A few years before he was rejected from Israeli military service because of the extremism of his views, and long before he vaulted to prominence as the country’s minister of national security late last year, Itamar Ben-Gvir reached the Hebron doorstep of Boston-born scholar Baruch Marzel.
It was here, in the early 1990s, that the seeds of a new generation of Israeli leadership were watered in soil that Jews say is their birthright.
Mr. Marzel, an uncompromising Jewish nationalist, lives alongside the remnants of a city wall that is 4,500 years old. Beside it, a row of stone steps has since biblical times climbed toward a hill. “God gave the land of Israel to the Jews right here,” Mr. Marzel said, awe still creeping into his voice 39 years after he became the first Jew to settle in this part of Hebron, a Palestinian city. “When Abraham comes into Hebron, he sees this wall with his eyes. He walks literally on these steps,” he said.
Mr. Marzel’s home overlooks a valley of Palestinian homes whose inhabitants should, Mr. Marzel believes, largely be eradicated from this place. “We cannot live with people that want to destroy us,” he said.
This is the place to which a teenage Mr. Ben-Gvir came. It’s also near here that he made his home as an adult, on a single-street Jewish enclave in Hebron whose entrances are protected by heavy gates and soldiers with assault rifles. Those who live here are deeply committed to the idea of Israel as a Jewish land. Mr. Marzel keeps a copy of a handwritten deed from two centuries ago showing Jewish title. “If we don’t have a right to live here, where do we have a right to live?” he asks. “In Poland? In Auschwitz?”
He recalls Mr. Ben-Gvir as a teen whose zeal drove him to protest and put up posters. “He did a lot of good things,” Mr. Marzel said. “He’s doing a lot of good things today, also.”
Mr. Ben-Gvir is now a key minister in a government that has promised to more vigorously police Palestinian areas, continue demolishing what it calls illegal houses and, this week, expand Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas. Mr. Ben-Givr has called for anyone who so much as harms civilians to be sent to the electric chair, and last year praised a soldier for killing a Palestinian in what human-rights groups called an execution in broad daylight.
”He is now the most up-and-coming Israeli politician in the country,” said Shaul Magid, a Dartmouth College scholar who wrote Meir Kahane: The Public Life and Political Thought of an American Jewish Radical, an examination of the extremist rabbi whose views Mr. Marzel closely follows.
In November, Benjamin Netanyahu won re-election as Prime Minister with the support of Mr. Ben-Gvir and other right-wing parties.
“This election let the lion out of the cage,” Prof. Magid said. “And even Netanyahu is going to lose control.”
For Mr. Ben-Gvir, the reins of power are new. The spotlight is not, after decades spent capturing public attention. In 1995, he showed off a Cadillac ornament he had torn from the car of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, saying, “We’ll get to Rabin, too.”
Mr. Rabin was killed weeks later. His assassin, Yigal Amir, has described hearing that Mr. Ben-Gvir, too, wanted to kill the Israeli leader, who concluded the Oslo Accords and shook hands with Yasser Arafat, then chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization.
Mr. Ben-Gvir built a career as a lawyer representing far-right groups, and fame as someone willing to court controversy. In 2004, he was detained in Jerusalem alongside a friend, Israel Bramson, for publicly celebrating the death of Mr. Arafat.
Mr. Bramson admires Mr. Ben-Gvir’s flair for spectacle. And Mr. Ben-Gvir, he said, has been savvy in grasping public sentiment. Many Israelis see Palestinians as biting the hand that feeds them, and recent outbreaks of violence – including deadly clashes in 2021, and again this year – have added to those frustrations.
It’s important to bear in mind, Mr. Bramson said, that Mr. Ben-Gvir lives not in Tel Aviv but in Hebron, where Jews fear death if they wander out from the enclosure of the militarized enclaves they have built in a Palestinian area.
Mr. Marzel offers a century-old history lesson as an explanation. In 1929, nearly 70 Jews were massacred in Hebron, an attack that led to a Jewish evacuation. “ISIS is nice compared to what they did here,” he said.
Palestinians here also remember a 1994 massacre of more than two dozen people inside a mosque by a Jewish follower of Rabbi Kahane. Until a few years ago, Mr. Ben-Gvir kept a photo of their killer, Baruch Goldstein, in his house.
But he has since taken it down and Mr. Ben-Gvir told Mr. Marzel a year ago that he could no longer join him in the way of Rabbi Kahane.
Mr. Bramson, too, said Mr. Ben-Gvir’s views have moderated. “If you gave Itamar a car today and told him you can go run over some Arabs and their children without anyone knowing, he would run over a terrorist, but not children – not the innocent,” he said.
A few decades ago, he said, “it was different.”
But in many ways, Mr. Ben-Gvir is still “living in 1929,” said Uriel Abulof, a senior lecturer at Tel-Aviv University’s Department of Political Science. “This is what he experiences, I think, on a daily basis in his mind – Arabs assaulting Jews.”
That’s not out of step with currents in Israeli society, where a feeling of insecurity has grown visceral, he said. Mr. Ben-Gvir has managed to cast himself as the man who can return calm and safety, in part through a savvy campaign slogan: “Who are the landlords here?” It was an appeal to a sense of homeland, and the threats to it.
It hasn’t hurt that Mr. Ben-Gvir’s rotund appearance offers an avuncular reassurance of the kind that former prime minister Ariel Sharon once projected, said Prof. Abulof, who sat down with Mr. Ben-Gvir two days before the election.
He sees other parallels between the two men. Mr. Sharon helped incite the second intifadah in 2000 by visiting the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, where the Al-Aqsa Mosque is located – only to see the ensuing violence boost his own political career. Earlier this year, Mr. Ben-Gvir, too, visited the Temple Mount.
“His wife says he wants to be the prime minster,” Mr. Marzel said. Neither Mr. Ben-Gvir nor his wife, Ayala, responded to interview requests.
Indeed, Mr. Ben-Gvir’s focus on power and Jewish supremacy over religious ideology could position him to as a successor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is now 73 and whose recent attempts to undermine the country’s independent judiciary have set the country on a course toward an Iran-style government, Prof. Abulof said.
Still, some wonder how much change Mr. Ben-Gvir really represents.
“Israeli politicians, they are the same with different faces,” said Ayman Abu Diab, a social worker in Hebron. “Of course Israelis wish they could kick Palestinian people out of this land. But they don’t have the strength to do that,” he said.
“All of this fighting,” he adds, “is meaningless.”
Israeli nationalists, however, praise their new government’s fight.
On Sunday, Israel’s security cabinet said it will authorize nine outposts in the country, which are Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas that even the Israeli government typically considers illegal. It’s part of a broader plan for construction of nearly 10,000 new settlement homes, which threatens to “exacerbate tensions and undermine the prospects for a negotiated two-state,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned.
But for the 84 families that have already made homes in Asael, one of the nine outposts to be recognized, the country’s direction has given cause for cheer.
“In the end, the state of Israel will be wherever Jews are living,” said Shulamit Ben Yashar, a resident.
Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the former prime minister, Ariel Sharon, entered the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. This version has been updated.
With deadly attacks on Israelis growing bolder, and authorities demolishing Palestinian homes they deem illegal, a cycle of violence threatens to accelerate. Nathan VanderKlippe reports from Jerusalem