Brother Against Brother: Violence and Extremism in Israeli Politics from Altalena to the Rabin Assassination

Brother Against Brother: Violence and Extremism in Israeli Politics from Altalena to the Rabin Assassination

by Ehud Sprinzak


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780684853444
Publisher: Free Press
Publication date: 01/05/1999
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 6.38(w) x 9.54(h) x 1.11(d)



It was 5:10 on Friday morning, February 25, 1994. About five hundred Muslims were kneeling in a Ramadan prayer at the great Isaac Hall of the Cave of the Patriarchs in the Israeli-occupied West Bank town of Hebron. An Israeli dressed as a captain in the Israeli Defence Forces, armed with an automatic Glilon rifle, broke into the hall and sprayed the worshipers with live bullets. Fully engaged in their prayers, unarmed and unprepared, the praying Muslims never had a chance. In fewer than three minutes the officer unloaded four magazines containing 111 bullets. Twenty-nine Muslims were instantly killed; over one hundred were wounded. A clog in the assailant's gun ended the surrealistic killing spree before the fifth magazine could be loaded and allowed several unhurt worshipers to throw a fire extinguisher at the killer, bring him down, and beat him to death. In the hysteria, panic, and outrage that spread through the occupied territories as the Hebron tragedy became known, additional violence took place. Palestinians and Israeli soldiers clashed all over the West Bank and Gaza, leaving nine Palestinians dead and nearly two hundred wounded.

The shock of the Hebron massacre multiplied when the killer's identity was discovered. The man turned out to be Dr. Baruch Goldstein, the emergency physician for Jewish settlers in Hebron and the adjacent town of Kiryat Arba, and a devout Orthodox Jew. Goldstein, thirty-seven, father of four, was one of the most respected residents of Kiryat Arba. An able doctor and former town council member, Goldstein was responsible for treating many Jewish victims of Palestinian terrorism. He also at times cared for wounded Arabs;ary was that it was not shared by many of Goldstein's close friends in Kiryat Arba. While denying any previous knowledge of the attack plan, they justified the act as a response to Palestinian terrorism. According to this reasoning, the Palestinians had to be taught that Jewish blood is not cheap, and Goldstein's was the only way of getting that message across. But the massacre was not just an act of political-military revenge. It was, according to these colleagues -- members or supporters of the radical fundamentalist Kach movement, established by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane -- a religious act and a sacred mission. In killing these Muslim enemies of the Jewish people, Goldstein was in kiddush hashem, sanctification of the name of God. By avenging the blood of pioneering settlers recently murdered by Palestinian terrorists, Goldstein did what God wanted him to do: he glorified God's name. And the act carried another purpose. In addition to the warning of terror he sent to the Arabs, Goldstein had a message for Rabin and his ministers, to put an end to the peace process with the Palestinians. The fundamentalist and messianic doctor had no doubt that God wanted the government of Israel to abandon the sacrilegious selling of the land of Israel. A number Baruch Goldstein's friends made it known that in their eyes he was a holy man. According to these associates, Goldstein had conducted a supreme act of messirut hanefesh (total devotion), which they themselves should also have done had they had the doctor's courage and sacred sense of mission. One could further detect in these people a sense of guilt about Goldstein's extraordinary personal sacrifice.

At the time of writing this book, four years after the Hebron massacre and especially after the publication of the State Investigation Committee Report regarding the matter, the contours of the atrocious act are relatively clear. There is no question that Dr. Baruch Goldstein conducted the crime on his own and that nobody knew about the plan or assisted in either its preparation or its execution. At the same time it is equally clear that the act was purposeful and premeditated. The Hebron massacre was conducted within an elaborate ideological and political framework that fully justified anti-Arab terrorism. While we will never fully understand the ultimate emotional trigger that ignited this suicidal massacre, it is patently clear that the Kiryat Arba physician planned the attack well in advance, that he wanted to kill as many Muslims as possible, that he was certain that God approved of the killing, and that he hoped and believed that the massacre would stop the peace process. If we add to these facts Goldstein's long and close association with Kach, the Hebron disaster loses its one-time, isolated status. It acquires, instead, a political meaning; it becomes a collective act by proxy, a colossal demonstration of political violence expressing a crisis of an entire fundamentalist milieu. Given the enormous potential damage that the current Israeli-Palestinian peace process holds for Zionist religious fundamentalists, it is not an exaggeration to describe the Hebron massacre as the most extreme reaction of these messianic Jews to the political threat posed to their theological convictions and collective existence.

