Former Vice President Mike Pence (R) met with two prominent Jewish extremists during a visit to the Palestinian city of Hebron in the Israeli-occupied West Bank on Wednesday.
In photos circulated on Twitter, Pence appeared alongside Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-right member of the Israeli Knesset, or parliament, and Baruch Marzel, a far-right Jewish activist, whom the Israeli Supreme Court disqualified from running for Knesset in 2019 on the grounds that he had incited violence against Palestinians.
Matt Duss, a foreign policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), compared Pence’s meeting with the two men to a “foreign leader coming to the U.S. and hanging out with the Proud Boys,” a U.S. far-right gang.
HuffPost reached out to Pence’s group Advancing American Freedom for a response to the criticism, but did not immediately receive a reply.
Pence was visiting Israel as part of a political tour that observers speculate might be in preparation for a presidential run in 2024. He met with Miriam Adelson, the widow of GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, in Jerusalem, as well as Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid.
But Pence’s company in Hebron is substantially more controversial. Ben-Gvir, who is affiliated with the “Jewish Power” faction of Israel’s Religious Zionism Party, shared one of the photos of himself and Marzel meeting with Pence. “I thanked him for visiting us and for his support and solidarity on the side of the state of Israel,” Ben-Gvir wrote on Twitter.
Benzion Sanders, a member of Breaking the Silence, a left-leaning group of Israeli military veterans, shared a second photo of Pence’s visit.
Ben-Gvir and Marzel are both followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, a U.S.-born immigrant to Israel whose calls for the expulsion of Palestinians and other violent rhetoric prompted the Knesset to ban his political party in 1988. (Kahane was assassinated in New York City in 1990.)
The pair represent the most violent and racist factions of the Jewish settler movement in the occupied West Bank, where Jews have the benefit of Israeli citizenship and Palestinian residents lack real political rights. Until 2020, Ben-Gvir featured in his home a photo of Baruch Goldstein, a Jewish settler who murdered 29 Palestinians while they were praying in 1994.
Ben-Gvir’s Religious Zionism Party was expected to be a part of former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition after the 2021 elections.
But a coalition of centrist, right-leaning and left-leaning Israeli lawmakers outmaneuvered Netanyahu, locking the far right out of power and resulting in the ascent of current Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. Lapid, the foreign minister, condemned Ben-Gvir’s sit-ins in Sheikh Jarrah, a Palestinian neighborhood of Jerusalem, in February as a form of incitement that will “create situations that will end in death.”
Many progressive U.S. lawmakers have visited Hebron during trips to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.
But unlike Pence, they have gone to Hebron as a gesture of solidarity with the Palestinians living there. In the section of the city where the Israeli military protects a small group of Jewish settlers, Palestinians lack access to a major thoroughfare and must abide by other restrictions on their movement and daily life.
As a devout evangelical Christian, however, Pence hails from a segment of the U.S. electorate that has cultivated strong ties to the most right-wing elements of Israeli society. American evangelical Christians, who believe, for a variety of reasons, that Jews have a divine right to Israeli lands, are major financial backers of Jewish settlement in the West Bank.