Violence in Jerusalem, Part II

The recent outbreak of violence in Jerusalem and elsewhere has many causes. Unfortunately, there are few politically-viable remedies for those causes that are readily available. Worse still, the few governmental decisions that could ameliorate some of the sources of the violence have been reduced in number because, over the past two decades, the very nature of Israeli politicking has been altered beyond all previous recognition. One central feature of that change is that there are now almost no limits on political behaviour in Israel—no matter how negative an impact extreme political behaviours may have on the government’s capacity to deal with the crises it is facing. Put simply, what had once been considered political and social deviancy has now become an accepted norm in the Israeli cabinet—especially among the neo-nationalists who have provided the majority of cabinet members in recent years.

For millennia, the Middle East has usually provided a happy hunting ground for political-deviancy stalkers. Israel, though, has now become an exception; and the results of this trend are becoming increasingly toxic and tragic.

I have long asserted that it is impossible to comprehend or predict events in the Middle East without being acutely sensitive to the perceptions that the people there have of what is or what should be normative political, social and religious behaviour…and who should and who should not be considered to be an outsider.

In popular parlance, the word “deviant” usually has had a negative connotation because it is often modified by highly-charged adjectives such as “sexual,” because it is a term that is frequently used by authoritarian ideologues to dismiss critics, or because it is often associated with anti-democratic political witch hunts.

However, it is also worth remembering that in situations where communal norms rather than laws dictate or limit human behavior, certain synonyms or synonymous phrases for the word “deviancy” become important positive measures of the value system that is in place in that particular society. One classic example is the British expression “It’s just not done.” This phrase is used to describe situations in which an individual may not have done anything illegal. However, what they have done is nonetheless felt to be unacceptable and should be viewed as contemptable by the majority of the society.

In cases such as these, and when employed in other democratic political settings, the word “deviant” can be used to express an important concept—that even when a society cherishes freedom of speech or freedom of political action, it still has the right to impose both legal and non-legal limits on some forms of political activity. A good example of restrictions imposed by democratic countries on free speech are the prohibitions, both legal and otherwise, that some countries have placed on Holocaust denial.

Worldwide, the number of deviancy hunters tends to rise and fall, depending on how strong is the narrative that binds the particular society together. Weak narratives, or even a fear that the narrative has weakened, can lead to both fear and instability in a society.

All too often, history has demonstrated that a belief that the national narrative may be under threat is often enough to trigger a widespread search for those supposed religious or political or social deviants who are thought to have challenged or rejected the particular society’s narrative about itself. Such searches can often lead to figurative bloodbaths such as was the case when, for example, the US Unamerican Activities Committee was established, or Captain Alfred Dreyfus was put on trial. More often, though, searches for a society’s supposed outliers leads to literal bloodbaths such the Holocaust or the slaughter that Pol Pot initiated in Cambodia.

In each and all of these cases, uprooting deviancy and destroying deviants was believed by national leaders to be an effective antidote to potential anarchy.

In the Middle East today, the most incomparable, aggressive deviant-hunters are the ISIS supporters who take particular pleasure in beheading and crucifying anyone who does not adhere to the organization’s particular—and many would say peculiar—interpretation of Islam. ISIS supporters, in turn, are perceived to be extreme deviants by most of the rest of the world.

Many of the events that take place in Israel can also only be explained by how people there decide who is a deviant and how their deviancy should be treated. The torching of churches, the assault on marchers in a Gay Pride Parade in Jerusalem and the attempt at the live cremation of a Palestinian family in the West Bank village of Duma this past summer are recent cases where, for many Israelis, some forms of societal deviancy have been permitted to go too far, and have now crossed a red line and been accepted as criminality.

Regrettably, as is their wont, the popular media treated each of these happenings as discrete events, tied together only by their extreme nature. I am convinced, though, that these individual events are part of much more extensive processes that have been underway for decades. These processes are now having such a significant impact on Israeli society and the Israeli body politic that they are endangering Israel’s very existence as a humanistic community and as the self-governing nation-state of the Jewish people.

The best evidence there is to support this proposition comes from the two institutionalized religious groups that actually raised and supported the aforementioned murderers and arsonists prior to the criminals’ acts of villainy. In both cases, some of the leaders of these institutions did condemn the acts themselves. However, crucially, they did not criticize the beliefs that these same groups had fostered and propagated that had then motivated the felons to act as they did.

One group was the Haredim. In yet another replay of a behavior pattern that has become all too common, the ultra-Orthodox media were ordered by their rabbinical censors to completely ignore the murder of a 16 year old girl by a Haredi man during the Gay Pride Parade. As things were once explained to me by the editor of the Haredi daily newspaper Hamodia, the ultra-Orthodox rabbis have always demanded that their media report the world not as it is, but as the rabbis believe it should be. For that reason, for example, the ultra-Orthodox media never report sexual offenses such as paedophilia on the part of Haredim—and absolutely never even hint about it if the individual suspected of such a crime is a rabbi.

In the case of the murder of the 16 year old girl, the rabbis feared that even a mention of the incident might have encouraged Haredi youngsters to ask their elders to explain the prevelance of homosexuality—a sin strictly forbidden by the Bible. Finally, though, the openly-voiced revulsion by masses of Israelis at this attempt to pretend that the incident had not taken place, was so great that the rabbis did send out a few professional publicists to publicly condemn the act of murder. Crucially, however, these apologists did not even mildly criticize the hate that the killer had felt and had openly expressed towards LGBTQ population for more than a decade.

Arguably, worse still, many Israeli officials and political functionaries from the more mainstream Likud and HaBayit HaYehudi parties, tried to sweep these acts of savagery under the rug by dismissing them all as the activities of just a very few “wild weeds,” (asabim shotim).

