Anyone but Ben Gvir: One man’s mission to keep a Kahanist out of the Knesset

Spooked by the thought of the right-wing extremist becoming an MK, Yaniv Carmel is going door-to-door in right-wing strongholds to convince people to vote for anybody else

Tal Schneider is a Political Correspondent at The Times of Israel

Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir arrives for a court hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on February 24, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir arrives for a court hearing at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem on February 24, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In March 2020, an even 200 people, or 1.37 percent of Safed’s voters, cast ballots for Itamar Ben Gvir to enter the Knesset.

If Yaniv Carmel gets his way, in 2021 that number will be zero.

Carmel, a former Labor party member, is very worried that the far-right would-be politician will actually make it into the Knesset this time around. So worried, in fact, that he has made it his personal mission to stop Ben Gvir, going door to door in Safed and other right-wing strongholds to plead with voters not to cast ballots for Religious Zionism, the party that has absorbed Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit faction.

This week he plans on expanding to the south Hebron Hills, an area of the West Bank dotted with illegal outposts and settlements and home to some of the most extremist settlers, including Ben Gvir himself.

“Hello, I’m Yaniv Carmel. I’m a leftist voter and I came here to ask you not to vote for Religious Zionism,” he tells anybody who opens the door for him. His goal, he says, is to “meet and talk face to face to as many right-wing voters as possible.”

Safed, a Galilee hilltop city of some 40,000 known as the center of Jewish mysticism, has a large ultra-Orthodox population, many of whom lean to the right of the political spectrum. In the election for the 23rd Knesset, Likud, Shas, United Torah Judaism and Yamina were the four largest vote-getters there, in that order. In the 24th, it has the potential to be a significant base of support for Religious Zionism, the Bezalel Smotrich-led rebranding of the National Union faction that ran with Yamina last time around.

While Safed is not known as a hotbed of right-wing extremism, political pundits believe that a significant number ultra-Orthodox voters are moving toward Religious Zionism, which combines elements of religious ultra-conservatism and hard-right politics. Most polls show the party just making it over the election threshold of 3.25% support, and if it does, Ben Gvir, number three on the list, will be guaranteed a Knesset spot and with it a platform to push his policy proposals. These include encouraging emigration of non-Jews from Israel and expelling Palestinians and Arab Israelis who refuse to declare loyalty and to accept sub-equal status in an expanded Jewish state whose sovereignty extends throughout the West Bank.

An ultra-Orthodox man walks in Safed on March 8, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)

“My hope is that Religious Zionism will not cross the threshold,” Carmel told The Times of Israel over Zoom recently. “I calculated that they have about 150,000 votes, give or take [which would likely be more than enough to clear the threshold]. In April 2019, [Naftali Bennett’s] Yamina [running as the New Right] came up short [of the threshold by just] 1,400 votes [with 138,598 votes], proving that results can depend on the knife’s edge of a vote. We can convince enough people to not vote for him.”

Recently, Carmel visited the community of Tefahot, a small religious moshav between Safed and his hometown of Kibbutz Ravid in northern Israel. In March 2020, none of the hamlet’s 203 votes went to Ben Gvir, though 83 people voted for Yamina.

Together with a friend, Carmel knocked on doors and asked people not to vote for Religious Zionism.

Yaniv Carmel (Courtesy)

“This is very important,” he said they told people. “The entire election is in the hands of Israel’s right wing, and the responsibility lies with right-wing supporters. We hope that the Religious Zionism party will not cross the threshold, for all our sakes.”

Carmel isn’t necessarily against Religious Zionism itself, though the slate also includes a member of the homophobic Noam party — just Ben Gvir. To bolster his argument against voting for the party, he tells people about Ben Gvir’s past as a prominent backer of Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose Kach party was banned for racism. He described Ben Gvir as a modern incarnation of Kahane.

He tells them that in 2015 Ben Gvir attended the so-called “hate wedding,” where dancing participants stabbed a picture of Ali Dawabshe, a Palestinian toddler who had been killed in a settler firebombing attack. (Ben Gvir, who declined to respond to The Times of Israel for this article, has claimed that he did not see the dance.)

And Carmel talks about how Ben Gvir had a picture of Jewish terrorist Baruch Goldstein, who in 1994 massacred 29 Muslim worshipers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, hanging on his wall at home. He only took down the picture following public pressure.

“My working assumption is that Ben Gvir’s story does not go down easy with right-wingers. He’s been normalized, because he is an experienced media presence and interviewee, but even for Smotrich’s supporters, his presence is not easy,” he said. “This is a man who hung a picture of Goldstein in his home, this is how he educated his kids.”

Itamar Ben Gvir of the Otzma Yehudit party speaks during a ceremony in Jerusalem marking the 27th anniversary of the killing of extremist rabbi Meir Kahane, November 7, 2017. The sign behind him reads, “Kahane was right!” (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Carmel is not alone in dreading the possibility of Ben Gvir entering the Knesset.

