15 November 2011

(This article was first published at  the Bikyamasr)


“It’s been enough. It is unacceptable to sit and wait for the next political murder.” Those were the words of Ishay Menuchin, director of the Public Committee Against Torture, during an emergency meeting of human rights organizations in Israel convened on Tuesday to call on the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to take action to combat right-wing extremism, following from the threats issued against human rights activist Hagit Ofran earlier this week that circulated widely on local media.

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Car reads: "death to the traitors" / Copyright - http://bikyamasr.com
Car reads: “death to the traitors” / Copyright – http://bikyamasr.com

Ofran is the Settlement-Watch Director at the NGO Peace Now and has worked tirelessly for the dismantling of illegal settlements and to end settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank.

The building where she resides in Jerusalem was spray-painted with threats, in what police believe is part of a price tag policy adopted by extremists.

In graffiti there was the warning “Hagit Ogran, Rabin is waiting for you” in what is a clear reference to the assassination of former Prime Minister and long-time peace activist Yitzhak Rabin in 1995 at the hand of a right-wing activist.

A vehicle at the entrance of the building, believed to belong to Ofran because of a Peace Now sticker was also vandalized with the words “Death to the Traitors.”

The vehicle in question did not belong to Ofran and although this was not reported by Israeli media, it belonged to her neighbor, who posted the following alarming statement on Facebook together with a photograph of the defaced vehicle, translated here from Hebrew:

“’Death to the Traitors’, on every side of the car, four flat tires, all the windows and the roof and plates spray-painted. They were not looking for us but for Hagit, our neighbor, the activist from Peace Now. Along the way they found a car with stickers of Peace Now and thought that the owners of the car were also eligible for some special treatment. It did not start and it did not end with our car. The violence against Palestinians, against Arab Israelis, human rights activists and people in the Left has been going for a long time. There are criminals walking around among us and they do whatever they want and while we bow down in fear, they are on the hunt for their next victim. In the meantime there is an atmosphere of tolerance in the streets and among those who are supposed to protect us that allow this to happen. So yes, I’m afraid, very afraid and therefore have refused to be interviewed, but I am asking from you, from anyone who is afraid and concerned, speak out! Speak out any way you can! If you can, join us on Friday to speak out together against right-wing violence. If you can’t, then find another way to speak out, to stop and punish the guilty culprits and prevent any more attacks on private property and human life and ensure a future for us in this country. It is my personal request to you.”

Alarming as it sounds, it is not the first incident of political violence in Israel in recent times. The Jerusalem offices of Peace Now were vandalized earlier in the week and bomb threats were issued. Two months ago similar graffiti was spray-painted on the building where Ofran lives. During interviews she made clear her opinion that “the discourse in Israel has become truly dangerous. We are having an argument about the future and this discourse has crossed red lines.”

The incident was also reported by a religious-nationalist website claiming that “even though she belongs to the extreme Left, she is still a member of the Jewish people” and that “we must differentiate between divergence of opinion and division,” condemning the latter.

A Facebook post on religious extremist Baruch Marzel’s page stated that “Ofran is not a Nazi” and that “even though she has sold the country to the enemy, she is still a Jew and must be respected.”

The above comments reflect the mood in general of certain circles and the animosity toward peace activists and those who do not endorse a Messianic and nationalist view.

Peace Now reacted to the incident stating that the responsibility for price tag attacks is on Prime Minister Netanyahu because of the incitement and harsh words of the ruling coalition in favor of illegal settlements and against the system of justice and left-wing organizations, lending support to “price-tag” vandals.

The history of the organization is not entirely out of touch with the history of Egypt: In the aftermath of Sadat’s visit to Israel in 1977, a large number of military reserve officers petitioned Prime Minister Begin to continue pursuing initiatives toward peace. The petition led to the creation of Peace Now as a grassroots movement committed to raise public awareness for the peace process. Members of the organization have campaigned continuously for peace and against illegal settlements, often being victims of right-wing violence that in some incidents has escalated into wounded and dead civilians.

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In spite of the fact that militant right-wing violence against Peace Now and other organizations is not uncommon, many segments of Israeli society remain committed to the belief that political violence is a phenomenon of the Arab world and that it has no place in Israel.

In 1997, Israeli academic Ehud Sprinzak expressed the view that there is a crisis of Messianic politics in Israel in a masterful essay “Extremism and Violence in Israel: The Crisis of Messianic Politics”; Sprinzak argued that even though political violence had been a rare occurrence in the State of Israel, already in the aftermath of 1967 there began the rise of Messianic militant religiosity in the country, fueled by the failure of the State to deliver on the Messianic promises of a greater Israel, crisis that was made even more acute after the Peace Treaty with Egypt and the return of the Sinai peninsula.

According to Sprinzak, the political violence that culminated in the 1994 Hebron massacre and the 1995 Rabin assassination was caused indeed by the post-1967 rise of religious Messianic politics in Israel. He and other commentators have shown that even though the religious authorities did not endorse any of the attacks, there was a more or less widespread opinion in many religious circles that the left-wing and peace-making politicians fell under the categories of “rodef” and “moser” in Jewish law: Those who pursue other Jews and those who surrender Jews to gentile authorities.

Eventually the ideas were put in practice at the cost of human life, of both Palestinians and Israelis.

After the assassination of Rabin, a certain trauma took hold of Israeli society both in the Right and the Left but it seems clear that the turmoil of the last decade has brought extremism back to the mainstream and that the writing is already on the wall.

It would be childish to think that religious and political extremism has been brought by Netanyahu or by the infamous Avigdor Liebermann, while both of them are responsible for much of the current havoc; the seeds have been planted long before the contemporary scenario, what clearly disproves the thesis that “Israel is from Europe but is not in Europe.”

Extremism in Israel has been growing since approximately the same time that it has anywhere else in the Middle East and has also begun to implode at a critical time when unrest and the possibility of radical politics sweep over the region. This is obvious not only from recent political violence but from the systematic policies of the Israeli government and the Israeli Defense Forces that have made manifest the extent of their unwillingness to keep their commitment to human rights.

For a long time we were used to the notion that Israel protected its citizens even though it failed to respect the rights of others, and that in this respect, it was ahead of most Arab nations; at the moment however one can express a certain degree of hesitation and remain skeptical on whether it will become government policy to stop the violence of these political militants or whether they will turn a blind eye as it is usually the case when the rights of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs are trampled on.

What is most alarming is that there are many people in Israeli society who seem to support price tag attacks to a great extent. An Irish peace activist, John Lyndon wrote yesterday in his blog: “There needs to be a tipping point in Israel, where ordinary citizens stand up and say no to this rising tide of extremism and violence. A Prime Minister was shot dead for pursuing peace. Surely that should be enough of a warning about how this can spiral out of control if left unchecked.”

Ofran has said publicly that she does not fear for her life, at the same time that she is deeply concerned about the situation. If Israel is willing to live up to its democratic credentials, so vastly challenged at present and especially in purview of the Arab revolutions, it is imperative that they will do their best not only to prevent violence against them but to collaborate with peace activists rather than hindering their work and remaining silent when they come under attack.

Hagit Ofran is the grand-daughter of prominent Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, a canonical figure in the settler movement, and also a grand-niece of Nehama Leibowitz, a world-famous Biblical scholar who had been rejected by the Orthodox authorities because of being a woman, but that years after her death has become a classic among Orthodox students with her masterful commentaries on the Bible.

In words of Lyndon: “A responsible government would be trying to curtail trends of incitement and violence that are rising within its society. The world has rightly been telling the Palestinians to do this for quite some time. Is it now time to make this case just as forcefully with Israel?”


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