The truth, though, is that acts of violence towards non-Jews by Jewish extremists have become endemic in Israel and in the Israeli-controlled territories. Significantly, not only have the authorities done little to punish the miscreants, many of those rabbis who have preached or supported intolerance, such as Yitzchak Ginzburg who heads the Od Yosef Hai Yeshiva, continue to benefit from state largesse in one form or another.

My intent in writing this essay, however, is not just to take pot shots at the behavior of this individual or that. I am far more concerned about the deeply embedded processes that created and fostered these individuals’ behavior patterns.

Taken together, these processes have undermined and almost eliminated the limits that Israelis had once placed on what the majority of Israelis had perceived to be non-normative political activity…and thus worthy of penalties such as shunning.

If Israel is to survive as a liberal democracy, it may soon have little choice but to reverse these trends and launch a concerted campaign to define by consensus what today should be considered unacceptable, non-normative behaviour…and which punishments should be meted out to practitioners of such social and political deviancy.

The origins of many, if not most of these processes can be traced back to two specific periods in modern Israeli history when trust in the national leadership, trust in the institutions the national leadership had created and trust in the narrative that the national leadership was propagating were undermined by the leadership’s own actions.

During the first period, in the mid-1960s, the central national narrative propounded by all the major political parties was that all the Jews in Israel were equal; and they had to equally bow to government demands for self-sacrifice in the face of a single, common, ruthless external enemy. It was incumbent upon all Israeli Jews, whatever their ideological differences to act as one so that the nation might effectively confront this external threat. Individualism, it was argued, should be suppressed because saving the group was a more imperative and a more noble act than expressing one’s personal uniqueness. To that end, if necessary, it was “good to die for our country.”

As part of that campaign, the Labour parties’ hegemons of those days officially idolized Kibbutz members as the most heroic protagonists in that narrative.

The reality, of course, was quite different; and the mental discord and psychological dissonance created by the conflict between reality and real human nature, and the demands of the narrative, were felt particularly acutely by two groups. The better known group was composed primarily of newly-arrived immigrants from Asia and Africa. Most had been shunted into farming villages on the country’s periphery or into urban slums that had poor schools, few public amenities such as parks and playgrounds, and weak health care facilities.

These newcomers were looked down upon by the country’s entrenched, Ashkenazi elite for being “backward.” Many members of that elite even viewed the customs and perceptions of these scions of the great Jewish intellectual bastions of Spain and Babylon as a threat to that section in the national narrative that Israel was an island-citadel of modern, advanced, Western values surrounded by a sea of oriental primitiveness. These Mizrahi immigrants were forced to endure countless insults and indignities. For example, the Mizrahi residents of the so-called “development towns” were forbidden by the neighbouring kibbutzim to make use of their swimming pools or their schools lest they somehow contaminate kibbutz youngsters with ideas that ran counter to the idealized socialist narrative that was current in these supposedly egalitarian collective settlements.

The second group is almost totally unknown abroad. However, arguably, it has had an even greater long term influence on Israelis than the revolt by the Mizrahim that eventually drove Labour from office. This second group was led by an extraordinarily talented body of Ashkenazi youngsters who were just emerging from the state school system and army service and were feeling that their self-identity was being mangled by those bureaucrats who had been appointed to promote the national narrative.

For some inexplicable reason, the revolt by these young, usually-leftist-oriented sabras, whose leaders included poets such as Yehuda Atlas, lyricists such as Yonatan Gefen, songwriters such as Yoni Rechter and songstresses such as Chava Alberstein and Yehudit Ravitz, has gone almost unmentioned in reports and history books written about that period—even though the artistic treasury they produced contains some of the country’s most outstanding cultural monuments and mementoes…creations that remain in constant use today. For example, it is the rare secular or modern Orthodox Jewish child who has not memorized some, if not all of the poems contained in Yehuda Atlas’s seminal book HaYeled Haze Hu Ani (“I Am This Kid”).

One reason why this mass of poetry and song may have been ignored by foreigners is that it is so uniquely and essentially “Israeli.” Many of the expressions used in these works, and the scenes from everyday life that are rendered so acutely in words full of emotional connotations, cannot be accurately translated from the Hebrew. Moreover, the rebellion as a whole was unlike any other ever taken by any other people. Unlike revolts led by artists elsewhere in the world in times past, the songs and poems these Israelis produced were not created to be merely a straight slap in the rebels’ elders’ faces. Instead, they were almost entirely directed at the next generation of Israelis who were just beginning to listen to words, to read, and to be aware of the world around them—or as songwriter Matti Caspi put it, this huge body of fine art was created for “those adults who just happened to have been born two years ago.”

In one of the most remarkable and rich cultural explosions in human history, almost every talented writer, poet, and songwriter of that generation devoted more than a decade to producing a massive body of art that was primarily directed at subversively telling children that they had a right to be themselves, had a right to express their emotions, and they need not accept instructions to behave like homogeneous copies of some bureaucrat’s ideal of what a child should be and should believe.

The long-term impact that this artistry had on Israeli society is almost immeasurable. For example, this movement, which aimed at validating a child’s right to individualism played no small part in the growth of the impetuous chutzpah and imaginativeness that experts assert are the primary ingredients in Israel’s transformation into a successful, high-tech, “start-up nation.” A no less important after-effect has been that, once the hammerlock that Labour had had on the national narrative was broken, the party was so shattered that it could not come up with another coherent, original narrative. It then became not just virtually unelectable, but also incapable of enforcing existing political behavior norms.

More on that in a moment.

The second period of upheaval commenced a month or so after the Yom Kippur war ended, and lasted until about 1985. Like the first tumultuous period, the impact of the second period of political turmoil is also being felt in almost every aspect of Israeli society to this very day.

The second phase began when the initial relief that Israelis felt at having survived the Yom Kippur War began to abate; and it ended when the Knesset passed a bill outlawing racism.

