Israel’s Breeding Ground for Jewish Terrorism

The words “Jewish” and “terrorist” are not easily uttered together by Israelis. But just occasionally, such as last week when one of the country’s leading intellectuals was injured by a pipe bomb placed at the front door of his home, they find themselves with little choice.

The target of the attack was 73-year-old Zeev Sternhell, a politics professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem specializing in European fascism and a prominent supporter of the left-wing group Peace Now.

Shortly after the explosion, police found pamphlets nearby offering 1.1 million shekels ($300,000) to anyone assassinating a Peace Now leader. The movement’s most visible activity has been tracking and criticizing the growth of the settlements in the West Bank.

Mr. Sternhell, whose leg was injured in the blast, warned that this attack might mark the “collapse of democracy” in Israel. He has earned the enmity of the religious far right by justifying the targeting of settlers by Palestinians in their resistance to occupation.

Earlier in the year the professor was awarded the Israel Prize for political science. The settlers’ own news agency, Arutz Sheva, ran a story at the time headlined “Israel Prize to go to Pro-Terror, Pro-Civil War Prof.”

The shock provoked in Israel by the bombing partly reflected the rarity of such attacks. Most Israelis regard the use of violence by Jews against other Jews as entirely illegitimate, which partly explains the kid-glove approach generally adopted by the security forces when dealing with the settlers.

There are a handful of precedents, however, for these kinds of attacks. In 1983, Emil Grunzweig was killed when a right-winger hurled a hand grenade into a crowd of Peace Now activists marching against Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. And 12 years later Israelis were left reeling when a religious settler, Yigal Amir, shot dead their prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin.

Violence directed at the Jewish Left typically peaks during periods when the religious far right believes a deal with the Palestinians may be close at hand. Rabin paid the price for his signing of the Oslo accords. Equally, Mr. Sternhell appears to be the address for settler grievances over the government’s ongoing talks with the Palestinians over a partial Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.

Certainly, the mood among the religious settlers has grown darker since the disengagement from Gaza three years ago. A significant number subscribe to the belief that, in betraying what they perceive to be the Jewish people’s Biblical birthright to Palestinian territory, the government proved itself unworthy of their loyalty. Others believe that the settlers themselves failed a divine test in not facing down the government and army.

Either way, many far right settlers are turning their backs on those secular laws that clash with their own convictions. One Israeli observer has noted that these settlers no longer see their chief loyalty to the state of Israel but to the Land of Israel, a land promised by God not politicians.

The pamphlet found near Mr. Sternhell’s home, signed by a group called the “Army of Liberators,” reads: “The State of Israel has become our enemy.”

The Shin Bet, Israel’s secret police, has a Jewish department dedicated to tracking the activities of Jewish terrorists. Unlike the Shin Bet’s Arab department, however, it is small and underfunded. It has also proved largely ineffectual in dealing with the threat posed by the far right.

Jewish extremists who attack Israeli soldiers or Palestinians in the occupied territories, openly incite against Palestinians or express unlawful views rarely face charges, even when there is clear evidence of wrongdoing.

The general lawlessness among the West Bank settlers has reached new peaks, underscored this month when settlers from Yitzhar went on what was widely described as a “pogrom” against Palestinians in the neighboring village of Asira al Qabaliya. The settlers were caught on film firing live ammunition at the villagers, but the police have so far failed to issue indictments.

Also, often forgotten, the so-called Jewish underground has a history of targeting Palestinians inside Israel, including those with citizenship. A car bomb narrowly avoided seriously injuring the wife of Arab Knesset member Issam Makhoul in 2003. Two years later, in the run-up to the Gaza disengagement, a settler-soldier, Natan Zada, shot dead four passengers on a bus to the Israeli Arab city of Shafa’amr.

Groups such as the Temple Mount Faithful, which seek to blow up the mosques of Al-Aqsa and Dome of the Rock in the Haram al-Sharif of Jerusalem’s Old City so that a third Jewish temple can be built in their place, also face little recourse from the Shin Bet.

By contrast, the Shin Bet’s Arab department runs an extensive network of Palestinian informers in the occupied territories and is reported by human rights groups to use torture to extract information from Palestinian detainees.

