This is yet another in my series of posts about terrorism in Israel, both the latest attacks, and the Israeli oppression and terror which incite Palestinian counter-violence. Yesterday’s post recounted the particularly heinous murder of a Palestinian widow and mother of six gunned down at a West Bank checkpoint. The hasbara brigade has gone into overdrive on social media to defame the victim, defend the murderers, and uphold the virtue and moral purity of the IDF.
Fixed it! pic.twitter.com/YVXoScpaAR
— Ariel Gold אריאל 🕎 ☮️🔥✡️ (@ArielElyseGold) April 10, 2022
They were particularly incensed by the above tweet from Ariel Gold, who attracts a massive pro-Israel “fan club.” One of these ‘admirers’ tweeted (see screenshot l.) the strict measures purportedly in place when he served in the IDF, which would never have permitted the victim’s death had she been the innocent victim most of the world believes she was. I disputed his claim, noting there are hundreds of incidents in which unarmed Palestinian civilians have been murdered by Border Police and IDF. In the event of such killings, the security services break out a template. It includes claims like: we shouted for her to stop, we fired warning shots in the air, we fired to wound rather than kill. If that scenario really did happen, rather than being invented, the victims would never have died. But they did.
In another tweet, I said the Israeli military is noted for even greater depravity than the murder of single Palestinian woman. Among the genocidal rhetoric I noted, was a call by the general secretary of Bnai Akiva (the largest global Orthodox youth movement), Rabbi Noam Perel, for the IDF to “cut off” the foreskins of 300 Palestinians as a bizarre form of war booty, in retribution for attacks against Jews. The Twitter thread I mentioned above was filled with mirth and hysterical laughter at the notion that IDF soldiers could be associated with such behavior. The “jokes” (screenshot above r.) were deeply offensive. But not of course to these hasbara warriors afflicted with stunted brains and no moral conscience. They laughed and laughed because that’s just what they do. Nonetheless, they didn’t know me and figured I was making it up.
I also noted that an IDF chief rabbi delivered a halachic ruling that soldiers may rape Palestinian women if “satisfying their urges” will ensure the success of the military operation (in this case invading Gaza). In reply to a questioner asking him whether rape was permitted in wartime, he said:
“The wars of Israel […] are mitzvah wars, in which they differ from the rest of the wars the nations wage among themselves….
As in war the prohibition against risking your life is broken for the benefit of others, so are the prohibitions against immorality…Just so, war removes some of the prohibitions on sexual relations, and even though fraternizing with a gentile woman is a very serious matter, it was permitted during wartime…out of understanding for the hardship endured by the warriors. And since the success of the whole at war is our goal, the Torah permitted the individual to satisfy the evil [sexual] urge, under the conditions mentioned, for the purpose of the success of the whole.”
The rabbi and his apologists have shreyed in the years since that he didn’t say it, didn’t mean it, etc. The truth is that he was caught out when he thought he was speaking to a private group. So he did some damage control and presto-changeo, he came out of it smelling like a lamb.
A second clergy, the chief rabbi of Safed, had written a similar psak din back in 2002.
I also noted that IDF Col. Ofer Winter, commander of one of the main units which invaded Gaza, urged his troops to fight a “holy war” against what he called the “Palestinian-Philistines.” Winter, in his Order of Battle to his troops prior to their deployment to the frontlines, brought them to hot fury by calling the Palestinian enemy: “defamers, abusers and defilers of the God of Israel…” Col. Ofer Winter became known as the Butcher of Khuza’a after he destroyed an entire neighborhood of Gaza. Among his fondest military feats (he confided to Israeli reporters) was the destruction of the village’s mosque in a massive missile strike.
Then, there was the leading settler Orthodox rabbi who wrote an entire book, Torat Ha’Melech, arguing among other things, that Palestinian children may be killed because they will grow up to murder Jews. Or the current Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who once quoted her mentor approvingly saying that Palestinian children were “little snakes.”
Israel has also commonly engaged in political assassination as a tool of state policy. Not only has it murdered leaders of Arab political movements viewed as threats (PFLP’s Ghassan Khanafani, the PLO’s Abu JIhad, Hezbollah’s Abbas Musawi and Imad Mugniyeh, and Hamas’ Sheikh Ahmed Yassine), it has engineered false-flag terror bombings during Lebanon’s civil war to sow chaos in foreign countries offering refuge to Israeli enemies (like the PLO). In a rare failure, Mossad agents injected Hamas leader Khaled Mashal with a lethal poison on a Jordanian street. Though the murderers fled, they were caught, arrested and imprisoned. Jordan’s King Hussein threatened Israel and demanded it provide the antidote. Then PM Netanyahu relented. The antidote saved Meshal’s life.
