Last updated: 7 August, 2015

Jewish extremism in Israel: new fears over an old problem

A stabbing attack at a Gay Pride march in Jerusalem and a firebombing that killed a Palestinian child in the West Bank last week have raised concerns over Jewish extremism.

Israeli authorities have arrested three alleged Jewish extremists — placing one in a controversial form of detention without trial — and pledged to use all means at their disposal to crack down on such activities.

Here is a look at such extremism:

Q. Were the two attacks related?

No. The suspect in the July 30 Gay Pride stabbings, which wounded five people and mortally wounded a 16-year-old girl, is an ultra-Orthodox Jew who has said homosexuality defiles the name of God. On Wednesday, a judge ordered that he undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

The July 31 firebombing of a Palestinian home in the West Bank village of Duma, which killed an 18-month-old boy and critically wounded his parents and four-year-old brother, is believed to have been connected to “price tag” incidents — nationalist-motivated hate crimes. Graffiti near the family’s home included a Star of David and the words “revenge” and “long live the Messiah”.

Q. What is meant by “price tag”?

“Price tag” refers to the idea that there is a price to be paid for activity that offends the extremists. Some have speculated that the firebombing was in response to a court-ordered demolition of two illegal settlement buildings in the West Bank.

Q. Are the extremists members of a particular group?

“Price-tag” assailants are seen less as members of a particular group and more as a loosely organised band. Some are known as the “Hilltop Youth,” militants from illegal outposts in the West Bank or those that sympathise with them.

“It’s not an orderly organisation with hierarchy, a head and a tail, and in the middle activists,” said Avi Dichter, a former head of Israel’s domestic security agency Shin Bet.

“But there are people who simply do not accept anyone’s authority… They envision an entity based on Jewish law, where only God gives instructions.”

There have also been more organised groups such as Lehava, which opposes fraternisation between Jews and gentiles. Lehava’s leader, Benzi Gopstein, reportedly said this week that churches should be torched.

Another group, the anti-Arab movement Kach, was founded by Meir Kahane, a rabbi assassinated in 1990 in New York. Kahane’s grandson, Meir Ettinger, 23, is one of the three alleged extremists arrested since last week’s firebombing. None of the three have been directly accused of the firebombing.

Q. What drives the extremists?

A range of motivations that sometimes overlap. Religion can be a driving factor, as in June when extremists torched part of a shrine in northern Israel where Christians believe Jesus carried out the miracle of loaves and fishes.

Other incidents have been related to limits on settlement building in the West Bank. Mosques have been torched and attacks have even targeted Israeli military property.

“Many of them are disconnected, drop-outs from the educational system,” said Mally Shechory-Bitton, a criminologist at Ariel University.

“They found their life’s goal in an extremist ideology and supposed religious values, which they think they’re fulfilling but are actually a distortion of religion and its values.”

Q. How powerful are they?

Dichter said he would estimate the number at a few hundred. They are not seen as a serious threat to the Israeli state, but their activities exacerbate tensions and complicate peace efforts with Palestinians.

While the extremists themselves are not particularly powerful, right-wing settler groups wield significant influence in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. At the same time, Netanyahu has strongly condemned the firebombing and labelled it “terrorism” — a word usually used by Israelis for violence by Palestinians.

Q. Is this a new phenomenon?

No. Examples of previous such violence include the 1995 assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin by a Jewish extremist. A year earlier, Israeli settler Baruch Goldstein gunned down 29 Palestinians praying in the Ibrahimi Mosque, revered by Jews as the Cave of the Patriarchs.

The 2014 revenge killing of a 16-year-old Palestinian, snatched in east Jerusalem and burned alive, occurred after Palestinians abducted and killed three young Israelis.

Q. How have the security agencies responded?

Police say they have made the investigation into the firebombing their top priority. Authorities argue that such extremists are difficult to investigate since they are not tightly organised and often refuse to speak during interrogations. Others disagree and question why more was not done sooner, pointing out that Israel’s intelligence capacities are well-known.