Despite how stunning the Hebron massacre looked in the spring of 1994, a large number of Israelis still refused to view it a s an indication of the deteriorating quality of the nation's civic culture. Dr. Goldstein's operation was, according to this view, an act of war carried out during an external conflict. Although only a few of these observers fully approved of the massacre as a legitimate warlike activity, they saw it as an understandable Jewish reaction to the violent Palestinian culture. The massacre, so the argument went, did not tarnish Israeli democracy. It had nothing to do with the politics of the Jewish state and with the ability of its citizens to handle their own internal differences in a democratic and civil manner. Though living in the undemocratic and bloody Middle East, the Israelis were capable of maintaining their long-cherished culture of civility and nonviolence.

All hopes for Israel's ability to insulate itself from the violence between Jews and Arabs in the occupied territories were brutally shattered on November 4, 1995, in Tel Aviv's Kings of Israel Square. A huge peace rally in support of the government was concluded by the fatal shooting of Yitzhak Rabin, the ninth prime minister of the state of Israel. Rabin, who had just concluded the rally with a big hug from Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and a chat with the rally's organizers, was shot at the door of his armored car. The shooting at the square's "protected" parking lot, from an almost point-blank range, left Rabin with little chance of survival. The prime minister did not suffer much. Almost instantly losing consciousness, he never regained it and died on the operating table in Ichilov Hospital. At 11:10 P.M., the prime minister of Israel was officially pronounced dead.

The assassination of Yitzhak Rabin was neither accidental nor cond ucted by a madman. The murder was preceded by an unparalleled campaign of political delegitimation against the ruling Labor government and by character assassination of Rabin and Foreign Minister Peres. The ratification of the Oslo Accords with the PLO (signed on September 13, 1993), the failure of the Hebron massacre to stop the implementation of the Palestinian Autonomy Plan, and the repeated acts of Palestinian terrorism drove the Israeli extreme right into deep despair. Mostly expressed in countrywide antigovernment demonstrations, the radicalization of Israel's ultranationalists was particularly expressed in their rhetoric. Not only was the government, duly elected in 1992, an "illegitimate" government, but its leaders had begun to be labeled as "traitors." A wave of Islamic terrorism, begun in November 1993, added a new dimension to the bitterness and fury of the extreme right. Rabin and Peres had increasingly been portrayed as "assassins" and "collaborators with terrorism." The most radical elements of the Israeli extreme right made it clear that they believed that the two architects of Oslo were personally responsible for the violent death of Israeli Jews. By taking the Israeli army out of Eretz Israel territories and by pulling out the Shin Beth, Israel's internal security service, they virtually invited Palestinian terrorists to kill Jews. The question asked increasingly by extremist rabbis was no longer whether the two statesmen were involved in treason. The issue debated by these Halakhic authorities was whether or not the treacherous acts of the two warranted a din rodef (ruling about a "pursuer") and a din moser (ruling about a "denouncer"). Rodef and moser are terms that denote individuals directly responsible for the killing of innocent Jews and the surrender of holy Jewish territory. According to Jewish law, rodfim and mosrim may, in extreme circumstances, be sentenced to death.

Twenty-five-year-old Yigal Amir, who murdered Yitzhak Rabin, wasneither a sociopath nor a deranged person. A student of law and computers at Bar Ilan University, Amir was known to his friends as a bright youngman. Peers who studied with Amir at the university's Kollel, a special religious academy for the rigorous study of Halakha (Jewish law), testified that the talented student had occasionally outperformed his Talmud teachers. Amir, who in the two preceding years had become increasingly active in the antipeace protests of the Israeli right, shot Rabin in cold blood. His investigators were stunned by the confession that Amir had planned to kill Rabin for a long time and that on at least two earlier occasions he tried to physically approach the prime minister with this purpose in mind. Thrilled by the news of Rabin's death, Amir made it clear that in his opinion Rabin was a rodef. The assassin was so sure of his interpretation that he refused to listen to rabbis who tried to dissuade him from jumping to that conclusion. Amir further stunned the Israeli public by stating that he would have loved to gun down both Rabin and Peres. The only reason he did not do so on November 4 was that Peres had left the podium shortly before Rabin, and Amir did not want to miss the opportunity to kill the prime minister.

