JERUSALEM (AP) — One of Israel’s most extremist politicians, known for his inflammatory anti-Arab speeches and stunts, is attracting new supporters from a previously untapped demographic — young ultra-Orthodox Jews, one of the fastest-growing segments of the country’s population.
Itamar Ben-Gvir’s sharp rise in popularity in the last three years has transformed him from a fringe provocateur to a central player in Tuesday’s parliament election. Polls indicate his Religious Zionism party could emerge as the third-largest and help return former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to power.
His appeal is a reflection of the ongoing right-ward shift of the Israeli electorate over the years, with Ben-Gvir and his party also attracting voters who previously supported other right-wing parties.
This shift is particularly noticeable among Israel’s 1.3 million ultra-Orthodox Jews who make up 13% of the population.
The community, known in Hebrew as Haredim, is growing at a breakneck rate, with an average birth rate more than twice the national average. Children make up half of their population, and young adults between 18-35 another quarter.
Ben-Gvir’s appeal among young Haredim reflects a shift in the political preferences of a community that cleaves to a strict adherence to religious tradition. For decades, the ultra-Orthodox largely voted for two Haredi political parties — United Torah Judaism and Shas.
Those parties promoted the community’s interests in exchange for supporting coalition governments with a range of ideological flavors — though the Haredim had a preference for center-right factions that tended to be more culturally conservative.
But several prominent rabbis who served as spiritual leaders for these parties have died in recent years. Analysts say younger and middle-aged Haredim are growing disillusioned with the old guard.
“The majority of relatively younger ultra-Orthodox — under the age of 50 — have turned right-wing, and sometimes staunchly right-wing, something that in the past didn’t exist,” said Moshe Hellinger, a political scientist at Israel’s Bar Ilan University.
The Haredi political leadership lacks a strong, charismatic leader “and this vacuum allows (voters) to go in different directions,” Hellinger said.
Into that void steps Ben-Gvir.
Voting records from predominantly Haredi communities indicate that since Ben-Gvir entered politics in 2019, support for him in those areas has increased over Israel’s four successive elections — though he still lagged behind the established ultra-Orthodox parties.
Ben Gvir’s campaign declined requests by The Associated Press to interview him or officials managing outreach to the ultra-Orthodox community.
Several factors appear to be driving his growing popularity in the community.
Some Haredim prefer the Religious Zionism party’s mix of Orthodox Jewish and ultra- nationalist messaging to that of Netanyahu’s Likud party which, while hard-line, remains predominantly secular.
Recent years have also seen an uptick in attacks by Palestinian assailants targeting ultra-Orthodox Jews, as part of the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
In March, shortly after a Palestinian gunman opened fire on the streets of Bnei Brak, an ultra-Orthodox suburb of Tel Aviv, killing five Israelis, Ben Gvir arrived on the scene and delivered statements to TV cameras surrounded by a throng of young Haredi men shouting racist screeds.
The scene repeated itself in May, after a Palestinian killed three Israelis in the central town of Elad.
At a recent campaign rally in Elad, Ben-Gvir whipped up a gender-segregated crowd, calling for the death penalty for convicted Palestinian militants. The audience, many of them young men in white button-down shirts and black skullcaps, responded with cheers and whistles, then chants of, “Death to Arabs” and “Death to terrorists.”
David Cohen, a resident of Beit Shemesh, a heavily ultra-Orthodox city west of Jerusalem, said he would vote for Ben-Gvir, comparing him to former U.S. President Donald Trump and describing him as a straight-talking man of action.
“He seems to be the only one that will really accomplish anything,” Cohen said of Ben-Gvir. “He’s a guy that says what he means and means what he says.”
Ben-Gvir first entered parliament in 2021, after his Jewish Power party merged with the Religious Zionism party. Jewish Power, which failed to cross the electoral threshold in the 2019 and 2020 elections, is the successor to the outlawed Kach party of the late ultra-nationalist politician Meir Kahane.
Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, the Religious Zionism party has surged in the polls. It’s forecast to win twice as many seats as in the previous election and could make the difference between Netanyahu returning to power or remaining in the opposition.
It will be the fifth election in under four years, largely fought over whether Netanyahu is fit to rule while facing corruption charges.
Ben-Gvir, who was convicted of offenses that include inciting racism and supporting a terrorist organization, went on to make a legal career out of defending Jewish extremists charged with violent offenses.
He lives in the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, next to Hebron, the West Bank’s largest Palestinian city. Until recently, he displayed a photo in his home of Baruch Goldstein, an American-Israeli who killed 29 Palestinians and wounded over 100 in a shooting attack as they knelt in prayer at Hebron’s Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1993.
On Saturday, a Palestinian gunman opened fire at Israelis in Kiryat Arba, killing a 50-year-old man and wounding several others.
While a hawkish booster of Israeli security forces — advocating immunity from prosecution for soldiers and the death sentence for Palestinians convicted of attacks on Jews — Ben-Gvir did not serve in the military; he was issued an exemption because of his extremist ideology.
In the run-up to the election, Ben Gvir told public broadcaster Kan that he advocated dismantling the Palestinian self-rule government and annexing the West Bank, while simultaneously denying its roughly 2.5 million Palestinian residents the right to vote for Israel’s Knesset.
“There’s no such thing as Palestine, this is ours, this is our land,” he said.
Political scientist Shira Efron, who heads the Israel Policy Forum think tank, said she believes the rise of Ben-Gvir is a result of what she described as systematic incitement, mostly by Netanyahu and his Likud party, against Israel’s large Arab minority.
Ben-Gvir is “shrewd, charismatic and expresses what many Jewish Israelis sadly think but until now didn’t feel comfortable saying out loud,” she said.
Associated Press writer Eleanor H. Reich contributed to this report.