Amos Oz’s Serious Error: Saying neo-Nazis, Not Terrorists

I groaned when I read the Israeli author's words: Just as the revulsion against hate crimes is finally making it onto the U.S.-Jewish agenda, using the term 'neo-Nazi' will distract rather than prod us to action.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie
Graffiti on Beit Jamal monastery, reads 'price tag' and 'death to Gentiles'
Graffiti on Beit Jamal monastery, reads 'price tag' and 'death to Gentiles' Credit: Emil Salman
Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie
Eric H. Yoffie

Note to Amos Oz: Set aside the phrase “neo-Nazi” when talking about the “hilltop youth” – the Jews who attack innocent Arabs and Israeli soldiers and are known in particular for the hate crimes (or “price tag” attacks) targeting Arabs. My plea to Oz is that he find another term. Personally, I prefer “terrorist.”

Mr. Oz is a distinguished novelist and a personal hero of mine. Purely by chance, I just finished Oz’s “A Tale of Love and Darkness,” a book that left me stunned, breathless and overwhelmed. It is his greatest achievement, and one of the great Jewish novels of our time. I am not someone who likes, ever, to criticize Amos Oz.

But his reference to “neo-Nazis” was a serious error. He tried to explain it by distinguishing between “Nazis,” who kill Jews, and “neo-Nazis” of the European variety, who desecrate religious sites and harm innocent people.

Surely, he said, the hilltop youth fall into the latter category. But he was being too clever by half.

The fact is, distinctions of that sort are impossible to make. All that is heard is the word “Nazi,” not the various qualifiers. Israelis, in my experience, are not generally prepared to believe that other Jews are Nazis of any type. Many Europeans, on the other hand, are only too happy to believe that in Israel, Nazis are everywhere.

When it comes to American Jews, Oz’s description will simply make it easier for them to do what they usually do – which is to banish the “price tag” phenomenon from their consciousness. Israeli Nazis, neo- or otherwise? American Jews will shudder and move on. After all, the topic has never really been on the American-Jewish agenda; it is rarely addressed by Jewish leaders or highlighted in the Anglo-Jewish press.

The ADL, to its credit, has issued statements of condemnation; still, an American Jewish community that pays close attention to Jewish grave desecrations anywhere in the world has had remarkably little to say about acts of vandalism, hooliganism and terror committed by settlers in Israel against Arabs and other Jews. And when it has responded to these acts, it has done so with something less than urgency.

It is not that American Jews don’t care. They do; the price tag phenomenon horrifies them. Still, they also react with a measure of dismay, discomfort and disbelief, combined with a whole series of troubling questions. Why have Israel’s security services, so successful against Palestinian terror, been so inept in apprehending terrorists in the Jewish community?

Why have price tag criminals, once apprehended and convicted, not received meaningful prison terms? (A single 10-year sentence would probably put an end to the problem forever.)

Why have settler leaders, who offer perfunctory condemnations, responded mostly with excuse making and justifications? (“Of course this is wrong, but we need to remember that what the Palestinians do to us is much worse.”)

And why have the rabbis who serve the settlers not risen up as one, hurling the judgments of Torah at those who desecrate its teachings and dishonor all that is sacred in Judaism? (Yes, some have, and some do, but nowhere near consistently or convincingly enough.)

To be sure, American Jews search for answers to these questions, but they are not easy to come by. Israeli leaders are often emphatic in their condemnations, and yet the actions they take are always maddeningly inconclusive.

Discussions with Israeli settlers and politicians on the right are even more frustrating; some speak in somber tones about the existential dangers that exist, while others, claiming to be as appalled as everyone else, somehow manage to convey the impression that they dismiss the whole thing as the unfortunate misdeeds of bored and misbehaving children.

But things are changing.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon, a man of the right, has spoken emphatically about the dangers of price tag attacks to Israel’s security and moral standing, and he refers to price tag activity as terror. So too does Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and opposition leader Isaac Herzog.

After years of provocations, both popular and political sentiment against the attackers appears to be hardening in Israel across the political spectrum. And this means that as Israel’s political system is finding its voice on these matters, giving clarity and moral focus to its position, American Jews need to do the same, exerting their influence with Israel’s government in the process.

It was for this reason I groaned when I read about the words of Amos Oz. They would serve, I feared, to distract American Jews, rather than prod them to action, and might do the same in Israel.

And as much as I appreciate Oz’s desire, as he said, to “shock,” the settlers are right that analogies of this type are to be avoided and that such language devalues the searing, unique evil of Nazism.

Still, what is important here is that the moment not be lost. Jews who attack Arab innocents and threaten Israeli soldiers are an affront to Zionism’s fundamental values.

Now is time for American Jews to overcome their reluctance and express their revulsion to Israel’s leaders. And now is the time for Israel’s leaders to put an end to Jewish terror before it metastasizes and consumes us all.

Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie served as president of the Union for Reform Judaism from 1996 to 2012. He is now a writer, lecturer, and teacher, and lives with his family in Westfield, New Jersey.

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