This month has seen another breakthrough in the U.S. media: two leading publications have run important and often-eloquent pieces on Jewish terrorism. Both are from a liberal Zionist perspective, but both bring news to the U.S. public about the frightful state of Israeli political culture today.
The New York Times two weeks ago ran Sara Yael Hirschhorn’s piece called, “Israeli Terrorists, Born in the U.S.A.,” saying that the Jewish settler/terrorists often have American roots. The piece was unflinching about the American support for Jewish terrorism. Hirshhorn urged Jews to take “aggressive steps within their own communities” and asked, where is the rage is in the United States Jewish community.
[W]hy have their rabbis not held news conferences loudly denouncing the terrorists in their own communities and families? Where are their op-eds in American and Israeli newspapers condemning violent Jewish extremism?
American Jews at home and abroad can no longer condone these blind spots and damning silences when it comes to Jewish extremism in Israel.
This month too, Assaf Sharon has a piece up in the New York Review of Books on “The Jewish Terrorists”. It traces the Revisionist terrorist gangs of the 1930s, Irgun and Stern, on up to their heirs Naftali Bennett and Benjamin Netanyahu, who are atop the Israeli government.
The recent election of Benjamin Netanyahu–who after trailing in the polls made racist statements that were clearly intended to arouse fear–shows that the violent sentiments and views discussed by [authors Bruce] Hoffman and [Patrick] Bishop are still very much alive. Netanyahu’s father, a formidable scholar of the Inquisition who died in 2012, was a revisionist ideologue who belonged to the “maximalist” circle. He was an Islamophobe who supported pre-state terrorism and opposed any agreement with Arabs, even the peace accord with Egypt.
His son shares many of his views despite opportunistic rhetoric about a two-state solution, which he opposed during the election and then limply endorsed afterward. In early May he formed a new government including members of [Bennett’s] Jewish Home party, which supports expansion of West Bank settlements and opposes a Palestinian state. The Likud, under Netanyahu’s leadership, has shed the last remnants of [Revisionist Vladimir] Jabotinsky’s liberal commitment and became a party willing to exploit racist contempt for Arabs. Understanding the ideological roots of Israel’s current leaders is indispensable if they are ever to be successfully challenged and replaced.
Let’s celebrate the publication of these articles. “The more of this the better. These pieces are a big step forward,” James North reminds me. “Hirschhorn writes about Jewish terrorism, which is hardly ever talked about in the Times. I was delighted to read her reporting; and the Times commenters were impressive. Her article also undercut the idea that Israel is a haven for persecuted Jews. No one in their right mind is going to believe these Americans are fleeing anti-Semitism. They’re going there to throw their weight around with Palestinians.”
Now let me get to my criticisms. Hirschhorn is blaming America for the extremist ideology; Sharon is saying that terrorism is an aberration of Zionism. Both pieces leave out the degree to which violence has for decades served Israel and Zionists in acquiring more land with fewer Arabs on it. Both express the romance of an Israel somehow redeemed of its extremist elements overnight, when as even the Jerusalem Post makes clear, the terrorists in the West Bank have quiet support inside the right wing parties that help constitute the government.
The Times piece actually begins with a falsehood; the headline (chosen by the editors) states, “Israeli Terrorists, Born in the U.S.A.” These Jewish settler terrorists may have “American roots,” as Hirschhorn states in her piece; but they weren’t born here; in some cases their parents were.
Hirschhorn’s contention is that American settlers are among the most virulently ideological:
This disproportionately large American contingent — relative to the total number of American-Israelis — has joined secular, religious and ultra-Orthodox Israelis, and other more recent immigrants. Few of them live in extremist hilltop outposts; a majority live in suburbanized settlements near Jerusalem, but they are considered among the most highly ideological.
