Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 1995, Pages 7, 86-87

Special Report

Right-Wing Extremists Endanger Israel and the Jews

By Rachelle Marshall

Just when Israel has achieved its greatest triumph by concluding an agreement with the Palestinians that legitimizes its continued occupation of the West Bank and part of Gaza, the increasing militancy of Jewish extremists in both Israel and the United States is causing a widening split in Israeli society and threatens to undermine the very nature of Judaism. The assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by a right-wing Israeli on Nov. 4 was an event unprecedented in Israel's history. Although verbal abuse is an accepted mode of political discourse in the Jewish state, Israeli leaders rarely have been physically attacked. The murderous act by 27-year-old Yigal Amir is a frightening signal that the danger to Israeli society from Jewish fanatics is far more real than the much-proclaimed threat posed by its Arab neighbors.

Israeli spin-doctors until now have succeeded in linking the word "extremist" exclusively with Arabs who protest Israel's takeover of their land, rather than with the ultra-orthodox Jews who claim God gave them title to the land 3,000 years ago. The day after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat signed the latest agreement in Washington, DC (Sept. 28, 1995), Professor Nasir Aruri of the University of Massachusetts commented on a San Francisco radio station that because Israel will continue to control the land, water, and roads in the West Bank and Gaza, and can close the borders at will, Palestinians will enjoy no more freedom under the new arrangement than did Native Americans confined to their reservations or South Africans forced to live in bantustans. Israeli Consul Nimrod Barkan responded by calling Aruri's views "extremist."

But who are the extremists today? On the Palestinian side, the Muslim Hamas opposes the PLO's deal with Israel, just as do many Israelis. However, according to its spokesman, Mahmoud Zahar, Hamas intends to press its case through political means if given the opportunity. Only tiny groups such as Islamic Jihad have pledged to continue armed struggle.

Such Arab militants have plenty of counterparts among Israelis. In Hebron, where 65 Palestinians have been killed during the past two years, hundreds of Jewish settlers stormed the streets after the signing, shouting "Slaughter the Arabs!" and stoning Palestinian homes. Other settlers blocked traffic from moving across the Allenby Bridge that links the West Bank and Jordan. As usual, and despite the new agreement, the Israeli army put Palestinians, and not the Israeli protesters, under curfew and sealed the borders of Gaza and the West Bank. In the weeks following the signing, Jewish protesters physically attacked Rabin and several other cabinet ministers.

But so far Palestinians have been the chief targets of right-wing Jewish violence. Since 1987, Palestinians have killed 297 Israelis, and Israelis have killed 1,418 Palestinians, including 260 children. Most of the Palestinians were victims of the Israeli police and army, but several hundred were murdered by Jewish extremists. Rabin's assassin reportedly belonged to a group called "Eyal," composed of members of the late Meir Kahane's Kach party, which recently claimed responsibility for killing at least four Palestinians. Israeli militants have threatened more violence against Palestinians if terms of the new agreement are implemented. "They [the Palestinians] are the enemy," said Yisrael Harel, head of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea and Samaria. Another settler leader, Pinchas Wallerstein, told reporters that settlers would shoot Palestinian policemen on sight.

The extremists are spurred on by Orthodox rabbis and members of the Likud party who regarded Rabin as a traitor for agreeing to remove troops from the center of West Bank towns. The Israeli Rabbinical Association ruled last July that the Torah prohibits any withdrawal from the "land of Israel," and therefore soldiers must disobey orders to leave. A coalition of settlers and right-wing groups is calling for a boycott of the national census in order to deny the legitimacy of the government. Likud leader Benyamin Netanyahu, who stands a good chance of becoming prime minister in 1996, did not exaggerate when he warned that Rabin's policies "have led to a split in the nation, and this is just the beginning."

Prediction or Threat?

Although Netanyahu says he disapproves of violence, his statement may have been as much a threat as a prediction, given his opposition to any compromise with the Palestinians. Professor Avishal Margalit of Hebrew University wrote in the New York Review of Oct. 5 that Netanyahu "is ferociously committed to a Greater Israel," which means all of the West Bank. In the Nation of Jan. 8-15, 1990, Alexander Cockburn revealed that after Chinese troops killed scores of students at Tiananmen Square in Beijing, an Israeli newspaper quoted Netanyahu as saying, "Israel should have taken advantage of the suppression of the demonstrations in China, while the world's attention was focused on these events, and should have carried out mass deportations of Arabs from the territories. This plan did not gain support, yet I still suggest to put it into action."

