Stopping a fledgling terrorist: Thoughts from an ex-neo Nazi

In the wake of the murders of Shira Banki and Ali Dawabsha, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s vow to crack down on Jewish terrorism certainly seems warranted.

August 12, 2015 21:22
Meir Ettinger

Police arrest Meir Ettinger. (photo credit: TAZPIT)

In the wake of the murders of Shira Banki and Ali Dawabsha, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s vow to crack down on Jewish terrorism certainly seems warranted.

But the sheer level of tragedy raises questions as to whether such a crusade is even practical. It is tempting to believe otherwise: there are endless examples of the power of extremism and far fewer to suggest it can be countered.

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But such examples do exist.

Christian Picciolini lives in the US, far from the Palestinian village of Duma, the Dawabsha family’s home, and still the news of the firebombing that killed Ali Dawabsha hit close to home. “It struck a chord in me,” he said. Not long ago, this peace advocate and motivational speaker was not so different from the bomber. Indeed, some memories he can hardly bear.

Out of the pain, though, comes hope, and that is why he has chosen to tell his story in his upcoming autobiography, Romantic Violence: Memoirs of An American Skinhead.

When he was 14, Christian was smoking a joint in an alleyway of downtown Chicago when a man rolled up in a vehicle, stepped out, and snatched the drugs out of his hand. It was Clark Martell, founder of Chicago Area Skinheads. “Don’t you know that’s what the capitalists want you to do to keep you docile?” Clark yelled.

Christian had been expelled from school and had become numb to “that’s wrong” and “stop that.” This was different. He had no idea what the term “docile” meant, but he knew one thing for sure: he was being told how to not fit somebody’s rules, but fight against them. His rebellion finally meant something.

By 15, Picciolini had become a fullfledged member of the White Power movement, and for the next seven years his life was defined by hatred.

In the 1980s, a time of immense racial conflict in the US, Picciolo was the face of the White Power music industry.

He used the microphone to roar hardcore-music fans into hate-filled frenzies with his band, The Final Solution.

To promote his agenda, Picciolini was targeting and exploiting tensions in American society.

Likewise, notes written by Meir Ettinger, the far-right activist currently being detained as the primary suspect in the Duma firebombing, call on advocates like himself to do the same – in this case, to target tensions between secular and Orthodox Jews.

“Extremists of every ilk seek to upend the balance of peace by causing lasting damage and unrest in communities that are already struggling with stability,” says Picciolini.

Instability – what Ettinger referred to in his manifesto as “eggshells” – is likely what makes pre-extremists vulnerable themselves. Like Picciolini, the Ettinger we know was not born.

He was made. After running into trouble with the IDF in 2011, he fled to the Od Yosef Hai Yeshiva, where he met Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh, an extremist in his own right. In his writings, Ettinger echoes much of what Ginsburgh wrote in 1994 to justify the massacre of 29 Muslims in the Cave of Patriarchs at the hands of a Jew: “It’s a lot cheaper and faster to destroy the State of Israel than to repair it.”

In her book State Violence and the Right to Peace, psychologist Kathleen Malley-Morrison asks 34 survey participants if they think world peace can ever be achieved. Most said no, with the bulk blaming the nature of humanity. One subject commented that “Mankind is evil by nature.”

Another added: “There will always be extremists.”

The majority of Israelis, who do recognize Jewish terrorism to be baseless and horrific, are beginning to feel this way.

Since the stabbing at the Jerusalem Gay Pride Festival on July 30, most criticisms are directed toward the police and their failure to intervene in terrorist attacks, to catch the perpetrators once their attacks are formulated and put into action.

Christian Picciolini, however, did not need to be locked away for his stash of guns and other weaponry, which he kept in case he and his brothers ever felt a governmental overthrow was necessary. He had to escape from the prison he was already in.

When Picciolini opened his record store in 1994, his goal was still the same. 75 percent of what he was selling was White Power music. The other 25%, though, drew in people of all different backgrounds: blacks, gays and Jews.

“And because of music, we started to talk... After getting to know these people, I started to realize that I had a lot in common with them and I realized I couldn’t justify the feelings I was having anymore,” he said during an interview with Noisey Vice, a music news blog.

A large part of stopping fledgling terrorists may be exposure: familiarizing Jews with sectors of their religion other than their own. A poll conducted last month by the Israeli Unity Project revealed major shortcomings in that department: nearly half of haredim (ultra-Orthodox Jews) have no interaction at all with secular Jews, and a fifth of secular Jews hardly speak with haredim.

Ettinger was, arguably, born into an intolerant environment – more so than the streets of downtown Chicago.

Unlike Picciolini, he had no record store through which he could learn to tolerate and accept others; that’s what the rabbis at Od Yosef Hai should have done for him. Surely, not everyone at that institution thought like Ginsburgh.

What holds that intervention back, perhaps, is the belief that such efforts would surely be futile. Gesher chairman Daniel Goldman has called on Israelis to encourage constructive conversations and debates among different sectors of Judaism in the education system as a way to prevent that sort of tunnel vision. While 81% of respondents they would be able to approach these conversations with an open mind, only 13% felt that open-mindedness was likely to resonate within the next five years.

Bradley Shavit Artson, vice president of American Jewish University, reminds us that change is entirely possible: the two sectors of Judaism are not, and have never been, in total opposition of one another.

“Look at all the areas in which Jews cooperate across denominational lines,” he wrote in Zieglar. “If the problem isn’t one of a lack of common ground, maybe the problem is one of ideology.”

Last week, the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv were littered with crumpled posters of the stabbing and firebombing victims. And a Facebook post by President Reuven Rivlin, in which he condemned the extremists who carry out those kinds of attacks, was littered with threats from Israelis who were enraged to see that the Palestinian community was being shown any sympathy whatsoever.

That alone is a massive issue. Just as we should not react to Arab terrorists with Jewish terrorists, we should not chalk up the latter group to the same unsupported, counter-productive notions of evil that are used to dehumanize the former. Doing so only isolates their followers and makes them less likely come across another path.

“Unity, compassion and promoting empathy, even to those who least deserve it, is what changes the world,” says Picciolini, who now runs the non-profit organization Life After Hate.

The author is an English major and full-time student at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio.

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