I’m very sympathetic to this belief because I know that Israeli intelligence (and Israel itself) either doesn’t want to, or can’t root out this poison within. It’s natural when such terror goes too far, as it has with the two murders by radical ultra-Orthodox Jews, to focus on a single bad apple. Make an example of him, put him away, then pretend you’ve addressed and eliminated the problem: poof, no more Jewish terror–till the next time.
But I have a lingering doubt about one aspect of this theory: settler terrorism is a real threat. A significant segment among the settlers really does wish to overthrow Israel’s so-called secular state and replace it with a Davidic monarchy. They also seek to destroy Haram al-Sharif and replace it with a Third Holy Temple. They would be more than willing to provoke a final Armageddon-like holy war between Judaism and Islam (or Israel and Palestine).
One may argue, as Oren did in Haaretz that whatever the beliefs of these individuals, they are no match for the power of the State. If it wished, it could snuff them out like a match. But I’m not so sure.
Radical Settlers: Turning Outliers into Rulers
In the 1970s and into the 1980s, before the settler movement grew in political power it has today, many Israelis and Diaspora Jews made the mistake of dismissing the views of Meir Kahane. These settlers were viewed as political extremists, outliers, rabble-rousers. They were even banned (i.e. Kach) from serving in the Knesset. They were a few lunatics screaming epithets and possessed of insane religious zeal. As much as possible, liberal Zionists created a separation between the “real” Israel, the “good” Israel, and the crazy zealots shouting from the hilltops of ancient Judea. In those days, you could legitimately compartmentalize Israel in this way.
But the settlers were smart and the liberal Zionists were fools. With the Likud election victory in 1977, the settlers came to power along with the conventional Likudnik factions. They used this power incrementally to encroach both on Palestinian land and Israeli democracy. Within thirty years, they had bested not only the liberal Zionists, but the “liberals” within Likud (like Dan Meridor and Benny Begin) who refused to do their bidding. The Old Guard was gone and replaced with the new Kahanists, who now ran the major ministries.
While old-line Likudists may claim that Menachem Begin or even Bibi Netanyahu are the legitimate heirs of original Revisionist strongman, Zeev Jabotinsky, there is another figure scarcely mentioned as an inheritor of this legacy. Meir Kahane is as much a disciple of Jabotinsky as they are. And for the purposes of today’s Israel, Kahane is a much-more long-lasting, critical figure in the rise of Israeli authoritarianism. Begin is from the past. Netanyahu too within a day or a month of leaving office will be consigned to historical oblivion. But Kahane will live on. If Israel goes the way of theocracy or dictatorship it will be Kahane who inspired and envisioned it.
The current Israeli government, the most brutal, racist and extremist in the nation’s history, is a product of this settler victory.
Meir Ettinger, Settler Terrorist Du Jour
As we come to learn more about Meir Ettinger, it’s critical to understand the milieu which nurtured him. Of course he was shaped in critical ways by the trauma of having his grandfather assassinated on the streets of New York and his uncle and aunt assassinated on the streets of the West Bank. When your flesh and blood is cut down, it tends to turn some into implacable homicidal avengers, which is apparently something like what Ettinger has become.
Earlier, I noted that Ettinger’s father, Mordechai, teaches at the radical settler yeshiva, Ateret Cohanim (which the Times of Israel typically mislabels as “politically aligned with the state”). This is a religious institution which advocates ethnic cleansing of the Temple Mount and restoration of the ancient priesthood and animal sacrifices. In fact, it is training hundreds of Israeli Jews for this priesthood. If it is “politically aligned” with the State then the State has become an outright theocracy.
Ettinger’s aunt, Nitza Kahane (married to one of Meir’s sons), is no shrinking violet herself. When asked about her nephew’s views on Army Radio she defended them vociferously:
“He wants to change the laws of the country to the laws of the Torah; that’s his right. If he persuades enough people, he can do it. The fact that someone wants to change the laws or wants the state to conduct itself differently has never been a cause for arrest in a democratic country.”
