Last Wednesday, several hundred Jewish Israelis descended on the Palestinian town of Turmus Ayya in the northern West Bank. The masked attackers, mostly residents of nearby Israeli communities, rampaged through the town, setting fire to homes, cars, and wheat fields; throwing rocks; and, in at least several instances, firing assault rifles at local residents. Footage from the scene showed the town in flames. Israeli security forces intervened and a dozen Palestinians were wounded in the melee; one local man, later claimed by Hamas as one of its members, was killed under circumstances that remain unclear. Dozens of cars and homes were left smoldering.
The rampage in Turmus Ayya came after several smaller ones targeting Palestinian towns the evening before and was followed by another several hours later in the village of Urif. In the latter case, a masked young man was captured on video ripping apart a book believed to have been a Quran in a mosque.
The ostensible impetus for these mob attacks was last Monday’s terrorist shooting at a gas station outside the community of Eli, in which four Israelis – 17-year-old Nachman Shmuel Mordoff, 18-year-old Elisha Antman, 21-year-old Harel Masoud, and 63-year-old Ofer Feirman – were murdered. Many of the participants in the Turmus Ayya attack came directly from Mordoff’s funeral at the cemetery in nearby Shilo.
One of the Palestinian towns targeted last week was Huwara, in which a similarly horrific rampage took place following the murder of two Israeli brothers, 19-year-old Yagel and 22-year-old Hallel Yaniv, in February. At the time, hundreds of Israelis entered Huwara and several surrounding villages, attacked local residents and set fire to hundreds of cars, homes, businesses, and other buildings. One Palestinian man was killed and more than a hundred were wounded. The local IDF commander, who said his forces were completely unprepared for the sheer scale of the attack, called it a “pogrom.”
Violence against innocent Palestinians isn't new
Acts of violence and murder perpetrated by Jewish Israeli extremists against innocent Palestinians are not a new phenomenon. The most infamous case may be that of Baruch Goldstein, a Brooklyn-born resident of Kiryat Arba and member of the Jewish terrorist group Kach, who opened fire in the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron on February 25, 1994, murdering 29 Muslim worshipers and leaving 125 wounded.
Then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu decried the massacre, which was met with wall-to-wall condemnation within Israel; and the government outlawed Kach.
But other instances are not as well-known.
For the past 15 years, extremists have carried out countless “Price Tag” attacks – so-called because they are supposedly meant to exact a “price” for attacks against Jews – across the West Bank and in Arab areas throughout Israel. Stories of cars and homes vandalized, trees uprooted, fields torched, and innocent people attacked appear as blips in the news every couple of days.
What is different now, however, is that these acts of violence appear to have the imprimatur of certain members of the sitting government.
Three days after the Huwara rampage, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said that the town ought to be “wiped out,” before quickly adding that “the State of Israel needs to do it, most certainly not private citizens.” (He later tried to walk back his remarks.)
This week, after IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Herzi Halevi, Shin Bet Chief Ronen Bar, and Israel Police Chief Kobi Shabtai issued a joint statement condemning the attacks on innocent Palestinians as being “against every moral and Jewish value and [also] nationalist terrorism in every sense,” National Missions Minister Orit Struck – a member of Smotrich’s party – railed against them, comparing the country’s most senior defense officials to the mercenary Wagner Group. “Who are you to issue such a statement under the nose of the government?” she demanded. “Are [you] going to teach us morals?” (She, too, later apologized.)
National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir – who, in his previous life as an attorney, frequently represented Jews accused of attacking innocent Palestinians – went so far as to call last week’s marauders “sweet boys.”
“Most of them are sweet boys,” he reportedly said during a meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Gallant, and the country’s defense chiefs. “Administrative arrests turn people into heroes,” he added, referring to a measure used (sparingly) against those suspected of involvement in the violence.
While Netanyahu did issue a muted condemnation of last week’s mob attacks, he appeared to do so on law-and-order grounds.
“We will not accept riots, neither in the Golan Heights nor in Judea and Samaria,” Netanyahu said last week, comparing the West Bank rampages to recent protests by members of the Druze community that have turned violent. “The State of Israel is a state of law. All citizens of Israel are obligated to respect the law.”
In so doing, the prime minister was echoing his own statement from March, in which he compared the Huwara mob attack to the demonstrations against his government’s judicial reform, during which protesters clashed with police. “We won’t accept violence in Huwara and we won’t accept violence in Tel Aviv,” he said at the time.
There are any number of reasons why these mob attacks are bad for Israel. They strain our ties with friendly countries across the globe and make them less sympathetic to our side of the story. They put our new allies in the Arab world on edge and make potential partners less anxious to engage with us. They increase tensions in the West Bank at a time when they are already extraordinarily high. And, yes, they undermine law and order, making our security forces’ job even more difficult than it already is.
But the most important reason is also the simplest one: because they are just plain wrong.
There has been an intense debate in recent days over whether these mob attacks ought to be labeled “Jewish terror.” Most of the arguments have centered on the second part of that phrase – that is, whether the rampages fit the definition of acts of terror (Israel’s security chiefs, as noted above, seem to believe they do).
To be sure, there is a notable difference between these abhorrent acts of violence, which are carried out by a small number of Jewish extremists and are overwhelmingly rejected by Israeli society, and acts of violence carried out by Palestinians against Israeli Jews, which win widespread support in Palestinian society and are incentivized and rewarded by the Palestinian Authority.
As this paper’s Khaled Abu Toameh reported earlier this month, 71% of Palestinians say they support “armed struggle” against Israel – code for violent attacks – which aligns with successive surveys conducted over the years. Conversely, a survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute in the aftermath of the 2015 Duma attack, in which three members of a Palestinian family were murdered when their home was firebombed by Israeli Jewish extremists, found that 81% of Jewish Israelis regarded that attack as an act of terror and 73% said that those who carry out attacks against Palestinians are “marginal groups who represent only a tiny minority” within Israel.
Fundamentally, though, the problem with the phrase “Jewish terror” isn’t with its designation of these despicable mob attacks as acts of terror. It’s that they simply aren’t Jewish.
Like so many other Jewish Israelis, I look at these masked individuals preying on innocent Palestinians and am nauseated by the kippot on their heads and the tzitzit dangling from under their shirts. They are as foreign to me as are violent extremists of any other background and their distorted version of Judaism is utterly unrecognizable to me.
The Judaism I know abhors violence against the innocent. The Judaism I practice strives for peace and the resolution of conflict by nonviolent means. The Judaism I love is embodied in the commandment to love one’s neighbor like oneself and in the imperative to view every human being as having been created in the image of God.
There is nothing Jewish about violent attacks against innocent Palestinians and it’s time for Israel’s leaders – all of Israel’s leaders – to say so clearly. The perpetrators of these mob attacks must hear, from all corners of Israeli society and all parts of Israel’s government, that they do not represent us or our values and that we will do whatever we must to combat them and bring them to justice. And then the full weight of Israel’s law enforcement authorities, security forces, and legal system should be brought to bear to ensure that those who attempt to harm innocent Palestinians are thwarted at every turn.
Nothing would be more Jewish than that.