Merav Michaeli and Itamar Ben-Gvir, two sides of the same coin

Jonathan Ofir

Mondoweiss  /  October 26, 2022

Merav Michaeli may think she is the polar opposite of fascist Itamar Ben-Gvir but he has a simple message for her Labor Party base — I’m like you, we all want Jewish supremacy. 

A drama over the far-right Jewish Power Israeli politician Itamar Ben-Gvir has been unfolding in the past few days in Israel, and it involves clothes.

The local franchisee of the Zara fashion brand, Joey Schwebel, hosted Ben-Gvir for an election campaign event, and Palestinian citizens of Israel were enraged. Many, including the mayor of the southern Bedouin town of Rahat, filmed themselves burning Zara clothes and called for a boycott of Zara due to its connection to fascists.

While politician Ahmad Tibi mocked “the ugliness of Zara Ben-Gvir Israel”, Ben-Gvir responded with “Zara, beautiful clothes, beautiful Israelis.”

The boycott campaign has since spread to other segments of the Israeli political spectrum. Labor leader Merav Michaeli said that she would no longer shop at Zara Israel, after the revelations of the Jewish Power connection:

“The violence and incitement he continues to spread and the danger of the State of Israel, its democracy and its very existence as a Jewish and democratic state. . . is not a matter of opinion,” Michaeli said in a radio interview. 

Now, that is a very interesting statement for two reasons.

For one, Michaeli is voicing a political opinion (which she says is a matter of fact), concerning Israel being a democratic state. That opinion is very much contested by a host of leading Palestinian, Israeli and international human rights organizations, which have determined Israel to be an Apartheid state. How much an Apartheid state can simultaneously be a democracy is probably a subject for rousing intellectual debate, but the bottom line is, that Israel is what is known in political science as “racial democracy”, securing a master-race majority demographic engineering. To cite professors Richard Falk and Virginia Tilley from their 2017 UN-commissioned report on Israeli Apartheid:

“The first general policy of Israel has been one of demographic engineering, in order to establish and maintain an overwhelming Jewish majority in Israel. As in any racial democracy, such a majority allows the trappings of democracy — democratic elections, a strong legislature — without threatening any loss of hegemony by the dominant racial group.” 

That’s what’s behind the “Jewish and democratic” moniker. 

Second, Michaeli calls for a boycott against violence and incitement. But Michaeli herself has been engaged in her own incitement against the boycott of Israel. In 2017 she told the Australia-Israel Jewish Affairs Council:

“I think it’s for a long time now been very clear, that a lot of the BDS [Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions] movement is good old anti-Semitism in new clothes. . . It’s definitely not good for anyone, other than those who really want to harm Israel and harm Jews.” 

But now boycott is good, because she agrees with its political agenda. What if someone chided Michaeli for boycotting a Jew (the owner of Zara Israel), how would she respond then?

We know this hypocrisy in the United States, on exactly that issue -– in many states it is now illegal to boycott Israel, but it is of course legal and legitimate to boycott anything else, like boycotting vodka from Russia

Michaeli wants to believe in a fairy tale Israel, which is both Jewish and Democratic. She wants to believe that Itamar Ben-Gvir is spoiling the party. Michaeli definitely has a point when she mentions Ben-Gvir’s incitement.

Just ahead of the murder of Yitzhak Rabin, he held the Cadillac emblem from Rabin’s car and shouted: “We reached Rabin’s car, and will get to Rabin too”. But the ultimate truth is that Ben-Gvir is actually quintessentially Zionist; the only difference between him and Michaeli is that he says the quiet parts out loud. 

Ben-Gvir on Michaeli’s turf 

Michaeli has boasted about how she has directly confronted Ben-Gvir and their direct shouting match was widely noticed. But Ben-Gvir has not only responded by shouting back at her — he has also engaged Michaeli’s voter base. Ben-Gvir has recently been campaigning at kibbutzes, a sector of Israeli society which which has traditionally been the heartland for the Israeli Labor party.

Earlier in the month, for example, he appeared at kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar, in the Galilee. He claimed to have been invited by some members, but the kibbutz said they were not prepared to host such an event. He came anyway with about 20 of his supporters, and although refused entry to the hall, he set up camp outside. The poster announcing the event (which can be seen here) shows him with typical kibbutz farmer clothing carrying a container with harvested fruit. He might not get a huge amount of direct votes from that kibbutz, but the campaign carries the message that he is excluding no Jews – only ‘Arabs’. He’s saying that he’s for the whole ‘nation of Israel’ (meaning only Jews). 

In the process Ben-Gvir is actually managing to capture the imagination of the young generation with his populist message. While Jewish Power, with their partners Religious Zionism, appear poised to capture just over 10% of the general votes, among the youth, support to Jewish Power is said to have the support of around one out of three. These people might not even know or remember Ben-Gvir’s mentor rabbi Meir Kahane, who was convicted for terrorism in the U.S. and even banned from the Israeli Knesset for racism.

They might not remember Ben-Gvir’s hero Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 29 Palestinian worshipers at Al-Ibrahimi Mosque in Al-Khalil (Hebron) in 1994. They see a guy who goes everywhere and talks with everyone, and he’s a Jewish-supremacy superstar. 

Michaeli wants to be considered a progressive, and she needs Ben-Gvir as a foil to point to the racism that she is supposedly against. But Ben-Gvir is responding by visiting kibbutzes and essentially saying — hey I’m like you, we all want Jewish supremacy. 

And can the kibbutz society really claim that it’s anti-racist? That supposedly socialist, agricultural society has been instrumental in the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. As Moshe Dayan said in 1969:

Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I do not blame you because geography books no longer exist, not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either. Nahlal arose in the place of Mahlul; Kibbutz Gvat in the place of Jibta; Kibbutz Sarid in the place of Huneifis; and Kefar Yehushu’a in the place of Tal al-Shuman. There is not one single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population.” 

Ben-Gvir complains of Palestinian “agricultural terrorism”. He is of course turning reality on its head, when Palestinians are being routinely terrorized by Israeli colonialist West-Bank settlers with the burning of their fields and uprooting of their olive trees. But the big, institutionalized settler-colonialist ‘agricultural terrorism’ has really been the part of that kibbutz society, in its systematic erasure of Palestinian villages and usurping of Palestinian lands, to prevent their return, thus an instrument of ethnic cleansing. That’s been an issue which the “west” has failed to perceive properly, with all the romanticism surrounding the kibbutz.

That racism is very much in the DNA of Merav Michaeli’s Labor party. She will deny it, but she will point at that other racist and boycott him, or boycott Zara over promoting him. She will point at his violent racist incitement, and say it’s not even a matter of opinion. But if someone calls Israel a violent racist state, which is the very nature of an Apartheid state, and suggests to boycott it, then that’s too much for her, then it’s ‘antisemitism’. And that’s just the same old trick, in very worn clothes.   

And Ben-Gvir’s followers, they also see this hypocrisy, from their privileged and skewed Zionist worldview. And they like the fact that he is saying the quiet part out loud — as in, why hide, we want to be a “free [Jewish] nation in our land”, as the national anthem goes, just like Ben-Gvir was singing loudly at the end of his event at Ayelet Hashahar.

Jonathan Ofir is an Israeli musician, conductor and blogger/writer based in Denmark