Extremist Ben-Gvir should be challenged, not censured - editorial

The school that invited Itamar Ben-Gvir to speak was well within its rights and the law.

 MK Itamar Ben Gvir speaks during a press conference ahead of the upcoming elections, in Jerusalem, July 11, 2022.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)
MK Itamar Ben Gvir speaks during a press conference ahead of the upcoming elections, in Jerusalem, July 11, 2022.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH 90)

The hallmark of an orderly society is that it has rules and laws to govern it.

Those rules and laws determine what is acceptable, and what is not; what is permitted, and what is prohibited.

The rules and laws of this land have determined that Otzma Yehudit faction leader Itamar Ben-Gvir can run for the Knesset and serve in the nation’s parliament.

In a 2019 court decision, the High Court ruled that Ben-Gvir’s statements and actions – as noxious as they may be – did not reach the threshold beyond which he would not be able to serve in the Knesset. In that same ruling, however, the court determined that the words and actions of Michael Ben-Ari, a former Otzma Yehudit head and one of Ben-Gvir’s mentors, did cross that threshold.

In other words, had the administrators at the Blich High School in Ramat Gan invited Ben-Ari to address the students as part of an election debate that was held at the school on Tuesday, then those who would have opposed such an invitation would have had a strong leg to stand on: the country’s highest court ruled his views and actions were so racist as to render him ineligible to serve in the Knesset.

Otzma Yehudit MK Itamar Ben Gvir speaks at a rally on November 2, 2021 at Habima Square in Tel Aviv.  (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)Otzma Yehudit MK Itamar Ben Gvir speaks at a rally on November 2, 2021 at Habima Square in Tel Aviv. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/MAARIV)

But those who opposed the invitation to Ben-Gvir to address the school body did not have a similar basis for their argument. If the High Court said that Ben-Gvir can serve in the Knesset, who are they to say he can’t address students because they don’t like his opinions?

We also do not like Ben-Gvir’s opinions. We believe them to be racist, odious and a reflection of the worst in Israeli society. But we don’t believe that he should be denied the right to speak.

Freedom of speech means that even those whose opinions you find appalling have the right to express them. That is not meant to imply that freedom of speech is absolute; there are limits, of course. For instance, one can not incite violence or libel another.

The High Court is the arbiter of those limits, and since it has ruled that Ben-Gvir has not gone beyond them, efforts to keep him from speaking at Blich seemed foolish to us.

However, what is not only foolish but rather deeply troubling, is the racist slogan – “Your village should burn” – chanted by some of Ben-Gvir’s supporters as they faced off against his detractors outside the school.

This chant, even if spouted out by only a fringe, is a repulsive call to harm Palestinians just because they are Palestinians. Such a call has no place in Israeli society, and should be utterly condemned whenever it is heard.

One remarkable facet of Israeli society is that after 74 years of perpetual conflict with an enemy just outside the door, and sometimes even within the house, the country has retained its humanity. In Israel’s war and terrorist-infested reality, it could be easy to be struck by a blind hatred of Arabs, and to fall into the trap of believing that all Arabs are the enemy.

Most Israelis – to their credit – have not gone down that rabbit hole. Chants of “Your village should burn” show that, unfortunately, some have. They must be combated; their way must be shunned and shown to be the antithesis of Jewish values and something that could lead the country to ruin.

The way to fight back against these slogans is to challenge those chanting them and show how dangerous they are.

One student did just that during Ben-Gvir’s speech: “You said that you oppose terror, but – just to refresh your memory – you were convicted in the past of supporting a terror organization (Kach). In addition, you called Baruch Goldstein, who killed 29 people in the massacre in the Cave of the Patriarchs, ‘my hero,’ and you put his portrait in your living room. Why should I, and my friends here in high school, see you as a role model?”

That student understood what many who tried to keep Ben-Gvir from Blich did not: the best way to deal with him is to challenge and expose him, not seek to shut him up, thereby allowing him to attract more followers by presenting himself as a martyr hounded because of his beliefs.