How widespread is the terrorist element among religious Jewish youth?

Leaders of the religious Zionist world say the price tag/hilltop youth phenomenon is a rebellion against their theology.

Meir Ettinger attends a remand hearing at the Magistrate’s Court in Nazareth. (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
Meir Ettinger attends a remand hearing at the Magistrate’s Court in Nazareth.
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
THE SYMPATHIES of the Aish Kodesh community are evident as soon as one enters the settlement outpost located on a mostly barren hilltop near the geographic center of Samaria, equidistant between the established settlement of Shilo and the Palestinian community of Duma. Near the gate of the outpost, a 40-minute drive from Jerusalem through the most barren section of the northern West Bank, a poster on the bus stop near the gate of the community calls on residents to attend a demonstration in support of a group of Orthodox Jews who have allegedly been tortured by the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) while held in administrative detention in recent months.
The group is suspected of involvement in a series of “price tag” attacks against Arab individuals and property, including the July 31 arson attack in Duma that claimed the lives of three members of the Dawabsheh family.
The theme of the demonstration, “Shlom asirayikh” (fate of your captives), is a bitter reference to a poem by the 12th century Spanish Rabbi Yehuda Halevi. Whereas the original version expresses the author’s painful longing for a Holy Land he’d never set eyes on (and is recited by Orthodox Jews on the Tisha B’Av day of mourning for the Temple in Jerusalem), the use of the phrase in the current context is clear: The young people accused of involvement in violent “price tag” attacks against Palestinian Arabs are to be seen as martyrs, and the community bears responsibility to pray for the detainees and to act on their behalf to effect their release.
But when asked about the recent string of attacks that have been linked to the religious Zionist community against Arab towns and villages – including attacks that included graffiti reading “Greetings from Aish Kodesh” – residents of the 40-family settlement provided little more than a uniform answer that seemed to have been dictated and rehearsed ahead of a pre-planned media tour of the community: We don’t know anything about Jewish attacks on Arabs. We just want to live our lives peacefully. The attacks have nothing to do with us.
“There is a phenomenal discrepancy between the reality of life here and what the media wants you to see,” says Hela Manne, a twenty something mother of two who has lived in Aish Kodesh for four years. “It’s not that the media lies, exactly. It’s more that the press chooses to paint a shallow, one-sided picture of the Jews in Judea and Samaria by focusing on violence, when in reality the attacks are committed by no more than a few dozen young people who have nothing to do with our communities.”
BUT WHEN asked whether she felt that Jewish terrorism against Arabs had become a problem for Israel, and especially for the settlers’ image, Manne was silenced by 31-year-old Aaron Katsoff, a community spokesman who was leading a group of journalists around the community and who repeated the mantra of the visit. “We don’t know anything about the attacks,” Katsoff said.
If Katsoff’s and Manne’s statements sound like little more than a series of prerecorded sound bites, their rejection of the notion that Orthodox Zionism bears responsibility for an ongoing series of anti-Arab attacks is not limited to far-flung outposts of the crocheted kippa world. From Shilo to Har Bracha to Jerusalem to Efrat to Orthodox communities in the Negev and even abroad, leaders of the religious Zionist world say the price tag/hilltop youth phenomenon is a rebellion against their theology, and especially against the universalist thought of former chief Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook.
As evidence, they point to the case of Amiram Ben-Uliel, the 21-year-old man who was charged on January 1 with the murder of the Dawabsheh family. Originally from Karmei Zur, a small settlement north of Hebron, Ben-Uliel is the eldest son of Rabbi Reuven Ben-Uliel, who is identified with mainstream religious Zionism and also serves as the rabbi for a pre-military academy in the settlement of Nokdim.
But Ben-Uliel’s extremism does not appear to have stemmed from his family or educational background. Acquaintances describe the family as “stable and functional,” but Amiram left school following academic difficulties and gravitated toward extremism.
After experiencing a few minor scrapes with the law, his views became increasingly radical and his connection with his family more tenuous.