Once the soldiers came back from the front lines in late 1973, physically and psychologically battered, they began to demand answers to basic questions such as why the country had been so ill-prepared to fight the conflict, and why those leaders who were responsible for the debacle had not done the normative thing by taking responsibility for their actions or inactions and resigning.

The leaders’ failure to do so—voluntarily and immediately after the cease-fire began—left in tatters significant parts of the national narrative and the ideology that lay behind it, as these myths and ideals had been promulgated by Labour (such as it is the duty of all citizens to take responsibility for protecting and enhancing the common weal). That collapse would soon produce one of the most important processes that culminated in the acts of murder and arson during the summer of 2015.

Until the Yom Kippur War, competition between the various political parties had been based on intellectual battles that had focused on the differences between the comprehensive ideologies that each party advocated. As with most modern “civilized” wars, these “wars of ideas” were accompanied by a set of norms of behavior.

The ideologies that had been employed in the pre-state period and the years immediately after the state was established had been carefully crafted over time to be all-encompassing, coherent explications of the parties’ social, economic, and cultural goals—and the means they intended to employ to reach those objectives. Drafting and adapting those ideologies to contend with new realities as they appeared took enormous vision and hard intellectual work.

The theory that lay behind their crafting was a belief that political parties that were serious about ruling the state had to attract as broad a bloc of supporters as possible. For that reason, party platforms had to include every subject area that a ruling party might have to deal with once it took office. Ideologies were considered essential because during an election, they could be used to get popular approval for priorities for action. That approval then made it easier to carry out long-term planning.

Ideologies also had to be coherent lest competing parties with different ideologies be given the opportunity to ridicule any internal contradictions. It is important to recognize that ideologies differ from political dogmas in that they are designed to attract supporters because of their comprehensiveness. Dogmas, on the other hand, are usually discrete, stand-alone beliefs whose electoral purpose is to retain the loyalty of a narrow band of existing supporters and to attract voters who care only about a very limited number of single issues. For years, in Israel, dogmatic, limited-issue parties were considered to be non-normative.

These ideological wars, which the Zionist parties had conducted ever since the Zionist movement was formed, might have continued unabated, and might even have led to an evolution in ideological thinking, had a new, intellectually-deadening factor—the increasing prevalence of focus-limiting, popular political dogmas—not appeared on the scene.

Once Labour’s claims of moral and ideological superiority were found to be hollow, the major change in the very nature of Israeli politicking that I noted at the start of this essay began to take place. The parties that opposed Labour found that they no longer needed to fight for power by arguing about the relative merits of the multitude of details contained in broad ideologies. Instead, they could confine themselves to boasting about a few narrow doctrines that they held dear…and to offering up a few populist nostrums for the deep ills that beset the country.

Once the loyalty to intellectual rigor disappeared, every aspect of daily life that could be politicized became influenced by short-term political exigencies. This then meant, among other things, that duties and responsibilities for the common weal were no longer based on axioms and principles that were not just integral to a party’s ideology, but were also held by other parties. Instead, government budgets that enabled Israel’s politic actors to behave as they wished were authorized following negotiations between dogmatists who were willing to trade “concessions” about items that were not included in their narrow list of demands for those expressions of their tenets that they did care about. Governments then became federations of narrow sectoral interests, and the non-legal, but previously-binding principle of “majority rule with protection for minorities” evaporated.

It is important never to underestimate just how important ideologies had been in the creation and establishment of a viable state. Largely because of the willingness of Israel’s citizens to act on the basis of their respective ideologies, by the time the 6 Day War broke out, Israel had survived major wars and economic boycotts, had created a relatively solid economic infrastructure, and had found work for over a million immigrants. When the conflagration began, the country was on the cusp of changing from being an underdeveloped country to being a developing country.

Linguistically, that doesn’t sound like very much, but in practical terms it meant that the country had reached the point where it had to undergo revolutionary and socially-disturbing changes if the momentum of development was to be maintained. For example, the country, if it was to increase productivity and grow the national weal, would soon have to give up its previous policy of encouraging import substitution. Instead, it would have to focus economic activity on those export-oriented fields where it had a relative advantage over all the other societies in the world. In so doing, however, it would have to countenance and make adequate preparations to cope with the loss of tens of thousands of jobs that workers in non-competitive industries had once viewed as lifetime sinecures.

By the time the Yom Kippur War had begun six years later, a new cohort of largely native-born Israelis, acting on the basis of the ideological upbringing that they had received, had positioned itself to take on the challenge of leading the state through this period of potential domestic convulsion. Its members had reached maturity, had gained experience in public service in the military and the bureaucracy, and were now seeking higher office. However, the country’s political leaders, some of whom had been in office since the 1930s, were refusing to give up their plum positions. Almost without exception, the leaders of each and every party refused to organize an orderly generational transition of responsibility and power by announcing that they would soon be vacating their seats of influence and for that reason they would begin working together with and mentoring those in their 30s and 40s during the new generation’s last phase of training for public service,

The first party to be afflicted with the consequences of this syndrome was the National Religious Party (NRP). During the 1930s, 40s and 50s, the party’s leadership had been made up largely of European-born rationalist ideologues who had been exposed to the European Enlightenment and who sought to adapt religious Jewish Orthodoxy so that it could cohabit with European-style political and social liberalism. To that end, the influence that rabbis could bring to bear on the party’s activities was limited severely. The clerics were permitted to comment on how religious law might be strengthened or weakened by a particular political act, but they had no special standing when secular issues of state, such as healthcare or foreign policy were being debated.

However, following the establishment of the State Religious School System in 1953, the rabbis who were appointed to be school principals were handed a new power base from which they could and would reverse that party principle. Once they gained power, they succeeded in altering the way that the party behaved on a whole range of issues. Among the many changes in party behavior that they wrought, they succeeded in abolishing certain norms of political conduct that had been in place for decades.

