Feiglin: Israel's Clear and Present Danger

Moshe Feiglin is the face of Israel's new mainstream, ultra-nationalist movement. His muses range from Meir Kahane to Martin Luther King Jr, and his co-option of American liberalism and Israeli democracy is precisely where his danger lies.

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This is the story of Moshe Zalman Feiglin, an Israeli ultranationalist activist who “had a dream” to lead the government of the Jewish state  - and that day may well arrive soon.

On January 22, Israelis will go the polls to elect, in all likeliness, a new Likud-Israel Beiteinu slate that some consider the most right-wing in the party’s history - a candidate list where even MK Benny Begin, the heir of the Revisionist movement, has now been edged out in favor of a new identity politics and ideological orientation.  

After years of fighting the establishment on both left and right, including four primary contests that have pitted him against his political arch-nemesis Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself, Moshe Feiglin won the 23rd candidate spot in the Likud primaries, and, according to the latest polls, seems almost certain to take a seat in the 19th Knesset.
   
Feiglin is a man with a long history of ultra-nationalist activism. He was the co-organizer of the anti-Oslo protest movement Zo Artzeinu [This is Our Land] and the current head of the Manhigut Yehudit [Jewish Leadership] faction of the Likud.  Slowly but steadily, he has maneuvered himself through the democratic process to the center of the ‘mainstream’ Likud and Israeli politics. He is a quixotic figure who has come a long way from a radical once charged and convicted of sedition against the State of Israel, and who was banned from entering the UK in 2008 on the grounds that his presence "would not be conducive to the public good."

Yet, while Feiglin is often characterized (and caricatured) on both sides of the political aisle as being a fascist, a fundamentalist, and a fanatical product of a backwards Middle East, Feiglin prefers to position himself as a kind of Israeli Thoreau, bringing the message of civil disobedience and American liberalism from the Western world to the West Bank. Feiglin titled his first book, “And Where There are No Men, Try To Be a Man,” after a lesson from Pirkei Avot [Ethics of the Fathers] that has guided his political career, but what kind of man is Moshe Feiglin, and what will his political philosophy mean for the reinvigorated Israeli ultra-nationalist movement?

Feiglin comes from a religious Zionist family with roots in the First Aliyah, who immigrated to Palestine in 1889; his grandfather was the first child born in the northern Galilee village of Metullah since its founding.  Born in Israel's interwar years in Haifa in 1962, Feiglin was raised in Rehovot, where he attended a school affiliated to the national-religious Mizrachi stream, and then Rabbi Haim Druckman’s hesder yehiva, Or Etzion (Druckman was an instrumental player in the founding of Gush Emunim, the pro-settlement national religious grouping), followed by a stint in a combat unit in the IDF.  After several years as an entrepreneur in the window-washing business, Feiglin’s career took a decisively political turn around the time of the first intifada when he and his American-born wife Tzippy moved to the West Bank settlement of Karnei Shomron.  The couple and their children settled in the Jewish-American-founded enclave neighborhood of Neve Aliza, where the native Israeli Feiglin soon found himself at home.

As a self-styled political outsider, Feiglin himself credits this 'American' immersion experience as helping him find a new intellectual and activist space in the Oslo negotiations-for-peace era.  He formed a professional partnership with neighbor Shmuel Sackett, a Jewish-American settler who had been active in - amongst other forms of Jewish activism - the struggle for Soviet Jewry and the Jewish Defense League in 1970s New York, prior to both his own and Kahane’s immigration to Israel.  Sackett was also a leader in one of the two splinter factions of Kahane Chai after Kahane’s death.

Together they began to develop a new ideology of Israeli civil disobedience that culminated in their sentencing for sedition as leaders of the Zo Artzeinu movement.  Feiglin was sentenced to 18 months in prison in 1997, later commuted to six months of community service.  While some at the time considered this an outrageously light sentence, Feiglin’s own counter-version, or propaganda, suggests that he was a victim of fabricated charges, and that he was accused in a show trial in order to be made an example of, in a fraught era of public outrage against the incitement by the right that was revealed in the aftermath of the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

In his first book, Feiglin lays out a vision of a kind of Walden in the West Bank, quoting from sources as diverse as the Talmud to Ralph Waldo Emerson to explain and justify his theory of (supposedly) non-violent resistance against the Israeli government in the Oslo era.  Suggesting that the leadership of Israel had abrogated the social contract with the Israeli polity - especially with the settler constituency - by negotiations with Palestinian militants, land concessions, and a failure to defend the populace from terrorist attacks, Feiglin justifies law-breaking as a moral imperative, calling for a civil disobedience campaign.  Co-opting U.S. history, he asks rhetorically: “This is how it was with Martin Luther King in the USAwasn’t it?” Feiglin preached a form of passive resistance explicitly imported from the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam struggle of 1960s America.  

In this sense, Feiglin set himself apart from other right-wing activists at the time. Like Meir Kahane (who he is often, if somewhat erroneously compared to),  Feiglin’s ideology evokes the consciousness of a liberal, rather than a zealot, in his attacks on the “establishment” on both left and right in Israel. Both Feiglin and Kahane believe(d) in using the democratic system to achieve their aims, although Feiglin explicitly espouses non-violence, unlike Kahane's adoption of violent tactics. Despite this rejection of force, a chilling passage in Feiglin's book is a meditation on Baruch Goldstein and the murder of 29 innocent Muslim supplicants at Hebron's Tomb of the Patriachs/Ibrahimi mosque in February 1994, a passage that seemingly condemns the means - but not the motivations - behind Goldstein's terrorist attack.

As Feiglin understands so well, the old settler model of “another dunam, another goat,” is (increasingly) defunct and must be replaced with a new, broader ultra-nationalist coalition both within and outside the Green Line that stands for new ideals, shifting the focus from incremental settlement strategies that involve small numbers of dedicated settlers to mass social movements, and protest politics, drawing support from both within and outside the Green Line to push for full state support of settlement.

The man that Feiglin seemingly aspires to be is a democrat, which is precisely what makes his brand of leadership so dangerous.  Much to the chagrin of cafe society in Tel Aviv, Feiglin’s newfound fame is perceived as a turn toward Jewish fundamentalism.  Yet, what these secular liberals fail to grasp is that it is not religious and nationalist extremism per se that may kill Israel’s democracy. Rather, it is the erosion and inversion of Israel's liberal-democratic tradition through Feiglin's exploitation of the ideals and discourse that these secular liberals hold so dear, by applying liberal values to illiberal projects.

It is precisely because the new Israeli ultra-nationalists understand public relations, identity politics, and the power of the ballot box that they will succeed in January.  If the left continues to stereotype its opponents as fanatics, then Feiglin wins.  Israel failed to confront this trend nearly thirty years ago with the election of the racist and xenophobic Kach party. If the leadership of today’s center and left continue to misinterpret and underestimate right-wingers like Feiglin this time round, because of the inbuilt hubris  of the Israeli political establishment, then when those right-wingers reap their success, moderate voices should not be taken by surprise. Just as Kahane and his followers provided their own pithy commentary on that establishment in graffiti spray-painted across public spaces during the second intifada, "Kahane Tzadak” [Kahane was Right], the post-election slogan this time, vindicating the patient success of the ultra-nationalists, may well read "Feiglin was Right."

Dr. Sara Hirschhorn is a graduate of Yale and the University of Chicago and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University, researching the Israeli settler movement, the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the U.S.-Israel relationship. Her dissertation, '"City on a Hilltop: The Participation of Jewish-American Immigrants Within the Israeli Settler Movement, 1967-1987," is now available on Proquest.

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