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A Hard-Line Jewish Nationalist Is Accused Of Stoking Anger Between Jews And Arabs

NOEL KING, HOST:

Is a Jewish nationalist with a loyal following, a member of Israel's parliament, inciting violence between Jews and Arabs? Here's NPR's Deborah Amos from Jerusalem.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: In many of the explosive events in the past couple of months, you will find Itamar Ben-Gvir. A 45-year-old lawyer voted into parliament earlier this year, he's considered a dangerous racist by some. Others support his ultra-hard-line stance.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ITAMAR BEN-GVIR: (Non-English language spoken).

AMOS: He set up a makeshift Knesset office in the volatile Palestinian neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, there to show solidarity with Jewish settlers who want Israel's high court to evict Palestinian families, says Tomer Persico, an Israeli scholar on religious thought and politics. We contacted him at the University of California, Berkeley, where he's a visiting professor.

TOMER PERSICO: So Ben-Gvir added gasoline to that fire. It's one of the reasons that riots erupted.

AMOS: Riots that were one of the sparks that set off 11 days of war with Hamas in Gaza in May. Persico says Ben-Gvir's strategy is constant confrontation.

PERSICO: End goal is Israel only for Jews and - not only for Jews - with only Jews in it. And his close-range goal is just creating a mess, creating trouble for the new government.

AMOS: In mid-June, the trouble he created was shouting. When Naftali Bennett, the new prime minister, took the podium to address the Knesset for the first time, Ben-Gvir was determined to obstruct the speech until he was ejected from the hall. When we visit him in his Knesset office, he's less the firebrand, more the busy lawmaker, soft-spoken with a dedicated staff of young religious Israelis.

BEN-GVIR: My name is Itamar Ben-Gvir, and I formed the Otzma Yehudit movement.

AMOS: His party is called Jewish Power. He's the only member with a seat in parliament. He defends his decision to go to Palestinian neighborhoods like Sheikh Jarrah. He denies he's inciting violence by waving the Israeli flag.

BEN-GVIR: (Through interpreter) It is true that some Arabs are very upset that people are waving the Israeli flag. I say it is our state, our land. That is what democracy and a Jewish state are all about.

AMOS: He's convinced the new Israeli government is on the wrong track, making a historic political alliance for the first time with an Arab-led party.

BEN-GVIR: (Through interpreter) It's very sad that elements in the Israeli government are selling the state of Israel to the Islamic movement.

AMOS: He's talking about Mansour Abbas, a devout Muslim, a Palestinian citizen of Israel, the leader of the United Arab List. Abbas's Knesset office is just around the corner. Ben-Gvir's extremist views are shared with other Israelis who espouse Jewish supremacy, offended by an Arab-led party in the Israeli government. Says Mikhael Manekin, who wrote a book on religion and power in Israel...

MIKHAEL MANEKIN: I don't think Ben-Gvir is mainstream by any sense. I think, you know, he's still considered the radical right.

AMOS: He's compared to the late Rabbi Meir Kahane. In the 1980s, Kahane's violent anti-Arab ideology got him banned from the Knesset. Ben-Gvir says he studied under Kahane, considers him a great man, but doesn't agree with his ideology. Manekin says Ben-Gvir is a more charming salesman. He's learned how to soften his media message. His expertise extends to social media, says Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, head of the media reform program at the Israel Democracy Institute.

TEHILLA SHWARTZ ALTSHULER: What Ben-Gvir is so good at - how to translate the digital activity into a real-world activity.

AMOS: She points to the Jewish and Arab mobs that battled on the streets of a mixed city in central Israel - Lod in Hebrew, Lyd in Arabic - while Israel was trading fire with Hamas in the Gaza Strip in May. She monitors social media groups in real time on Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter, and she says it was striking to watch the lead-up to the deadly street fights and the messages Ben-Gvir's supporters were sending.

SHWARTZ ALTSHULER: We are going to meet in this and this street. Bring your knives. Bring your pepper spray.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE SHOUTING)

AMOS: Ben-Gvir doesn't deny telling his supporters to go to the central Israeli town. He does deny urging any kind of violence.

BEN-GVIR: (Through interpreter) I called on people to go to Lod in order to protect people who were attacked and beaten. And I think it is good that people went to Lod.

AMOS: The ultra-right messages on social media are increasing in Israel, says social media expert Shwartz Altshuler. Ben-Gvir's supporters will be listening for where he tells them to go next. Deborah Amos, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.