The school that would prove to be the most influential of all was the boarding school yeshiva at Kfar Haroeh. It was there that a small, elitist group of teenagers, which called itself Gahelet (coals), began the process that would alter religious Zionism beyond all recognition. These youngsters, in a search for self-esteem and self-definition, rebelled against their parents’ moderation and willingness to compromise, and what they saw as the religious Zionist movement’s obsequiousness in the face of secular labor’s hegemony. Like many of their age, they sought out clear-cut definitions and decisions, and absolute consistency in everything they did. They very quickly became more strict in their religious practice and in questions of modesty than was the norm among religious Zionists at the time. They emphasized Torah study instead of discussing social issues (which had been the focus of the dominant Hapoel HaMizrahi wing of religious Zionism in general, and especially of the popularly-revered, ideologically-driven religious kibbutz movement in particular).

By the mid-1960s, religious Zionism was facing a rebellion by its young people, a weakening of its public status and a crisis of identity. It was at this point that a minor rabbi, working in a decrepit yeshiva began to gain influence until he would become the guru for most of the religious Zionist movement. Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook was the scion of the great religious leader of the early Zionist period, Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook. He had inherited the leadership of his father’s yeshiva, but had remained a very minor figure within the religious Zionist movement; and the yeshiva had become an insignificant backwater of influence and learning.

His pronouncements initially were largely ignored because he appeared to be speaking in otherworldly or Delphic oracular terms. It was only when individuals and rabbis found that they could not find rational solutions to the spiritual problems that they faced, that they began to look for mystical solutions such as those that the younger Kook was proposing.

These followers were attracted by Kook’s simple but compelling message: The establishment of the State of Israel was the beginning of the messianic era. Thus the state, including its institutions, were holy. For that reason, the state and the operative instruments of state should be shaped and then directed by religious law. Most importantly, the sacredness of the Land of Israel required that all of it be settled by Jews. To do otherwise would be to delay the redemption of the Jewish people everywhere. Kook sermonized that it was therefore incumbent upon all religious Jews to play an active part in ensuring redemption through religiously-driven, political action. Actions of this sort need not be limited by previous beliefs.

While his widely-revered father had believed that holiness was a potential latent in the Jewish people, Kook the son took the holiness of the Jews as a fact. This may seem to be an abstruse difference in positions by the two men, but it had practical consequences. The younger Kook argued that the Jewish people was holy, and so too was the whole land of Israel. The Jews’ return to the land was therefore an integral part of the process of redemption for the Jewish people as a whole. For that reason, conquest of all the land was essential if the process was to continue. To Kook, reactions to this conquest by non-Jews were irrelevant.

Among those who became his acolytes were Rabbi Haim Druckman, who was in charge of the Bnei Akiva youth movement, and the group of Gahelet youngsters, some of whom would go on to become the state religious school systems’ principals while others would found the Gush Emunim settler movement.

In what was probably his biggest break from NRP tradition, Kook preached that contrary to the secularists, and even his own father’s cautioning that unchecked narrow nationalism could lead people into moral dangers, the Jews could not create a state like any other because the Jews were a nation set apart from all the others.

Kook’s yeshiva-cossetted young followers lacked both life experience and political and administrative knowhow. However, these seemingly-negative attributes freed them to adopt tactics and strategies that had previously been considered publicly unacceptable. They were then able to use those tactics to effect enormous changes in the Israeli political landscape. Among the boons they brought to the country’s otherwise staid political playing fields was an irrepressible fervor, and a close relationship with school principals who had access to thousands of potential “field troops” and government-funded goods such as school buses. Those advantages were soon topped off by having a floundering Labour party as a political neighbour.

Of the three gifts that these youngsters had been granted, the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the Labour party was by far the most important. In retrospect, Labour’s descent into what was rapidly becoming an expediency-driven netherworld was far more important than many other more-publicized features of the Kookists’ settlement campaign, such as the settlers’ “natural” alliance with the Likud.

By the time that the NRP’s Young Guard was making its dash for power within the party in the mid-1970s, Labour was well into the process of becoming fossilized. Following Yitzchak Rabin’s resignation as prime minister in March 1977, it had become incapable of addressing any of the urgent national exigencies with which it was being confronted.

Labour’s deterioration had actually begun much earlier—in the 1960s. But that process had been accelerated by the 6 Day War. Although the country and the party had been awash in self-praise after the war ended, the party was facing an unprecedented challenge because the government had launched the war without any prior planning for what it would do with the territories it had captured. Among Labourites, that reality was being exacerbated by one of the unresolved conflicts that had divided the socialists since David Ben Gurion’s decision in 1948 not to capture the Whole Land of Israel.

The Ahdut HaAvodah faction headed by Yitzchak Tabenkin and led in the cabinet by Yigal Allon, together with some of the Mapai party’s leading intellectual lights such as poets Natan Alterman and Haim Guri, as well as many of the Mapai party faithful who had organized themselves under the rubric of the “Hug Ein Vered,” were ardent settlement supporters.

They and many less activist socialist party supporters were caught in a bubble of nostalgia that focused on what they believed had been the golden age of the Zionist enterprise—the “Watchtower and Fence” (Homat u’Migdal) illegal settlement campaign of the 1930s. One feature of their bathing in this now-mythologized past was the self-satisfied pleasure they took in watching and in silently—and even openly—applauding what they perceived was a replay by the NRP’s Young Guard of their battle against the British decades earlier.

What they failed to take account of was that the Young Guard was not just equating the legitimate government of the modern State of Israel with the hated British colonialists, the youngsters were appropriating, but also significantly altering, one of the central beliefs that had driven the 1930s battle against the Mandatory authorities. The 1930s pioneers had been convinced that justice was on their side because they believed that they were answering to a higher calling—a historical imperative…the realization of a nineteen century old Jewish dream of renewed statehood. Therefore, they believed that they were fully justified in breaking any laws restricting the Jews right to settle in their ancient homeland.

