JERUSALEM — One of Israel’s most hardline politicians, known for his inflammatory anti-Arab speeches and stunts, is attracting new supporters from a previously untapped demographic – young ultra-Orthodox Jews, one of the segments of the fastest growing country’s population.
Itamar Ben-Gvir’s surge in popularity over the past three years has transformed him from a fringe provocateur into a central player in Tuesday’s legislative elections. Polls indicate his Religious Zionism party could become the third-largest party and help former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu return to power.
His appeal reflects the continued rightward shift of the Israeli electorate over the years, with Ben-Gvir and his party also attracting voters who previously supported other right-wing parties.
This shift is particularly visible among Israel’s 1.3 million ultra-Orthodox Jews who make up 13% of the population.
The community, known in Hebrew as Haredim, is growing at a breakneck pace, with an average birth rate more than twice the national average. Children represent half of their population and young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 another quarter.
Ben-Gvir’s appeal among young Haredim reflects a change in the political preferences of a community that sticks to a strict adherence to religious tradition. For decades, the ultra-Orthodox have overwhelmingly voted for two haredi political parties — United Torah Judaism and Shas.
These parties promoted community interests in return for supporting coalition governments with a range of ideological flavors – although Haredim had a preference for centre-right factions which tended to be more conservative politically. cultural.
But several prominent rabbis who served as spiritual leaders for these parties have died in recent years. Analysts say younger and middle-aged Haredim are increasingly disillusioned with the old guard.
“The majority of relatively young ultra-Orthodox — under the age of 50 — have become right-wing, and sometimes decidedly right-wing, which did not exist in the past,” said Moshe Hellinger, a political scientist at the Israel Bar. Ilan University.
Haredi political leadership lacks a strong, charismatic leader “and that vacuum allows (voters) to go in different directions,” Hellinger said.
In this void enters Ben-Gvir.
Voting records from predominantly Haredi communities indicate that since Ben-Gvir entered politics in 2019, support for him in those areas has increased in Israel’s four successive elections – although he is still in the running. lags behind established ultra-Orthodox parties.
Ben Gvir’s campaign declined requests from the Associated Press to interview him or officials managing outreach to the ultra-Orthodox community.
Several factors seem to be behind its growing popularity in the community.
Some Haredim prefer the religious Zionism party’s mix of Orthodox Jewish and ultra-nationalist messages to that of Netanyahu’s Likud party which, though radical, remains predominantly secular.
Recent years have also seen an upsurge in attacks by Palestinian assailants targeting ultra-Orthodox Jews, as part of the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In March, shortly after a Palestinian sniper opened fire in the streets of Bnei Brak, an ultra-Orthodox suburb of Tel Aviv, killing five Israelis, Ben Gvir arrived at the scene and gave statements to the television cameras surrounded by a crowd of young haredi men shouting racist screeds.
The scene was repeated in May, after a Palestinian killed three Israelis in the central city of Elad.
At a recent campaign rally in Elad, Ben-Gvir stirred up a gender-segregated crowd, calling for the death penalty for convicted Palestinian activists. The audience, many of them young men dressed in white button-up shirts and black skull caps, responded with cheers and whistles, followed by chants of “Death to Arabs” and “Death to Terrorists.”
David Cohen, a resident of Beit Shemesh, a strongly ultra-Orthodox town west of Jerusalem, said he would vote for Ben-Gvir, comparing him to former US President Donald Trump and describing him as a man of outspoken action.
“He seems like the only one who can really accomplish anything,” Cohen said of Ben-Gvir. “He’s a guy who says what he means and means what he says.”
Ben-Gvir first entered parliament in 2021, after his Jewish Power party merged with the Religious Zionism party. Jewish Power, which fell short of the electoral threshold in the 2019 and 2020 elections, is the successor to the banned Kach party of late ultra-nationalist politician Meir Kahane.
Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, the Religious Zionism party surged in the polls. It is expected to win twice as many seats as in previous elections and could be the difference between returning Netanyahu to power or staying in opposition.
It will be the fifth election in less than four years, widely contested over whether Netanyahu is fit to govern while facing corruption charges.
Ben-Gvir, who was convicted of offenses including inciting racism and supporting a terrorist organization, continued his legal career defending Jewish extremists charged with violent offenses.
He lives in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, near Hebron, the largest Palestinian city in the West Bank. Until recently, he displayed a picture in his home of Baruch Goldstein, an American-Israeli who killed 29 Palestinians and injured more than 100 in a shooting as they knelt in prayer at the Tomb of the Patriarchs of ‘Hebron in 1993.
On Saturday, a Palestinian sniper opened fire on Israelis in Kiryat Arba, killing a 50-year-old man and injuring several others.
While he was a hawkish supporter of the Israeli security forces — advocating immunity from prosecution for soldiers and the death penalty for Palestinians convicted of attacks on Jews — Ben-Gvir did not serve in the army; he was granted an exemption due to his extremist ideology.
Ahead of the elections, Ben Gvir told the Kan public broadcaster that he advocated the dismantling of the Palestinian self-government and the annexation of the West Bank, while simultaneously denying its estimated 2.5 million Palestinian residents the right to vote for the Israeli Knesset.
“Palestine does not exist, it is ours, it is our land,” he said.
Political scientist Shira Efron, who heads the Israel Policy Forum think tank, said she believed Ben-Gvir’s rise was the result of what she described as systematic incitement, primarily by Netanyahu and his Likud party. , against Israel’s large Arab minority.
Ben-Gvir is “shrewd, charismatic and speaks what many Jewish Israelis sadly think but until now did not feel comfortable saying out loud,” she said.
Associated Press writer Eleanor H. Reich contributed to this report.