‘Jewish Extremism’ Is Having A Moment. Here’s Why.

Meir Ettinger, head of the extremist group the Revolt, appears in court on Aug. 4, 2015. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ARIEL SCHALIT, FILE
Meir Ettinger, head of the extremist group the Revolt, appears in court on Aug. 4, 2015. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/ARIEL SCHALIT, FILE

Israeli authorities conducted two relatively common anti-terrorism actions over the weekend, raiding areas of the occupied West Bank and issuing detention orders for suspected extremists. But in an unusual twist, these efforts weren’t directed against Muslim Palestinians or even outside agitators. They’re part of the country’s increasingly aggressive effort to root out terrorists of another variety: So-called Jewish extremists.

The uncommon crackdown is a response to a series of unsettling incidents that have rocked Israel throughout 2015. The first occurred in February, when a building belonging to a Greek Orthodox Church in Jerusalem was torched and vandalized with graffiti denigrating Jesus Christ. Then, in mid-June, a fire consumed the historic Church of Multiplication, a holy site for Christians said to mark where Jesus fed 5,000 followers with only five loaves of bread and two fish. The arsonists left a hastily-written reference to Hebrew scripture in red paint on the outside of the church: “Idols will have their heads cut off.”

But the worst episode occurred a month later, when Israeli settlers allegedly threw firebombs at two homes in the West Bank city of Duma, sparking a blaze that killed a father and his 18-month-old son. On the house’s far wall, assailants scrawled one Hebrew word above a Star of David: “Revenge!”

[The how-to manual] contained detailed instructions for how to attack churches, mosques, and Palestinian homes — as well as how to beat Arabs unconscious.

Authorities blamed right-wing militants for engaging in what they described as “Jewish terrorism,” a suspicion given weight by evidence uncovered during the recent West Bank raids. In early August, officers from Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, found a chilling how-to manual in the car of suspected militant Moshe Orbach. Among other things, it contained detailed instructions for how to attack churches, mosques, and Palestinian homes — as well as how to beat Arabs unconscious.

“Stock up with a petrol bomb, preferably of a liter and a half; a lighter; gloves; a mask; a crowbar/hammer; a bag to carry it all,” the document read. “When you get to the village, search for a house with an open door or window without bars.”

Extremism perpetrated by Jews is not unheard of inside Israel, where clashes between various religious and political groups are common. But this new wave of terrorism — whose rag-tag supporters insist is rooted in Jewish ideology — is attracting international attention, even if it isn’t attracting many followers.

The terror network at the heart of ongoing investigations is known as the Revolt, a loose band of ideologues who claim a right-wing Jewish identity to justify crimes against non-Jews. Leaders include Meir Ettinger, a Jewish man in his early 20s who was recently taken into “administrative detention” by the Israeli government, a process by which authorities hold suspects for months without levying formal charges — a strategy often used against Palestinians, but almost never against Israeli Jews. Ettinger is also said to have broken into Joseph’s Tomb in the West Bank city of Nablus in 2011, and was jailed in 2012 for interrupting Israeli military evacuations of illegal outposts in the region.

Ettinger, who is also the grandson of famous far-right Jewish militant and American-Israeli rabbi Meir Kahane, has not been officially charged with any of the burnings. But he has been openly sympathetic towards the culprits: After the blaze destroyed the Church of Multiplication, he wrote, “I don’t know what those anonymous lighters intended to set alight, but that fire touched my heart.”

Several outlets such as Haaretz have tracked the various goals of Ettinger and other extremists such as Eviatar Slonim, another far-right militant in his early 20s who was given a six-month administrative detention order on Sunday. Both men are said to be products of the so-called “Price Tag” doctrine, a philosophy that developed in the mid-2000s that calls for Jewish settlers in the West Bank to exact revenge — a “price” — against local Palestinians or Israeli security forces who take action against settlement outposts in the region.

This philosophy has mostly led to the torching of Muslim mosques. But statements and blog posts penned by Ettinger and others imply a new, larger campaign — namely, spreading enough chaos to cause the collapse of the State of Israel, before replacing it with a Jewish kingdom founded on the laws of the Jewish Torah. This is to be achieved, in part, by systematically attacking non-Jews, and eventually restricting how women dress outside their homes.

“Non-Jews are to be expelled, the Third Temple is to be built and religious observance is to be enforced, initially in public spaces,” reports the New York Times.

Shlomo Fischer, a professor at Hebrew University and expert on right-wing Jewish movements, told ThinkProgress that the Revolt appears to be a small cadre of neo-ultraorthodox activists, a group he says represents a “fringe of a fringe.”

They are not acting under rabbinic authority … This is what makes these people very dangerous — they’re unbounded.

He explained that the Revolt is likely a rare amalgam of aspects from two different strains of political and theological thought: Ultra-orthodox Jews and Religious Zionists. Ultra-orthodox Jews, which represent about 8 percent of Israel’s population, have long “rejected the state of Israel on a theological and ideological level and don’t believe in its validity,” Fischer said, but have been largely passive when expressing their views. Religious Zionists, by contrast, believe in the sanctification of Israel, and are willing to engage in violence to protect it.

Fischer argues the Revolt and similar networks borrow ideology and tactics from both groups. “They’re both activists and they reject the state, the rule of law, and civic morality,” said Fischer, who is also a fellow Jewish People Policy Institute.

Despite the righteous fervor of Ettinger and his followers, however, the overwhelming majority of Jews in Israel have decried the burnings. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin both denounced the attack in Duma before visiting the ailing family in hospital. A group of Muslim and Jewish leaders also went to see the family together, and David Lau, the country’s Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi, proclaimed “all Jews condemn this despicable murder.”

Lau also condemned the June church burning as counter to Jewish teaching.

“This act, which was allegedly committed by radical elements, contradicts the values of Judaism and human ethics,” Lau said. “Judaism has a battle against idolatry, as a faith which claims to have a historic mission of bringing a blessing to the world. Torching churches is the exact opposite of that. It’s a barbaric act which harms people, pulls the rug from under the moral claim which forbids harming Jews around the world, and mainly does nothing to promote the battle against idolatry.”

Fischer noted that the condemnation of the Revolt and similar groups from religious leaders is hardly surprising, as the extremists have no rabbinical support to speak of.

“They are not acting under rabbinic authority,” he said. “They think the Rabbis have sold out … Their own spontaneous response [in committing these crimes] is self-validating, and pure.”

“This is what makes these people very dangerous — they’re unbounded,” he added.

It’s still unclear when — or if — the Israeli government will issue formal charges against Ettinger, Eviatar, or anyone connected with the attacks on Christians and Muslims. Ettinger retains American citizenship from his parents, and his lawyers have already suggested sending him to the United States instead of enduring jail time.

But while the Revolt has made a big name for itself, its membership is still small. And if the goal of the attacks was to rally people behind their cause, Fischer noted that their tactics have largely backfired: Even the few Israelis sympathetic to their ideas have been quick decry their acts of terror.

“They lost,” Fischer said, speaking of the outcry over the burning that killed a Palestinian child. “People [see news of the attacks and] say ‘you don’t kill babies — that’s not who we are.’ There’s no outpouring of support for these people.”

Quotation marks were added to the headline of this piece to reflect the disputed theology of the extremists, which is discussed at length in the article.