The Young Guard’s twist on these fond memories, however, could not have been more dangerous. Unlike their 1930s models, the would-be settlers believed that they were not just swearing loyalty to a higher calling, but to a higher authority—God. In other words, the youngsters of the 1970s were openly challenging the right of the democratically-elected government and institutions of the now-established Jewish state to pass laws and make judgments that restricted their behaviour.

The youngsters’ dash for power and influence might have been mitigated and even limited had they been confronted by an organized and unified opposition. However, the Labour Party, the only body that might have offered itself up as an effective opposition, had fallen into the pit of policy-making directed solely by political convenience.

Beginning in the 1930s, Labour had become an expert in the art of governance by political expediency. However, to his credit, Ben Gurion, following the establishment of the state had tried to replace the party’s belief that everything can be politicized with what has since come to be called “statism.” For example he abolished the political parties’ militias and their separate school systems.

However, when push came to shove, the party always fell back into its old ways. Probably the best example occurred in early 1976. In December 1975, the NRP’s Young Guard had begun holding a sit-in in the old Ottoman train station in Sebastia near Nablus demanding that its members be permitted to settle in the northern West Bank for the first time. In the belief that accommodating these protesters would lead them to support a Labour-led government after the next election, Shimon Peres negotiated a deal that allowed the settlers to move to a nearby army camp. Soon after, they were granted land for a proper, government-funded new settlement.

For that reason, Peres, not Ariel Sharon can justifiably be called the “Godfather” of West Bank settlement. Significantly for the purposes of this article, in the years that followed, Labour, because it was always seeking the NRP’s support to form a coalition government, never launched a campaign to criticize and undermine the settlers subsequent illegal acts such as when settlement activists established outposts on Palestinian-owned land and when they forged documents claiming that land on which they had established unauthorized outposts had been sold to them by Palestinians.

Despite Peres’s efforts, Labour lost the next election. At that point, it became catatonic. The party’s state of shock was so intense that it was never able then and is still not able to get over its 1977 defeat. At the back of their minds, Labour Party functionaries have remained convinced that Yitzchak Ben Aharon, the veteran socialist politician, was right. In the wake of the 1977 debacle, he had declared, without even a shred of irony, “The people have made a mistake!”

Labour had not only made a series of mistakes that had led to its defeat at the polls, once the older generation was finally forced into retirement, and even after its 1977 defeat, it had failed to confront many of the existential issues that the country was facing…in large part because it had become embroiled in constant leadership struggles that sapped its strength. Henceforth, it became so preoccupied with its internal party divisions that it had little time or energy to do real work. For example, between 1996 and 2015, it replaced the party leader ten times and gave the helm of the party to eight dfferent individuals.

Worse still, it could never accept the position of being, in British-style parliamentary terms “the loyal opposition.” It invariably tried, whenever the opportunity presented itself, to join a so-called “national unity government.” That was because its leaders were under constant pressure from party functionaries and party king-makers such as “Fuad” Ben Eliezer, to join cabinets so that the party could get jobs to distribute to party power-brokers.

In addition, during the early 1980s Labour, like the other socialist parties in the world was going through a series of crises brought on by the failure of many of its favoured economic and social policies. However, unlike the European socialists, the Israeli Labourites put very little if any effort into redesigning their policies so that they could respond to the challenges that major events such as the economic crisis that had been set off by the OPEC oil embargo, and the globalization of the world economy, had created.

Parenthetically, it appeared for a short period, during the government led by Yitzchak Rabin in the early 1990s, that this self-pitying approach to politics might be reversed. During those few short years, his government did try to rejuvenate and reconstruct a comprehensive ideology. However, Rabin’s murder cut that project short.

Labour, of course was not the only influence on the NRP Young Guard’s approach to practical politicking. Menachem Begin’s success in assembling his first coalition government taught the Young Guard a salient lesson that it and Begin’s other religious coalition partners, the Haredim, have never forgotten and have put to effective use ever since. Even though these two religious groupings are small, they can and usually do hold the balance of power in coalition governments. Even more importantly, they quickly realized that they can reasonably expect to hold the balance of power in future governments no matter which of the larger parties leads the ruling coalition.

This has given both groupings disproportionate power which they have used to considerable effect. No less importantly, the young NRP politicians learned when they were members of Likud-led “national unity” governments, that Labour was actually loathe to oppose spending on the settlers Not only that, later, even when Labour was out of office, and when it had the opportunity to change budget allocations in the Knesset Finance Committee, it was also loathe to oppose spending on settlement. In both cases the party feared that it might need the NRP to form the next coalition government if it won the next election.

A political, ethical void had been created. And so it should come as no surprise that the Supreme Court felt obliged to become more active in adjudicating whether the settlers’ actions conformed to both Israeli and international law. It tried to counter the Young Guard’s belief that everything could be politicized in pursuit of their God-directed goal with a belief that in order to preserve the country’s humanism, everything, in the words of Chief Justice Aharon Barak, should be “judiciable.” In the absence of an effective political opposition to the settlers’ illegalisms that might have otherwise taken up the cudgels in defence of the rule of law, this conflict between the Supreme Court and the settlers set the stage for the court to become the primary bulwark against what had previously been considered social deviancy. This adopted role has subsequently led to bitter battles between the settlers and the judicial system—and attempts by the settlers’ supporters to put limits on the Supreme Court—that continues to this day. Ironically, it would also lead to the elimination of what had once been irrevocable and long-standing norms of political behavior.

Although he was a dedicated supporter of the settlers, Menachem Begin was also an outspoken supporter of the rule of law. However, he was so preoccupied with security and defence issues that he seems to have totally failed to have noticed that, after the electoral victory by the Likud in 1977, his own party was going through its own ideological collapse. The largely-Ashkenazi Likud leaders, who had been imbued with Zeev Jabotinsky’s Revisionist philosophy, were finding that their new Mizrahi supporters, who had given them victory, were totally uninterested in the subtleties of the party’s European-style, liberal ideology. They were concerned with a very narrow list of issues led by their desire to punish Labour, their concern about Arab threats, and their push to advance themselves socially and economically. Not wanting to alienate them, the Likud would make no effort to indoctrinate its new voters into its political creed.

