Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
Bills posted for a Rabbi Meir Kahane memorial rally. Photograph: Yossi Gurvitz
Addressing Israel’s offensive in Gaza, John Kerry said: “Israel is under siege by a terrorist organization.” Living in Israel, I found the secretary’s comment baffling. In my city, Jerusalem, the sirens have sounded only three times. Tel Aviv and its vicinity has had it worse, with three dozen sirens or so over the last month. Yet daily routine has not been greatly affected. In the south, near the Gaza strip, things are different. With numerous rockets daily, life in some Israeli towns and villages has become what happens between one rush to the shelter to the next. This is certainly not acceptable, but it is not a siege either. In Jewish history, the archetypical siege is the Roman siege of Jerusalem, described by the first-century historian, Josephus, thus: “Throughout the city people were dying of hunger in large numbers, and enduring unspeakable sufferings. In every house the merest hint of food sparked violence, and close relatives fell to blows, snatching from one another the pitiful supports of life.” In Zionist history, the paradigm comes from 1948, when Jerusalem was once again stricken with hunger and want of basic supplies. Here is how one mother described it in a letter to her son who was fighting in the north: “Whoever doesn’t have food simply goes hungry. There’s no gas for cooking, people gather wood and cook in the street. Other than bread, (and this too only 200 grams per person daily) there’s almost nothing to buy…. Water is delivered in a carriage with an allowance of 1.5 cans per person for a week (can=eighteen liters), which is precious little. And as there is no fuel for cars, the water must be brought (from great distance) from wells.” Today, this description is more suitable to Gaza than to Israel.
But there is another siege haunting Israel today. This siege is internal rather than external, moral rather than physical. The murder of sixteen-year-old Muhhamad Abu-H’deir, burned alive by Jewish extremists on July 2, made headlines worldwide. But the context in which this crime was hatched receives less attention. The day before, as the three Israeli youths kidnapped and murdered three weeks earlier were being buried, hundreds of extremists gathered in Jerusalem under the banner “We want Revenge!” And their slogans clarified: “Death to Arabs” and “Death to Leftists.” As the mob marched to the city center, they pounded on store fronts, demanding Arab blood. A large group gathered outside McDonald’s shouting for its Arab employees to be brought out. Smaller groups roamed the streets looking for Arabs to abuse. A wave of racist violence has been washing the streets since then. Organized mobs of extremists have been marching through the streets of Jerusalem shouting racist slogans, calling, “Death to Arabs!” Like scenes taken from revolutionary films, they block cars and busses mid-street, checking whether there are Arabs inside. If found, they are assaulted verbally as well as physically. Many Palestinians refrain from traveling on the city’s light rail because it has become a regular venue for racist attacks.
Sadly, Jerusalem is not unique. An anti-war demonstration in Tel Aviv was attacked by hundreds of right-wing hooligans led by a rapper going by the nickname “the shadow.” Some of them were wearing the “Good Night Left Side” T-shirts popular among white-supremacist and neo-Nazi groups in Europe. A week later this violent scene recurred in Haifa, where right-wing hooligans assaulted an Arab deputy mayor and his son as they were approaching an anti-war demonstration. In Jerusalem’s old city, a mother and her two young children survived an attempted stabbing by Jewish extremists. Amir Shawiki and Ahmed Kasuani, twenty-year-old Jerusalemites, were less fortunate. Both were severely beaten by a Jewish mob simply because they were Arabs. Omar Diwani, a city bus driver in Jerusalem, was hospitalized after four young men assaulted him upon detecting his Arab accent. Dozens of similar attacks against Arabs and “lefties” have taken place recently in the streets, in cafes, in shopping centers, on busses and trains. Israel’s radical right is on the rise.
Jewish radicalism is not a new phenomenon. Its current incarnation traces back to Rabbi Meir Kahane, who, after forming the militant Jewish Defense League in the United States, emmigrated to Israel and founded the ultra-nationalist Kach party. Kahane advocated the forced eviction of all Palestinians residing west of the Jordan river, subordinating state law to Jewish religious law (Halakha), and revenge as punitive policy. Although strongly liberal on economic issues, his ethics were utterly collectivist: the moral agents were not individuals but nations. Any harm to a Jew was an affront to the nation, and revenge should be taken not necessarily on the perpetrator but on “the Arabs.” I vividly remember classmates of mine who, under his influence, would retaliate against random Palestinians following attacks on Israelis. Retaliation quickly morphed into preemption and then into naked aggression. In his short tenure in the Knesset, Kahane proposed outrageous legislation, such as revoking the citizenship of all non-Jews, or criminalizing sexual relations between Jews and Arabs. The core of his ideology was a militant form of Jewish supremacism, best expressed in the slogan frequently heard these days “a Jew is a soul, an Arab the son of a whore.” But with Kahane the medium was more significant than the message. Fusing populist rhetoric with strong-man authoritarianism, he appealed both to religious zealots and to underpriviledged Israelis. Playing on their resentment, he riled them against the “elites,” whom he portrayed simultaneously as all-powerful—controlling the media, the education system, and the courts—and as weak and degenerate. Weak in their treatment of the Arab enemy, and degenerate in their morality, which for him meant the loss of their Jewish fiber. His hostility toward Arabs, however, sometimes seemed second to his loathing of the left. These “fifth column” “destroyers of Israel,” as he biblically labeled them, were subject not only to derision but also to very thinly disguised threats.
Today’s radical right is Kahanist, not revisionist. It is Jewish jingoism with religious overtones.