Though stunning and unprecedented in the Israeli context, the Hebron massacre and the Rabin assassination were not the first atrocities of their kind within the broader picture of the area. The Middle East has recently been associated with a dramatic rise in religious radicalism and extremist fundamentalism. Khomeini's revolution in Iran, the assassination of President Sadat in Egypt, and the ferocious fundamentalist effort to bring down the Mubarak regime by terrorism, the violent eruption of Shi'ite terrorism in Lebanon, the rise to power of Sunni fundamentalists in Sudan, the bloody struggle of Islamic radicals in Algeria, and most recently the dramatic rise of Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorism among the Palestinians -- all contributed to the identification of the region with religious violence and fanatical terrorism. For years, however, there was one exception to this turbulent image -- the state of Israel. The Jewish state was perceived as an island of democracy, secularism, pragmatism, and nonviolence. But events of the late 1980s and early 1990s raised the question of whether, within its borders, Israel was in fact isolated from the atmosphere of religious violence that prevailed in most neighboring countries.

Thousands of young yeshiva (Jewish Orthodox seminary) students took to the streets during this period to fight the establishment of a Mormon university in Jerusalem, to stop archaeological digs all over the country, to burn bus stations where "obscene" commercial advertisements had been posted, and to stop the screening of movies on Friday nights in Jerusalem. Such incidents were somewhat reminiscent of fanatical street demonstrations in Tehran or Beirut. The vigilante violence of the young messianic settlers of Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) in the West Bank, peaking in the 1980 assassination attempts on three West Bank Arab mayors and the 1983 terror attack on the Muslim College of Hebron, approximated the type of religious terrorism that has been highly visible in the Middle-East. The rise to political prominence of Israel's radical right, a marginal group in the first thirty years of the state's existence, is another indication of the changing character and direction of Israel's political culture.

The purpose of this book is to place the Hebron massacre and the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin in a broader historical and cultural perspective. The question the book addresses is not just why and how a Jewish physician could become a political mass murderer and a Jewish student the prime minister's killer but what the political and cultural conditions are within which a large number of Israeli Jews have come to consider violence and assassination legitimate political means. The shocking and senseless atrocities committed by Israelis in 1994 and 1995 did not take place in a vacuum. They were the peak of intense Jewish-Muslim and Jewish-Jewish confrontations in territories captured and occupied by Israel in 1967. The massacre and the assassination were, moreover, a sad indication that the forty-seven-year-old Israeli effort to contain political terrorism and establish a nonviolent democratic society in the Middle East has not been as successful as was once expected.

This book does not examine Israel's external wars and only indirectly addresses the century-old Arab-Israeli conflict. It traces the origins and evolution of domestic extremism and violence in Israeli society, which includes both violence between Jews and between Jews and Arabs. It describes the movements, operations, actors, and ideological reasoning of Israeli extremists since the establishment of the state in 1948. While there are many studies of Arab and Muslim domestic extremism and violence, not a single book comprehensively accounts for Jewish violence in Israel. This study aims to fill that gap. It further tries to show that Jewish politics and violence are not always contradictory terms.

The question of Israeli domestic violence is unfortunately neither just an interesting academic issue nor merely a problem of political and cultural history. The Hebron massacre, the Rabin assassination, and the Muslim violence that preceded and followed both events show how domestic terrorist interaction between Muslim and Jewish religious extremists can damage -- and potentially destroy -- the peace process. It further indicates the possibility of serious regional and international crises. Though they represent a minority, religious extremists on both sides are heavily armed and enjoy strong support in their communities. Each side is convinced that God's command is to free the country from the infidels of the other side. In the next decade, whether or not they succeed politically, Muslim and Jewish religious radicals are likely to hold the center stage of their respective societies and attract the attention of the community of nations. In light of the vast importance that Jewish extremism and violence will have in shaping the future of the Middle East, this book introduces and explores the actual forces that are the most likely to play a significant role in Israeli extremism.

This is a study of political history. It seeks to describe and analyze the evolution of the major movements and actors involved in extremism and violence since the formation of the state of Israel. A fundamental presupposition of this study is that political violence does not exist in a vacuum and is not detached from nonviolent politics. Students of politics recognize today that political violence is almost always a behavioral by-product of extremist, extraparliamentary, and extralegal social movements. According to this approach, the study of violence involves not just the systematic observation of the political use of physical force but also the study of the larger milieu of ideological and cultural extremism of the society in question. The scholarly background for this assumption is presented in great detail in the methodological essay at the end of the book. The purpose of the appendix is fourfold: to provide the interested reader with a short historical introduction to the scholarship on political violence, a relatively new subfield in the study of politics; to identify the relationship between violent and nonviolent politics and demonstrate the evolutionary dynamics of violence and terrorism; to elaborate on the concepts and terminology used throughout through out the book; and to present an justify the analytical skeleton of this book.

