Neve Gordon sent me an e-mail earlier today regarding incitement that might have inspired the would-be assassins of Prof. Zeev Sternhell. The question I have is why, when and how did the settler extremist movement target him?
Clearly, Sternhell’s receipt of the 2008 Israel Prize in political science sent them over the edge and this was the immediate precursor that motivated the pipe bomb attack. But why?
I found an article on the pro-settler Arutz Sheva site by Gil Ronen, Israel Prize to go to Pro-Terror, Pro-Civil War Prof.. Among the professor’s “crimes” are two statements from his past that are singled out for special opprobrium. In 1988, he wrote in the former Labor Party organ, Davar:
In the end we will have to use force against the settlers in Ofra or Elon Moreh. Only he who is willing to storm Ofra with tanks will be able to block the fascist danger threatening to drown Israeli democracy.
There are many Israelis and others like me who would consider that statement prescient considering what happened during the Gaza withdrawal. Indeed, the police did use force to remove settlers. The only thing they didn’t use was tanks. That is because thankfully the settlers chose not to use weapons to defend themselves. One could justifiably ask what might happen if an Israeli government DOES attempt to withdraw from West Bank settlements. Would they use weapons to resist? If so, then we might yet see real violence (though hopefully it will never get bad enough to require tanks).
Amidst a statement that was critical of Palestinian militant attacks on Israeli civilians within the Green Line, Sternhell wrote in Haaretz in 2001:
Many Israelis, possibly the majority of voters, do not doubt the legitimacy of the armed resistance in the territories proper. If the Palestinians had a little sense, they would have concentrated their struggle against the settlements and would not hurt women and children, fire rockets on Gilo, Nachal Oz and Sderot, or plant explosives on the Western side of the Green Line. In this manner, the Palestinians would themselves draft the solution that will be reached in any case.
Settlers view such rhetoric as incitement on Sternhell’s part against them. But if you examine the bare bones of his argument, Sternhell is merely granting to Palestinians tactics that Jewish nationalists assumed in their effort to end the British Mandate and create an independent state. Pre-state Zionists engaged in armed resistance to advance their goals. And rightist groups did not even confine their acts to civilian targets.
I think the main point of contention between Sternhell and the settler extremists is that the latter view themselves as an integral part of Israel proper. As such an Israeli settler or an IDF officer serving in the Territories is no different than an Israeli civilian within the Green Line. Sternhell argues that the Occupation is a cancer on the body politic and the single largest obstacle to peace with the Palestinians. As such attacks on targets in the Territories should be considered legitimate acts of resistance.
Finally, the reason Sternhell is a bete noire of the settler movement is that he is one of its harshest, most passionate and most incisive domestic critics. You have only to read his most recent Haaretz article, Zionism’s dying between Hebron and Yitzhar, to understand what an intellectual threat this man poses to the settler enterprise. In addition, Sternhell does not criticize them as an anti-Zionist outsider. Rather, he criticizes them from within the Zionist movement, which has to drive the rightists crazy. Similarly, I often think that the severity of some of my pro-Israel opponents derives from my refusal to allow myself to be characterized as an enemy of Israel.
Because of the Hebrew University professor’s mastery of the literature and practice of fascism the world over, he successfully relates Israel’s settler enterprise to this broader context. In short, Sternhell seems to know them better than they know themselves. In certain pathological circles, it might be considered self-evident that you’d want to eliminate such a troublesome enemy.
At any rate, if we want to look for the intellectual author of the assassination attempt against Zeev Sternhell we have to look no farther than right wing media outlets like Arutz Sheva or a site like Steven Plaut’s IsraCampus, which published Sternhell and the Debasement of the Israel Prize. From the titles alone, you can project the level of vitriol that could inspire a twisted mind to take actions like what happened yesterday.
Similarly, this is the type of moral debasement that characterizes the leadership of the extremist settler movement regarding this attack:
Itamar Ben-Gvir, an activist with a fringe settler group calling itself the National Jewish Front, said Sternhell was an irrelevant figure and that he did not believe settlers were behind the attack. “I don’t denounce this incident…” Ben-Gvir said.