It was at that point that the battle over ideology ended—not with a bang, but with a series of whimpers as the remaining ideologically-driven Labourites and Revisionists began to die or retire. As a result, henceforth, all the country’s political parties, except Labour, Mapam and the Communists, but including all the Arab parties, shifted their efforts to focus to what all political parties world-wide had usually done when their nations’ central narrative had begun to collapse—emphasize all those things that can be included under the rubrics of nationalism, the supernatural and the conspiratorial. Despite the obvious ideological challenge that the neo-nationalists had created, Labour contented itself with being the ideology-free, dogma-free, default “not-Likud, not-settler” party.

In one of the first moves that led the Likud, to begin abandoning its Revisionist ideology, when it formed its first governing coalition, it chose to ignore two central tenets of its ideological founder’s basic philosophy—Zeev Jabotinsky’s fervent secularism and his belief that the Arabs under Israeli suzerainty should have equal rights. Soon, that latter decision would lead the Likud to accept the settlers’ demands that it turn a blind eye to the settlers’ growing extremism—extremism, that, among many other acts, included the uprooting and destruction of Palestinian olive groves. True Revisionists would have considered such destructiveness to be deviant behavior patterns, and thus unacceptable.

In the past, the Zionist Movement and the State of Israel had provided suitable venues for attracting and fostering aggressive, if non-violent, political and religious deviancy-hunters. Probably the best-known such hunter was David Ben Gurion, who, during the pre-state period fought bitterly with the Irgun Zva Leumi and the Lechi terrorist undergrounds; and who famously declared, after the state was founded, that he would form a governing coalition with any party “except Herut (the Revisionists) or Maki (the Communists)”…whom he believed should be shunned even though they had been elected to the Knesset.

Soon after the state was founded, Israel developed and then for many years afterwards made extensive use of a unique linguistic way of labelling political deviants. The labelling process itself was quite straightforward. It began with someone declaring that a political party, or even a single individual, was a “Saman Yemini,” which can be literally translated as “a right sign.” The term was invented by Palestinian, Jewish volunteers to the British Army who were demobilized following the end of World War II and subsequently became politically active in the run-up to national independence.

In British army parlance, the term referred to the person whom everyone else in a squad or platoon used as a marker when lining up on the parade ground. When transferred to the Israeli political parade ground, the term was used to refer to the most extreme individual or political party whom the labeler believed was still publicly acceptable as a political negotiating partner. Thus there could be a leftist “right sign” and a rightist “right sign.” For example, to Ben Gurion, Mapam was the left-wing Saman Yemini and the Liberal party was the rightist Saman Yemini.

In general, anyone who was perceived to be or was labelled as being more extreme than the Saman HaYemini of the day (as Ben Gurion did with Maki and the Herut party) was automatically determined to be a political deviant who could be subject to penalties such as public derision and political isolation.

Significantly, though, the term “HaSaman HaYemini” could be used very flexibly and the person or group so labelled could change as the definition of political deviancy was altered over time, or as the individual or group changed its modus operandi.

For example, Ben Gurion, by his choice of a relatively moderate, right-of-centre Saman Yemini, had effectively declared that Herut was beyond the pale. However, once Ben Gurion left office, and especially during the period leading up to the Six Day War, the language used by Labour party officials when referring to Herut underwent a subtle, but significant change. Herut was soon referred to by Labour as the Saman HaYemini. Eventually, this subtle change in word usage enabled Menachem Begin to join the National Unity Government established to cope with the 1967 pre-war emergency.

Labour could do so because the party had initially allowed Ben Gurion to impose his personal choice of who should be the Saman Yemini on to the party. Once he left office, party officials felt free to alter that choice when the need arose. However, Herut and its leader Menachem Begin had also altered their behavior to make it accord with the norms adopted by all the other parties including the Communists.

During the early days of the state, Herut was a relatively easy target for exclusion because, among other things, Menachem Begin, in 1952, had led a mob that had attacked the Knesset after Ben Gurion had signed the reparations agreement with West Germany. Ben Gurion could thus deride Begin as anti-democratic. His favoured way of doing so in the Knesset was to always refer to Begin, not by name, but as “the gentleman sitting next to Mr. [Yohanan] Bader,” (who was the deputy leader of Herut).

After Ben Gurion’s departure from the prime ministership, Labour needed a more general, and less personalized definition of who should be the Saman HaYemini. By consensus and without any formal vote, it eventually decided that one criterion for becoming a Saman Yemini should be whether the individual, no matter how extreme his or her position might be on other issues, was nonetheless a supporter of adherence to democratic rule and the rule of law. That informal redefining of who was the Saman HaYemini, together with Begin’s later behaviour as a devout parliamentarian and as a supporter of the court system and the rule of law, then enabled the Labour party to accept Begin’s presence in the national unity government that was formed prior to the outbreak of the 6 Day War.

The use of the term HaSaman HaYemini to define the limits of legitimate political behavior in Israel came to an apogee in 1984 and almost immediately began a steep descent in 1985.

In 1984, the Central Elections Committee, which is always chaired by a Supreme Court judge but whose members are representatives of the parties elected to the Knesset, had sought to prevent Meir Kahane the extremist American-born rabbi, from running for a Knesset seat. His electoral platform had included calls to expel Arabs, revoke the Israel citizenship of gentiles and ban Jewish/gentile sexual relations and marriages. However, the Supreme Court struck down the Committee’s decision, arguing that no existing law prevented a candidate from holding such views. In reaction, in 1985, the Knesset passed a law outlawing “racism” and the right of racists to run for public office. Although made with the best of positive intentions to protect democratic rule, the twin decisions by the Supreme Court and the Knesset had an almost immediate and profoundly negative impact on Israeli politics that has now culminated in the murders of the Dawabsheh family in Duma.

