Opinion |

Their Pretense Is Over. The Settler Leadership Is a Violent, Lawless, Racist Gang of Vigilantes

The blanket public support offered by settler leaders to the suspected murderers of Aisha Rabi is a milestone. The settlement enterprise, long based on Jewish supremacy and territorial expansion, now justifies terror

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Right-wing Israelis demonstrate in Jerusalem against alleged violation of rights of five yeshiva students detained as suspects in the murder in October of a Palestinian woman named Aisha Mohammed Rabi, January 5, 2019.
A demonstration in Jerusalem against the detention of five yeshiva students suspected of involvement in the October murder of Aisha Rabi. January 5, 2019Credit: Emil Salman
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

On the afternoon of April 11, 1982, I was visiting the Western Wall with relatives when we heard a burst of automatic rifle nearby. We couldn’t see anything happening, but the police quickly evacuated the Kotel plaza. The security forces were running in the opposite direction from us, so it was clear the incident had taken place on the other side of the Wall, on the Temple Mount. It also seemed clear that whatever was happening was a Palestinian terror attack.

Clear at least, until we got back home and listened to the news on the radio.

The attacker’s name was Alan Goodman, an American Jew who had recently made aliyah. The M-16 rifle he used to kill a member of the Muslim Wakf custodians of the Al Aqsa compound, and to wound four others, had been issued to him only days earlier when he began his basic training with the IDF.

It was the first time I’d ever heard gunfire, and the whole idea of a Jew carrying out an attack in the Jewish state seemed bizarre to my eight year-old mind. The only conceivable reason for his actions was that he was "a mad American."

>>Why Do So Many Jewish Terrorists Come From the English-speaking World?

Madness was also the line that his lawyers tried to use in court. But the judges weren’t buying it. Enough literature of Rabbi Meir Kahane’s were found in the lonely 37 year-old’s room, together with his cries of "An eye for an eye" and "Long live the Jews” during the attack, to convince them it had been an ideologically-motivated act of vigilantism and he was given a life sentence, commuted to 15 years in 1997, when he was released and returned to his native Baltimore.

Alan Goodman was indeed a lone gunman. And there were other individual Jewish terrorists like him, from the late 1970s onwards, carrying out their murderous freelance attacks on Palestinians. Nearly all of them had backgrounds as sad loners or petty criminals, usually using IDF-issued weapons, without any organizational backing or widespread support, exacting their own private revenge for victims of Palestinian terror. Their actions were roundly condemned from all sides of the political scene.

‘Handful,’ ‘Wild Weeds’: The Right Is Still Putting a Spin on Murder

But while Goodman was on trial in Jerusalem, there was a much larger, ideologically serious group of Jewish terrorists active.

Their first operation was in June 1980, when they booby-trapped the cars of three Palestinian mayors in the West Bank, whom they suspected of having been involved in directing murderous attacks on Jewish settlers.

A few members of the group were involved in detailed plans to blow up the Al Aqsa mosque, in the hope that it could derail Israel’s withdrawal from Sinai, part of the peace agreement with Egypt. Others carried out a shooting-attack at the Islamic Collage in Hebron, killing three students. The members of what became known in the media as the "Jewish Underground" were finally rounded up in April 1984, when several were caught placing explosives in four Palestinian buses.

Twenty-five members of the Jewish Underground were charged in court. These weren’t vigilantes or deluded individuals. They included educators and academics, former officers in the IDF, some in their later thirties and forties. Respected members of the settler movement, grown-ups. In a report in Haaretz at the time, they were described as "an underground of good guys."

Palestinians carry the body of Aisha Al-Rawbi during her funeral in the West Bank village of Biddya, Oct. 13, 2018. Credit: AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed

In the preface to his book on the group, one of its younger members at the time, journalist Haggai Segal (today editor of the right-wing religious newspaper Makor Rishon), pointed out that it was a misnomer to call them an "underground," as they never existed as a clandestine and networked organization, had not chosen a name for themselves, and most of the group were unaware of all four of the planned attacks and had not necessarily supported them.

It didn’t change the fact that they were a group of like-minded ideologues who had murdered in the belief that they were furthering the interests of the Jewish people and Jewish state by their actions. And nearly all the right wing, including most of the settler leadership, condemned them.

Or, to be more accurate: Their actions were denounced, but as individuals, they were not ostracized.