If a US enemy had murdered our political and military leaders almost at will, what would be the response at home? Would we not seek revenge?
Israel Breeds Palestinian Terror
These hateful incidents show indisputably that Palestinian resistance, including what Israelis will call “terrorism,” does not arise in a vacuum. It is not unprovoked. Palestinians do not suddenly wake up in the morning and say “I’m going to kill a Jew today.” In fact, those who take up violence have directly witnessed the cold-blooded killings of brothers, fathers, husbands, uncles, etc. They’ve seen dead babies in their parents’ arms. They’ve seen tens of thousands of homes destroyed in multiple invasions of Gaza. Worst of all, they are powerless and defenseless against this Israeli oppression. There is no political horizon that promises Palestinian rights. There is no possibility for accountability regarding Israeli crimes. The lives of Palestinian youth are blighted. Nothing but menial jobs, living in squalid refugee camps. No career path. No possibility of marrying, building a home and raising a family. Everything we in the west take for granted as part of a normal society is denied Palestinians.
When you add to that the incessant hate blaring at Palestinians from the Israeli side, how much does it take to light this match and ignite an inferno?
Israeli terrorism is not confined to Palestinian victims. Israel has assassinated five Iranian nuclear scientists in what can only be described as an act of state terror. Despite the argument Israel may advance–that such acts deter Iran from achieving nuclear break-out capacity (and supposedly endangering Israel)–there is no other way to view a state murdering scientists of a rival state, than terrorism. Thus, Israel has no right to speak of Iran as the “leading global sponsor of terrorism.” Israel engaged in terrorism long before its rivalry with Iran began. It has refined the tool to a rapier’s edge against victims around the globe.
Early Zionist Terrorism
My goal in this post is to do a deeper dive into the issue of terrorism from the perspective of modern Israeli and ancient Israelite history. Regarding the former, the hate I outlined above also is not ex nihilo. Such hate has a history and a father (or two).
The first Jewish militant group which broke away from the Labor Zionist Yishuv movement (in 1933) was the Biryonim (‘The Thugs’). They were Revisionist followers of Zeev Jabotinsky, himself an early admirer of Mussolini. The group’s political vision was modeled on Italian fascism, including its romance with political violence. Among its goals was to overthrow the democratic model of the Yishuv leadership and instill a Mussolini-style dictatorship. Israel’s current political system is a hybrid of this model. Fascist in its political and security policy while maintaining a facade of electoral democracy. Elections make a mockery of true democracy (as the four in the past three years have proven), offering choices ranging from the right to the far-right.
Among the Biryonim’s most infamous acts of terrorism was purportedly the assassination of Yishuv leader, Chaim Arlosoroff. He was murdered shortly after returning from a trip to Nazi Germany, in which he completed plans for the Haavara Agreement. It would permit German Jews to emigrate to Israel, though it forced them to hand over the assets to the Yishuv, which used them to purchase and import German goods. This in turn broke the international boycott of Nazi goods organized in large part by US Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver and Samuel Untermeyer.
A bizarre historical footnote concerning Arlosoroff was that he conducted an affair with a young woman while he was a student in Germany. She later became the mistress and wife of Hitler’s foremost propagandist, Josef Goebbels. Here is my account from an earlier post:
When she [Magda Friedlander] met Arlosoroff, many accounts say they began an affair and she became a devoted partner in his Zionist activism. She even wore a Star of David he gave her as a present. But Arlosoroff intended to make aliya after completing his studies, and Magda had no interest in leaving her homeland. So they eventually ended the relationship.
That’s when things got strange. According to some accounts, just before their relationship ended, relations between them became rocky. Friedlander had attended a Nazi rally and came under the spell of a then-unknown junior activist in the Nazi Party. She supposedly began an affair with Joseph Goebbels, which Arlosoroff discovered, and there was a climactic scene in which (again this may be apocryphal) her Jewish lover exploded in a fit of rage, took out a revolver and fired it at her.