In a gesture taken straight out of the fascist playbook, Kahane would lash out at “the Arabs” for taking Jewish jobs and seducing Jewish daughters. But Kahane was not a facist. Facism has a philosophy. It holds a theory of power, of political institutions, of the state, and of society. Jingoism, on the other hand, is primarily an attitude. It is a sense of collective superiority, often associated with an idea of national chosenness, giving rise to an exaggerated, belligerent form of nationalism. It is the nationalist equivalent of male chauvinism—not a theory about gender, but a disparaging attitude toward anything female. Earlier incarnations of the Jewish radical right, like the radical revisionists of the 1920s and '30s, had clear fascist elements. Brit Habiryonim (Alliance of Thugs), the extremist faction headed by romantic poet Uri Zvi Greenberg and Abba Ahimeir, for example, modeled itself on European fascists; Ahimeir admired Mussolini and published a series of essays titled “from the diary of a fascist.”
Today’s radical right is Kahanist, not revisionist. It is Jewish jingoism with religious overtones. It seems to me that this difference is of great consequence. Fascism can be defeated in the realm of ideas or in the ballot box. Jingoism breeds in the hearts, not so much the minds, of ordinary folk; its habitat is the street, not theories and laws. What stands in the way of chauvinism is an ethos, manifest in norms and standards. It requires a robust culture upheld by social elites, institutions, and individuals of influence who actively resist and keep jingoism marginal.
It was this kind of resistance that left Kahane on the fringe. He was actively and consistently opposed and marginalized by official and non-official institutions and individuals. When he addressed the Knesset, members from all parties, left and right, would leave the plenum in concerted protest. His parliamentary immunity was restricted by the Knesset and the state attorney. The Israel Broadcasting Authority decided to censor his statements. When he spoke at a rally in Givatayim, scores of Israelis gathered and drowned his words in their racket. Even leaders of the settler movement expressed disdain for the American Rabbi and his ideas, fearing they would rub off on them. Finally, in 1988, the Israeli Parliament banned Kach, branding it “racist” and “anti-democratic.” The decision was upheld by Israel’s High Court of Justice. Six years later the movement and its offshoots were declared illegal “terrorist organizations.”
Two decades later, Kahane’s disciple and professed follower, Michael Ben-Ari, would become a member of Knesset (2009–2013). Though he openly propagated Kahanist views, advocating the forced expulsion of Arabs and inciting hatred toward African refugees, Ben-Ari was never censored. Like Kahane, he organized marches in Arab towns to incite conflict. Unlike his mentor, however, Ben-Ari met no resistance, in parliament or in the street. It was he who led an effort to restrict Arab Knesset member Haneen Zoabi for participating in a flotilla protesting the siege on Gaza. His motion succeeded when members of Likud and the centrist Kadima party lent their support. In stark contrast to the Kahane walkouts, in the current Knesset, Arab lawmakers are regularly abused. One was even physically assaulted. Ben-Ari is no longer in the Knesset, but his influence has not diminished.
The festering chauvinism cultivated by Ben-Ari and his like exploded with the triple kidnapping and murder last month and the Gaza offensive that followed. Infused with righteous indignation exacerbated by sentimentalist media, inflated patriotism washed over the country, crushing any critical discussion, not to mention dissent. The few pundits and celebrities who expressed criticism, or even mere sympathy to Gazans, came under vicious attack not only from trolls on social media, but also from high-ranking officials. One cabinet minister called for boycotting Arab businesses whose owners protested the operation, and another encouraged people to cancel subscriptions to the one newspaper still publishing dissenting opinions. Spontaneous initiatives dedicated to monitoring and persecuting individuals who stray from the “national spirit” started popping up. Employers received dozens of complaints, encouraging them to fire employees who expressed support or sympathy for Gazans. Even prominent institutions were bullied into accommodating this privatized McCarthyism. A few municipal council employees and at least one physician have been terminated or suspended on account of comments they made on social media. University presidents warned that “offensive comments” expressed on social media will be treated harshly; some students have been disciplined. Ben Gurion University informed its employees and students that it would monitor their online activity, and at Bar Ilan University, a law professor was harshly reprimended by his dean for expressing sympathy toward Gaza victims in an email to students. I am not aware of a single instance in which individuals advocating death to Arabs have received similar treatment. Religious leaders and educators who called for boycotting Arab businesses or refusing to rent apartments to Arabs continue to be employed by the state.
Over the last quarter-century much has changed. The conventional wisdom is that Israel has moved to the right. But as public opinions and analyses of voting trends clearly show, this is not the case. Although the right has grown, its rise has been relatively small. Israelis remain evenly divided on peace and security, and the left enjoys a clear majority on social and economic issues. The deeper shift is not in the level of public support for the two political camps, but in their make-up. On the right, the liberal and democratic elements have been overtaken by chauvinist populists. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s party, Likud, whose members used to walk out on Kahane, is now populated by some of the most vocal inciters. The last remnants of its democrats were ousted in the last primary elections, and the remaining moderates pander to the pugnacious extremists that dominate the party. The prime minister himself has maintained utter silence in the face of growing racism and political violence. The left, on the other hand, has lost its political stamina and its moral courage. A depletion of ideas, debilitation of institutions, and putrefaction of leadership have left it politically inert. The social mechanisms that kept Kahane’s racism at bay have all but disintegrated.
When the philosopher and public intellectual Yishayahu Leibovitz called Kahane and his followers “Judeo-Nazis,” not everyone agreed, but everybody listened. More importantly, many understood the threat he identified and were willing to combat it. Breaking the moral siege demands active and resolute opposition to Jewish jingoism, not ignoring it and certainly not accommodating it.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Support us with a donation this giving season.
Robin D. G. Kelley on the midterm elections.
What we have achieved this year—and our plans for 2023.