Jewish Extremism

Q&A Shlomo Fischer: Some settlers think they’re above the law

By Jennifer Trivia MacLeod, Canadian Jewish News

Shlomo Fischer, senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI) and an expert on radical Jewish extremism, believes recent attacks by young haredi Jews in Israel – against a Galilee church and an Arab family in their home in the village of Duma – represent a new religious extremism. Some young people growing up in the West Bank, he tells The CJN, trace their violent roots to the “neo-haredi” activism of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane.

Do the recent attacks by religious Jews in Israel have anything in common? 

When the security agencies arrested Moshe Orbach in connection with the arson at the Church of the Loaves and Fishes [in mid-June], among his papers was a manual about how to carry out arson, in which people would be in a house and presumably would be harmed. Then [on July 31], there was an arson attack on an Arab family, and a baby was killed. Everything here is speculative. It’s presumed that there’s a connection.

As for Meir Ettinger [grandson of Rabbi Meir Kahane, arrested on Aug. 3 for the church attack], he has a blog – we know more or less what he thinks. You can connect certain of the activities with those ideas.

Are these attacks being carried out by a single group or organization?

It seems that at this point, there’s no underground organization as far as we can tell. There are networks of two or three people, and they’re very loosely organized It’s central to their ideology, but it’s not hierarchical. They hold that once people start making calculated moves, it loses its purity. It’s no longer the voice of God.

Ettinger, on his blog, says this isn’t terrorism. These are spontaneous actions undertaken by kids who have a true and pure commitment for the sake of heaven. When they see that the Torah is violated, they can’t help but respond spontaneously. They believe they’re acting as any Jew should.

Saying “voice of God” sounds like a form of mental illness.

They don’t hear voices – I’m using that metaphorically. We’re talking about people who have a feeling that this is the response that God wants them to give. It’s a moral compulsion, which they think has divine sanction.

Why are these attacks happening now?

Most people think we’re on the brink of an intifadah. There’s conflict between Palestinians and settlers in the West Bank all the time, Palestinian attacks on the Jewish population that go unreported in the media.

There’s also the propensity of kids to join a worldview of this sort. [Ettinger is around 20 years old; Orbach and another arrested individual, Eviatar Slonim, are both 23.]

A lot of these kids come from Noar G’vahot [Hilltop Youth]. These are kids in the outposts, not in the official settlements. Some have been rejected by the school system, by their parents. These kids with problems have found their way to the hilltops, where they can live and not be bothered by the system. Given the characteristics of the settlement issue and religious Zionism, it’s not so surprising that you have this.

So you’re saying that attacks like these are a natural outgrowth of the settler movement?

Listen, given that you have a romantic nationalist movement, a culture which places a large premium on spontaneity and authenticity, on self-expression, given that you’re in endemic ongoing violent conflict with the Palestinians, which affects these people on a day-to-day basis, it’s not that surprising that you get something like this.

But we’re talking about a very, very, very small minority. Most kids from settlements go to the army, go to university, like Eitan Fund [who recently won the Medal of Courage for service in Operation Protective Edge]. Most do well within the system.

I don’t want anybody to get the impression that this is a majority of kids who live in the settlements. We’re talking about a very small fringe element.

Where do these attitudes come from, historically?

They’re related to views first formulated in the early 1980s by members of the Jewish settlers’ underground who wanted to blow up the Dome of the Rock. Yehuda Etzion [arrested in connection with that plot] formulated a very sophisticated ideological manifesto. He made the argument that the radical activist has charismatic prophetic authority.

These kids are not theologians, I don’t think they have the sophistication that Yehuda Etzion has. The way they talk – listen, they’re kids – they say, “The establishment has sold out, leadership has sold out, because of our commitment and purity, we do the thing that God wants us to.”

Beyond the family connection, how do these events relate to the teachings of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane?

The Orthodox community in Israel is divided into two camps: haredim and religious Zionists. Meir Kahane came, of course, from the haredi world. The haredim have basically rejected Zionism, the State of Israel. They claim it has no validity because it doesn’t follow the Torah.

Normative haredim don’t engage in terrorism, or political stuff. They’ll defend Shabbat, but it’s not serious. Haredim are supposed to sit and learn Torah. The fact that they may not respect the laws of the State of Israel, democracy, tolerance, doesn’t matter, because they’re passive.

Religious Zionists identify with the state, identify with the laws. [Civil law is] restraining them in their activism.

But what happens when you take people who have haredi attitudes, the haredi alienation from the state, and they become activists? They lose all restraining factors; their activism loses boundaries. That’s Kahane, and that’s this group of people.

Should rabbis be condemning these attacks more strongly?

These kids think that the rabbis have all sold out. It could be that if the rabbis presented – and maybe they’re trying to – a broader, more sophisticated version of Torah that also includes the ideals of tolerance, maybe it could have some effect.

Maybe. I’m skeptical.

Almost everybody has condemned what happened in Duma. Some people have said that if the government would crack down harder on the Palestinians, [this wouldn’t have happened]. Yet in Gush Etzion, there was a prayer meeting held for the welfare of the Palestinian family that was attacked. So, even in the settler population, people did respond with condemnation and horror. Not everybody, but a good number did.

What do Jews worldwide need to know about these attacks?

People outside of Israel don’t fully appreciate what it means to live in Israel. It’s a new kind of Judaism, very different from the life that Jews have been leading in exile for the past 2,000 years.

This is not only true for these particular individuals, who are a fringe group.

In Canada or the States, Jewish tradition is basically a set of books, a set of practices in the synagogue. Here, it’s about living on the land, engaging in conflict, settling, farming. As a result, what you get is a different sort of religion, a whole different set of mitzvot.

Of course, there are different interpretations of how you fulfil those mitzvot. Some would say, “Build a life of tolerance with your neighbours, that’s what the Torah wants you to do.”

These extremists have a particular take: “We’re supposed to make the land of Israel pure. That means no idolatry, that means burn the churches.” The chief rabbinate will say Christianity is not idolatry, but [the extremists] will just say that the rabbis have sold out.

There has been a presumption, even among Israeli journalists, that if you have religious extremism, it’s because the activists are doing what the rabbis are telling them to do. That’s totally wrong in this case. Here, the authority is not in the rabbis but in the activists themselves. They hold themselves to be the ultimate religious authority.

This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.