The first father of Zionist terror was Yitzhak Ben-Tzvi, leader of the Yishuv who, in 1924 ordered the assassination of Jacob deHaan. He was a gay socialist Dutch Jew who became Orthodox after visiting Russia to witness the suffering of the Jews after WWI. He became the chief public lobbyist on behalf of the ultra-Orthodox (anti-Zionist) Mizrahi movement. When DeHaan began lobbying the Mandatory British government against Zionist interests, Ben Tzvi ordered him killed. DeHaan was the first Jew assassinated by the Zionist movement.
Some may not see the Nakba as terrorism. But terror is defined as an act of violence in pursuit of political aims. Thus the forced, violent expulsion of a million indigenous Palestinian inhabitants (including massacres and rape) with the goal of physically eliminating a major portion of the non-Jewish population, is also an act of Zionist terror.
The second father of modern Israeli terrorism was David Ben Gurion, the leader of the pre-state Yishuv and later the founder of the Israeli state and its first prime minister. As early as the 1930s he wrote this letter to his son, in which he makes the earliest and clearest statement of an approach that would eventually lead to the Nakba:
We must expel Arabs and take their place. Up to now, all our aspirations have been based on an assumption…that there is enough room in the land for the Arabs and ourselves. But if we are compelled to use force…to guarantee our right to settle there – our force will enable us to do so.
According to noted historian of the pre-state era, Benny Morris, Ben Gurion wrote that the Palestinian Arabs must be expelled, as they were an impediment to realizing the Zionist dream of a Jewish state:
Ben-Gurion at this time repeatedly endorsed the idea of ‘transferring’ (or expelling) Arabs, or the Arabs, out of the area of the Jewish state-to-be, either ‘voluntarily’ or by compulsion.
Another historian of the period, Ilan Pappe, quotes Ben Gurion:
“The Arabs will have to go, but one needs an opportune moment for making it happen, such as a war”.
The future prime minister’s early conviction was transformed into national policy in 1948, when he and his government implemented the forced expulsion of 1-million indigenous Palestinians, forcing them to flee and become refugees in neighboring Arab states, where millions remain today.
Other acts of Jewish terrorism during the period included the assassination of the Swedish UN peace negotiator, Count Folke von Bernadotte by a gang of thugs commanded by future prime minister, Yitzhak Shamir. Not to mention the infamous bombing of the King David Hotel by a gang led by another future prime minister, Menachem Begin. Another act of terror was the massacre of 100 residents of Deir Yassin by Shamir and Begin’s men.
Rabin and Jew-on-Jew Terror Assassinations
A more modern example of terrorism by the Israeli far-right against the country’s early peace camp was the 1983 assassination of Peace Now co-founder, Emil Grunzweig, at one of the movement’s earliest rallies. In this case, the assassination of Jews by Jews was used as a tool of enforcement of political heterodoxy. Threats to the far-right agenda would be met with the ultimate act of violence. No Jew was protected by membership in the tribe. In fact, espousing such views made your life hefker and removed you from the Jewish people. That is how this process of ultimate demonization leads to the ultimate crime of Jew killing Jew. It also confirmed that the fascist right would stop at nothing to enforce its dominance over the state’s political agenda.
An even more portentous example of such ruthlessness was the assassination by a Jewish terrorist cell of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. In this case, the Israeli far-right eliminated a popular leader whose political agenda called for negotiating the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Not only did the terrorist bullets end Rabin’s plan and derail the Oslo Agreement and a once propitious chance for peace; the murder led almost directly to the next 30 years’ dominance of the far-right over Israeli politics. No prime minister since, whether Labor, Likud or Kadima, has dared flirt with such an ambitious goal. Whatever small chance once existed for a peace deal evaporated as Rabin’s blood drained from his body outside the Tel Aviv plaza where he addressed 100,000 of his supporters chanting for peace.
This evil deed would never have been committed without two key accessories: the settler rabbis who issued a pulsa di nura permitting the spilling of a Jew’s blood by a fellow Jew; and Bibi Netanyahu, who gave a Mussolini-like speech inciting Rabin’s murder from a Jerusalem balcony before 10,000 settlers baying for the prime minister’s blood. Terrorism as state policy requires the endorsement, if not incitement of key religious and political leaders. It has enjoyed that, even enthusiastically, in the Israeli context.
