An innocent victim.

Photographer: Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP/Getty Images

The Terror Consuming Israel From Within

Daniel Gordis is senior vice president and Koret distinguished fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. Author of 11 books, his latest is "Israel: A Concise History of a Nation Reborn."
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Israelis’ worry about the looming nuclear deal with Iran has suddenly taken a back seat to another series of news items that some suggest are no less consequential for the country’s survival. For the past several days, Israel has been a society in the grips of soul-searching after two horrific hate crimes, each of which involved the death of a child.

The first was an attack Thursday on Jerusalem’s annual gay pride parade. Yishai Schlissel, an ultra-Orthodox Jew released just three weeks ago after serving time for attacking participants at the 2005 pride parade, gave interviews stating explicitly that he would do the same thing again. The security apparatus, and particularly the police (a force now embroiled in scandal and regularly accused of being utterly incompetent) failed miserably once again. Schlissel made his way unimpeded to the parade, and stabbed six people. On Sunday, a teenager who had gone to the parade to show solidarity for a friend died in the hospital due to her wounds.

Friday brought more bad news as someone threw a firebomb into a Palestinian home in the West Bank village of Duma, not far from Nablus. An 18-month-old boy burned to death; his parents and brother are fighting for their lives in Israeli hospitals. Authorities haven't identified any suspects, but given that the Hebrew word nekamah (“revenge”) was spray-painted at the site, it is almost universally assumed that the attack was the work of right-wing Jewish nationalist extremists.

The horrific attack brought back memories of last summer’s assault on Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a Palestinian teenager also burned to death by Jewish religious extremists. That killing shocked the country; thousands of Israeli Jews joined protests and visited the family’s mourning tent, but once the assailants were caught, the case quickly disappeared from the headlines. Until this week, Israelis essentially forgot it.

That, Israelis are now recognizing, is precisely the problem. This time, with the exception of a small cadre of entirely unrepentant extremists, calls for national self-reckoning after the deaths of 16-year-old Shira Banki and 18-month-old Ali Dawabsha are coming from across the political and religious spectrum.

“We have been lax in tackling Jewish terrorism,” President Reuven Rivlin said Friday, understating matters. Though Israelis have long been hesitant to use the word “terrorism” when speaking about Jewish attacks on Palestinians, Israel’s leaders took off the gloves. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was just as clear, calling the attack a “reprehensible and horrific act of terrorism in every respect.” Naftali Bennett, the right-wing politician who campaigned on a “no Palestinian State” platform, could not afford to be any less clear. “Terror is terror is terror,” Bennett said. “The torching of the house in Duma and the murder of the baby is a shocking terror attack that is unfathomable.” Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon instructed security forces to place right-wing suspects in administrative detention -- i.e., hold them without sufficient evidence to indict -- just as Israel has long done with Palestinian terrorist suspects.

For some, though, the crocodile tears were unconvincing. Of course, every sane Israeli is horrified, they insist, but disgust will not fix anything. The question is what Israel will do. Even arresting and convicting the toddler's killers will do little.

Yair Lapid was the most precise of the politicians to speak out. “We’re at war with an enemy within,” Lapid said. He is right. The question is whether Israel’s leaders will wage this war with the commitment to winning that Israel has brought to bear on other conflicts. Not everyone is convinced that that is likely.

Avi Issacharoff, one of Israel’s most respected columnists, wrote that, “The killing of Ali Saad Dawabsha will not be the last. … And the perpetrators are confident nobody is going to stop them.”

Hatred of yet another sort was on grotesque display last week, as well. When the government ordered the destruction of two illegally built structures in a settlement near Beit El, hundreds of religious settlers battled security forces in defiance. Photographs of the standoff revealed the sheer hatred the settlers had not only for the security forces, but also for the authority of the state itself.

Precisely as was the case before Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in November 1995, the religious and political right have adopted rhetoric that reeks of disdain for both democracy and secularism. For those of us who uprooted ourselves from the greatest democracy on earth to make Israel our home, the inescapable conclusion is particularly chilling: Israel is a country in the grips of a closed-minded, self-righteous, homophobic, xenophobic, racist and anti-democratic minority that no Israeli political leader has the political courage to take on.

There are some rays of light coming from a younger generation of leaders. When Bennett expressed bitterness over the fact that he would not be permitted to speak at a peace rally this week, Stav Shaffir, the youngest member of the Knesset and a voice of passionate reason in the Labor Party, “dissed” him in a Facebook posting that has gone viral. “You cannot incite all year long and then ask to speak at a rally,” she essentially said. March in the gay pride parade like I do, she said, without going to the podium. Stop preaching hatred. Stop the grandstanding, because people are dying.

Will Israel hold on until her generation can take the reins of the country? Will there be enough Stav Shaffirs to make a difference? It is hard to know. In the short run, though, nothing is likely to change. Netanyahu is a political survivor more than anything else, and he’ll probably opt to let the horror blow over rather than take on the right flank he needs to preserve his governing coalition.

If that is the route he takes, though, things may well collapse before Shaffir’s generation gets its turn. David Horovitz, another immigrant to Israel and editor of the Times of Israel, reflected the now pervasive sense of despair when he said of the Beit El standoff, “This is the path to renewed destruction. … If we keep going, the Iranians won’t need to do anything.”

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author on this story:
Daniel Gordis at danielgordis@outlook.com

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net