SPECIAL REPORT: JEWISH EXTREMISTS
YITZHAR, West Bank (JTA) — The Od Yosef Chai Yeshiva in this Jewish settlement looks more like a well-fortified auto repair shop than a house of learning.
Located in an industrial neighborhood, the yeshiva has a drab aluminum exterior and tin roof, and it’s surrounded by a metal gate. A small guard house sits out front, and teenage boys wearing oversized, thick-knit kipot walk in and out of the gate and past a lonely basketball hoop.
Appearances notwithstanding, these students and their teachers have become the face of radical Jewish nationalism in Israel.
They are a key part of a movement of settler youth, rabbis, leaders and supporters determined to hold onto the West Bank at any cost. Located mostly in isolated corners of the West Bank like Yitzhar, radicals represent a small but vocal and increasingly violent constituency of the Jewish settler movement.
Radical settlers rampage against Palestinians and Israeli soldiers, sometimes hiding their faces behind black ski masks or scarves. Confident they are following the word of God, they call for a Torah-based theocracy that they say will one day triumph over the State of Israel.
Unlike most settlers, these youths mostly eschew serving in the Israel Defense Forces, which they consider criminal for its evacuation of Jews from Gaza in 2005. Mostly second-generation settlers whose fathers had considered IDF service an automatic rite of passage, these radicals have largely turned against a state they view as having betrayed its core principles.
Rabbi Yisrael Ariel, a teacher at Od Yosef Chai, says Israel has lost its way with its willingness to cede parts of the Land of Israel, the Jews’ biblical birthright.
“To put faith in the state is not the right way to go,” he said.
Ariel is a disciple of the charismatic St. Louis-born head of the yeshiva, Rabbi Yitzhak Ginzburg. Considered a spiritual heir to the late Meir Kahane, Ginzburg gained notoriety — and some jail time — in 1994 after penning an article praising Baruch Goldstein’s killing of 29 Muslim worshipers in Hebron.
Ginzburg preaches a messianic brand of Judaism that views Jews as superior beings and violent revenge attacks on Arabs as justified by the Torah. He is one of a small group of rabbis who provides the theological and ideological underpinnings for radical settlers.
The foot soldiers in the movement are youths who grow up or study in places like Yitzhar. Some go on to seize and establish illegal outposts on lone West Bank hilltops.
Like its predecessors, Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has taken limited steps to dismantle the illegal outposts — notably in the weeks since Netanyahu’s meeting with President Obama in May — but the youths return almost as soon as they are forcibly evacuated. Officially, at least, the government has committed to dismantling all such outposts.
Radicals often are dismissed as rogue, fringe elements by the mainstream settler movement, and their precise number is unknown. But radical settlers’ acts of vigilante violence against Palestinians and, increasingly, against Israeli security forces, have fueled debate inside Israel about the settler movement as a whole and about the threat radical settlers pose to the state — in part because the mainstream settler leadership has not come out forcefully against them.
Roy Sharon, a journalist for Israel’s daily Ma’ariv who covers the settlers, says the division within the settler movement about how to deal with the radicals is not about principle — all believe in the unalienable right of settling the Land of Israel — but about practice: how exactly to achieve that aim.
“The Yesha Council” — the main settler umbrella body — “thinks that it is not the right time to build and settle on all of the Land of Israel, but the radicals think there is no such thing as the ‘right’ timing and there is no need to take into account politics and policies," Sharon said.
Dror Etkes, who works for an Israeli group called Yesh Din that promotes Palestinian rights in the West Bank, estimated that there are up to 1,000 active radicals. Posters hung in recent days at bus stops across the West Bank calling on supporters to "defend" against evacuation of West Bank outposts say there are 2,000 people living in 26 outposts. The West Bank has about 280,000 Jewish settlers in all, not including those who live in eastern Jerusalem, which Israel annexed after capturing it from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War.
"I feel the state has separated itself from me and is no longer going according to God’s will," said Moshe Fumberg, 16, who studies at a yeshiva at an illegal outpost near Yitzhar.
Fumberg’s friends boast that they represent a new, bolder generation of Jewish settlers ready to use violence to keep West Bank Jews in their homes.
"We want them to be afraid of us because maybe then there won’t be any more evacuations," one of Fumberg’s friends said of Israeli security forces charged with evacuating illegal outposts.
Geographically isolated, the youths consume alternative media, including newspapers, Web sites, radio stations and synagogue pamphlets, that feed into their sense of alienation and betrayal. In their synagogues, rabbis rail against cooperating with a government that supports West Bank withdrawals.
"If the State of Israel is criminal and a sinner, then the role of true believers is to correct its ways,” explains Motti Inbari, author of the upcoming book “Jewish Fundamentalism and the Temple Mount.” “This is pushing people into radicalization and into the idea of a post-Zionist state.”
Over the last year and a half, radical settlers seem to have upped the ante. They have defaced Muslim tombstones, set fire to Palestinian olive groves, assaulted Palestinians, slashed tires of IDF vehicles and thrown acid at Israeli soldiers.
It’s all part of a strategy the radicals call “price tag,” which aims to greet every move by the government against illegal settlements with mayhem and violence. Radical youth, encouraged by a small number of veteran settler leaders, are at the forefront of this effort.
Via text messages and with special phone lists, they spread plans for specific activities. Sometimes the message is as simple as three words: "Price tag now." Settler violence quickly follows.
There is no apparent centralized leadership in the radical settler movement, which by its nature is somewhat anarchic. Among its most outspoken proponents, however, are figures such as Daniella Weiss, the former head of the Kedumim settlement, Hebron’s Baruch Marzel and Nadia Matar, head of Women in Green.
Both Matar and Weiss head groups that signed onto the posters calling on settlers to defend the outposts. Matar, who says she is against violence, said she understands why the youth have decided to “fight back.”
“They have seen the adults capitulate — their rabbis and teachers and parents who tell them to turn the other cheek,” she said. “There is rebellion of youth who are sick and tired of seeing the adults caving in and letting the government trample us. The more adults show real leadership and stick to our principles, the less they will feel a need to rebel.”
Then there are the rabbis like Ginzburg and their followers.
Neriah Ofan, 36, counts himself as a Ginzburg disciple. Ofan, who lives in a house surrounded by cypress trees with his wife and six children in a small outpost near Yitzhar, has caught the eye of Israeli security.
Two separate court orders barred him from being in the West Bank for several months. Part of a committee that called on soldiers to defy evacuation orders, he spent time in administrative detention during the Gaza withdrawal. He also leads a group that holds marches around the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City every month, according to an ancient tradition.
Ofan cuts a stark figure, with jet black beard contrasting with a pair of bright blue eyes that seem to flash when he speaks of his hopes for a Jewish kingdom.
"I think the state of today is mostly of the past. Only a miracle could save it for the future," he says in his dining room. "It’s heading into oblivion because it has not connected with the Jewish people."
Stepping outside, he peers at the view behind his house, a steep drop overlooking the terraced hillsides beyond. In the distance, there is another outpost that, like his, was erected illegally.
Ofan says he’s not too concerned about being evacuated.
With the afternoon sun shining on his face, Ofan admires the view.
"I think God chose a good and beautiful land for us,” he says.