Meir Ettinger another Orthodox Jewish administrative detainee, was born in Jerusalem to Mordechai Ettinger, a rabbi at the Har Hamor and Ateret Kohanim yeshivas in Jerusalem, and Tova, the daughter of Rabbi Meir Kahane, the founder of the outlawed Kach movement. Security authorities believe Ettinger oversaw a Jewish terrorist group. His arrest was linked to the Duma firebombing. Shin Bet officials have said Ettinger’s movement was also responsible for the June arson attack at the historic Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes, and seeks to bring down the government and replace it with a Jewish theocracy.
“There is no religious extremism in the religious Zionist community. None,” Rabbi Shlomo Kimche, the founder and dean of Orot Yehuda Yeshiva in Efrat, asserts to The Jerusalem Report. “However, we certainly do have a phenomenon in our community of young people who have lost their way, and it pains me to say that, yes, many segments of the religious Zionist world have failed to address their needs.
“But the violence we have seen that has been attributed to the kids on the hilltops is not an expression of anything those young people have learned in our communities and yeshivas. Very much to the contrary – the whole phenomenon is a part of a sharp rebellion against everything that religious Zionism stands for and represents. Don’t make the mistake the media loves to make – you are talking about a few dozen kids who have become estranged from their parents, their schools, their communities. It is outrageous and insulting to use the violence of a few kids who have lost their way to smear an entire community,” the 54-year-old father of five says.
To support his point, Kimche stresses that virtually all segments of the religious Zionist world have strongly and consistently denounced price tag attacks, including last summer’s attacks in Duma and against the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes at Tabgha.
Bayit Yehudi Chairman Naftali Bennett slammed the Duma murders as a “terrorist attack” and called on law enforcement officials and the religious Zionist community to take an honest look at the situation, while Rabbi Chaim Druckman, the head of the religious Zionist Bnei Akiva constellation of yeshivas, has called price tag attacks “horrible, shocking, anti-Jewish and anti-morality.”
Even Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, the rabbi of Har Bracha, considered one of the most extreme settlements in Judea and Samaria, has denounced the price tag activists as “Israel haters,” who “appear to love the Land of Israel but in practice hate the Jews.”
Significantly, however, others say the religious Zionist community has refused to address a critical issue that threatens both to blacken the name of religious Zionism and the future of the State of Israel itself.
Rabbi Yoel Bin-Nun, a founder of the Gush Emunim movement who caused waves inside religious Zionist circles in 1995 when he criticized certain rabbis of fomenting the incitement that led to the murder of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, declined to be interviewed at length for this article, other than to say that “nothing has changed” in the community since the Rabin assassination.
“The rabbis prefer to bury their heads in the sand on this issue,” Bin-Nun says.
Other critics of the community include a host of former intelligence officials such as Carmi Gillon, a former head of the Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) who founded the intelligence body’s Jewish Division decades ago to deal with the threat posed by the Jewish underground, a group of religious Zionist Israelis who planned to blow up the Dome of the Rock.
“To describe this phenomenon as a ‘youthat- risk’ issue is nothing but a cop-out,” says Gillon.
SPEAKING TO The Report by phone in late January, Gillon praised Bennett’s statements supporting the Shin Bet, but he rejected his description of the price tag phenomenon as “a new approach that is being followed by a few dozen disturbed anarchists.” Rather, Gillon says the religious Zionist community has served as a breeding ground for extremism, at least at the fringes, since he started monitoring the community in 1984.
“There is no way to say that the violence stemming today from the religious Zionist community is only perpetrated by ‘a few errant weeds.’ You’re not talking about a few stupid kids. They are very serious – a bit fanatic, perhaps, but they are super-focused on the goal they have learned in their homes, schools and communities – not to wait passively for God’s Ultimate Redemption,” Gillon says.
Gillon stresses that the hard-core religious Zionist belief in the Whole Land of Israel is not synonymous with extremism or terrorism.
But he adds that the Gush Emunim (bloc of the faithful) movement has been largely defined by a debate about the nature of Zionism and redemption.
“Before creating the underground, Yehuda Etzioni asked Rabbi Bin-Nun whether he viewed Zionism as an evolutionary or a revolutionary process. Bin-Nun noted the former, and so Etzioni left him out of the movement. Now, there is nobody more committed to the Land of Israel than Rabbi Bin-Nun, but the State of Israel and the decisions of the Israeli government play a central role in his view of Zionism and the redemption process. I’m afraid that his moderate voice is basically irrelevant in religious Zionism today,” Gillon says.
