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Israelis are grappling with how much exposure to give a far-right politician

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A far-right activist with roots in an extremist movement is a rising figure in Israeli politics. His name is Itamar Ben-Gvir, and he has a chance of becoming an Israeli cabinet minister after next month's elections. As he hits the campaign trail, journalists and educators are debating just what kind of platform to give him. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from Tel Aviv.

(CROSSTALK)

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Many Israelis were shocked by this recent video - Itamar Ben-Gvir, a former youth activist with an outlawed anti-Arab extremist group, taking selfies with an excited gaggle of Israeli Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. They're an emblem of Israel's mainstream.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

ITAMAR BEN-GVIR: (Speaking Hebrew).

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: Ben-Gvir has also been a frequent guest on prime-time TV. On the show "Meet The Press," Ben-Gvir wears a big grin and a big yarmulke off kilter on his head. His look is disheveled and disarming. The TV anchor calls him a huggable poodle.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: Then he asks, is this the real Ben-Gvir?

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MEET THE PRESS")

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: Fifteen years ago, he was convicted for supporting terror by calling for Arabs to be expelled. Today, he says he doesn't want to expel all Palestinians, just those actively against Israel. His chief political strategist, Nevo Cohen, tells NPR he's demonstrating pragmatism.

NEVO COHEN: Our strategy is to shed light on Itamar Ben-Gvir's other sides, which the Israeli public is not familiar with.

ESTRIN: Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has encouraged Ben-Gvir's rise in politics. In the U.S. Congress, House Democrat Brad Sherman called on Israeli politicians to ostracize Ben-Gvir. But in polls, more than a quarter of Israelis support Ben-Gvir even becoming a cabinet minister.

NADAV EYAL: He didn't have much name recognition a few years ago, and now he's a household name.

ESTRIN: Israeli TV commentator and author Nadav Yael has sparked a debate in the Israeli media. Is Ben-Gvir getting too much airtime?

EYAL: He is invited to the studio, and the hosts will again and again play the game of confronting him. But this confrontation is nothing about regionalism. It's about the show.

ESTRIN: His colleague on the same TV channel, Bar Shem-Ur, did interview Ben-Gvir. He prepared by reading academic articles about covering far-right figures, and he considered the argument that French and Brazilian media helped mainstream Marine Le Pen and Jair Bolsonaro.

BAR SHEM-UR: We have examples from history that, when politicians from the far right were refused interviews, they used it. They said, look how the mainstream media doesn't give us our free speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Hebrew).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: In his documentary, he visited Ben-Gvir's home and confirmed that Ben-Gvir had taken down a portrait of an Israeli gunman who killed 29 Muslim worshippers in the '90s. But there was still a portrait of Rabbi Meir Kahane, the founder of the outlawed anti-Arab movement.

SHEM-UR: We didn't give in to the notion that Itamar Ben-Gvir is turning mild. We portray him as he is.

ESTRIN: It's not just a controversy in the media. Ben-Gvir was invited to speak at a prominent high school, sparking protests.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Speaking Hebrew).

ESTRIN: School principal Hila Romash tells NPR she got hundreds of angry text messages, some calling her fascist. But she defends her invitation.

HILA ROMASH: (Through interpreter) If I am giving students an exercise in democratic elections, I need to be fair and bring the whole range of political opinions in Israeli society even if the opinions are extreme. How will they respond and how will they learn if they don't hear these opinions?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Hebrew).

(APPLAUSE)

ESTRIN: One student asked Ben-Gvir why he should be a role model after he hung a picture of an Israeli mass murderer in his home. Another pressed him on gay rights. Ben-Gvir said he wouldn't fight the LGBTQ community. In the end, the school held a mock election, noted across the country, where Ben-Gvir's parliamentary list got less than 5% of the vote. In the real elections next month, that would be enough to get him into parliament and perhaps a prominent role in the next government. Daniel Estrin, NPR News, Tel Aviv.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUN B AND STATIK SELEKTAH SONG, "CONCRETE (FEAT. WESTSIDE GUNN AND TERMANOLOGY)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.