No, my dear Mrs. Kahane, this is sedition. You don’t “change” the laws of a secular state to those of the Torah. It’s not an easy, gentle transition from one legal system to another. It would involve a wrenching revolutionary putsch in which democracy would be snuffed out and a religious dictatorship (aka “monarchy”) would replace it. To claim that Ettinger is a reformer or someone seeking to change the system from within is ludicrous. He’s the guy yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater. He’s the guy perfectly prepared to see a few trampled underfoot to achieve his greater objective.
Settler Rabbis Envision Davidic Kingdom Replacing Secular Democracy
Ettinger’s father, rather fatuously, blames his son’s radicalization on Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh, the chief of the radical Od Yosef Chai Yeshiva in Yitzhar. He complained of the settler religious leader:
“[Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh] drew him into such terrible things. We love our son and of course we wish he would return to the decent path.”
Ginsburgh, like so many of the worst extremists in Israel, is a product of American Jewry. In his teenage years, he turned to various Hassidic sects and eventually became a baal teshuva, a Jewish “convert” to religious Orthodoxy. Though he earned a BA in mathematics and philosophy from the University of Chicago and an MA in mathematics from Yeshiva University, he quickly determined to devote himself solely to religious studies. He made aliyah and, after the 1967 War, was one of the first Jews to settle Jerusalem’s Old City Jewish Quarter. This was the earliest manifestation of the ethnic-cleansing which takes place now in East Jerusalem on a much larger scale.
After the War, Ginsburgh returned to Brooklyn and had his first personal audience with the Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Schneerson. Hebrew Wikipedia portrays him as a follower of Chabad as is another popular extremist settler rabbi, Dov Wolpe. In 1983, he began teaching widely about Kabbalah and other religious subjects. Eventually, this led to his become rosh yeshiva at Od Yosef Chai. If you conceive of such a place as a place of scholarly refuge and intense Talmudic study, you are only partly right. Its dormitories have also been used by students to launch crude Qassam-type rockets at a neighboring Palestinian village. Two teachers at the seminary published Torat HaMelech, a book which advocates the murder of Palestinian babies (because they will undoubtedly grow into adults who will kill Jews).
Ginsburgh endorsed the book wholeheartedly. But it doesn’t stop there. Wikipedia summarizes his views thus:
Ginsburgh advocates the reinstitution of Jewish monarchy in the Land of Israel.…He advocates “Hebrew labor” − the idea that Jews should only employ other Jews — and believes that Gentiles should not be allowed to live in the Land of Israel, unless they become the “righteous of the nations,” accepting Jewish dominion.
Ginsburgh also supports the rebuilding of the Jewish temple, believing that this would facilitate spiritual elevation and hasten redemption. He favors the practice of Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount, the site of the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa Mosque.
In his Kabbalah-inspired universe, Jews are part of the divine order. They are above nature. Non-Jews are part of nature. But not just any part of nature, they are animals. That is, they are not human. For this reason, Ginsburgh goes so far as to say that theoretically, if a Jew needed a liver transplant (p. 134) and a non-Jew could provide a matching organ, it would be permissible to seize the latter and take the liver “by force.”
The commandment prohibiting murder does not apply, in this rabbi’s view, when a Jew kills a non-Jew, since God intended this to apply only in the case of human beings and, as we’ve seen above, only Jews are human. In case you non-Jews were wondering, there’s a way for you to become human. You just have to accept the laws of Moses and Jewish sovereignty. Then you too become part of Jewish divinity.
Ginsburgh’s most controversial work, Barch HaGever, was an ode to Baruch Goldstein, who he viewed as a hero for saving Jewish lives.
There is, as I wrote above, a temptation to minimize the significance of these individuals. To say that they’re crackpots, that no one believes them except for a few similarly skewed followers. But such a view is mistaken.
