Into the fray: Trivializing ‘terror’

Hysterical attempts to equate ideological driven crimes by fringe Jewish extremists with Arab Muslim terrorism is substantively wrong and strategically detrimental

One of the boys from the family in Duma walks among the ruins (photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
One of the boys from the family in Duma walks among the ruins
(photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
I despair of the Israeli politicians and commentators who have been falling over themselves to condemn “Jewish terrorism’.’ Whilst I understand their need to distance themselves from these criminals, all they have achieved is to add “Jewish terrorism” to the lexicon of the Muslim supremacists’ arsenal. Within one short week, the world has come to believe in Jewish terrorism. It is a spectacular own goal – Robert Brynin, talkback to my column last week
From a strictly Jewish point of view, it is always good to conduct soul-searching and to not always compare one’s moral behavior with the absence of morality of others. But… one cannot simply ignore certain questions:… Why does the killing of a Palestinian baby, (allegedly) by Jews, provoke reactions on a much larger scale than the much more numerous murders of Jewish children? Yes, we must react vigorously and unambiguously against a serious act, but without ransacking our own dignity
– Shraga Blum, “Duma village: Between morality and self-flagellation,” i24-Opinion, August 6
I would have preferred to devote this week’s column to the Iranian nuclear issue, where Israel has recently won some important points in its righteous struggle to thwart the ignominious brew concocted by the Obama administration, with several influential Democrat lawmakers and staunch party supporters expressing grave doubts, – even overt opposition – to it.
However, in view of the fierce debate over the topic I raised last week, and its continuing relevance in the public discourse, I feel compelled to follow up with a sequel, clarifying several issues which cloud and confuse rational discussion.
Not all ideologically driven crimes are ‘terror’
As readers will recall, in my column, I disputed the validity of classifying the acts of Jewish extremists as “terrorism,” and certainly as in any way equivalent to the activities of the Arab terrorist organizations that operate against Israel today and have operated against it since its inception.
Of course, such alleged equivalence is even more invalid/ inappropriate when it comes to the jihadist terrorist movements sweeping their gory way across the globe, as is any attempt to draw parallels between their scope, objectives and modus operandi with those – real or imagined – of any “Jewish extremist” groups.
The column created a brisk public exchange in the talkbacks posted to The Jerusalem Post website, on my Facebook page and in personal email traffic I received. While most the responses were generally supportive of my position, some felt that acts attributed to Jewish extremists could/ should be considered terrorism because they were ideologically motivated and were intended to instill fear in Palestinian-Arabs.
Some even invoked dictionary definitions to make their point, like talk-backer “ctrl-z,” who brandished an Oxford Dictionary definition, according to which “terrorism” is “The use of violence and intimidation in the pursuit of political aims.”
Of course, taken devoid of context, this could be used to argue that the – undeniably reprehensible – actions of scrawny, ideologically driven Jewish teenagers are somehow comparable to the activities of Arab/Muslim terrorist organizations, and should, therefore, be dealt with using measures comparable to those used against those entities.
However, to attempt to lump them together under the same undifferentiated heading is no less misleading and misguided than claiming that because stray tabby cats and man-eating tigers are both undomesticated, striped feline carnivores, they must be dealt with in the same manner.
More than semantic sophistry
To adopt this “even-handed” approach is a dangerous and detrimental distortion. For the issue at hand goes far beyond mere semantic sophistry, terminological arm-wrestling or polemic one-upmanship, aimed at scoring political points.
Indeed, it blurs what should be a crucial qualitative distinction between two very different manifestations of ideological violence: • The one, conducted by the Arab and Muslim world against Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people; the other, conducted by a handful of Jewish fringe elements, against a hostile Arab population, largely supportive of the violence conducted against Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people.
• The one, conducted by non-state actors with quasi- state capabilities, supported, equipped and funded by sovereign governments, with communications, supply and financial infrastructures deployed across international borders; the other, conducted without any backing from foreign states, with no international infrastructure to provide it with ordnance or finance; • The one, conducted with the virtually unanimous endorsement of the society within which it operates, the other, with virtually unanimous condemnation.
To suggest that any two phenomena, so starkly different, should be considered even vaguely similar, let alone identical (as numerous mainstream media personae have claimed), that they both constitute a similar danger to Israel, and that they should therefore be combated by means that are commensurately similar, is wildly disingenuous by any objective criterion.
By any pro-Israel criterion, it borders on the deranged.
For those who think that these are inappropriately strong words I urge you: Read on
Deranged hysteria?
For that is precisely the kind of deranged hysteria that an unfortunate series of three unconnected events has sparked: an arson attack on a church on the shores of the Sea of Galilee; a stabbing at a gay pride parade by a recently released previous offender; and the torching of a house in the center of the village of Duma, by as yet unidentified assailants, that left two of the occupants dead, including an infant of 18 months.
As I mentioned last week, this was enough to prompt well-known journalists to proclaim that the perpetrators “are no different than ISIS” and their alleged activities comprise “Jewish jihadism, identical in every detail to Islamic jihadism”; that Israelis “do [b]urn children alive, execute murderous, inhuman, incomprehensible terror”; that “we’re no better than our enemies”; that “All Israelis are guilty of setting a Palestinian family on fire,” and therefore must bear collective blame for an as yet unsolved crime.
Doesn’t get more deranged than that! Leaving aside for the moment the sea of carnage that sets Arab/Muslim terrorism apart from the violence attributed to Jewish extremists – the mass beheadings, pervasive suicide bombings, wholesale rape, systematic torture – just how discordant with any semblance of truth and proportionality the attempt to draw any equivalence between the two was underscored by two Jerusalem Post reports this Wednesday – one by Ben Hartman, another by Yossi Melman.
