Israel cabinet minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s comment about “the salad bar” is an echo of “let them eat cake”.

By Rolene Marks

Mention the name Itamar Ben-Gvir and you are almost guaranteed some kind of reaction from Israelis. Some will react with a curse, maybe a rude hand gesture, definitely an eye-roll and a very strong opinion. Few Israeli public figures have ever been as provocative as Israel’s National Security Minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir nor as divisive. Nevertheless, he does have his supporters, albeit in the more far-right camp.

Israel has had right wing governments in the past, but the concern today is not so much that it is right-wing, as it is tilted to the far right, replete with ministers like Ben-Gvir, his Otzma Yehudit co-chairman, Betzalel Smotrich and others. Their views are extreme and they are regarded by Israelis to be racist, homophobic and dangerously provocative.

Hand in Hand. Their personal futures and Israel’s in the hands of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and extreme right-wing Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir  (right) seen here in the Knesset.

Comments made by party members have been alarming in the last 8 months, including Otzma Yehudit, Member of Knesset, Zvika Fogel who said in an interview on Radio Galei Tzahal following a fatal terror attack several months ago, “Yesterday a terrorist came from Huwara – Huwara is closed and burnt. That is what I want to see. Only thus can we obtain deterrence.”

The act that the residents of Judea and Samaria carried out yesterday is the strongest deterrent that the State of Israel has had since Operation Defensive Shield. After a murder like yesterday, villages should burn when the IDF does not act,” Fogel added. Israel’s Attorney-General and police opened an investigation for incitement in response.

The incident went from worse, to well, worse.

Liking a tweet from Samaria Regional Council deputy mayor Davidi Ben Zion that called “to wipe out the village of Huwara today”, Otzma Yehudit co-leader, Bezalel Smotrich, Israel’s Minister of Finance, who was taking part in a financial conference hosted by The Marker business daily, was asked why he had “liked” a tweet.

Because I think the village of Huwara needs to be wiped out. I think the State of Israel should do it,” Smotrich replied. He added that “God forbid,” the job should not be done by private citizens, condemning the rampage and saying, “we shouldn’t be dragged into anarchy in which civilians take the law into their own hands.

This man has a major shared portfolio in the Defense Ministry concerning administration of the West Bank.  Our soldiers who follow an impeccable code of ethics could be in a position where they would have to take orders that support his ideological beliefs should certain judicial reforms, like the override clause, be passed.

While Ben-Gvir appealed for citizens not to take the law into their own hands, he also referred to Jewish extremists who carried out a subsequent attack where they burnt Palestinian property as “sweet boys”.

Truth leaves Sour Taste. The devastating consequences of violent settlers who Ben-Gvir has called “Sweet boys”.

This is the man who once had a portrait of Dr. Baruch Goldstein prominently displayed in his living room and has faced charges of hate speech against Arabs. Israeli-American terrorist Baruch Goldstein massacred in 1994, 29 Palestinian Muslim worshipers and wounded 125 others in Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs. Ben-Gvir removed the portrait after he entered politics.

For years, Ben-Gvir was a self-described disciple of the late racist Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose extreme platform called for expelling Arabs and criminalizing sexual relations between Jews and non-Jews. More recently, he has tried to distance himself from some of his spiritual mentor’s views but Israelis remain uneasy with the firebrand who brandishes his weapon of choice – threats to topple the government – if he does not get his way.

He even created controversy decades ago when he clashed with legendary Irish singer, Sinead O’Connor, who passed away last week. In 1997, O’Conner was scheduled to perform in Jerusalem in a concert called “Sharing Jerusalem: Two Capitals for Two States.” The event was set to take place just a few years after the signing of the Oslo Accords. British and Irish embassies in Tel Aviv reported receiving death threats against O’Connor and her family and she subsequently cancelled. After her cancellation, fans and fellow peace activists expressed anger, surprise and dismay — some sealing their lips with black tape and protesting in the streets against Ben-Gvir and his allies.

Incensed after hearing Ben-Gvir, who was then 21, boast in a radio interview that he had succeeded in scaring her away from Jerusalem, O’Connor sent a letter to the Associated Press and other news organizations saying, “God does not reward those who bring terror to children of the world…..So you have succeeded in nothing but your soul’s failure.”

Many Israelis fear that far-right Knesset members have emboldened the extremists with their rhetoric. Six former police chiefs and over three dozen deputy police commissioners recently called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to remove far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir as national security minister, warning that he poses “a tangible and immediate danger to the security of the State of Israel.” The police commissioner of Tel Aviv Ya’akov (Kobi) Shabtai recently quit, pre-empting being fired for not using enough force against protesters and said he would not seek to extend his term when it ends in January.

Loggerheads.Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai (left) will not seek additional year in office following repeated clashes with national security minister National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir(right) seen here at the Israel Police Independence Day ceremony in Jerusalem April 20, 2023. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Flash90)

On a personal note, during my term as commissioner, for the past two-and-a-half years, I’d served under three cabinets and three ministers,” Shabtai said. “I have used the tools at my disposal to the best of my ability to preserve professional standards in accordance with protocol. It is no secret that I do not intend to serve a fourth year under these conditions.”

Protesters recently chanted, “Ben-Gvir is a terrorist” when the National Security Minister showed up at a protest in Tel Aviv.

Last week it was, the eye-roll and fury was felt across the country. Following the selfie-taking by Justice Minister Yariv Levin and several others after the highly contentious “Reasonableness Law” was passed in the Knesset, prompting widespread protests and international concerns, Ben-Gvir tweeted that this was the “salad course that builds up an appetite for the rest of the meal”.

Such hubris. Such a vainglorious comment, utterly devoid of any acknowledgement of the real fear and concern 62% of Israelis (according to multiple polls) feel. I could not have been the only person who referenced the French Revolution era comment “let them eat cake” while feelings of anger fomented.

The presence of the far right in Israel’s government has not only been a factor in galvanizing the massive anti-reforms protest movement who are aware of the consequences for Israeli’s economy, security and society but it is worrying diaspora communities and harming the country’s  international standing. Many are asking questions such as how will this affect Saudi normalization plans. This past weekend, the NY Times reports the Saudis require concessions to the Palestinians in order to normalize relations with the Jewish state – concessions hardline right wing extremists would never agree. Defense Minister Gallant, at great potential risk to his position, has called for a national unity government with opposition leaders Gantz and Lapid but excluding Ben-Gvir and Smotrich.

Smiles while the country seethes. Itamir Ben-Gvir (right front) is seen here with fellow coalition lawmakers crowding around Justice Minister Yariv Levin (centre) to take a celebratory selfie in the Knesset plenum, as they pass the first of the coalition’s controvercial judicial overhaul laws, July 24, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Tisha B’Av, a day of mourning for Jews, Ben-Gvir ascended the Temple Mount and called for unity.  “On this day, in this place, it is always important to remember – we are all brothers,” the minister said. “Right, left, religious, secular – we are all the same people. And when a terrorist looks [at us], he does not differentiate between us. Unity is important, love of Israel is important. This place – this is the most important place for the people of Israel – where we have to return to show our governance.”

If only his actions matched his words.

While the mission of Lay of the Land (LotL) is to provide a wide and diverse perspective of affairs in Israel, the Middle East and the Jewish world, the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by its various writers are not necessarily ones of the owners and management of LOTL but of the writers themselves.  LotL endeavours to the best of its ability to credit the use of all known photographs to the photographer and/or owner of such photographs (0&EO).

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