Given this 70-year history, how can we fault Palestinians for nurturing a grievance against Israel? Expelled from their homes, treated like dirt if they managed to remain, forced to live under martial law for nearly 20 years following the 1948 War, who would not be prepared to attack the oppressor with whatever weapon he could muster?
Terror in Ancient Israel
But we need to go back even farther to Israelite history, to look for the earliest instances of Jewish terror. Biblical stories are filled with blood and mass extermination. God told the Children of Israel to utterly annihilate the Amalekites, who were among the first tribes they encountered as they entered the Land of Israel. After pitched battles between the two forces followed by Israelite victory, God commanded the murder of every man, woman, child, and animal as revenge for Amalek’s earlier attacks. In modern terms, we would have to call this an act of genocide.
Unfortunately, it’s not an outlier. Deuteronomy declares:
“In the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them — the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites — as the Lord your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God”
But the Israelites were not behaving any differently than other tribes of the era. Warfare and conquest have been staples of the Middle East for thousands, if not tens of thousands of years. Nor am I saying that the rival tribes were angelic creatures. They practiced child sacrifice, temple prostitution and a number of other rituals modern humans would find repugnant. Their traditions were as violent as those of the Israelites. The point to be made here is not that the Israelites were evil in the context of their own time, but that their behavior offered a template for Jews to follow in their later history.
In an essay I wrote for the London Review of Books (which the editors killed) about the use of assassinations as a method of enforcing political heterodoxy, I wrote about Judean proponents of terrorism in the Roman era:
The most prominent and formative group was the Sicarii, Jewish zealots who played an instrumental role in provoking the first Jewish rebellion against Rome in 66 C.E. One of the primary tactics used to sow fear and advance their political aims, was the assassination of Jewish collaborators. Their most sensational act was the killing of the former High Priest Hanania and burning of his Jerusalem home.
This brutal murder almost single-handedly divided Jews into radical and moderate camps, and eventually led to the rebellion. Thereafter, anyone viewed as a collaborator was fair game. The Sicarii, using knives hidden in their cloaks, mingled with the massive crowds of pilgrims around the Temple during religious festivals, picked off their quarry, and escaped into the crush. Their exploits struck fear in the hearts of Romans and Jews alike. The very audacity of their terror dramatically set the political tone and agenda for the era.
Josephus was a first-hand witness to this campaign of violence and wrote, in The Wars of the Jews, of the terror the Sicarii inflicted in the hearts of the Jews of Jerusalem:
“Many were slain every day, while the fear men were in of being so served was “afflicting”. and everybody expected death every hour as men do in war”
The Sicarii eventually incited a full-scale revolt against Rome. After four years of fierce fighting, hopes dimmed. One of the Sicarii leaders, Elazar Ben Yair, retreated to the Masada fortress in the Judean desert, where his forces were eventually overwhelmed by a Roman legion besieging them. The Jewish fighters committed suicide rather than surrender.
It’s certainly no coincidence that the most infamous pre-state Jewish terrorist, Avraham Stern adopted the nom de guerre, Ben Yair, before he himself was assassinated by British Mandatory police.
As I wrote in an earlier post, Malcolm X once wrote that violence is as American as cherry pie. There is no Jewish culinary equivalent to this saying I could think of. But terrorism is a concept deeply ingrained in Jewish and Israeli history. It has been used repeatedly and over many centuries to enforce heterodoxy on its Jewish victims and to enforce Israeli domination over Palestinians.
Israelis live in glass houses and shouldn’t throw stones (or bullets) at Palestinians engaged in resistance. Instead, they should examine their own national, political, and religious history and consider their role in instigating terror today and in the past. Of course, pro-Israel social media warriors have no interest in studying the Zionist or Jewish past, especially if it dredges up inconvenient truths. But I will do so and point out the historical record come hell or high water.
Finally, the historical analysis I’ve offered above is not anti-Semitic. I am not arguing that Jewish history is nothing but violence and terrorism. I am saying that there has been a dangerous trend in our history that embraces and glorifies such violence. There is a countervailing tendency that rejects this approach and demands peace, justice, and human rights. There is a battle of ideas within Judaism and Zionism. A battle for their respective souls. I’m issuing a warning cry that we must not let the Blood and Soil crowd take over our religion. In Israel, I fear that battle is lost. But among Diaspora Jews, the battle rages and we must go “once more unto the breach” to fight on behalf of Jewish ethics and against Judeo-thuggery.
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.