Of tabby cats and tigers…
Both dealt with information that emerged from the interrogation of a Hamas operative on the collaboration between Iran and Hamas on preparing attacks against Israel.
Hartman writes that according to the Shin Bet, the Hamas operative gave details of “how Tehran transfers money to the Islamist organization... supplies firearms and electronics, including devices meant for jamming radio frequencies... to be used to take down Israel Air Force drones. He also noted how Iranians trained Hamas fighters...for attacks on Israel.”
Melman’s report confirms all this, including that Tehran has provided “electronic gear to distort frequencies, aimed at destructing communication between drones and their operators, causing them to crash,” adding: “[w]hile the political wing of Hamas... is moving in the direction of Saudi Arabia, the military wing is tightening its relations with Iran.”
This prompted an exasperated response from one reader who commented: “Perhaps now the Shin Bet has had its memory jogged in regard to who is actually a terrorist.
Now perhaps they can get on with the job of working for the security of the State of Israel rather than chasing phantom ‘Jewish terrorists’ that never seem to materialize.”
While I in no way wish to belittle the need to rein in Jewish extremists and thwart ideological renegades, I could not help empathizing with the sentiment – and feeling that it validated the “tabby cat vs tiger” analogy.
Denying due process
For this leads inevitably to the question of policy and of what are the appropriate operational responses to “terror.”
For just as it is clear that dealing with stray tabby cats and with man-eating tigers does not call for the similar measures, the same should be clear in dealing with Jewish extremists and Arab/Muslim terrorist organizations – even if they are both designated “terrorists.”
Thus, measures called for to confront, curtail and counter organizations such as Hamas, Hezbollah, Fatah’s Aksa Martyrs Brigades, and various ISIS affiliates are clearly more robust and heavy-handed than those called for to handle small groups of ideologically driven Jewish youths, most of them barely beyond their teens, and many of them still in them.
Accordingly, when combating terrorist organizations backed, equipped and funded by sovereign states, there are imperatives that do not apply when combating groups that do not have such resources /capabilities at their disposal.
Thus depriving members of the former – particularly if they are not Israeli nationals – of due process and other legal safeguards may be justifiable, even necessary, to protect intelligence sources, and to avoid exposing elaborate and expensive methods of infiltration and operational techniques.
But when it comes to informal, loosely organized groups of overly zealous youths – however misguided, armed with virtually nothing but their wits and ideology, however pernicious, without the backing, finance or ordnance from external enemies of the Jewish state...?
‘Jewish extremists seeking to topple the state…’
A portrait of these groups appeared last week (August 7) in Haaretz, hardly the most sympathetic media outlet for them, written by Chaim Levinson, the paper’s correspondent covering the Jewish settlements in the “West Bank.”
Titled “Meet the Jewish Extremist Group That Seeks to Violently Topple the State,” it gave a profile of the “group of a few dozen people [which] in the week since the deadly arson attack... in Duma, the Shin Bet has elevated to the level of a significant threat.”
According to Levinson, they are an impoverished band of nomads, who “move from place to... carrying all their belongings with them. They live on donations or temporary jobs in agriculture or construction... they tend to abandon the violent life at a young age. They enter at around 16, but by 20 or 21 have a wife and child, and need to make a living. At that point, they stop perpetrating violence themselves...”
Mortal threat to Israeli democracy?
This, then, is the mortal threat to Israeli democracy?? Are we seriously being asked to believe that these groups are so powerful and cunning that they can elude the combined capabilities of the police and the Shin Bet without recourse to extra-judicial measures, without depriving them of due process, without preemptive detention...
After all, the ideology of these renegade zealots has virtually zero resonance in mainstream society, from which they are largely isolated outcasts, without access to significant resources either financial or material. Their ability to make any significant impact on the political realities in the country is negligible. Indeed, if anything the panicky response of extra-judicial measures to recent events is likely to endanger democracy more than the danger they are intended to curtail.
After all, there are many malignant phenomena that might threaten the fabric of Israeli society, most of them far more prevalent and tangible than the menace posed by Jewish ideological extremists – organized crime, drug trafficking, high-level corruption, to name a few. For if a precedent for extra-judicial measures is set for dealing with teenage Jewish zealots to prevent the commission of a possible offense, why not for suspected crime bosses, drug traffickers or senior officials suspected of being prone to corruption? Or rapists? Or pedophiles? Or abusive husbands?
The trouble with trivializing ‘terror’
Hysterical attempts to equate ideologically driven crimes by fringe Jewish extremists with Arab/Muslim terrorism are substantively wrong and strategically detrimental.
They reflect neither moral merit nor pragmatic prudence.
They fly in the face of common sense, rational self-interest – and the truth. It will not mitigate the censure of Israel’s detractors. To the contrary, it will be seized upon to justify – and intensify – it.
It diverts the focus of attention from real existential threats to Israel’s survival and blunts the effort against the Iranian deal.
But perhaps worst of all, by obfuscating what should be a razor-sharp distinction between a society that condemns murder and societies that commend it, between a country that castigates murderers and countries that celebrate them, it gravely undermines Israel’s claim to the moral high ground, crucial in its fight for its international legitimacy and its rightful place in the community of nations.
That, then, is the trouble with trivializing “terror.”
Martin Sherman ( is founder and executive director of the Israel Institute for Strategic Studies (