Today, according to Margalit, Netanyahu's policy is to grant the Palestinians "not one inch of territory." He would close off Gaza permanently behind a security fence and retain full military control over both the West Bank and Gaza. In his broader Middle East policy he has conjured up a new Cold War—this time the enemy is "international Islam," masterminded by Iran.

As a former Israeli ambassador to the U.N. and a frequent talk-show guest, Netanyahu has considerable appeal in the U.S., far more than the blunter Yitzhak Shamir, whose views he shares. As a master of public relations, Netanyahu not only provides ammunition to fiercely pro-Israel American Jews, but promotes hostility toward those he calls "Arab-loving, self-hating Jews" who are dangerous to Israel.

Extremist Jews in Israel and the U.S. could do lasting damage to Jewish communities in both countries. Most Jews in Israel and the West today are products of the Enlightenment, the liberal reform movement that began in the 19th century among Russian Jews who broke from the confines of rigid Orthodoxy and encouraged the dissemination of European culture and science. Influenced by the Enlightenment, many European Jews adopted more liberal theories of government and brought these new attitudes to America and Palestine. As a result, Israel for most of its existence has been a welfare state (for Jews), and American Jews have been identified with liberal politics and support for civil liberties and human rights in the United States.

In Israel today, growing military strength and prosperity, along with the immigration of Jews from Arab countries and more recently from Russia, have changed the old political configurations. Religious parties and ultra-conservative secular groups together are a powerful force against giving up any part of the occupied territories. At the same time, those enjoying the benefits of free-wheeling private enterprise are pressuring to rid the economy of any remaining vestiges of socialism. The Jewish community in the U.S. is undergoing parallel shifts. Although a majority of Jews remain liberal Democrats, a substantial minority is now forming close ties not only with the Republican leadership but with fundamentalist Christians whose social views they share. Many Orthodox Jews who fervently support Israel also favor prayer in the schools, oppose abortion, and consider homosexuality a sin.

Conservative Jews and non-Jews also are coming together to further their own respective agendas. A good example is the mutually beneficial relationship between House Speaker Newt Gingrich and the Israel Export Development Company (IEDC), which last year hired Gingrich's wife, Marianne, as a consultant. After Gingrich became speaker she was elevated to become vice president for business development. According to an article by Connie Bruck in the New Yorker of Oct. 9, "IEDC is trying to win approval from the Israeli government to manage a free-trade zone, and the Israeli government is highly dependent on United States aid—something that Gingrich is in a position to affect." It is no coincidence that despite drastic budget-cutting this year, Congress has left aid to Israel intact.

Bruck describes IEDC as an offshoot of the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies (IASPS), a hawkish arm of the pro-Israel lobby in the U.S. Marianne Gingrich works closely with its president, Robert J. Loewenberg, who is also chairman of the board of the Koret Israel Economic Development Fund, which assigns interns to key congressional offices. According to Bruck, Loewenberg writes lengthy diatribes in the IASP newsletter attacking the peace process, return of the Golan Heights to Syria, and "left-wing politicos and bureaucrats." He supports the immediate move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, which Gingrich is asking Congress to endorse.

Koret money also finances a San Francisco foundation that places American interns with right-wing Knesset members such as Rafael Eitan of the Tsomet party and Silvan Shalom of Likud. The foundation's president, Tad Taube, said recently that the intern program "is a key element in our support for free-market reforms." Jewish socialists who helped found Israel would be shocked that some of Israel's most ardent supporters today are equally ardent advocates of laissez-faire economics.

New Alliances

The old socialists also would be dismayed by the new alliances between the Christian religious right and ultra-conservative American Jews. Pat Robertson of the Christian Coalition took pains several months ago to deny the anti-Semitism implicit in his past attacks on "international bankers" and said he welcomed Jewish support. Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary and a pro-Israel hawk, was quick to let bygones be bygones. In the August issue he wrote that although there was "a strong case" for Robertson's anti-Semitism, "in my view Robertson's support for Israel trumps the anti-Semitic pedigree of his ideas." A month later, two Orthodox rabbis spoke at the Christian Coalition's "Road to Victory" convention. Their appearance, wrote Gustave Niebuhr in the New York Times, "indicates that as the political strength of Christian conservatives rises, so too does the visibility of Jews who seek to forge tactical alliances with them."