Gillon’s words echoed criticism leveled last summer by another ex-Shin Bet head, Yuval Diskin, who responded to the Duma attack by rejecting the notion that extreme teenagers were a fringe element in religious Zionism, saying instead that “dozens of delusional youth” were “setting the tone within religious Zionism.”
“There are many hundreds of youths supporting messianic and/or anarchistic, anti-state ideologies, [including] dozens who daily adopt different levels of violence or terrorism against Palestinian lives and property,” said Diskin, who headed the Shin Bet from 2005 to 2011.
Because the nature of the hilltop youth phenomenon is necessarily clouded in secrecy – members of that community shy away from the media, and most parents of the hilltop kids are deeply ashamed of their children’s actions, it is difficult to know whether to believe Diskin’s or Kimche’s assessment of the problem. What is clear, however, is that extreme views are treated with a strong degree of understanding inside the Orthodox world.
When Kiryat Arba Rabbi Dov Lior referred to Palestinian Arabs with the epithet “camel chasers” at a recent religious-Zionist wedding, the incident was notable not only for the statement itself, but also because he felt that the gathering was a safe environment in which to repeat that epithet.
And, in Itamar, residents speak in glowing terms about Avri Ran, the founder of both the original hilltop youth movement in the late 1990s and the Givot Olam organic farm located several kilometers outside the settlement.
But they willingly ignore the fact that Ran has been accused of murdering Palestinians and attacking left-wing activists.
“LISTEN, ZIONIST ideology, especially religious Zionism, teaches that the 2,000 years of exile was an aberration from the true Jewish norm – the Jewish people, living in the Land of Israel,” says Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger, a graduate of the Har Etzion Yeshiva, a veteran teacher and 32-year resident of the Etzion Bloc.
“Eventually, when it became clear that living among non-Jews in Europe was no longer possible and was not going to get any better, Jews decided to take their fate into their own hands. For the first time since the destruction of the Second Temple, we decided to become masters of our own fate. Now, that is an inspiring message. I agree with every word of all that. It defines who I am, what I believe and why I live in Alon Shvut.
“But there is also a very dark side of that ideology, as well: It can lead to a stiff isolationism and sense of exclusiveness. As a result, there is a real danger here of ultranationalism,” Schlesinger says. “That is a reality that is tough for many people in our community to admit.”
Schlesinger stresses that original Zionism managed to strike a delicate balance between the competing ideals of Jewish particularism and universalism, partially because the early Zionist thinkers were well-read men of the world.
“I’m sorry to say this, but many of the leaders of today’s Zionism, and especially religious Zionism, are not men of the world, but rather only of the Jewish people. So exclusivity raises its head and it is a natural outcome of this ideology. And once you add the power and certainty of religion into the mix – a return to the land of the Bible, living out the vision of the kings and the prophets – and you’ve got a truly explosive concoction,” he tells The Report.
And then there is Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, head of the Od Yosef Chai Yeshiva in Yitzhar and author of “Baruch Hagever”, a volume of praise to the most infamous Jewish terrorist of modern times, Dr. Baruch Goldstein, who gunned down dozens of worshipers in the Ibrahimi Mosque (Tomb of the Patriarchs) in Hebron, on Purim morning in 1994. To be sure, Ginsburgh can hardly be considered a leader of the religious Zionist community. He openly calls for the elimination of the Israeli democratic state in favor of a Halakha-based kingdom and his community, Yitzhar, located in northern Samaria near Nablus, is known as a hotbed of extremism with a history of attacks on IDF and Israel Police contingents that have entered the community.
And yet, academic and religious scholars agree that Ginsburgh’s work on Kabbala mysticism is thorough and serious enough to warrant consideration. In comparison, say, to Kahane – a charismatic speaker who was considered a theological lightweight – Ginsburgh simply cannot be brushed aside. In a community that values Torah scholarship over virtually every other value, that makes Ginsburgh’s views relevant, even as the vast majority of the population actually have little idea about the substance of his work.