Inside Israel, the Arab department regularly investigates Israel’s own Palestinian citizens, especially the Islamic movements over their donations to charities in the occupied territories. It has also been hounding parties like the National Democratic Assembly of Azmi Bishara that demand equal rights.

Like Palestinians in the occupied territories, Palestinian citizens risk being locked up on secret evidence.

Israel’s leading columnist Nahum Barnea noted last week that the Shin Bet’s inability to find and arrest Jewish terrorists stemmed from “deliberate policy” and “emotional obstacles” — his coy way of suggesting that many in the Shin Bet share at least some of the settlers’ values, even if they reject their methods.

Prof. Sternhell made much the same point in a radio interview from his hospital bed when he noted that Yitzhak Shamir, when he was prime minister, had defined the Jewish underground as “excellent young men, real patriots.”

In this vacuum of law enforcement, the far right regularly and openly engages in unlawful activities, often without serious threat of punishment. Many of its leaders, such as Noam Federman, Itamar Ben Gvir and Baruch Marzel, all based in Hebron, are believed to have close links to the outlawed Kach movement, which demands the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from the region.

Mr. Ben Gvir, who leads a group known as the Jewish National Front, denied that his faction was involved in the attack on Mr. Sternhell but refused to condemn it.

Although the head of the Shin Bet, Avi Dichter, immediately branded the attack on Mr. Sternhell as “a nationalist terror attack apparently perpetrated by Jews,” it is noticeable that no Israelis are demanding the demolition of the perpetrators’ homes.

That contrasts strongly with the response last week after a Palestinian youth drove a car at a group of Israeli soldiers near the Old City of Jerusalem. Israeli politicians called for the youth’s home to be destroyed and his family to be made homeless.

In the general outcry against the bomb attack last week, it was left to Prof. Sternhell to remind Israelis that most Jewish terrorism was in fact directed not at people like himself but at Palestinians.

Jonathan Cook, based in Nazareth, Israel is a winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East (Pluto Press) and Disappearing Palestine: Israel's Experiments in Human Despair (Zed Books). Read other articles by Jonathan, or visit Jonathan's website.

8 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. bozhidar bob balkas said on September 30th, 2008 at 1:06pm #

    what can one expec t from judaism but hatred/violence.
    but nothing lasts forever. vengeance will come. thnx

  2. cg said on September 30th, 2008 at 6:53pm #

    The settlers (squatters) favorite chant.
    “We killed Jesus and we’ll kill you too.”

  3. AaronG said on September 30th, 2008 at 10:29pm #

    Reading the article above, I couldn’t help but ponder what this place would look like if religion was removed. One piece of land; 2+ claims to it. There can be no negotiation until the big R is removed.

    Not that I am part of the movement (I live in Australia), but a friend of mine emailed me a full page ad in the NYT (9/9/08, page A17 I think) placed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. I’m about to check out their website

    Has anyone heard of these guys?

  4. john andrews said on October 1st, 2008 at 12:10am #

    Once it is clearly understood that the existence of God cannot be proven the whole ‘justification’ of the zionist cause disappears.

  5. cg said on October 1st, 2008 at 9:07am #

    Not when their God is money.

  6. Phil said on October 1st, 2008 at 11:16am #

    Invaders and wrongful occupiers, not ‘settlers.’ Spade = spade.

  7. Christina said on October 2nd, 2008 at 11:39am #

    This type of violence from Isreal has been ongoing. The US gives them weapons and planted them there so we would have a reason to go after the entire Middle East. The occupation is illegal, and the US media helps their cause by giving us biased information. US television gives you this “poor isrealis” impression that is total BS! I have been following this for years, i just wish people would get real information like in this article. Thank you for the excellent writing.

  8. sk said on October 18th, 2008 at 5:50pm #

    Reading the article above, I couldn’t help but ponder what this place would look like if religion was removed. One piece of land; 2+ claims to it. There can be no negotiation until the big R is removed.