Though focused exclusively on the history of Israeli violence, this study is by no means an exercise in revisionist history. My purpose is neither to unmask the "hidden" nature of Israeli politics nor to debunk the effort of the nation's political class to "hide" their brutal use of force. I am convinced that the full story of modern Israel is a tale of construction, not destruction, a story about the building of a free and largely democratic state in a troubled part of the world. What I am trying to show is that the largely su ccessful Jewish endeavor has also had its downside manifested in domestic extremism and violence. The writing of such a book might not have been necessary just a few years ago, but Israel's internal division and bloodshed since the signing of the Oslo Accords have created both the need and the interest. It is, thus, my contention that a present-day portrait of political Israel is incomplete without a systematic examination of the nation's domestic violence.

Although the major goal of this study is to document the political violence perpetrated in Israel since 1948, it also has another purpose -- the examination of the alleged demise in the Jewish state of the "ethic of Jewish restraint." A superficial examination of the facts revealed in this study is likely to suggest that Israelis today are a new breed of Jews who, unlike their brothers in the Diaspora, kill without remorse. Readers who form this opinion after reading a few chapters are encouraged to withhold their judgment until the last chapter, where the issue of Jewish exceptionalism is examined from historical and comparative perspectives. After some reflection, I decided to divide the book into two parts, violence in the first and second "Israeli Republics." This division reflects my agreement with the scholars who argue that the Six-Day War was a watershed in Israeli history and that the dramatic change in the ideological and cultural agenda of the nation justifies the distinction between the Israel that preceded and the Israel that followed June 1967. Largely focused on the major ideological conflicts of the nation and their violent expressions, this book lends, in fact, additional support to the distinction between the two Israeli republics.

The book's structure is as follows.

Chapter one discusses the violent struggle between the Israeli left and right during the birth of the state of Israel in 1948. The confrontation took place during the nation's War of Independence and peaked in the bloody events of Altalena, an arms ship brought over by Menachem Begin's Irgun underground and sunk under the orders of Prime Minister David Ben Gurion. The armed struggle between the army of the newly created state and the Irgun was the closest the nation ever came to civil war. Another significant event of that era, which is discussed at length, is Lehi's (Israel Freedom Fighters) assassination of Count Bernadotte, the U.N. mediator in the 1948 war. This chapter offers both a historical narrative and an assessment of the role of political violence in Israel's formative and most critical year.

Chapter two examines Israeli violence in the first half of the 1950s, in particular that of right-wing and religious origins. It focuses on the rise, activities, and capture of two right-wing antigovernment underground groups and on Begin's 1952 assault on the Knesset following a fierce debate over the issue of Holocaust reparations from Germany. Also discussed is the political assassination of Dr. Israel Kastner, a leader of wartime Hungarian Jewry under German occupation, charged by the extreme right as a former collaborator with the Germans. In addition, the chapter explores violence within the Israeli labor movement exemplified in the conflict between the seamen's union and the Labor party establishment. The intense violence of the early 1950s is portrayed, however, as a remnant of prestate left-right animosities, and is shown retrospectively as a declining trend. This analysis indicates that rather than posing a new and significant threat to the young Israeli government, the violence of the early 1950s was a prestate relic, an expression of old and weakening animosities.

Chapter three introduces the reader to the haredim, the ultra-Orthodox Jews living in Israel who take part in national politics yet reject the Zionist state on religious grounds. The chapter focuses on the most extreme religious factions, which to this day refuse to recognize the Israeli state, to speak Hebrew, and to enjoy the state's social benefits. It analyzes the great paradox of these extremists -- the gap between their intense denunciation of the Jewish state and their refusal to take up arms against it. This chapter shows, however, that the haredim are far from passive. They have waged fierce struggles against transportation on the Sabbath, archaeological digging in ancient graveyards, and the construction of a Mormon university in Jerusalem, as already mentioned. They have also launched campaigns against obscene posters, sex shops, and doctors facilitating human organ transplants. The chapter also surveys internal haredi violence: the power struggles among rabbinical courts and the perennial campaign against so-called sexual deviation within the community. Chapter three concludes part one.

