Surging racist Ben Gvir is potential kingmaker in Israel – and ‘NYT’ hides him from readers

James North

Mondoweiss  /  October 16, 2022

Newspapers are supposed to want to publish articles that people will read. But when it comes to Israel/Palestine, the New York Times can be surprisingly shy. This site has over the years documented how The Times covers up the racist far right wing in Israel, often ignoring subjects, like the messianic and highly popular general Ofer Winter, that would certainly attract a large audience.

That cover-up continues. Itamar Ben Gvir is the most prominent figure in Israel’s current election campaign. Turn at any time to Haaretz, the distinguished Israeli daily, and you will find one or more reports on his latest outrage. Just the other day, he provocatively went into Sheikh Jarrah, the Palestinian area in East Jerusalem, pulled out a handgun, and urged Israeli police to shoot at Palestinian counter-demonstrators.

Ben Gvir has been around for a while, and is already a member of Israel’s Knesset. What’s different this election is that his party, along with his ally, the equally odious Bezalel Smotrich, are kingmakers in Benjamin Netanyahu’s effort to become prime minister again. Support for Ben Gvir is shooting up, even in liberal areas of Tel Aviv. Haaretz  published a long report titled: “Why So Many Young Israelis Adore This Racist Politician.”

He has even been welcome at kibbutzes. Israeli political pundits are speculating feverishly what he will get from Netanyahu for what would be his indispensable support if Netanyahu forms the next government; many predict he will be offered a senior ministry. Israel’s former defense chief warned in Haaretz that “Netanyahu and Ben Gvir will wreak havoc” if they join forces. 

But so far, The New York Times has kept Ben Gvir hidden in the attic. The paper did report the handgun incident, but buried it in paragraph 18 in an article mainly devoted to “Palestinian unrest in the West Bank.” The Times reporter in Jerusalem, Patrick Kingsley, has some credibility, and he has surely proposed more comprehensive reporting on the Ben Gvir boom. We at this site would love to eavesdrop at meetings of editors to overhear how they squirm when they discuss how to cover Ben Gvir. 

In the end, The Times probably won’t be able to ignore him. But let’s give them a hand with some quick background. He’s actually not a complete stranger to Times news reports. In 2008, the distinguished professor and Holocaust survivor Zeev Sternhell was wounded in a pipe bomb attack by “Jewish extremists;” The Times quoted Ben Gvir, described as “an activist with a fringe Jewish group,” as calling Sternhell “an irrelevant figure” and denying extremists were involved. Earlier, in 2005, as Israel prepared to withdraw Jewish-only settlements/colonies from occupied Gaza, The Times reported that the country’s security minister said Ben Gvir was “a good candidate for detention” because he was a leader of threats against the withdrawal. In 2010, he was quoted in an article entitled, “Israeli Rightists Stir Tensions in East Jerusalem.”

This site has regularly warned about Itamar Ben Gvir. Jonathan Ofir pointed out that he is the political heir of the fascist, U.S.-born Meir Kahane, who was barred from running for the Knesset back in 1988 for being too extremist. Ben Gvir has praised the Jewish terrorist Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 massacred 29 Palestinians as they worshipped at a mosque in Hebron, and reportedly keeps a photo of Goldstein on his wall. 

The Israel lobby in the U.S. is already terrified of how much Ben Gvir will damage the country’s already deteriorating image. Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NY), a reliable pro-Israel warhorse, is warning Netanyahu that he has “serious concerns” about including “extremist and polarizing individuals like Ben Gvir” in the government. Rep. Brad Sherman has also called for Israeli political establishment to “ostracize” the politician. (The lobby’s anxiety over Ben Gvir should be a news story in its own right.) 

Even National Public Radio started to report on the Ben Gvir boom, in a 4-minute segment that aired more than a week ago. But so far, he’s nearly invisible in America’s newspaper of record. Today’s Sunday’s edition would have been a good time to profile the Ben Gvir phenomenon, especially as Israel’s election is only 2 weeks away. But, silence.

James North is a Mondoweiss Editor-at-Large