Op-Ed: The New Jewish Underground

Originally posted in The Jerusalem Report

For the past several weeks Israel has been inundated with news of attacks on Palestinians, gays and Christian places of worship, all apparently the work of Jewish religious extremists.

The two most widely reported incidents were the stabbings of six people, one –16-year-old Shira Banki fatally – by an ultra-Orthodox Jew at a July 30 gay pride parade in Jerusalem, and the deadly arson attack on the Palestinian Dawabshe family in the West Bank village of Duma the following day, in which the infant Ali and his father Saad were burned to death.

The following week the police arrested a number of young suspects, not in direct connection to these incidents, but for arson attacks against important Christian holy places, such as the Church of the Loaves and the Fishes near the Sea of Galilee and the Dormition Church on Mt.Zion in Jerusalem.

Two documents found on the suspects seem to tie them to the attack in Duma. The first was a “how to” manual that explained how to make fire bombs and torch inhabited structures.

The second was an ideological manifesto entitled “The Revolt,” which outlined the aims of a group with whom the suspects were apparently affiliated. These centered around the replacement of the current democratic State of Israel with a “kingdom,” which would be run according to Torah law imposed on the population. This was to be achieved through acts of violence against Palestinians and against Muslim and Christian holy places, triggering a state of chaos that would undermine the government’s capacity to rule.

Broadly speaking, the young people currently detained are affiliated with the so-called “Hilltop Youth,” a group of young settlers who exhibit a sort of bohemian ultra-nationalism that manifests itself in the illegal outposts and farms, which dot the landscape of the inner hilltop reaches of Samaria, deep in densely populated Palestinian territory.

They continue the religious Zionist theme of imbuing the land (i.e. the Land of Israel) with religious meaning and value, but they give it a new twist, making a point of living on the land in the most unmediated way, in direct contact with the elements. Many of them farm organically, wear homespun clothes and build their homes from materials locally available. They eschew fossil fuel sources of energy, using wind or solar power. They wear heavy, woolen kippot together with thick, untended sidelocks.

Like other Religious Zionist and settler youth, they place great emphasis on self-expression and authenticity – on art, music and poetry, which they try to combine with their Orthodox Judaism. And they connect these themes with living on the land and being closely bonded to nature. They also link self-expression and authenticity to aggression and revenge.

Thus, many of the residents of these outposts engage in endemic violent conflict with their Palestinian neighbors. Some of their alleged activities include the uprooting of olive trees and poisoning sheep belonging to Palestinians, as well as stone throwing and “gang fights” with Palestinian villagers.

A good many of the younger members are alienated from the Israeli state, its symbols and structures, including the educational system and the IDF. A substantial part of the hilltop population includes teenage runaways and dropouts, who have had a difficult time with their families and the educational system.

This sense of alienation increased after the disengagement from Gaza and northern Samaria in 2005 and, more recently, many of these youngsters have been involved in violent encounters with the police and the IDF over attempts to evacuate their illegal outposts.

It was from this disgruntled hilltop population that the so-called “price tag” tactic emerged – attacks on Palestinian property and places of worship, along with attacks on IDF equipment and personnel, in retaliation for government moves to evacuate illegal settlements.

The group arrested in connection with the burning of the churches and which had in its possession the “The Revolt” ideological manifesto seems to be part of a small network that underwent further radicalization. This entailed the adoption of two ideas that had been circulating in ultra nationalist religious circles for decades.

The first relates to the religious authority and autonomy of the revolutionary activist who acts to advance the redemption or coming of the messiah. This idea was first articulated by Yehuda Etzion, a member of the Jewish settlers’ underground of the 1980s, who formulated it from his prison cell.

It states that insofar as the revolutionary activist responds in engagé fashion to a religious and political situation that intolerably violates basic religious and political norms, he is acting under divine inspiration. His action embodies the inner will of the Jewish people and of God. Thus, the engagé activist himself becomes the highest religious authority and that authority inheres precisely in his spontaneous, spring-like, response to the situation of sin and violation of religious-political ideals.

“The Revolt” document (the older members are 23 and some are minors) do not seem to engage in theological speculation with the same sophistication that some members of the 1980s underground employed. Nevertheless, they seem animated by similar ideas. They are contemptuous of rabbinical authority and they regard the political leadership of the settlement movement as venal time servers who have “sold out.” They say their actions are anchored in the pure, healthy, spontaneous response of ordinary young Jews to an intolerable situation caused by Palestinian attacks and challenges to Jewish control and sovereignty over Judea and Samaria, and by the presence of “idolatry” through the existence of Christian churches in the Holy Land.

Their actions and attitudes also express their belief in the superiority and authority of the engaged activist, who speaks and acts only in accord with what he believes to be the pure truth of Torah and does not make compromises or concessions out of pragmatic considerations as the rabbis and the political leaders of the settlements do.

The second idea stems from ultra-Orthodox Haredi activism and rejection of the authority of the secular Israeli state. This is a new hybrid idea developed by radical rabbis like Meir Kahane and Yitzchak Ginsburgh. Haredi activists accept the ultra-Orthodox rejection of the Zionist movement, which was and is led and constituted, for the most part, by secular, non-observant Jews. They also reject the religious validity of the current State of Israel, Israeli laws and civic norms, especially if these are seen as violating the Torah, and Israeli governmental authority.

Haredim generally relate to Israel laws and norms as having somewhat less validity than gentile ones do, since they are the product of non-belief and “revolt against heaven.” However, mainstream Haredi society is fundamentally passive.

HAREDI ACTIVISM is a different propositional together. It believes that Jewish weakness – Jewish succumbing to persecution and extermination constitutes a desecration of God’s name. If Jews and the State of Israel “hit back” at the “goyim,” then despite their other shortcomings, they are sanctifying the name of God. According to Haredi activists, the current State of Israel, constituted as it is by non-believers and non-observant Jews, is fundamentally invalid. Whatever validity it may have had was forfeited by its failure to protect Jews and respond effectively to Palestinian terror, and by its fawning attitude toward America and the other Western powers.

Some of the members of “The Revolt” group have a Haredi background and exhibit characteristic Haredi activist attitudes. From this stems their belief that the current State of Israel has to be replaced by a “kingdom” in which the Torah and Jewish religious law are imposed from above. Meir Ettinger, Kahane’s grandson who was arrested as a leader of “The Revolt” group, was quoted as saying: “There are many, many Jews …who do not feel bound by the laws of the state, but rather by [Torah] laws that are much more eternal…”

Haredi activism is highly dangerous because it combines militant activism with Haredi alienation from the state and its laws. Zionist and even classical religious Zionist activism are more restrained because of their fundamental commitment to the State of Israel and its laws, and to pluralistic tolerance. Classical religious Zionism, including that of the settlers and the right wing, is committed to partnership and cooperation with non-Orthodox Jews and believes such partnership to be religiously valid.

Haredi activism has no such limitations. That may be the hidden connection between the two horrific events that occurred in late July – the murder of Shira Banki at the gay parade in Jerusalem and the murder of Ali and Saad Dawabshe in Duma.