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Rising extremism

Bettina Marx / nmJuly 14, 2014

For years, Israel has been shifting to the right, while the left-leaning peace movement is now only a shadow of its former self. Right-wing parties dominate the Knesset, and nationalist views are widespread.

A little girl stands with border police
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Demonstrators have gathered in Jerusalem's city center, close to the former border between east and west. They carry Israeli flags and signs, and shout "Mavet la aravim" (Death to Arabs). They flag down taxi drivers, so they can check if they are Jews or Palestinians. The atmosphere is tense. Many Palestinian taxi drivers from occupied East Jerusalem work in the city.

One young protester shouts an invective at Palestinians, while another replies: "Give it to them."

The uproar was sparked by the deaths of three Israeli yeshiva students who were kidnapped and murdered in the West Bank. Their bodies were discovered buried beneath a pile of rubble near Hebron at the end of June. Hamas has been blamed for the deaths, although the group denies responsibility.

Speaking at the youths' funeral, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: "A deep and wide chasm separates us from our enemies. They sanctify death; we sanctify life. They sanctify cruelty, and we sanctify mercy. That is the secret and the foundation of our unity."

Racist sentiment

One day later, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a young Palestinian from East Jerusalem, was kidnapped, tortured and brutally murdered. The perpetrators belong to Israel's extreme right-wing religious scene.

A funeral in Jerusalem
The murder of three Israeli teenagers sparked an outcryImage: Reuters

Their teachers and educators are rabbis with a racist world view. They support the settlement movement and claim that all the land between the Mediterranean and Jordan is rightfully theirs. There is no room for Palestinians in this picture.

Rabbi Dov Lior is one of the leaders of the settlement movement. He was arrested in 2011 for making racist remarks, and questioned by police on suspicion of inciting violence. Lior was also the spiritual teacher of Yigal Amir, the man who assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.

'Only room for one nation'

Lior's sums up his teachings succintly: "All of those who believe in the Torah know that this land was promised solely to these people. There is no room for another national entity in this place. There has never been a state belonging to another people here. It belongs exclusively to the Jewish people."

Like Lior, Rabbi David Batzri has many followers, especially among Jews from the Middle East. He previously faced court, and was also sentenced, for making racist comments about Arabs. He fought against the establishment of a combined Arab-Jewish school in Jerusalem, arguing Jews are pure and Arabs impure, and the two should not be mixed.

Ultra orthodox Jews in Beit Shemesh
Some ultra-orthodox Jews are spreading racist ideasImage: picture alliance/AP Photo

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner is another well-known face from Israel's right wing. He has called for Palestinian terrorists to face the death penalty. And in 2010, he published an appeal, signed by more than 50 rabbis, for Arabs to be prevented from renting apartments.

Aviner serves as a rabbi in the Beit El settlement in the occupied West Bank. His salary is paid by the state - just like the former military rabbi, Avichai Rontzki. Rontzki supervised soldiers during the Gaza War in 2008-2009. He instructed them to show the Palestinians no mercy. He said civilians could even be killed if it meant the life of a Jew would be saved - a clear violation of martial law.

Dangerous ideas

According to Rachel Elior, a professor of Jewish philosophy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, these are dangerous statements that should be banned.

"There are certain circles that want to deny the fact that Palestinians are people just like us. No more, no less," she said on Israeli radio. "Unfortunately, many think that we are a holy people, and that non-Jews can be defined as unclean and worthy of death."

The rabbis base their views on ancient and traditional Jewish texts, said Elior, adding that this doesn't, however, legitimize racism.

The Jewish people have a long history that stretches back more than 3,000 years, she added. The collective memory is shaped by texts, which resulted, in part, from Jews living as a persecuted minority among other peoples, said Elior.

There are written sources over 3,000 years old, and it's clear "that over such a long period of time there are all sorts of beliefs that are no longer acceptable today," she said. "Just as we no longer have slaves or maidservants, although there are religious laws that permit doing so, you cannot allow racist comments based on these Israeli sources."

Right-wing football fans

Far-right ideas aren't only limited to religious circles, though. Ultra-nationalist and racist sentiment is also widespread in non-religious society in Israel. For example, the football club Beitar Jerusalem is a rallying point for right-wing extremists and radical fans who make no secret of their anti-Islam views.

That became clear last year when the club enlisted two Muslim players from Chechnya. Beitar supporters from the ultra-nationalist fan club "La Familia" climbed on the barricades and booed the players. There's little reaction when their battle cry "Death to Arabs" is heard in the stadium. The alleged murderers of the young Palestinian Mohammad Abu Kheidra are also said to be associated with the club.

Extremists in the Knesset

Racist remarks even emerge with some regularly in Israel's parliament, the Knesset. The 49-year-old Likud MP Miri Regev, for example, admits quite openly to being a fascist. The former army brigadier general has called for Arab parties to be excluded from the Knesset, dubbing them a "fifth column."

The Knesset in session
The Knesset increasingly home to extreme nationalists?Image: Getty Images/Afp/Gali Tibbon

She's not the only one in her party making controversial claims. Likud MP Danny Danon has labeled Arab MPs "masked terrorists," while his party colleague Ofir Akunis has declared that only the Jewish people are entitled to the occupied West Bank. "This is our country," he said.

Ayelet Shaked, an MP with the far-right Jewish Home party, is just as vocal as her Likud colleagues. In a recent post on her Facebook page, she wrote that Israel wasn't waging a war against terrorists, but against the Palestinian people, and that Palestinians were an enemy whose blood must be shed.

Such views are no longer limited to the margins in Israel, having gained in social acceptability. Israel's right wing has moved to the center of the Knesset, and toward the center of society.