Last week’s firebombing by suspected Jewish settlers of a Palestinian home in the West Bank killing a toddler, and the stabbing of six people — one of them fatally — at the Jerusalem gay pride parade by a charedi extremist may be a game changer for Israel.
For Rabbi Aaron Panken, president of the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, it is further evidence that “the situation in Israel has taken a deeply troubling turn.”
The country, he said in a JTA op-ed, now faces the choice of becoming a “haven for fundamentalists intent on attacking those who differ, or it can step into a profound role of Jewish leadership as a country that embraces ideological difference as an essential strength.”
Former Israeli President Shimon Peres reportedly warned last Saturday night that “dark, extremist forces” are threatening to destroy Israel and called on all Israelis to rebuff them.
“Those who incite against Arab citizens of Israel should not be surprised when mosques and churches are set alight or even when a baby is burned alive in the night,” he said, according to The Times of Israel.
Israeli leaders from across the political spectrum vigorously denounced both attacks and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the Israeli hospital where the toddler’s mother was fighting for her life with burns over 90 percent of her body. Her other son, 4, is being treated there for severe burns of his own, and her husband is recovering from burns in another hospital.
But more needs to be done, according to the New Israel Fund, which said the “elegant words” of Israeli leaders “are not enough.”
“Many Israelis want to see a different type of leadership — leadership that will set an example of courage and tolerance, that doesn’t speak in racist terms, that acts swiftly to end hate crimes,” said the group, which promotes social justice and equality for all Jews.
“One cannot say, year after year, that Israel exists only for its Jewish citizens, or only for the Jewish citizens who comply with a narrow, right-wing interpretation of Zionism, and then be shocked when extremists feel free to express hatred and do violence and innocent children are murdered.”
Asked if Israel’s decision last Sunday to permit administrative detention for suspected Jewish terrorists — allowing their detention without charge as it is reportedly doing to 370 suspected Palestinian terrorists — NIF spokesperson Naomi Paiss said: “Abrogating civil liberties for the sake of security is always problematic and needs to be carefully considered.”
But Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, doesn’t believe that anti-Arab rhetoric caused last week’s attacks. He said the two events, which came within 24 hours of each other, were rightly condemned by Israeli leaders and that is “inappropriate and in many ways offensive” to see the arson attack “in broader terms.”
“It is very important in a democracy to allow the system to do its job,” Rabbi Cooper said. “Whoever perpetrated that horrible crime must be brought to justice. If he is part of a movement, there is talk of additional administrative moves that will be taken to co-opt further activity in that direction. … The full weight of the state must make sure it never happens again.”
And he challenged the NIF’s attack on the “right wing,” noting that the “majority of Israelis are center and center-right.” To suggest, Rabbi Cooper said, that they “are affiliated with terrorism and hate is damaging to the fabric” of the country.
On the other hand, Americans for Peace Now President and CEO Debra DeLee said in a statement that more is needed than just the arrest of the perpetrators. She said steps must be taken — “particularly among the nationalist right — to stop inciting actions and hate-speech.” And she called on the Israeli government to fight the environment of lawlessness that Jewish settlers have spawned in the West Bank.”
Ori Nir, the group’s spokesman, stressed that this was a “price tag” attack because the arsonists scrawled in Hebrew on a wall near the torched home the words “revenge” and “long live the king Messiah” next to a Star of David.
“Price tag is a campaign in which the victims almost always are Palestinians and the target of the campaign is the Israeli government,” he explained. “People think it is just Jewish versus Arab violence, but there is a political objective as stated explicitly by leaders of the settler movement — to try to deter the Israeli government from applying the law and removing illegal outposts … .”
Two days before the pre-dawn Friday attack, two apartment buildings in the Israeli settlement of Beit El, just north of Ramallah, were torn down in compliance with a High Court ruling, which found that they were built on private Palestinian land. The demolition came after several days of clashes between protestors and police. Later, Netanyahu announced the approval of 300 new housing units in Beit El, fulfilling a 3-year-old government promise to provide alternative housing for those moved from the apartment buildings.
Referring to the decision to build 300 new housing units in Beit El, DeLee complained that the government’s policies simply “reward settler lawlessness.”
Observers noted that Netanyahu heads a narrow right-wing government and must tread carefully when dealing with settlers.