Chapter four examines the impact of the Six-Day War on the Israeli collective consciousness, observes the rise of the second Israeli republic, and focuses on the first extremist left-wing responses to the 1967 occupation of the West Bank. It introduces the reader to two new extraparliamentary left-wing movements, Matzpen and Siah, whi ch advocated total Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and full recognition of the PLO. The chapter also documents the eruption and dynamics of Sephardi violence in Israel expressed by the Black Panthers, a bitter, alienated, aggressive protest movement in the early 1970s. The violence of the Black Panthers, which brought the discontent of the second generation of Sephardi immigrants into the open, is examined against the background of the 1959 Wadi Salib riots, which were launched by Israel's first generation of Sephardi newcomers. This chapter analyzes the introduction of post-1967 extraparliamentary politics into Israeli public life and identifies the issues that increasingly divided the Israeli public.

Chapter five focuses on Gush Emunim, the powerful settler movement responsible for spearheading Jewish settlement in the occupied territories. The chapter examines the unintended development of religious violence in this pioneering and idealistic movement and the formation of the "Jewish Underground," which conspired to blow up the Muslim Dome of the Rock on Jerusalem's Temple Mount in the late 1970s. The evolution of Gush violence is demonstrated through the increasing friction between Muslims and Jews over Hebron's Cave of the Patriarchs, Nablus, and other West Bank sites. The origins of the terrorist underground are traced to the theological crisis over the 1978 Camp David Accords and the group's messianic convictions. The underground's "side jobs" -- the successful attack on Arab mayors in 1980, the 1983 assault on Hebron's Muslim College, and the 1984 attempt to blow up five Arab buses full of passengers -- illustrate the unexpected rise of settler terrorism. Also examined in t he chapter is the struggle over Yamit, the last settlement to be evacuated in Sinai in the wake of Israel's peace accord with Egypt.

Chapter six examines the ideology, operations, and cultural impact of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, the most extreme of all modern Jewish preachers. The chapter focuses on Kahane's philosophy of violence, the rabbi's anti-Arab preaching, and the implementation of both by the rabbi's followers in the Kach movement. The chapter also examines the violent interactions between Jews and Arabs in the late 1970s, the spread of militant ultranationalism and "Kahanism" during the Lebanon War, and the election of Kahane to the Knesset. The chapter concludes with the response of Israeli society to the quasi fascism of Kach and the containment of violence following the political murder of Peace Now activist Emil Greentzweig.

Chapter seven considers the violent consequences of the 1993 Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO in the context of Baruch Goldstein's massacre in Hebron. The chapter describes the shock and confusion created within the settler community by the 1992 Labor electoral victory and the signing of the Oslo Accords. It identifies the tension between moderates and extremists over the proper settler responses to the peace process and Palestinian terrorism. The chapter addresses the classic question of what happens to messianic movements when prophesy fails, and explains the Hebron massacre within the framework of the crisis of messianic fundamentalism. Baruch Goldstein, a dedicated Kahane disciple, is shown to have been a killer by proxy, a representative of an articulated culture of violence that was bound to explode in response to the Oslo Accords and the resumpt ion of Islamic terrorism.

Chapter eight traces the countdown to the Rabin assassination, examining the radicalization of the religious right since the Hebron massacre with special attention to the rhetoric of opinion leaders and rabbis. The movement of the radical right from delegitimation of the government as a political collectivity to the depersonalization, character assassination, and dehumanization of its leaders, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, is documented in great detail. While distinguishing between the extremist and pragmatic components of the radical right, the chapter follows the extremist's takeover of the antigovernment struggle and the unwillingness of the pragmatists to curb their militant behavior and rhetoric. Attention is also devoted to the personality of Yigal Amir, Rabin's assassin, and the rulings of din rodef and din moser, which convinced the young man that in killing Rabin he was following the Halakha. Also discussed is the doctrine of Jewish zealotry, which made it possible for Amir, an obedient Orthodox Jew, to kill without rabbinical authorization.

Chapter nine concludes the book with an examination of the major question implied in its title: is Israeli domestic violence an indication of theend of the famed ethic of Jewish restraint? The chapter explores the issueof Jewish exceptionalism with regard to violence and shows that contraryto common belief, Diaspora Jews, just like their Israeli successors, had occasionally been involved in domestic violence. It is argued, however, that Israeli domestic violence, like Jewish violence in the Diaspora, has not matched the magnitude of Middle East atrocities or even the violence experienced by most Western soc ieties. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the future of Israeli violence and a development of four potential scenarios of domestic violent struggles over the land of Israel.

Copyright © 1999 by Ehud Sprinzak

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