Sam Lehman-Wilzig
Prof. Sam: Academic Pundit

Fighting or Righting Extremism in Israel and the World

Right-wing populist extremism has increased dramatically in the past few years. Governments have begun to comprehend the threat to democracy and are fighting back. Unfortunately, the Israeli approach is drastically different from other countries – and last week’s news shows why.

In the US, the FBI announced awhile back that right-wing, nationalist extremism had become the country’s greatest domestic terror threat, but it’s only under the Biden Administration – especially after the Jan. 6th attack on Congress – that the powers-that-be have begun to take this seriously. From recent reports, the FBI and other federal agencies are mounting large-scale investigations and interrogations that will at the very least dampen the more overt expressions of such extremism. The recent “de-committeezation” of QAnon supporter, Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, is another move (albeit a relative slap-on-the-wrist) to lay down some sort of red line regarding patently surreal fake news and racist accusations.

While the US is typically taking a law enforcement and quasi-political approach to the threat of right-wing extremism, Europe’s strategy is more comprehensive, attempting to ameliorate the source of such radicalism through social policies as well. In Germany, for instance, this includes: civic education against racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia; funding programs to counter online hate speech and radical groups’ recruitment efforts; and government affirmative action in hiring diverse groups to heighten sensitivity to societal discrimination (conscious and unconscious) and advance legislation or regulatory decisions that take into account the needs of minorities.

Norway has gone even further, a decade ago establishing the world’s largest research center on extremism in general and right-wing radicalism in particular. The police are heavily involved as well, not merely in the usual type of anti-extremist security operations but more broadly through a community-based approach of mentoring at-risk youth who might be easy “converts” to radical groups. Similar programs have been instituted in Sweden, Germany, and New Zealand.

What about Israel? Sadly, not only is there little being done about right-wing extremism, but in certain respects the Israeli government, and especially Prime Minister Netanyahu, has proactively and passively actually encouraged right-wing extremism. Of course, he has not explicitly said so. Bibi is far smarter than former President Trump; the latter’s January 6th insurrectionist exhortations would never emerge from PM Netanyahu’s lips. But his actions (and inaction) speak volumes, nevertheless. Some examples:

  • Although Israel has one of the world’s best security operations, headed by the SHABAK, there have been extremely few interrogations, not to speak of indictments, against the “Boys on the Hill” (na’arei ha’gva’ot) – Jewish youth who terrorize Palestinians in the West Bank through sporadic rock-throwing, olive tree axing, car tire puncturing, and threatening graffiti painted on Palestinians’ homes. Just one prime ministerial “order” to the SHABAK to get serious, and these actions would cease, but for years that has not been forthcoming.
  • Over the past few weeks Bibi has been “negotiating” (successfully) with the Arab party RA’AM to get it to break away from the United Arab List (the other three Arab parties), by promising RA’AM to deal with several burning domestic Israeli-Arab issues. The reason for such negotiations is completely transparent: electoral advantage for the Likud. This has several possible outcomes: weakening the United Arab List; if RA’AM does not pass the voting threshold (3.25%), then the Likud gains another one to two seats, given RA’AM’s “lost votes” that are automatically split among other parties by an arcane formula; and if RA’AM does get into the Knesset, Bibi has another four seats to form a coalition. What’s the problem? The minor one: Netanyahu has been in power over ten years, and only now does he make overtures to Israeli-Arabs? The major one: RA’AM is an Islamist party, akin to Egypt’s Moslem Brotherhood. In short, here Netanyahu is supporting an extreme right-wing party – one that isn’t even Zionist!
  • The past week has seen Bibi put massive pressure – and offer electoral goodies (a future ministry and the #28 Knesset seat on the Likud list!) – to two Zionist parties, to get them to run on a united electoral ticket in order for them to pass the voter threshold and add another four seats to a future right-wing coalition. The problem? One of these two – Otzmah Yehudit (Jewish Power) led by Advocate Itamar Ben-Gvir – is the xenophobic successor to Meir Kahane’s KACH party that was banned by Israel’s Supreme Court three decades ago. In other words, Israel’s prime minister has now not merely “winked” at right-wing extremism, but for the first time has actively supported its political expression in the hope that it will enter the Knesset. (If he succeeds, and both RA’AM and Otzmah Yehudit make it into the Knesset, it will be interesting to see how Bibi handles these “mortal enemies” at loggerheads within the same coalition.)

The bottom line: while the democratic world is trying to do the right thing to fight Right-wing extremism, Israel is moving in the opposite direction. The upcoming March 23 election, therefore, is not only about “Bibi or not Bibi”; it’s far more about the very essence of Israel’s social and political future as a democracy in the full sense of the word.

About the Author
Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig (PhD in Government, 1976; Harvard U) taught at Bar-Ilan University (1977-2017), serving as: Head of the Journalism Division (1991-1996); Political Studies Department Chairman (2004-2007); and School of Communication Chairman (2014-2016). He was also Chair of the Israel Political Science Association (1997-1999). He has published three books and 60 scholarly articles on Israeli Politics; New Media & Journalism; Political Communication; the Jewish Political Tradition; the Information Society. For more information and other publications (academic and popular), see:
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