In effect, the decisions of the Court and the Knesset turned what might be called “normative” Israeli politics into what I have already described as “judiciable” politics. Up to that time, the British principle of “It’s just not done,” which, as noted earlier, is based on norms not law, had been a fundamental controlling mechanism regulating Israeli political behavior. In 1977, for example, Housing Minister Avraham Ofer committed suicide, rather than face a police investigation into charges of corruption. Soon afterward, and even more spectacularly, Yitzchak Rabin resigned as prime minister after his wife, but not him, was found to have held an illegal bank account in Washington.

After 1985, that approach to politics, based on unwritten norms, disappeared and was replaced by the principle that a politician should only be condemned if he or she is found guilty by a judicial court of transgressing a specific law.

The first examples of what this change in limiting political behavior would augur came when the next election rolled around in 1988. Prior to the balloting, the Central Elections Committee dutifully forbade Kahane from running for office on what was an as yet unproven assumption that a court of law would find Kahane guilty of racism.

However, that same committee, in a spectacular example of confused thinking, hypocrisy and political opportunism, did allow Rehavam Zeevi, a decorated war hero, to run for office…even though the intended outcome of his platform, which called for the Arabs under Israeli control to be “transferred” to other countries, was almost identical, in many ways, to that of Kahane.

From this point on, the use of the term “HaSaman HaYemini” virtually disappeared from use because it had become obsolete and irrelevant.

In a third, critical decision—and possibly as a result of the decision to allow Zeevi to run for office—the Committee, for the first time in Israeli history, allowed a virulently anti-Zionist, hardline, extremist Islamist party to also field a list of candidates.

A precedent had been set. Henceforth no politician would consider it his or her duty to create a marker that would easily indicate when a politically-motivated act would be considered to be an act of social or political deviancy. In practical terms, the message that was sent to all those engaged in political activity was: Everything is permissible so long as no evidence can be found that can be used to convict you in a court of law.

With a Saman Yemini no longer available to serve as a boundary marker of political behavior, it should therefore come as no surprise that, over the years, the opposition to Kahanism also eroded to the point where a self-declared Kahanist, Michael Ben Ari was elected to the Knesset in 2009.

No less interestingly, in the 1990s, after a protracted court battle, Shas party leader Aryeh Deri was convicted of gross corruption. He was found guilty by a court, served his time in prison, and retired from public life for ten years as the law required. However, when that time period was over, he decided to try to take control of Shas once again. The question that then arose was whether Deri, having served out all the punishments dictated by law should be permitted to not only run for office, but also to serve in a cabinet again. The alternative demanded by many civil organizations was that a norm… that a convicted felon should be forbidden from holding public office…should apply in cases of this sort. The position of the legalists was eventually adopted by all the political parties. That informal decision declared, in effect, was that norms should have no role to play once all the legal sanctions on a person have been applied. Deri ran for office. Shas was elected to the Knesset. And Deri became the Economics minister.

In the absence of markers, agreed to by consensus on what constitutes political deviancy, Israeli political language underwent a massive upheaval. That upheaval in language then had profound domestic policy and international diplomatic consequences that have been insufficiently recognized.

This linguistic revolution has been led almost entirely by supporters of Jewish settlement in the occupied territories in order to support their political aims.

Since this process began, those who oppose settlement, but who also support the principle of free speech as an absolute ideal, have been caught in a bind. Willy-nilly they have had to go along with the neo-nationalists’ linguistic manipulations, which then weakened their ability to fight against settlement in public fora.

The use and misuse of political rhetoric, which includes creating euphemisms, altering the definition of commonly-used terms, obfuscating, and employing bombast dates back at least to ancient Athens. In recent years, those Israelis who have declared themselves to be “rightists” have become masters in the use of each of these verbal arts.

In the past few years, the settler supporters’ primary rhetorical objective has been to try to delegitimize all those who do not adhere to their political beliefs (including those who are generally considered to be right-of-centre). As part of a multifaceted campaign, the extreme neo-nationalists have increasingly employed the word “leftist” as their most commonly-used pejorative…without defining precisely what they mean by that term. As well, they have tried to eliminate any vestiges of the old-timers’ use of a Saman Yemini.

There are precedents in Israel for the use of this form of political warfare. Probably the best prior example of the use of this tactic is the still-ongoing and largely successful attempt by the Orthodox to delegitimize the Reform and Conservative Jewish religious movements. Among the Orthodox leaders’ successes is the fact that today many Israeli secularists, as a result of the linguistic tactics used by the Orthodox, have come to believe that there are only two legitimate states of being—orthodo religiosity or secularism.

It is a mark of the Israeli left’s ongoing weakness that it has been unable to counter the settlers linguistic strategizing. For example, during the last election, Labour (now relabeled as “The Zionist Camp”) felt obliged to call itself a “centrist” party. Since Netanyahu’s reelection, and instead of preparing a long-term political plan of their own, the Israeli left wing’s self-proclaimed intellectuals such as Omri Nitzan and Yair Garbush have responded to the neo-nationalists long-term planning with repulsive, petulant insults that have included political and social inanities such as berating traditional (usually Mizrahi) Jews as people who “kiss amulets” and “prostrate themselves on [saints’] graves.”

This failure has had serious real consequences. Probably the most important has been a failure to find a substitute for the role played by the Saman HaYemini. In this way, by forcing the elimination of the use of a Saman Yemini that could act as a marker demarcating the beginning of politically and socially unacceptable behaviour, public criticism of the most extreme nationalists abated. This has since enabled the most extreme nationalists to effectively acquire immunity even from criminal acts.

