based on his natural presence before the camera. Even his enemies can’t keep their eyes off him and stop listening to him. Before a camera he will always be a dominant, attention-getting figure. Mainly due to the bandage wrapped around his skull, when he is reminiscent of a “Yonatan Hakatan” (Little Jonathan) from the Israeli children’s song, who climbed a tree to steal an egg from a bird’s nest, fell and was hurt.

This charisma is very photogenic, without any effort, and is even intensified by friction with him. Ben Gvir is a rock star, a fascist and a racist, and there can be no doubt that he aspires to shape the country. What does that mean for the future? Just look at the demographics. He could be prime minister yet. Sounds unrealistic? If not him, then someone like him. Or someone who has reached his levels of fascism and racism in order to resemble him. And already now he is expected to be the strongman in the next Netanyahu government, when it is formed.

That is the effect of the existence of Ben Gvir Superstar. He is changing the balances in Israeli politics and dragging us rightward towards increasingly brutal ultranationalism and racism, and an increasingly profound hatred for democracy, liberalism and secularism, for all this exilic, assimilated Tel Avivism. We must recognize the fact that Ben Gvir is a game changer, that he is unifying the ultra-Orthodox, the settlers and Likud into a large bloc. The right has not had such a revolutionary propagandist since Netanyahu.

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