Another such tactical alliance was set in motion last year by Netanyahu, who sent three Likud emissaries to the U.S. to organize conservative Christians and Jews to lobby Congress against the Rabin government's peace efforts. Likud's campaign has had considerable success. The Christians' Israel Public Action Committee, for instance, has joined with the Zionist Organization of America to urge U.S. support for a united Jerusalem under Israel's rule and a moratorium on U.S. aid to the Palestinians. Senator Bob Dole's aides admitted that his introduction of a bill to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem next year, despite the Rabin government's opposition, was prompted by Likud lobbyists. "The consequences of this campaign," Sidney Blumenthal wrote in the June 5 New Yorker, "have been to split the American Jewish community into openly warring factions...and for the first time to inject the intensely bitter political conflicts of Israel directly into American politics."

Warring Factions

The word "warring" is not an overstatement. Animosity between moderate and extremist Jews occasionally erupts into violence. When Shulamit Aloni, Israel's pro-peace minister of communications, tried to speak at a Salute to Israel Day parade breakfast last spring, members of the audience shouted "traitor!" and a leader of the Orthodox community, Jacques Avital, ran to the podium and punched her in the stomach. (During the parade that followed, several marchers carried signs proclaiming Baruch Goldstein, the murderer of 29 Muslim worshippers in Hebron, a hero.) Two years ago, just after the Oslo agreement was signed, members of the audience at the Young Israel synagogue in New York threw raw eggs at Israeli Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich, the first time an Israeli government official has received such treatment.

Verbal attacks against Rabin by militant American Jews were unprecedented in their virulence. The word "traitor" appeared frequently in letters to Jewish newspapers, and right-wing groups regularly take ads charging that the government is endangering Israel. In one full-page ad, a coalition of such groups called "Pro Israel" accused Rabin of heading "a government of national suicide."

The fault lines in the American Jewish community on the issue of peace with the Palestinians run parallel to the split over domestic policy. This division came into focus most clearly last year when conflicting advertisements appeared one after the other in the New York Times. In late December a group called Toward Tradition, composed of well-known pro-Israel hawks such as Midge Decter, Norman Podhoretz's wife; Elliot Abrams, assistant secretary of state under Ronald Reagan; and former Republican Senator Rudy Boschwitz, published an ad entitled "Mazel Tov, Speaker Gingrich!" It cited the Torah and welcomed the Republican Contract with America as fully in line with "our traditions." Three weeks later an ad by the Ad Hoc Coalition for Social Justice and headed "Toward What Tradition?" appeared in response. This statement also referred to traditional Jewish values, emphasizing concern for "the locked out and the left out."

It read in part, "We are blessed by a millennial tradition of commitment to social justice...we take our stand with that tradition, hence against the Contract with America, for a more inclusive and a more equitable society, and for government as its active architect and agent."

Among sponsors of the second ad were several members of Americans for Peace Now and the New Israel Fund. At a benefit for the NIF in mid-October, nearly 300 members of the San Francisco Jewish community applauded Israeli peace activist Galia Golan when she called for human rights and self-determination for both Jews and Palestinians.

As yet liberal and moderate Jews outnumber the ultra-conservatives, but the balance could shift. The percentage of American Jews supporting Israeli-PLO peace talks dropped from 77 percent in September 1994 to 68 percent this year. A year before that, 84 percent were in favor. Although many fewer Israelis than Palestinians are victims of violence each year, every attack by Palestinians against Israelis reduces the number of Jews in Israel and the U.S. who support peace. In Israel, political observers say that a terrorist act just before the 1996 elections could swing a majority of votes to Netanyahu. In America, Orthodox Jews who agree with the conservative social agenda and respond to Republican leaders who have suddenly become ultra-Zionists, are combining with secular Jews whose affluence and hawkish Middle East views make them natural allies of the political right.

If the result of this turn to the right means that the Jewish community in America is no longer distinguished by its support for the disadvantaged and its dedication to tolerance and freedom, then a vital quality of Jewishness will have been lost. The essence of Judaism is not loyalty to a Jewish state, as so many Jews have come to believe, but loyalty to the values that have enabled the Jewish people to survive—justice, compassion, righteousness, and civility. The government of Israel has violated every one of these precepts in dealing with the Palestinians, and too many American Jews (as well as Christians) have excused those violations or remained silent. The Jewish peace activists in Israel and the U.S. who continue to speak out for justice and independence for the Palestinians are not only defending the Palestinians' cause but also honoring the precepts that give meaning to Judaism.

Rachelle Marshall is a free-lance writer living in Stanford, CA. A member of the International Jewish Peace Union, she writes frequently on the Middle East.

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