Violence that dishonours Judaism and threatens Israel

By Adam Ognall, October 12, 2012

Why the BBC chose Rosh Hashanah to screen its Panorama documentary looking at the spate of "price tag" incidents in Israel is anyone's guess. Regardless, it brought to British attention a phenomenon that Israel has been grappling with for some time.

"Price tag" refers to acts of random violence against Arab communities and religious sites by radical Jewish settlers as retribution for Israeli government action against the settlement enterprise. The extremists' rationale appears to be that creating a "price" for each evacuation might force the government to think again. The phenomenon has been traced back to disengagement from Gaza in 2005, but has escalated in the past year, with the first incidents within the Green Line. We have seen attacks on the homes of peace activists, against coexistence projects and even against the IDF. The attacks have ranged from destroying olive groves to physical violence. Just before Rosh Hashanah, the monastery of Latrun was attacked. Last week, graffiti was left on the door of a church on Mount Zion.

A year ago, just before Yom Kippur, we witnessed an arson attack on the mosque in Tuba-Zangaria - a Druze village in the Galilee from which many men serve in the IDF. It shocked Israelis, prompting visits and condemnations from politicians and dignitaries and a petition signed by 1,000 rabbis worldwide criticising the attacks. The country is mostly united over the issue; a poll in late 2011 found that 88 per cent of Jewish Israelis were opposed to Price Tag attacks.

The Price Tag phenomenon has forced Israel to ask hard truths, not least in August after a mob of Jewish teenagers attacked Arabs in Jerusalem, and when three 12-year-olds were arrested following a firebombing that left six Palestinians injured. After these incidents, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin said it was "a microcosm of a national problem that could endanger Israeli democracy. The time has come for us to stop covering up… This is a shared responsibility."

In Israel, questions are being asked as to why these attacks are happening and whether the rule of law is being fully applied. Senior figures, including a former IDF head, have criticised the authorities for not doing enough. Rivlin has termed these acts "Jewish terrorism" and suggested they are a threat to the Zionist vision. This year, for the first time, the US State Department cited Price Tag attacks on its list of "terrorist incidents".

Have their parents and rabbis done enough?

Despite this, there have been relatively few arrests and only a small number of prosecutions. And even when prosecutions are successful, punishments are often feeble. Yet the state response to Price Tag is critical, especially since a number of Israel commentators have linked the carefree attitude of the Price Tag hooligans to lax law enforcement creating a sense of impunity.

But the responsibility does not lie solely with the state. Questions need to be asked about how Jewish children have been taught to hate. Where are the authorities and moral voices in their lives? Have their parents, teachers and rabbis done enough? While some settler leaders have spoken out, others have remain conspicuously silent. Indeed, a number of rabbis and community leaders have been caught inciting violence.

The dreadful incidents in August resulted in public outrage and have served as a wake-up call for the authorities. The police investigation is being watched by the media. And, as the school year began, the education minister ordered teachers to devote time to discussing racism and violence. The most effective response has come from Israeli civil society. Last Chanucah, a broad coalition of 30 organisations - Orthodox, Progressive, secular - began running events to make it clear such atrocities are not in the name of the majority of Israelis or Jews.

This "light tag" campaign, which New Israel Fund supports, offers a peaceful response to every Price Tag attack. After the Latrun attack, it held a vigil attended by 500 people. Sadly, this work rarely grabs the headlines or the BBC's attention.

Some may accuse me of having an "unbalanced" focus when there is violence on both sides and far greater numbers of extremists elsewhere in the Middle East. But Price Tag is a Jewish issue. It is a strategic threat to Israel from within and a stain on Judaism. More support needs to be given to those in Israel who are speaking out, including the Light Tag coalition. This is the authentic Jewish response and the best of Israel.

Adam Ognall is New Israel Fund chief executive

Last updated: 10:45am, October 12 2012