    Religious people tend to get slandered by liberals for being bearers of “atavistic hatreds” that lead to conflicts such as the one in Palestine/Israel. But the root cause of deaths of more than 100 million in the last century can be traced back to a more modern twist on religious dogma that mobilizes passions far more effectively in our times than the old time religion: “Secular Nationalism”. That’s what Noam Chomsky calls the phenomenon in this (MP3) interview in which he describes it as a much deadlier risk than age old religious traditions that are ridiculed by “militant atheists” of the ilk of Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, etc. The noted British historian of Greece and the Balkans, Mark Mazower also disputes the impression that “ethnic cleansing” in the Balkans is a result of religious enmity. He approvingly quotes the historian Arnold Toynbee’s contemporary opinion (1922) on the source of ethnic strife–which often falls along religious/sectarian divides–in Southeastern Europe:

    The introduction of the Western formula [of the principle of nationalism] among these people has resulted in massacre….Such massacres are only the extreme form of a national struggle between mutually indispensable neighbors, instigated by this fatal Western idea.

    The founders of Israel were almost to a person secular nationalists. For the first 30 years of its existence it was led by people who believed in “Nationalist Socialism”. These non-practicing Jewish leaders cynically manipulated religious myths for purely instrumental reasons (PDF) without taking millenia old religious texts any more seriously than Alice in Wonderland. A few weeks ago in an online debate, an Israeli wrote the following about the type of person who is the most gung ho “fighter” in his society:

    I know that for Americans it’s very hard to understand, but being a liberal and serving in an elite combat unit goes hand in hand here.
    If you don’t believe me, just read the news stories, and the bios of the kidnapped soldiers. The front lines are CEOs, lawyers, scientists, mathematicians, accountants and what not. The middle+ class are the people that go to war. The most leftist and liberal leaders were always the best generals–Rabin (Oslo) , Barak (pulled out of Lebanon), and in his last years, Ariel Sharon who pulled out of Gaza. And most importantly, there is not a single religious general, and Israel never had a religious leader.

    Incidentally, the term Nationalist Socialism that was coined by the recently bombed Dr. Sternhell bears an uncanny resemblance to the better known National Socialism which resulted in the greatest mass slaughter of human history:

    To avoid any misunderstanding or confusion, I have used the term nationalist socialism…But national socialism, which was commonly used at the beginning of the twentieth century, has been contaminated by its association with the Nazis. However, the adjective nationalist, although not traditionally used, in its strict sense describes one of the variants of socialism accurately. There is a nationalist socialism just as there is a democratic or revisionist socialism, often known as social democracy…Nationalist socialism, properly understood, appeared in Europe in the last years of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth as an alternative to both Marxism and liberalism…The uniqueness of European nationalist socialism…lay in one essential point: its acceptance of the principle of the nation’s primacy and its subjection of the values of socialism to the service of the nation. In this way socialism lost its universal significance and became an essential tool in the process of building the nation-state. Thus, the universal values of socialism were subordinated to the particularistic values of nationalism. In practice, this was expressed by a total rejection of the concept of class warfare and by the claim of transcending social contradictions for the benefit of the collectivity as a whole. This form of socialism preached the organic unity of the nation and the mobilization of all classes of society for the achievement of national objectives. According to the theory, this process was to be led by natural elites, whose membership was determined not by class, origin, or educational qualifications but by sentiment, dedication, and a readiness to make sacrifices for all. Nationalist socialism quite naturally disliked people with large fortunes, the spoiled aristocracy, and all those to whom money came easily and who could allow themselves to be idle. It lashed out mercilessly at the bourgeoisie whose money moved from one financial center to another and whose checkbook, close to its heart, served as its identity card. In contrast with all these, nationalist socialism presented the working man with both feet firmly planted on the soil of his native country–the farmer, whose horizons are restricted to the piece of land he tills, the bourgeois, who runs his own enterprise, and the industrial worker: the rich and poor who contribute the sweat of their brow, their talents and their money to increasing the collective wealth…Indeeed, nationalist socialism was based on the idea of the nation as a cultural, historical, and biological unit, or figuratively, an extended family. The industrial worker was regarded as an organic part of the whole, and the whole took precedence over the individual. The blood ties and the cultural ties linking members of the nation, their partnership in the total national effort, took precedence over the position of the individual in the production system.