In late November, three members of a Jewish group in Israel called Lehava (meaning “flame”) set fire to a mixed Jewish-Arab school in Jerusalem, burning out its first-grade classroom and forcing it to close, at least temporarily. The group’s stated aim is to end Jewish assimilation and intermarriage in Israel.
In reality, it is a racist organization whose members have beaten Palestinians in the street, waged campaigns to stop Israeli employers from hiring Arab workers, and incited anti-Arab violence and terror. Its leader, Benzi Gupstein, is a disciple of the late Meir Kahane, whose Kach party was banned from Israel in 1994 because of its racism. The three young men indicted in the school torching laughed when arrested, admitting proudly that they opposed Arab-Jewish coexistence.
If I could choose one word to characterize the past year, it would be “extremism.” Even though the Lehava activists in Israel pose little threat to the country as a whole, they are cut from the same extremist cloth as the ISIS terrorists who menace the Middle East. That group came into our consciousness in 2014, although it was formed about 10 years earlier with ties to al Qaeda. After the two groups split some months ago, ISIS began making news almost on a daily basis. In May it kidnapped more than 140 Kurdish schoolboys in Syria; in June and July it took over large numbers of cities and oil fields in that country; in August and September, in its most bestial behavior, it beheaded U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and then Peter Kassig in November.
The group’s goal, its leaders have proclaimed, is to create a caliphate, an Islamic state spread across the Middle East and eventually across the world, with authority over the globe’s more than a billion Muslims. A related group, Boko Haram, in Nigeria, also speaks of establishing an Islamic caliphate. It distinguished itself in April by the brutal kidnapping of more than 250 Nigerian schoolgirls whose fate is still unknown.
How can I speak of a small, relatively inconsequential, group of extremists in Israel in the same breath as these murderous organizations in the Middle East? One reason is that all extremist groups have similar motives. Frequently their members are outsiders who seek recognition or a kind of control they lack in their lives. They use an extremist ideology to pursue power, and often achieve it by playing on the fears of individuals or other groups. With the civil war in Syria, governmental confusion in Iraq, and general chaos throughout the Middle East, young people may feel they can bring order and purpose to their existence by joining groups like ISIS. The more recruits these groups get, the greater power they amass. In Israel, tensions between Arabs and Jews, fears of another outburst of violence and, of course, the threat of Hamas terrorism can draw people — especially those on the far right — to back groups like Lehava.
But there is another, more subtle, aspect common to all forms of extremism that makes them so dangerous and that surfaced more than ever in the past year. That is their ability to arouse people’s latent hatreds or prejudices that had previously been kept under control. I’m thinking of the extent of European anti-Semitism we saw in 2014, much of it triggered by extremist Islamist anti-Zionism or by far-right nationalism. True, criticism of Israel does not necessarily equal anti-Semitism, but rabid attacks against Israel and Zionism spilled over in England and France, Belgium, Sweden and Germany into vicious anti-Jewishness. For decades after World War II, anti-Semitism in Europe was more or less held in check, suppressed by the shame of the Holocaust. Now, spurred on by anti-Zionist vitriol, the age-old European disease has flared up again, the clock seemingly turned back to the darkest era of Jewish history.
Yet for all the extremism of the past year, and for all the radical Islamist bombast against Israel, darkness does not tell the entire story. Israel itself is still a beacon of light within the Middle East maelstrom. Even with extremists in its midst, the Jewish state remains a vibrant democracy. Hundreds of people turned out for a rally against Lehava, and its leader was arrested, along with the three arsonists. “There is absolutely no place for these people in Israeli society,” said former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni. She herself has joined with Labor Party head Isaac Herzog in opposing Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu in the upcoming elections. If they win, there is a good chance they will ally themselves with moderate Arab states, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Jordan, to fend off Islamic extremism. But even if they lose and Netanyahu remains in office, the people will have chosen and democracy will have won.
That is the best antidote to extremism.
Francine Klagsbrun’s most recent book, “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath Day” is now an e-book. She is currently writing a biography of Golda Meir.