The Threat of Jewish Supremacy

1 September 2023
a protest against Itamar Ben Gvir

Last week, our CEO, Daniel Sokatch, sent you an email about the comments that Israel’s Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir made on Israeli television. If you didn’t get a chance to read it, here’s a quick reminder: Ben Gvir told a news panel that his and his family’s “right to move around freely on the roads of Judea and Samaria is more important than the right of movement of Arabs”—an explicit endorsement of malicious, racist Jewish supremacy. 

Since that email, the United States Department of State has condemned Ben Gvir’s comments, telling the Times of Israel that the US “strongly condemn[s] Minister Ben-Gvir’s inflammatory comments on the freedom of movement of Palestinian residents of the West Bank.” Not to be outdone, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded, defending his National Security Minister. Netanyahu’s office argued that Ben Gvir’s comments were correct, and that “Palestinian terrorists take advantage of this freedom of movement to murder Israeli women, children and families.” Notably, the statement did not reject Ben Gvir’s claims. Instead, it tried to place them in a context in which freedom of movement for Palestinians means greater violence against Jewish settlers. Missing from all of this, of course, is any sort of acknowledgement of the ongoing occupation of the West Bank. 

Let’s be clear: while this is the most explicit and viral endorsement of Jewish supremacy made by this government yet, it is not the only one. As Daniel argued last week, Ben Gvir’s comments serve to clarify the intentions of Netanyahu’s government. In fact, in the last month alone, there have been several manifestations of this racist ideology– even if none were as clear as the affirmation that Palestinians’ rights are less important than Jewish Israelis’. 

For example, on August 19, a photo was released on social media of a Palestinian man, arrested for allegedly having illegal drugs in his residence, with what appeared to be a Star of David burned into his face. The police claimed after the photo went viral that it was simply the imprint of one of the arresting officers’ shoes (as if that wasn’t bad enough). The arrested man, through his lawyer, continues to say that it was a Star and not shoelaces. The body cameras on the sixteen police officers who made the arrest were all (mysteriously) switched off during the incident, so there is no video to tell us one way or another. Marking a persons’ face with a religious and nationalist symbol, such as the Star of David, has echoes in some of the worst parts of history. 

Racism appears in other places, too. Far right Finance Minister, Bezalel Smotrich, who is also a settler, decided in July to freeze 200 million shekels (about $53 million) of money that was intended for Arab communities across Israel. These communities are already underfunded, and have been dealing with a wave of organized crime and violence that they are unequipped to deal with (for a detailed explainer, see our Media and Policy Director Elisheva Goldberg’s explainer here). The freezing of these funds was meant to make a bad situation worse on purpose. With a lack of money and police apathy, this government can further the already record-breaking violence happening in Arab Israeli municipalities. It is complicit in the violence.

That wasn’t all that Smotrich did, either. Earlier this month, he froze money meant to make it easier for Israeli Arabs with poor Hebrew skills in East Jerusalem to access higher education. The reason? According to Minister Smotrich, university radicalizes Arabs. The statement is, of course, both wildly untrue and wildly racist; but it speaks to an underlying way in which Smotrich and his allies see Israel and its government.

For people like Netanyahu, Smotrich, and Ben Gvir, there are two systems at play in Israel: one if you are Jewish, and another if you are Arab/Palestinian. The government is meant to protect only those who are Jewish (and let’s be honest, that too is highly conditional). But if you are Arab, you do not deserve higher education, your communities do not deserve protection, and you may be branded by the police. This is Jewish supremacy, plain and simple. 

This is what we are up against. But as we are fond of saying, we know that we are in this fight for the long run. And so we are already working to push back against Jewish supremacy wherever it creeps up. 

In response to Smotrich’s freezing of funds, our grantee The National Committee of Heads of Arab Local Authorities, together with other leaders in the Arab Israeli community, protested the freezing of funds. The protest made national headlines after an image of former Minister of Knesset Ayman Odeh being choked by police at the protest went viral. In a surprising twist, this week Benjamin Netanyahu pressured Bezalel Smotrich to release all the funds to the municipalities– probably moved by public sentiment. A small victory, but a victory nonetheless. 

Days after Ben Gvir made racist comments on television, several of our grantees, along with other organizations, went to Kiryat Arba, near Hebron, to protest outside his house. They took the names of almost 4000 NIF supporters with them (and if you were one of those supporters, thank you)! The protest went viral on social media after Israelis realized that there is a park named after Meir Kahane, the convicted terrorist who was banned from serving in the Knesset. That same park houses the grave of Baruch Goldstein, a supporter of Kahane, who, in 1994 killed 29 Palestinian worshippers in a mosque. The protest was, wrote Noa Landau in a Haaretz editorial, an awakening of Israel’s political center. 

In July, our grantee Sikkuy-Aufoq secured an increase of Arabic language access in Israel’s medical care system. The Ministry of Health agreed to implement a set of policy recommendations by Sikkuy-Aufoq to make it easier for people whose first language is Arabic, and who speak little to no Hebrew, to access life saving medical care. 

We know there is so much more work to be done. But we can push back against racism and Jewish supremacy, in all of the ways these manifest. By supporting and funding the protesters, we have won several victories this month. There are many more challenges sure to come. But we are ready to meet them together.