Outliers in Israel have a habit of becoming rulers. While Israel is currently in dire straits, it could always be worse, and probably will be. For that reason, it is critical that Israel arrest not just Ettinger and the few pogromists who burned a baby alive and a historic church; but that there be a campaign to rid Israel root and branch of this fetid stew of homicidal rage that is settlerism. Chabad rabbis like Ginsburgh and Dov Wolpe should be arrested and prosecuted. Groups like Chabad, Lehava and Honenu should be outlawed as terrorist organizations. Their followers should be proscribed as well if they’ve advocated or perpetrated violence. Send these criminals and terrorists to jail or underground, where they belong.
Israel must be a secular democracy. There can be no compromise on this matter. Those who wish to replace a secular state with a monarchy should be labelled traitors, subversives.
All this is pie-in-the-sky of course. Israel has no intention of mounting such a campaign. It will muddle along as the worst of the settlers creep ever closer to their goal of overthrowing the State as we’ve known it. When the time comes, Israeli secular democracy will go not with a bang, but a whimper. Because those at the levers of power would be just as happy (or more) being King or High Priest, as prime minister.
Yuval Diskin and the Tale of Two States: Israel and Judea
On a related subject, Yuval Diskin, former Shin Bet chief, has written an intriguing, though problematic essay (Hebrew) claiming that there are now two Jewish states: the one you know, of course, is Israel. The one you may not know about is Judea. Forget Palestine, it doesn’t exist. Never has, never will. There may be a non-Jewish minority in Judea, but it will either be driven out or become a minority without rights since Judea will not be a democracy. And the leaders of Judea will not be constrained by the limits of western democracies. They will maintain a state by and for Jews. A state led by zealots and messianists, slightly older, more mature versions of Ettinger and the Hilltop Youth. It will be a state based on violence, racism, and terror, says Diskin. There is no question which of the two Jewish states will dominate the other: Judea without a doubt.
Diskin sees the setttler rabbis as key ideological visionaries in birthing this deformity called Judea. The fundamental, and ultimately fatal flaw in this vision is to replace the sanctity of the [Jewish] people with the sanctity of the land. The land becomes the be-all and end-all of Jewish existence. Despite his great love for the land of Israel, Diskin says he harbors an even greater love for the Israeli people. These are human beings, not rocks or hills or rivers. Humans should always trump land.
Despite the great dangers Diskin sees in Islamist terrorism and Iran’s nuclear threat, the worst threat by far is Jewish extremism. How to combat this?
My conclusion is that we must wait until it gets worse in order for it to get better…The people will only begin to see things as they are, to my sorrow, when things become far worse. So we must wait for that time. Only then will we internalize our obligation to save this mighty Zionist enterprise which we call the State of Israel. Something which is growing ever more distant from the vision of the Founding Fathers.
There is much flawed thinking in this analysis, mainly in that it ignores the existence of the Palestinian people as a nation with its own rights. The fundamental flaw in the ideology of such Zionists is that they believe that Israel can exist in isolation from its neighbors and the rest of the Middle East. That it can be what Ehud Barak called, the “villa in the jungle.” We should also never forget that Diskin, when he ran the Shin Bet argued that Palestinian nationalism within Israel should be a crime. This is a view that is unforgivable and fundamentally wrong.
One also shouldn’t discount the possibility that Diskin sees a political future for himself in one of the opposition parties. This could be a sort of election manifesto. If that’s so, then these could be empty words, since no Israeli politician ever operates according to deeply-held principles. Any politician who has them, sheds them if he wishes to get elected and take a share of power.
Nevertheless, Diskin is an important figure as a former security chief. He knows where the bodies are buried. He knows the system from the inside. He knows its weaknesses. It’s one thing for Avrum Burg to renounce Zionism. It’s another matter entirely when Yuval Diskin renounces settlers, settlements and the Greater Land of Israel.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.