She blames an ideology composed in part of American liberalism:
Rather than quoting the Bible or rhapsodizing about a messianic vision, they tend to describe their activities in the language of American values and idealism — as an opportunity to defend human rights and live in the “whole land of Israel” — often over a cup of Starbucks coffee in their boxy aluminum prefab houses or in the mansions of settlement suburbia. To them, living in the West Bank is pioneering on the new frontier…
many law-abiding American settlers continue to see themselves as good liberals.. Not only is this belief still intrinsic to the self-image of many mainstream American settlers, they have also learned the value of speaking fluent liberalese on the international stage
I don’t believe that these settlers are less likely to quote the Bible than they are American liberal traditions. I have talked to at least two dozen American settlers in my times in Palestine, and they invariably quote the Bible. I have never heard them talk about Martin Luther King or speak liberalese. Virtually everyone of them has given me religious claptrap about which ancient Jews bought the land and who God gave the land to.
Hirschhorn’s forthcoming book surely also blames an American ethos. It is called City on a Hilltop, in a variation on the Puritan ideal of a City on a Hill. It would seem to be a variation on Power, Faith and Fantasy, by Michael Oren, an effort to implicate U.S. ideologies in the racism and ethnic cleansing involved in colony-building. I blame a European Jewish ideology, Zionism, which of course borrowed intellectually from nationalism and colonialism, but was always a promise of tribal deliverance, and motivated people to cross an ocean and a sea and a desert.
Hirschhorn leaves out Zionist violence entirely. She quotes Yitzhak Rabin saying that America is a “murderous swamp” that gave Israel the mass murderer Baruch Goldstein, but doesn’t mention the Nakba massacres, or the Labor-approved massacres in Gaza. She says that American Jews “at home and abroad” are now compelled to heed Rabin’s “clarion call” to “spit out” the terrorists and sympathizers in “our midst.” But the Israeli political establishment is shot through with terrorist sympathizers, and this is an Israeli Zionist problem before it is an American one.
Assaf Sharon’s piece in the New York Review of Books also has a bad headline, thanks to the editors. The magazine’s cover headlines the piece “Jewish Terrorists!” as if this is some surprise or aberration. Who knew!
Sharon says terrorism has “marred Zionist history” since the 1930s, and that terrorism has never been politically effective, even though its living tradition goes from Menachem Begin to Yitzhak Shamir to Netanyahu and Bennett. He believes that the terrorism did nothing for Israel. It served the emotional self-interest of the terrorists, he says, though yes, maybe it also hastened the end of the British mandate, he concedes, but that’s about it.
His definition of terrorism leaves out a lot of violence; and Zionism has used violence often to great political effect, and considerable terror. The good Jews of his Zionist history, the Labor Jews, used it to expel Palestinians from the coastal cities in 1948, and they used the terrorist massacre at Deir Yassin to capture Jerusalem. Sharon cites Arthur Koestler; I’ve read Koestler’s Zionist books, and they treat the Jewish terrorists as an important and necessary military arm of a colonial struggle to establish the Jewish presence in a Palestinian landscape, the Galilee and Jerusalem. Sharon leaves out several effective uses of terror: the murder of Chaim Arlosoroff on the beach in 1933, which helped to end the co-existence model of Zionism, and the murder of U.N. mediator Folke Bernadotte by a gang led by a future Israeli prime minister in 1948, resulting in Jewish control of West Jerusalem, and not the internationalization Bernadotte was planning. If Begin and Shamir were so useless, why were they made prime ministers even with their terrorist past? Why was Netanyahu with his dubious record during the Rabin days? Because they are seen as heroes of a Zionist struggle to wrest land from Arabs that continues to this day.
Sharon says that terrorists use violence to prevent diplomatic resolutions. Isn’t that just what the Jewish terrorists are doing on the West Bank today? As the Jerusalem Post writes,
many [in the political establishment] quietly sympathize with the [murderous] attacks as helping to bring about the Jewish-dominated Greater Israel they seek.
Sharon treats the recent Dawabshe murders in the West Bank as acts of pure viciousness. But they also have a political aim, to demonstrate to the state the impossibility of making a two state solution; and they appear to be effective in that goal. Sharon is a friend of mine; he accompanied me on a protest of settlements five years ago. It was not clear to me then or now, how he hopes to save Zionism from its colonizing racist strain.