Naftali Bennett, leader of the Jewish Home party and Israel’s minister of the economy, wrote last week that he would “not under any circumstances accept the attempt to vilify the 430,000 wonderful Israelis who live in Judea and Samaria, those who are known as ‘settlers.’ There is such a foolish attempt at the moment. It will not succeed. Whoever engages in such action is guilty of the same sin of prejudice and incitement.”
Ethan Felson, senior vice president and acting CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said the arsonists “must be punished the same as any other terrorists,” and that the sentence must be strong enough to serve as a “deterrent to others.”
“Right now, we’re broken hearted for the families that are in mourning,” he added. “But when our tears dry, the soul searching will continue.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, welcomed the government’s decision to “apply anti-terrorism laws” to Jewish terrorists, saying: “Those who commit these crimes should be held to account.”
He said questions are being raised about why Yishai Schlissel, the man suspected in the fatal stabbing of high school student Shira Banki, was permitted anywhere near the gay pride parade. He had just been released after serving a 10-year sentence for knifing three people at the same parade in 2005 and openly threatened to repeat his crime.
“Acts like these can in a moment do more damage than BDS [the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign] does in months,” Hoenlein said.
The arson attack “hurts the settlers in general,” he continued. “It creates the image that many have tried to paint of lawlessness and extremism, which is not really characteristic of most settlers. In fact, many of them have spoken out in condemnation of the attack.”
On Monday, the Palestinian Authority renewed its call for the International Criminal Court to investigate the Israeli “occupation,” and presented it a file containing details of the arson attack and what it described as other “settler terrorism.”
Although no arrest was made in the arson attack in the days following the incident, Hoenlein said authorities “are throwing immense resources into this, but they [the perpetrators] are not known criminals and not necessarily part of an organized effort. It could have been a spontaneous act of revenge by young people. … One person throwing a Molotov cocktail does terrific damage.”
In May, the Israeli human rights group Yesh Din issued a report that examined the success of law enforcement against Israelis who harm Palestinians in the West Bank. It said only 7.4 percent of investigations resulted in indictments of suspects, and that 85.3 percent of investigations were ended because of an inability to locate suspects or gather sufficient evidence for an indictment.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin acknowledged the problem last Friday. I24News quoted him as saying, “To my great sorrow, until now it seems we have been lax in our treatment of the phenomena of Jewish terrorism.”
Jonathan Greenblatt, who is in Israel for his first visit as the new national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said it was “important” that Israeli leaders “came out unambiguously and called this a heinous attack and have taken steps to apprehend the perpetrators.”
He added that the incidents “highlight a real tension in society” and the “need to focus on civil rights issues in Israel” and that he finds it “encouraging that leaders are prepared to deal with it.”
Hoenlein said the government would also be going after those who “incite and facilitate such acts.”
That promised crackdown appeared to begin this week with the arrest of Meir Ettinger, 23, the suspected head of an extremist settler group that was allegedly planning a series of attacks against Palestinians. He is the grandson of Rabbi Meir Kahane, the American-born rabbi who founded an Israeli party that was labeled racist and banned for advocating the forced expulsion of all Arabs from Israel. Kahane was assassinated by an Arab gunman in New York in 1990.
On Monday evening, in an all-too-familiar pattern of attack and counter-attack, a suspected Palestinian terrorist hurled a Molotov cocktail at a car in east Jerusalem, setting it ablaze and seriously burning a 27-year-old woman and slightly injuring two others in the car. The vehicle, which was engulfed in flames, then rolled into the path of another car, slightly injuring the driver.
Former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman was quoted as saying that the attack is a reminder that “the exception is Jews who attack Arabs, and the routine is Arab terrorism against Jews.”
Others pointed out that although the arson attack on the Palestinian home garnered the headlines, that same week there were 60 Palestinian terrorist attacks against Jews in which 22 Jews were injured.
“Unfortunately, we have not heard condemnation of those attacks by any group and Israel has not asked the ICC to get involved,” observed Rabbi Leonard Matanky, president of the Orthodox movement’s Rabbinical Council of America.
He said the Israeli government is “trying to maintain a moral code even when some among us do terrible things. It has responded in strong and appropriate ways. This was a terrible but isolated action, and we don’t condemn an entire group. I would hope every government holds itself accountable in the way the Israeli government is regarding this crime.”