Still, Kimche is not alone in his belief that authorities are wrong to treat the problem of Jewish violence as an issue of religious extremism. Rabbis, political leaders, social workers and psychologists interviewed for this article all agreed that the current issue is more correctly described as an issue of youth at risk, which is a longstanding issue in religious communities, in general, and in the settlements, in particular.
In the view of former residents of the hilltops of Judea and Samaria, these fringe youth were unlikely to have ever attended Ginsburgh’s classes or read “Torat Hamelech”, a 2009 treatise written by Rabbis Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur of the Od Yosef Hai Yeshiva in Yitzhar, on the permissibility of killing non-Jews during times of war and peace. The book sparked a huge public outcry in 2009 when two of Israel’s most respected halakhic authorities, former chief rabbi Ovadia Yosef and the leader of the non-Hassidic Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox community Rabbi Shalom Yosef Elyashiv, denounced the book. It was also condemned as racist by many pluralistic groups, who claimed it incited violence and racism against Arabs and other minorities in Israel.
Furthermore, Kimche calls the vigilante violence ostensibly committed in the name of Judaism “a religious perversion,” and compares the phenomenon to other forms of teenage rebellion in the Orthodox community, particularly substance abuse and especially a decision to leave Orthodoxy.
In keeping with this approach, local municipalities, regional councils and the Education Ministry have pioneered programs to help teenagers who have had trouble succeeding inside their home communities and in the religious Zionist education system.
Since the beginning of the second intifada in 2000, local councils around Judea and Samaria have focused on upgrading youth services with programming to address the needs of teens at risk. On a national level, the Ministry of Education has financed day programs and hostel facilities for teenagers who have left their homes “These kids – and there are an equal number of boys and girls – have simply lost hope and faith in their home communities.
They’ve gone off the rails, so to speak, and run away from home. They come from across the religious spectrum and have taken refuge – either in abandoned buildings, or in the caves and wadis of Judea and Samaria,” says Ariel Sokoloff, 45, the founder and head of the Machol hostel, located deep in the Negev Desert near Ovdat. “They just haven’t made it inside the traditional religious Zionist system, but they aren’t ideological extremists.”
OTHERS – INCLUDING a former resident of the hills – said the very attempt to equate price tag violence with the religious Zionist world indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of the situation at hand.
“Apart from the term ‘settlers,’ we did not have very much in common with residents of the nearby settlements,” said one former teenage rebel. “At best, we rejoiced in the denunciations by rabbis such as Eli Sadan, the head of the prearmy academy in the Eli settlement and, at worst, they encouraged us to continue on our self-righteous path,” said the former member, writing anonymously in the Hebrew-language Makor Rishon, a right-wing weekly popular in the religious Zionist sector.
Ultimately, the issue of vigilantism among religious Zionist youth appears to be an emotional reaction to reality, rather than adherence to extreme ideologies propagated by certain rabbis. It’s a point Kimche stresses to explain the particularly venomous strain of youth-at-risk that has taken root in Judea and Samaria.
“We have all lived in the shadow of Arab terrorism for years,” Kimche says.
“I don’t have to tell you the toll that can take on a developing adolescent personality.
Our job, as parents, educators, as responsible adults, is to channel those strong feelings into healthy, positive avenues of expression. But a central point of that process begins with letting teenagers know that their desire for revenge is absolutely normal and legitimate, and then talking about appropriate ways to express those feelings, and ending with a clear message about who we are, what our values are and exactly what constitutes acceptable behavior,” he contends.
Asked what constitutes “acceptable behavior,” Kimche illustrates the point with a story.
“When we deal with these issues, I tell my students to take these normal emotions, wrap them in an imaginary black box and lock them away in their hearts.
One day, they are all going to be serving in the IDF, many of them in combat units.
There, they will eventually find themselves on patrol in the middle of the night, in a freezing, miserable rain, hungry, cold and having gone three days without a shower, and they’ll have to find the inner strength to carry out some very, very difficult tasks.
“When that happens, I tell them to take out the box and remember that that is our revenge. That is how we avenge Treblinka, that is how we respond to the terrorist murder in November of Gush Etzion Rabbi Yaakov Don, by serving as soldiers in the first independent Jewish army in 2,000 years. We remain committed to the State of Israel and to the values of the State of Israel. We funnel these feelings in appropriate, healthy, legal ways,” Kimche says.