Brother Against Brother: Violence and Extremism in Israeli Politics from Altalena to the Rabin Assassination
by Ehud Sprinzak
Free Press. 384 pp. $21.50
Perhaps no preconception about the Jews is so widely held as that they exhibit intense communal solidarity. The network of Jewish philanthropic institutions has long been the envy of other ethnic communities around the world, and threats to Jews anywhere have traditionally evoked a strong response from Jews everywhere: the international campaign on behalf of Soviet Jewry in the 1970’s and 1980’s is merely the most recent case in point.
But there is another side to the coin. Intra-Jewish relations have themselves been punctuated by bitter hostilities, sometimes so rancorous as to erupt into violence. In the 1st and 2nd centuries B.C.E., Maccabees fought Hellenists; as the Second Temple fell to the Romans, Zealots battled other Jews; and in 18th-century Poland and Russia, Mitnagdim and Hasidim engaged in angry altercations.
Since its founding in 1948, the state of Israel has likewise had its share of bloody internal strife. In Brother Against Brother, Ehud Sprinzak, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, offers a history of violence and extremism in the Jewish state, and an assessment of what the periodic flare-ups portend for his country’s future. Unfortunately, this book is far from the dispassionate analysis the subject cries out for.
Sprinzak opens his narrative with one of the most controversial confrontations in Israel’s history, the Altalena affair. In the midst of Israel’s War of Independence, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, even as he was attempting to fend off five invading Arab states, engaged in a struggle with the Irgun, the militantly anti-British Jewish underground led by Menachem Begin. In mid-June 1948, the Altalena, a ship bound from France, appeared off the coast of Tel Aviv bearing $5-million worth of arms, a portion of them earmarked for Begin’s forces. Ben-Gurion ordered the vessel shelled, and nineteen Jewish lives were lost.
Compared with that dramatic episode, what followed in the next two decades was relatively small beer. Sprinzak conducts us through an array of conflicts in Israel’s early years: the impassioned struggle waged by Begin against acceptance of German reparations for the Holocaust; the efforts of a minuscule ultra-Orthodox “underground” to burn non-kosher butcher shops; the battle between the Histadrut, Israel’s labor federation, and a would-be independent seaman’s union; the assassination of Rudolf Kasztner, an official of the ruling Mapai (Labor) party accused of having collaborated with the Nazis; and sporadic violence by that segment of ultra-Orthodox Jewry which refused to accept the legitimacy of Israel’s secular government.
Significant tension appeared again only after the 1967 Six-Day war, when Israel came into possession of the historical territories of Judea and Samaria on the west bank of the Jordan. In fact, as Sprinzak sees it, the internal divisions caused by the occupation of these territories, together with the rise of “Jewish religious fundamentalism,” have elevated “Israeli political violence to unprecedented levels.” As evidence, he cites the rise of a small Jewish underground from within the religious settler movement, Gush Emunim; the violent incitements of the late Rabbi Meier Kahane, founder of the Jewish Defense League in the United States and subsequently of the Kach movement in Israel; and the way in which the 1993 Oslo peace accords drove Israel’s radical Right—the subject of a previous book by Sprinzak—to extremes that culminated in the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin in 1995.
There can be no doubt that in taking up the subject of Jewish-on-Jewish violence, Sprinzak is plowing ground of genuine importance. It is evident that whatever measure of national consensus had emerged in Israel by the time of the Six-Day war has been shattered in the ensuing decades, and dangerously so. Not only is Sprinzak’s book helpful as a compendium of the various conflicts; on at least some of them he strikes a balanced note.
In his treatment of the Altalena affair, for example, Sprinzak usefully points out that a bloody denouement could have been avoided if Ben-Gurion had exercised more forbearance. The Irgun, he writes, had no plans to launch a putsch against the government; “its commander wished to use the weapons only to fight the Arabs.” But Ben-Gurion never expressed the slightest remorse for his decision, and even years later would speak about the gun employed to fire on the Altalena as a “holy cannon.”
