When silence isn't golden

Settlers and haredim are wrong to view denouncing their own thugs as a trap.

settlers throwing rocks 311 (photo credit: Btselem)
settlers throwing rocks 311
(photo credit: Btselem)

About 10 days ago, a haredi rabbi from Beit Shemesh published an impassioned rebuttal of the demand that mainstream haredim denounce the fringe elements of their community that have been harassing women and children there and elsewhere. No normative haredi condones such behavior, he wrote, but when a haredi condemns the thugs as a haredi, “he helps perpetrate the fiction that he and those like him are part of that group (the perpetrators), since whoever is NOT part of that group of malefactors is not asked to condemn them.” This encourages the false idea “that the aberrant behavior somehow stems from the core values of the entire group.”

I’ve heard similar arguments against the demand that mainstream settlers denounce the fringe elements of their community that have been attacking Palestinians and IDF soldiers. And since much of the media really would like nothing better than to tar all settlers and all haredim as violent, benighted and immoral, I can understand the argument’s appeal.

Nevertheless, I think it’s wrong. And despite all the very important differences – first and foremost, petty hooliganism isn’t remotely comparable to mass murder – the best way to understand why is to look at Palestinian terrorists.

Some years ago, at the height of the second intifada, the Shin Bet security service interviewed dozens of failed suicide bombers (people caught before they could blow themselves up, or whose bombs failed to explode) in an effort to find out what made them tick. Its conclusion may at first seem surprising: The number-one motive driving these terrorists was a craving for their own society’s admiration. The knowledge that they would be lionized as heroes – that streets and squares would be named for them, that religious and political leaders would sing their praises, that the media would publish glowing obituaries, that schoolchildren would study them as role models – created a powerful incentive for young Palestinians to blow themselves up.

This finding was reinforced some years later by media interviews with wanted Fatah terrorists who, under a deal between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, agreed to lay down their arms in exchange for an Israeli amnesty. Asked why they agreed, all offered roughly the same answer: Whereas once, they were heroes, welcomed everywhere, Israel’s increasingly successful counterterrorism efforts had turned them into pariahs.

When some of them strolled into a Tulkarm coffeehouse, all the customers fled, fearing an Israeli strike, and the owner ordered them out. Taxi drivers refused to pick them up; barbers refused to cut their hair. And, worst of all, they couldn’t get married. As one Palestinian explained, he didn’t want his daughter marrying a terrorist, because “I want her to have a good life, without having the army coming into her house all the time to arrest her while her husband escapes into the streets.” Amnestied terrorist Mahdi Abu Ghazale said his fiancee’s family explicitly conditioned the engagement on him obtaining the amnesty.

In truth, however, this finding shouldn’t be surprising, because strange though it may seem, most terrorists aren’t psychopaths. True psychopaths, who genuinely don’t care what others think of them, are very rare. The vast majority of human beings care greatly about the good opinion of their reference group, and this is perhaps especially true of “ideological” criminals: The good opinion of their reference group is essential to maintaining their illusion that they are doing something brave and noble to advance the group’s shared cause.

Palestinian terrorism is a classic example of ideological crime. The terrorists were convinced their murderous acts would advance their society’s shared goal of defeating the hated Zionist enemy, and this conviction was reinforced by their society’s admiration. But it shattered once society started treating them as pariahs instead. And at that point, many opted to quit.

While haredi and settler thugs are much less violent, they are no less ideologically driven. Settler thugs believe their attacks on Palestinians and soldiers further their community’s shared cause of preserving and expanding the settlement enterprise. haredi thugs believe their abusive behavior toward “immodest” females (even eight-year-olds) furthers their community’s shared cause of creating a modest society. Both groups therefore see themselves as their community’s heroes: people who dare to take bold steps that others in their community fear to take, but which are necessary to achieve their common goal.

Because this illusion is so important to their self-esteem, they easily interpret their community’s silence not as the revulsion it often is, but as silent gratitude from people too timid to defy hostile outsiders by speaking their admiration aloud. And that interpretation is facilitated by the fact that so many of the voices they do hear are raised in their defense.

In my own community, the settlers, I frequently hear statements justifying the thugs’ attacks as an understandable response to outpost demolitions, along the lines of: “What do you expect when our evil government is destroying settlements?” Or as one acquaintance told me when I criticized the thugs: “You’re blaming the victims.” I’m less familiar with the haredi community, but I strongly suspect extremists there also hear plenty of statements like: “What do you expect when half-naked women insist on invading our streets and our buses?” And in both communities, many people implicitly defend the thugs by instead condemning the media and/or leftist “provocateurs” for “blowing the incidents out of proportion” or even “inventing” them wholesale.

In reality, far from helping their community, Palestinian terrorists produced thousands of Palestinian dead and wounded, an economic decline from which the PA still hasn’t recovered, and an Israeli reoccupation of areas previously ceded to the Palestinians. Settler and haredi thugs are similarly damaging their communities, as I’ve explained before. But until they feel as thoroughly ostracized by their peers as those terrorists who couldn’t get a wife or even a taxi, their thuggish behavior is unlikely to stop.

That is why it’s vital for mainstream settlers and haredim to publicly denounce them – even if, as that haredi rabbi wrote, it means “walking right into the trap set” by a hostile media. For these communities have the most to lose if the thuggery continues.

The writer is a journalist and commentator. She is currently a JINSA Visiting Fellow.