In each of the past four election campaigns, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has attempted to broker deals to merge Otzma with other far-right factions. In the run-up to the April 2019 vote, Netanyahu engineered a deal for Otzma to join the Union of Right Wing Parties, which placed Ben Gvir sixth on its slate and where he missed getting into Knesset by one seat. Netanyahu’s move drew rebuke from nearly every major Jewish organization including those that rarely comment on Israeli politics, condemnation that is being echoed today.

“This move is equivalent to a US president cutting a political deal with David Duke, the former KKK leader,” the Axios news site wrote last month. “Netanyahu and the ruling Likud party are legitimizing a racist, xenophobic and homophobic fringe party in hopes that their right-wing bloc will reach a 61-seat majority.”

Otzma Yehudit party member Itamar Ben Gvir (R) speaks with National Union faction leader Betzalel Smotrich during a campaign event in Bat Yam, April 6, 2019. (Flash90)

For those who want to vote for the party because they like Smotrich, or some other reason aside from Ben Gvir, Carmel notes that a Religious Zionism candidate is actually on the Likud list, at No. 28: Ophir Sofer, who was given a slot as part of the Likud-brokered deal to bring Ben Gvir under the Religious Zionism umbrella.

“I explain that Likud is not guaranteed 28 seats, so maybe they should strengthen [Religious Zionism] via Likud. Just don’t vote for Ben Gvir.”

‘Tear the mask off’

Carmel said he doesn’t try to convince those who have made up their minds, or those voting for other parties, but only those considering casting a vote for Religious Zionism. He tries to carry out his mission with sensitivity, knowing that right-wingers won’t abandon their convictions because he knocked on their door, and seeing them as holding the key to making sure Israel does not tear itself apart.

“I think when I address people’s sensitivity for unity, it touches them deeply and I’m not cynical about this,” he said. “We need to tear the mask off Ben Gvir’s face. This is someone who provokes IDF soldiers, who does not recognize the authority the State of Israel, [who thinks] the State of Israel is a religious project.”

The approach appears to be working, at least to some extent. According to Carmel, 50 people have joined his initiative, making calls or also going door to door to discuss Ben Gvir and try to get people to join Zoom sessions during which Carmel preaches against the candidate.

And those he approaches do not (always) slam the door in his face. Carmel says during a recent trip to Safed, a woman who had been washing the floor opened the door to him.

“She told me she was really excited about us coming. She said, ‘Is it so important to you that you came this far, to Safed?’ I told her, yes, it’s important, so she stopped the cleaning and sat down with us at the table to hear what we had to say,” he recalled.

Itamar Ben-Gvir campaigning at a yeshiva in Safed on March 28, 2019. (David Cohen/Flash90)

“In another house, in Tefahot, one of the women said to me, ‘You remind me of myself during the 2005 Gaza disengagement, when we tried to persuade people.’ Then she invited us to come back in several weeks for a BBQ together,” he added.

“I came out of the meetings very encouraged, although I admit I had my concerns before we went.”

Confronting hate

Carmel himself says he has not yet decided who to vote for in the upcoming election. A former Labor supporter, he has joined scads of other party faithful who are steering clear this time around due to the placement of Ibtisam Mara’ana-Menuhin on the party list.

Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben Gvir (L) and Labor party member Ibtisam Mara’ana (R) at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem as they arrive for a hearing on the Central Elections Committee decision to disqualify her candidacy in the upcoming election, on February 24, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Mara’ana-Menuhin, a filmmaker who is No. 7 on the Labor slate, in the past called for the destruction of the town of Zichron Ya’akov, and refused to stand for the Memorial Day siren. She has since apologized.

When not knocking on doors, Carmel, a married father of two, works as the director of a socioeconomic and environmental research company. In the past, he was the editor-in-chief of the news site Davar Rishon and a social activist in the Dror Israel movement.

In the runup to the election in April 2019, he attended a protest in Tiberias against Ben Gvir, who at the time was running with the Union of Right-Wing Parties and was campaigning in the northern city.

While there, he got in a verbal altercation with Yitzhak Gabai, who served a prison sentence for setting fire to the Max Rayne Hand in Hand School in Jerusalem in 2014 and spray-painting on its walls racist messages such as “There is no coexistence with cancer”; “Death to the Arabs”; and “Kahane was right.”

Inside the Max Rayne Hand In Hand Jerusalem School, an Arab-Jewish school that was vandalized on November 28, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/JTA)

In 2018, Gabai gave an interview to Channel 20 in which he happily explained how he had set fire to the school and said “I don’t regret torching the school. I regret that I sat in prison, but I paid the price.”

Facing off with Carmel in 2019, he was still smug about his actions, repeating his comments and telling him that “I’m ready to burn Arab kids and Jewish kids. Equality.”

The incident shook Carmel to the core. His own children attend a Jewish-Arab school.

But his problem is with hate, not right-wingers. “It would be good for Israel if the Knesset were free of Kahanists and anti-Zionists,” he tweeted days later, expressing hopes that the Palestinian nationalist Balad party would also not enter the Knesset.

“What I know — and I feel it with great intensity — is that Ben Gvir does not reflect Israel’s right,” he told The Times of Israel. “The right does not behave that way. The right does not accept this. As someone outside their camp, I want to come to their home and ask them, demand of them, to get rid of this man.”

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