They remained part of the movement, their families were taken care of while the fathers remained in prison (ultimately, they all had their sentences commuted and even those who had received life, were out in six and a half years). Upon release, they returned to their communities as respected members.

>>How a Group of Jewish Terrorists Ended Up in Israel's Halls of Power

Back in the 1980s, it was clear there were two types of Jewish terror. There were unruly vigilantes, acting out of impulse, madness, or Kahanist ideology - and there were those who had been wrong to take the law in to their own hands but remained, as the title of Segal’s book describes them "Dear Brothers."

At the time, the Jewish Underground even made the point of putting out a joint statement rejecting Meir Kahane’s attempt to associate himself with them. They were staunch Zionists, who believed they were acting in the nation’s interests. Not his rabble of racists. Or so they wanted to be seen. In his book, Segal emphasizes that even in prison, and despite their resentment at the Shin Bet’s interrogation tactics, they continued saying every Shabbat, without fail, the prayer for the welfare of the State of Israel.

The Pri Haaretz yeshiva in the West Bank settlement of Rehelim, where five suspects in the murder of Aisha Rabi are enrolled, January 6, 2019Credit: Moti Milrod

I reread "Dear Brothers" recently. Thirty-two years after its publication, it remains one of the key books in understanding the Israeli far-right and the early days of the settler movement, of which it is one of the best histories.

One thing I noticed for the first time, that Segal, perhaps subconsciously, portrays the underground as the natural evolution from the settlers. That they were pioneers in a movement that defied the law to build the first settlements in Samaria, in the belief that it was the right thing for the Jewish people, and worth temporarily acting against the state, quite naturally reached the stage where it wasn’t just tussling with soldiers who tried to evict them from a windswept hilltop, but murder as well.

The members of the Jewish underground expressed regret, as part of the "rehabilitation" process that led to their sentences being commuted, but all those of them who I have met and spoke to over the years still essentially believe their actions were justified. Their rabbis and colleagues in the settlers movement criticized them specifically for having acted in contravention of the law, but rarely for what they actually did.

And if their regret is real, it is over that: defending the state required unfortunate illegality. They did everything over the years to make it clear that they and the state, in its deepest sense, remain one.

>>What Do You Call a Rabbi Who Protects and Defends Jewish Terrorists?

Fast-forward to today, when a group of minors studying at a West Bank yeshiva, are suspected of having thrown the stones that caused the death of the Palestinian mother of seven Aisha Rabi in October 2018, you can see how the attempt over the last four decades, to differentiate between the vigilantism and racist attacks of lone Jewish terrorists, and the more "respectable" approach of the mainstream settler movement, has failed.

The teenage suspects have received blanket support from the ideological, political and religious leaders of the moment. Nary a word of criticism for their alleged actions, just an outpouring of vitriol against the Shin Bet and its attempts to reach the truth. True liberals can never be complacent when minors are being questioned and prevented from meeting their lawyers, but the settlers protests go beyond mere hypocrisy, as they would never have any qualms when Palestinian terror suspects are treated in similar, and often far worse, manner.

The Israeli flag presented by the Shin Bet as having been vandalized by the terror suspects in the Aisha Rabi murder. January 6, 2019Credit: Yaniv Kubovich

The murder of Aisha Rabi is a milestone marking how the essential lawlessness of the settler initiative, the latent and overt racism at its core, have finally come to the surface.

There can no longer be any pretense that it is a respectable ideological movement, with the leaders of which the late Amos Oz could spend a weekend discussing the future of Zionism, believing that they still had Israel’s true interests at heart. Not when its leaders are now basically endorsing vigilantism.

And this latest generation of Jewish terrorism also, finally, puts the lie to the protestations of the original Jewish underground. True, they were older, seemingly more responsible, and their targets were chosen with care. But nearly 40 years later, the bunch of bored teenagers who gathered by the side of the road to throw rocks at Arab cars are their true successors.

The Shin Bet discovered in the room of one of the suspects an Israeli flag, with a swastika and "Death to Zionists" scrawled on it. The original Jewish terrorists would have never dreamed of desecrating the flag in such a fashion. But their actions have led to this.

When Jewish supremacy and territorial expansion justify illegal violence and murder, then Nazi symbols, violent anarchy and a grotesque inversion of political and moral values are just down the road.

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