The rising cost of ‘Price Tag’ terrorism

The anti-Muhammad movie that became the pretext for murder in the Muslim world reminds us that vulgar ideas can trigger bloodshed

“Price Tag” is a brand name used by a loosely organized group, largely based in the West Bank settlements, that practices political violence. Its members have attacked mosques, Palestinian farmers, the homes of leftist activists, the Trappist Monastery at Latrun and, most recently, the Church of the Dormition in Jerusalem. These attacks have all targeted property, but some young people from the settlement of Bat Ayin allegedly firebombed a Palestinian taxi on the road outside their village, which led to injuries.

Unlike Marxist or Islamist terrorists, Price Tag has not presented any coherent program for attaining a larger political goal. Its activities are just angry, violent responses to perceived slights committed against the settlement movement, such as the removal of settlers from West Bank land that the courts deem privately owned.

Israeli public opinion strongly opposes Price Tag. Tel Aviv University’s Peace Index poll found that fully 88% of respondents condemn the attacks, as close to national unity on any topic that I can recall. There have been almost wall-to-wall condemnations, from the leadership of Peace Now and the lay and rabbinic leaders of the settler movement, the chief rabbis, the prime minister, and all the major newspapers.

But despite some local successes, Israeli security agencies continue to flounder in the search for suspects. Reporters hear from their official contacts that they often know who perpetrates outrages, but fear they cannot build a case that can convict under the rules of evidence without compromising intelligence sources. This has prompted the prominent Israeli commentator Nahum Barnea to satirize “a state whose leaders presume they can raze in one sortie the Iranian nuclear program [but] is incapable of grappling with a few gangs of juvenile delinquents and a handful of rabbis that provide them with a seal of approval, backing and inspiration.”

A small number of extremist rabbis, some affiliated with the Kach movement started by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, are the visible tip of the Price Tag phenomenon. Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira of the radical settlement of Yizhar, for example, has provided a kind of ”spiritual leadership” for Price Tag activists even without explicitly calling for violence. With a colleague, he published a notorious book of halachic studies claiming justification for killing Palestinians, including women and children. When challenged, Shapira said he was only speaking theoretically.

The phrases 'Jesus is a son of a bitch' and 'price tag,' spray-painted on the wall of a Jerusalem church (photo credit: Channel 2 News)
The phrases ‘Jesus is a son of a bitch’ and ‘price tag,’ spray-painted on the wall of a Jerusalem church (photo credit: Channel 2 News)

But middle-aged rabbis, whatever their views, are not the perpetrators of Price Tag thuggery.

When authorities have succeeded in catching perpetrators, some of them were surprisingly young; one of the suspects in firebombing the Palestinian taxi is just 13. While the question is irrelevant to their victims, are these criminals to be classified as Price Tag terrorists, or as banal juvenile delinquents handed a religious rationale for their immature acts by unscrupulous, fanatic rabbis? Complicating matters further, when police unraveled a number of attacks in Jerusalem last year, it turned out that many were not carried out by religious youth. Sociopath copycats saw the media coverage of Price Tag assaults and adopted the format. Haaretz reported an example, a suspect who said “he vandalized [an Arab-Jewish school]… to avenge the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team’s loss to two Arab teams…” Thus political Price Tag actions generate a wider penumbra of violence that is purely criminal.

The social network that supports Price Tag arose out of the groups known as “hilltop youth,” a West Bank phenomenon combining religious and political extremism with the fanaticism of youth. For these teenagers, born and raised in the settlements, the discipline of the formal institutions of the settler movement and its leaders carries no authority. The “hilltop youth” provide much of the population of the illegal outposts, and constitute a wild card in the already complicated political situation.

The Price Tag phenomenon also reflects a broader social problem in the settlements. Social workers in the West Bank find young people there who are bored and disaffected, and suffering from substance abuse, alcoholism and other vices. But the pervasive denial these social workers find in some of the settlements makes treatment difficult.

American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote in his journal: “Let me never fall into the vulgar mistake of dreaming that I am persecuted whenever I am contradicted.” Price Tag advocates imagine that the battle their parents lost with the withdrawal from Gaza is a sign that they are persecuted. Hearts broken that the disengagement from Gaza did not ignite a political conflagration, they convey the message that they will meet any further slights to the settler movement with violence, the price tag for defying them. It is only in the bizarre parallel universe of these fanatics that scrawling insulting nonsense on a monastery wall would seem connected to the State of Israel’s enforcement of a court order to evacuate an illegal outpost built on private land.

While Price Tag is a fringe phenomenon, its actions could have awful consequences. The anti-Muhammad movie that became the pretext for murder in the Muslim world reminds us that vulgar ideas can trigger bloodshed. In their immature sense of persecution, Price Tag terrorists may succeed in generating similar mayhem. It is long past time the Government of Israel closed down the Price Tag hooligans.

About the Author
Ed Rettig is the Chair of Shomrei Mispat, Rabbis for Human Rights.