Neither Left nor Right in Israel Has a Monopoly Over Radicalism and Incitement

The tempo of mutual delegitimization between Israel's political extremes is accelerating. Are we nearing the point where left and right can no longer co-exist?

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Jewish settlers throws rocks toward Palestinian during clashes near the Jewish settlement of Yitzhar, near Nablus, April 30, 2013.
Morally dubious activists aren't confined to Israel's fringe right wing.Credit: AP

“Politics is not therapy, and politicians and states cannot be put on the couch” asserted psychotherapist Gabrielle Rifkind and diplomat Giandomenico Pico about the Middle East in their recent book, The Fog of Peace.  But they might well admit, if they attended an Israeli Incitement Anonymous meeting, that the first step should be: Admit you have an addiction.  

From the stabbing of Dafna Meir by a Palestinian terrorist, to the arson-murder at Duma committed by Israeli Jewish terrorists, it is clear that either radical fringes (or population-majorities, depending on one’s appetite for sweeping accusations and collective punishment) on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have turned to heinously intimate acts of violence in the past few months.  

Domestically, within Israel, from Ezra Nawi the left-wing activist who was secretly recorded admitting to turning in Palestinian land brokers to PA security services knowingly sending them to their deaths, to the Knife Wedding, where right-wing religious extremists were shown brandishing guns and knives, one of whom is seen stabbing a photo of Ali Dawabsheh, the toddler killed in the Duma attack, both extremes of the political spectrum have seen highly-publicized scandals involving ideologically-audacious and morally-dubious activists in the past months.  

Screenshot from wedding video shows men burning a photo of Ali Dawabsheh, a Palestinian baby killed with his mother Reham and father Saad in the arson attack on the family home in Duma. Credit: Courtesy of Channel 2

More broadly, the politics-of-polarization and provocation have replaced real dialogue or even the dirtier back-room dealing of Israeli politics to get things done. From the battles between BDS and the Maccabee Task ForceBreaking the Silence and Im Tirtzu, the New Israel Fund and NGO Monitor, and even Shmuley Boteach and Max Blumenthal, these standoffs largely serve as proxy wars in the larger battles between Israelis and Palestinians, Zionists and anti-Zionists, doves and hawks, which  continue to divide (and further sub-divide) each side. Strangely, left and right in Israel today share the same problem —to defend or disown the most radical activists in their respective circles?  

Of course, the first step on the path is self-awareness. “No need for soul-searching” declared a self-described member of the Yesha settler council’s ‘silent majority’ on Arutz Sheva, the right-wing media juggernaut two  week ago, considered calls for the settler camp to look inward to be “cynical and unjustified” and mostly a result of “liberal media slander.” In the meantime, those on the liberal-left like Bradley Burston (in Haaretz) and Dahlia Scheindlin (courageously writing to her own community on the +972 blog) had to take the hard left to task for failing in the most simple acts of human rights solidarity in refusing to mourn the murder of a settler mother in front of her children. 

Meanwhile, blanket attacks about the nefarious work of all Israeli leftwing NGOs and counter-conspiracies about the right-wing organizations, such as the over-stated ubiquitousness of 'The Revolt' hilltop youth network, abound. With rumors and accusations smoldering, is it little wonder that it was initially difficult to separate truth from fiction when B’Tselem’s Jerusalem office caught fire several weeks ago?

A splash of cold water: Pretending like this a new problem, rather than an old polemic, is yet another form of denial of the history of mutual incitement within Israel. Deciding who and what is within and outside the bounds of the Israeli community has been a historical preoccupation since the origins of the Zionism.  In fact, many of the same dilemmas being discussed today were argued about decades ago.  

For example, early leaders of the Yishuv agonized over ideas of legitimate violence and vigilantism (see Anita Shapira’s masterful study on the Zionist use of force) in fighting both the British and the emerging Palestinian enemy. In the meantime, they also struggled to conceptualize the ‘correct’ Israeli orientation toward Western diplomacy and European influence (alternately “we will fight the war as if there is no White Paper, and fight the White Paper as if there is no war!”)  All the while, the debates over “who is a true Zionist” - the Palmachnik or the Jabotinskyite, the kibbutznik or the city-dweller, the Ashkenazi or the Mizrachi, the BILU or the yekke consumed the leadership of the Yishuv.