The current wave of violence in Jerusalem is a product of this development. That is because, among other things, the group of social deviants otherwise known as the “hilltop youth” who long ago crossed the line into criminal behavior, have nonetheless been permitted to roam freely destroying Palestinian property, have been sheltered by the settlers, and have been treated affectionately by many settler leaders without the young criminals or their adult accessories being sanctioned in any way. Most importantly, although this has resulted in thousands of documented assaults on Palestinian persons and property over many years, the assailants and their accessories-before-the-fact have been left unhunted by both the police and the military.

The excuses used by the Israeli government and security services about why this is so have been feeble at best. The police and the Shin Bet have claimed that they know the identities of those who have committed crimes against Palestinians. However, they also assert that they have been unable to bring the Jewish terrorists to trial for three reasons. The Palestinians “contaminate” crime sites by mulling around them, and so evidence for use in court cannot be gathered. The Jewish suspects choose to remain silent during interrogation. And bringing a case to court would often compromise sources.

The authorities’ arguments are undermined by the fact that these same conditions hold true when incidents of Palestinian terror are being investigated. Nonetheless, the Israeli security services have had an exemplary record of bringing such cases to trial and securing convictions. Apologists for the security services claim that this is because the Shin Bet can use techniques such as “moderate pressure” when interrogating Palestinians that they are forbidden by court precedent to use on Israeli citizens.

However, that argument too is undermined by the recent notable successes the police have had in securing convictions for some of Israel’s crime bosses. As has been the case with the “hilltop youth,” for years, the police denied that organized crime existed in Israel. Then, when that claim could no longer be defended because the press had uncovered whole crime networks, the police contented themselves with supporting FBI investigations of the activities of Israeli criminals operating in the United States.

Only when these same criminal gangs began mutual public assassinations that threatened, injured and even killed innocent civilians in Israel, did the police become as successful in securing convictions of the criminal gang leaders as they had been in imprisoning Palestinian terrorists.

Certainly, the criminal gang leaders were at least as knowledgeable about how to deal with police investigations as the hilltop youth. The difference is that the police began their intense pursuit of the criminal kingpins only after the public had begun to put pressure on the law enforcement authorities in the wake of the “accidental” murder by a criminal assassination team of a young mother of two; and car bombings of criminals by other criminals began endangered the lives of ordinary Israelis walking down the street or relaxing on the beach.

In other words, it was only when the public created its own markers of what was now considered to be absolutely unacceptable deviant behavior (rather than accepting the police argument that “normal” deviant behavior should be dealt with using existing procedures) that the security authorities felt compelled to find solutions to their previous inability to act.

The very same sort of scenario that led to the police crackdown on the crime bosses was finally enacted when Jewish arsonists torched the Church of the Loaves and the Fishes near Capernaum on Lake Kinneret. This church has been a particularly popular site for hundreds of thousands of Christian pilgrims who visit Israel each year. Although the police had been unable to solve other cases of arson attacks on churches, it solved the Kinneret case within days after both the Vatican and the Israeli tourism authorities demanded immediate action.

There is now documentary evidence that, in the wake of the current outburst of Palestinian violence, Israeli soldiers have actually been protecting Jews from the extremist settlement of Yitzhar who have begun throwing stones at Palestinians in nearby villages.

Israeli security authorities are now concerned that this violence by Jewish settlers against innocent Palestinians may exacerbate current tensions and lead to greater violence on the part of Palestinians. Not only that, the first rains of the farming year (the yoreh) have now fallen. These showers signal the beginning of the winter planting, but especially of the olive harvest season. Since the use of a Saman Yemni ended, this period of the year has become a favoured time for attempts by young Jewish extremists to try to either steal the crop or to cut down the trees.

It now appears that the settler leaders are making a concerted effort to divert attention away from these criminal activities. According to former Knesset member Aryeh Eldad, himself an ardent supporter of the settlers, both the official representatives of the settlers and the extremist youngsters can only benefit if Jewish violence against Palestinians leads to greater violence by the Palestinians. This is because, as Palestinian violence builds, settler leaders invariably then use the opportunity to demand more settlement and more government support for settlement as “the appropriate Zionist response to Palestinian attacks on Jews.”

These well-organized media-friendly protests then tend to have the secondary effect of redirecting journalists’ attention to easily-interviewed settler leaders and away from hard to record crimes the hilltop youth may be committing at the same time.

There is considerable hard evidence to support Eldad’s allegations. Most notably, immediately after the latest round of knifings by Palestinians began, the head of the council of settlers in Samaria set up a well-publicized and journalist-popular protest tent outside the prime minister’s residence demanding that, in response to the killings, the government approve the establishment of new settlements.

It quickly became clear to one and all the type of political trap that the settlers were setting up. For that reason, and unsurprisingly, soon after the tent began attracting the first camera crews, the prime minister’s office leaked a story (that has not yet been verified in Washington) that the US government has warned the Israeli government that it will react harshly if Netanyahu bows to the settlers’ demands. Specifically, according to the leak, the US would let France know that Washington would no longer oppose or veto an already-existing French proposal to have the UN Security Council pass a measure declaring all Israeli settlements to be illegal.

Israelis wishing to limit the growing circle of violence, could do much by launching a campaign for the reinstitution of the position and role of the Saman HaYemni, which the settler’s supporters have labored so long and so successfully to eliminate from the Israeli political landscape. The purpose behind appointing a Saman Yemini would be to, at a minimum, reverse the current policy of turning a blind eye to the extremist Jewish youngsters’ violence against Palestinian persons and property. The reestablishment of a new Saman Yemini by popular will could well have the same impact on the security authorities that the massive public protests had when the intramural criminal killings gathered momentum. It would be a public declaration that, despite the efforts by settlers to protect and coddle the hilltop youth, the young Jewish criminals’ activities are considered by the broader public to be an act of social deviancy deserving of real sanctions.

Leave a Reply