Even as he judges Ben-Gurion’s role in the bloodshed harshly, Sprinzak pays tribute to Menachem Begin for his extraordinary restraint both in this episode and in earlier crackdowns on the Irgun during which its members were imprisoned, tortured, and turned over to the British by fellow Jews. “There are few examples in modern history,” Sprinzak observes, “of reputable fighting organizations coming under their competitor’s attack and not fighting back.”
When he turns to the contemporary scene, however, Sprinzak’s own biases impede a similar clarity of vision. He is certainly correct that Israeli society is highly polarized today, but it is simply untrue that in the post-1967 period intra-Jewish strife has reached “unprecedented levels.” As the evidence in his own book unequivocally shows, actual violence was vastly more prevalent in the early years of the Jewish state when the nation, in Sprinzak’s own words, was on “the brink of civil war.”
There has, of course, been an upsurge in violence in the most recent period, but overwhelmingly as the result of conflict between Arabs and Jews. For decades, Palestinians have engaged in actions ranging from stone-throwing to horrific acts of terrorism against Israeli civilians. A handful of Jewish extremists has answered in kind, the most notorious case being the killing of 29 Arab worshippers in Hebron by Baruch Goldstein.
While Sprinzak traces the growth of the Jewish side of this equation, he offers no real insight into the motivations of the perpetrators, simply presenting them as “fanatics” in the grip of a “behavioral messianic craze.” At the same time, the entire subject of Arab violence against Jews is either downplayed or ignored. Sprinzak repeatedly uses quotation marks around the phrase “ ‘terror organization’ ” when referring to the PLO and at one point calls it the “peaceful PLO.” The bloody bus bombings carried out by the Islamic fundamentalist group Hamas in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem he characterizes as “largely a response” to Baruch Goldstein.
Sprinzak’s account of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin is similarly one-sided. He sees the assassination as the logical fruit of a right-wing campaign of incitement and “character assassination” aimed at “delegitimizing” the architects of the Oslo accords. But he says not a word about the stream of invective demonizing the Right that emanated from Israel’s intellectual elite long before Rabin’s assassination and with special ferocity in its aftermath.
Examples are not hard to find. To Moshe Zimmerman, a professor of German studies at Hebrew University, the Jewish settlers of Hebron “are exactly like the ‘Hitler youth.’ ” The artist Yigal Tumarkin has remarked that his “true contribution will be the taking of a submachine gun instead of pen and pencil, and killing” the religious settlers on the West Bank. In the eyes of the writer Amos Oz, the settler movement is a “messianic sect, closed and brutal, gangsters, criminals against humanity, sadists, pogromists and murderers, that has risen from a dark corner of Jewry.” According to the novelist A.B. Yehoshua, “there’s nothing wrong with a little civil war” that would dispose of the settlers.
Seeing only the religious messianism of the Right, Sprinzak misses the real story, which is the clash of messianisms under way in Israel today. As even some Left-of-Center commentators have been moved to observe, many members of the country’s secular elites have become caught in the grip of their own, veritably messianic passion for “peace”; the more this passion is undercut by the implacable realities of the Middle East, the more fanatically they cling to it, and the more fervently they anathematize those among their fellow Israelis, especially the religious, whom they hold to blame for their frustrations.
Ehud Sprinzak says his book derives its significance from “the vast importance Jewish extremism and violence will have in shaping the future of the Middle East.” In fact it is Arab extremism and violence, relegated to the distant background of his account, that will mainly determine the future of the Middle East, although it is certainly true that Israel’s ability to withstand the challenges before it has been seriously weakened by the clash between the Utopian Left and the religious-nationalist Right. Ignoring the dangerous reality without, and advancing a distorted account of what is indeed a crucial problem in Israel’s domestic polity, Sprinzak contributes his share to exacerbating the very phenomenon he deplores.