Irgun ship Altalena burns after being shelled by IDF during the 1948 War of Independence. Credit: Hans Finn / GPO

Some questions were seemingly settled in 1948 - notably regarding the exclusive legitimacy of the state in using force during the Palmach’s brutal crushing of the Lehi in the Altalena affair - while others lingered in the first decade, from the debate over Ben Gurion’s dismissive and often diffident treatment of the Diaspora (epitomized in his famous mutterings of “Um Shmum”) and the Nazi reparations conflict, to renewed controversies over the boundaries of the Zionist community (notably, the Kastner affair and assassination, which tested the limits of collusion and survival for Jews during the Holocaust and the absorption of survivors into the Israeli polity). Of course, even while matters were resolved in the fledgling state, these debates continued to rage in the Diaspora. Yet today, there is no Ben-Gurion at the helm of the State of Israel, and perhaps more importantly, few loyal opponents, working within the system and accepting the limits of their power in times of crisis like Menachem Begin did.

Old wounds reopened in 1967 have continued to fester — and a truly life-threatening sepsis set in after the Rabin assassination. Yet even in recent years, Israeli society has shown itself capable of drawing a line, in terms of what is acceptable discourse in political and social discourse, most notably in banning the ultra-nationalist and racist Kach from the Knesset, alongside more controversial temporary restrictions on MKs Haneen Zoabi and Oren Hazan. 

But the idea of boundaries governed by figures whose authoritative status is accepted consensually is being lost. Power has diffused, but not because the state willed it, but because it passively let the process happen, or was too weak to otherwise intervene.  As the Israeli state has successively ceded the monopoly over the use of force and rhetoric to other groups such as private security services, armed settler groups and NGOs, the potential for even the top echelons of the state to intervene in the debates on incitement has receded, as can be seen in the attacks on Israel's president himself by members of the government for participating in events deemed by them to be illegitimate and beyond the limits of Israeli discourse.

It’s not enough to examine past wrongs and make amends. Israel must find a “new normal.” I respectfully disagree with Ari Shavit that a stronger Israeli center is the (only) solution. That won't be an answer for enough people. The future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state is not just about empowering those in the middle of the road, but finding ways for Israelis of all walks of life (and meanderers across the political spectrum) to find a new consensus of shared values, discourses, and tactics.  

The way forward will be less about a unity of political position than a new set of mutually-agreed principles. Certainly — and unfortunately —  the kind of shared understanding and imagined community reached in Rabin’s day amongst a majority of Israelis (and also Palestinians) of the preferability of a peace process leading to a two-state solution, and perhaps even the compatibility of Judaism and democracy, is no longer possible; Israel has definitively (and likely irrevocably) moved rightward.  Likewise, the “errant weeds” on both the left and the right will never be fully eradicated.  

The left and right in Israel are at a crossroads. Now it’s time to courageously decide to reach a new Zionist concordant of common aspirations and achievements, even though some will see this as a  minimally agreeable criteria or lowest common-denominator. Israel needs to get back to basics on what civil society can mutually agree upon.  Anti-Semitism and threats to the existence of the State of Israel can — and perhaps must be — a unifying force.  At the end of the day, no terrorist is going to card you at the door for your copy of Judith Butler or the Bible. There is a need to establish how Israelis can co-exist together, if the State of Israel is to continue to exist at all. The alternative is the continuation of the cross-ideological wars that will destroy Israeli civil society for another cheap fix of settling their own petty partisan scores.


Dr. Sara Yael Hirschhorn is University Research Lecturer and Sidney Brichto Fellow in Israel Studies at the University of Oxford. She is the author of the forthcoming City on a Hilltop: American Jews and the Israeli Settler Movement Since 1967 (Harvard University Press). Follow her on Twitter: @SaraHirschhorn1. 

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