If you were to ask anyone what they thought of terrorism in the Holy Land (i.e. Israel, Palestine), I am pretty sure that the first thing that would pop into their mind would be “Palestinian perpetrator, Israeli victim”. And, to be honest, you would be justified to an extent in thinking so. After all, there are almost too many terrorist groups to list in the region that hew to Islamist extremist ideology: Hamas, Hizballah, PFLP, etc. This morning in fact a 19-year old Israeli woman was killed in Jerusalem in what security authorities are looking at as a terrorist incident.
At the same time, we cannot ignore the reality that the perpetrator-victim ‘norm’ does not always apply. There are attacks that are planned and carried out against Palestinians by Israeli Jews and these must be seen as terrorism, as I hope to demonstrate. A number of media sources have written articles lately about the phenomenon of Jewish terrorism and are worth having a look at. You can access this analysis in The New York Times, The Jerusalem Post and The Times of Israel.
When we slap the label ‘terrorism’ on an act of violence we have to demonstrate a few essential things. First and foremost the act has to involve serious violence, i.e. vandalism or graffiti do not count. Someone has to be injured or killed to qualify as a terrorist act. Secondly, the act has to be planned or carried out by people who are driven by any one, or several, of ideological, political, or religious motivation. For some there is a third requirement and that is the effect the act has on the population affected – fear, panic or a possible shift in policy or practice in the wake of the attack or threat of one.
So where does Jewish extremism fit? Clearly these actors have been responsible for seriously violent deeds. In addition, the reasons behind the violence are very obviously political-religious in nature. Many of these incidents are perpetrated by so-called ‘settlers’, Israelis who choose to live in what the whole world calls the Occupied Territories, land seized by Israel over the past 70 years or so from the Palestinians. For many of these residents this land is not ‘occupied’ but rather belongs to the Jewish people because God (or Yahweh) said so. In their understanding of history and God’s promise to the Jews, there is no room for debate. The territory in question is Jewish and they will not consider any other ideas. In truth, they hope that the Palestinians will just leave, and often say that there are plenty of Muslim-dominant countries in the Middle East for the Palestinians to move to. Furthermore they will use violence if necessary to intimidate or coerce these ‘usurpers’ to quit Israel.
This, therefore, is terrorism. It is not usually seen as such by fans of Israel and, to be honest, I am not too sure why. Perhaps because the plucky Israelis are seen as underdogs and inhabiting a land at constant risk as it is surrounded by many nations that at one point openly called for its destruction (and some still do). There is also a disturbing trend in some parts of Israeli society to dismiss these incidents and turn the tables by blaming the security services for cracking down on these violent extremists.
We know, however, that there are conditions in Israel that foster violent extremism. There are religious leaders (rabbis) who are virulently anti-Islamic. There are religious schools (yeshivas) where young men spend decades immersed in divine rhetoric, some of which is intolerant. There are political parties in Israel that are at a minimum hateful and perhaps at times all too willing to condone violence.
Take that last paragraph and substitute ‘imams’ for ‘rabbis’ and ‘madrassas’ for ‘yeshivas’. Does that sound more familiar now? We have read and heard for decades about the existence of Islamic leaders and schools where terrorism ferments. Why, then, would we not apply the same standard to individuals and institutions which happen to be Jewish?
If we want to be intellectually honest we need to be consistent in what we call religious terrorism. The particular identity of the faith is not important. What matters is that a small number of people see violence as divinely inspired (and rewarded). No religion is immune from this curse.