Winning the argument against Jewish extremism

This article was originally published in Haaretz:

After nearly a year in administrative detention, Israel released a Jewish extremist last week held following the 2015 Duma arson, in which a Palestinian infant and his parents were murdered. Meir Ettinger, who will spend three months under house arrest, leads “The Revolt,” a group advocating violence to bring about the end of the Jewish state to be replaced by a “Jewish kingdom.”

This ideology has deep roots in Ettinger’s own family. The 24-year-old is the grandson of far-right radical Rabbi Meir Kahane, who also advocated using violence to expel Arabs from Greater Israel. Kach, the hardline party Kahane established in 1971, was banned along with an offshoot “Kahane Chai” (Hebrew for “Kahane Lives”) in 1994, one month after Baruch Goldstein, a Kach supporter, massacred 29 Palestinians at prayer in Hebron. The U.S. added Kach to its terror list that year.

But the ideology of Kahane, assassinated in his native New York in 1990, did not disappear with those bans. Today, his legacy echoes in the Israeli far-right clarion call “Kahane tzadak” (“Kahane was right”), a phrase often reproduced in ‘price tag’ graffiti and on the lips of far-right protesters. And its ripples can be felt in the likes of Lehava, the Israeli extremist group led by another Kahanist, Rabbi Bentzi Gopstein.

In recent weeks, the Anti-Defamation League, in an unusual step, has entered the fray, urging Israel’s attorney general to take action against Lehava’s “hateful discourse,” which it said harms Israel abroad and at home. The ADL called “to draw a clear red line before this phenomenon that is so dangerous to Israel’s society and democracy.” The Israel Religious Action Center also launched a petition to outlaw Lehava. “Jewish terror is not created out of thin air,” the petition stated. “It is fueled by ideological incitement and hatred that is spread by radical rabbis like Bentzi Gopstein. It is backed up by activities organized and executed by extremist hate groups like Lehava.”

Lehava, meaning “flame” in Hebrew, is also an acronym for “Preventing Assimilation in the Holy Land.” Founded in 2009, the anti-miscegenation group is vehemently anti-Arab, anti-Muslim and anti-Christian, and its members have been known to use violence. Lehava’s activities range from publicity stunts bordering on the risible — such as urging supermodel Bar Refaeli to break up with her gentile boyfriend, Leonardo di Caprio — to the more sinister. In 2015, its members protested the wedding of a Jew and a Muslim shouting “Death to Arabs.” In November 2014, members of the group set fire to a Jewish-Arab school in Jerusalem. They spray-painted “Kahane was right” and “there’s no coexisting with cancer” on the walls of the building.

Legal action would send a clear formal message that there is no place for Lehava’s hateful incitement in Israel. After a number of failed attempts in recent years to take such action against the group, it would also show Gopstein — who has branded Christians “blood-sucking vampires” and has called on followers to continue “Kahane’s way” — that words have consequences. It would show him he cannot act with impunity.

But this is the very least a democracy can and should do in the face of incitement to violence. The endurance of the ideas of Kahane and his ilk indicates that banning a group like Lehava is not enough. To prevent future generations of Jews adopting such a worldview, we must engage with  — and directly challenge — the ideas behind it, from the inside.

Last year, Gopstein was caught on tape justifying burning churches based on the religious teachings of the revered 12th century commentator Maimonides. What was also caught on that tape was a room filled with other rabbis responding with absolute incredulity to his shocking statements. When the tapes were made public, some dismissed Gopstein’s assertion as “halakhic nonsense” and against Jewish values.

Research by the Centre on Religion & Geopolitics (where I work) shows that every ideological violent extremism has its non-violent fellow travelers. And they have the responsibility to speak out. Their insider status means they have unique persuasive power and authority — to stop activists taking a violent path.

In a recent study we found that out of 100 prominent jihadis, 51 per cent had links to non-violent Islamist movements. Jihad and the various currents of Jewish extremism are not one and the same, but much has been written about the lessons Israel can learn from how other countries deal with Islamist extremism.

We need to hear more voices from within the Jewish religious world speaking up against toxic Jewish extremist ideas. After Orthodox extremist Yigal Amir assassinated former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Rabbi Yoel Bin Nun of the Gush Emunim settlement bloc condemned rabbis he believed had given religious sanction to the murder.

But we need more than action after the fact. We also need initiatives that challenge the ideology and provide alternatives. The 2006 “Yeh Hum Naheem” (This is Not Us) campaign in terror-riddled Pakistan rallied millions to reinforce the distance between mainstream Islam and extremism. Closer to home, Tag Meir has been responding to Jewish price tag attacks with its focus on the more universalist side of Jewish values since 2011.

Racist and extremist  language has entered the Israeli mainstream, and is tolerated too often. Examples include calling for the boycott of Arab businesses, as the new defense minister Avigdor Lieberman did during the 2014 Gaza war, or for the segregation of Jewish and Arab women in maternity wards as a lawmaker did in April.

Two-thirds of Israel’s Orthodox public support the idea of expelling Arabs, according to a recent poll. It’s therefore essential that many of the voices pushing back against the nexus of right-wing politics and religiously-inspired violence come from the political and religious right, from which Lehava draws its support.

Far-right movements will likely always exist. In Israel, amid the tension between Jewish identity and liberal democracy, room has been given to racist and ultranationalist ideas with a religious justification. Add to that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Lehava, and the other standouts of Israel’s Jewish extremist landscape, are partly a symptom of the decades-long hostilities between Arabs and Jews.

These are radical, fringe movements. Still, as the Goldstein massacre, Rabin’s assassination, and more recent incidents like the Duma arson show, they can cause enormous damage. They undermine fragile Jewish-Arab relations and the ever-distant prospects for peace and coexistence.

The test is how far these ideas seep into mainstream discourse. Lehava’s members burnt down a Jewish-Arab school is because they hated everything it stood for. Petitions by anti-incitement groups inside and outside Israel are a welcome source of pressure for change, not least institutionally, but external players will have a limited effect on those at most risk of adopting violent ideologies.

A climate of tolerance for Jewish extremist ideas in society in general, and within the religious and cultural circles closest to known activists and their surrogates, gives them room to grow. To curb their growth and guard against future violence, we all must challenge them.

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