The Belated Awakening to Settler Extremism

Recent attacks on the IDF have led to an abrupt awakening in Israel and abroad. Suddenly people are realizing the danger posed to Israel by a generation of settlers who respect neither Israeli law, nor Israel's army, nor the Israeli state, and who are prepared to use violence against not only Palestinians (which has long been the case) but also against fellow Jews.

This awakening is decades late. The signs have long been there for all to see -- including "high points" that nobody could have missed but that apparently have been easily forgotten, like the terrorist Jewish Underground of the 1980s, the 1994 Hebron Massacre, and the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Rabin.

In 1986, Israeli playwright Motti Lerner wrote a powerful play entitled "Pangs of the Messiah." With chilling prescience Lerner tells the story of a generational clash within the settlers. He paints a picture, with great compassion, of radicalized young settlers who have taken to heart what their parents and rabbis have taught them about the supreme importance of the fight for every inch of the land. A generation that feels no loyalty to the Israeli state, or the army. A generation animated by the belief that no action is forbidden in this God-given, God-approved struggle, which will culminate in the coming of the Messiah.

In 2007 "Pangs of the Messiah," updated by Lerner to reflect the current events, was performed at the Washington, DC Jewish Community Center (it was re-staged in New York in November 2011). In one memorable piece of dialogue, the main character, Shmuel -- an old guard settler leader and rabbi -- clashes with his son Avner over a rally organized by extremist settlers. Avner admonishes Shmuel:

You're behaving like the rabbis in Europe who kept silent while the sword hung over their communities. Instead of leading you're trying to keep order so we don't clash with the army. Why not clash with the army? The army's the enemy!... Come to the rally and call for revolt! Openly, fearlessly come and say that the prime minister deserves death! Come and pronounce a rabbinical edict ordering his killing!

The play reaches its climax when Jewish terrorists -- settlers -- blow up the Dome of the Rock and the al Aqsa Mosque, killing and wounding hundreds (as planned by the Jewish Underground). Shmuel's authentic distress at this event is evident, as is his anger when he realizes his son-in-law, Benny, played a role in the attacks. Benny is unapologetic:

Ask yourself, how we can awaken this nation from the slumber it has sunk into -- how we can salvage this generation, how we can bring it back to the Almighty. It's true, there will be war. Since when have we been afraid of war? We have always strengthened ourselves in war.

Avner joins in, telling his father, "And after this war, everyone will know who this land belongs to."

Shmuel, now a broken man, responds, "The war will bring total destruction."

"Pangs of the Messiah" should spark a mixture of compassion, bewilderment, and outrage -- the same mixture of feelings brought on by the settler attacks today.

Compassion for the settlers as normal people who have lost their moral bearings along the road from religious belief to dangerous ideological extremism. People who at every step on their journey to extremism have been coddled by Israeli authorities and much of Israel and the Jewish community abroad, making them feel ever-more confident in the rightness and righteousness of their cause and in their view that the ends justify the means.

Bewilderment at how Shmuel and his generation -- like the official settler leadership today -- can act surprised that, after raising their children and grandchildren on a toxic diet of ideological extremism, self-righteousness, intolerance, and a sense of god-given entitlement that trumps any law or moral imperative, these children and grandchildren today respect neither Israel's laws nor God's own commandments. Generations that have been taught that God's commandments -- Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's house, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness against they neighbor, and even Thou shalt remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy -- don't apply when they come in conflict with the imperative to settle the land. Children and grandchildren who have been taught by their parents, their rabbis, and their teachers to self-identify not as citizens of Israel but as citizens of Judea and Samaria -- the biblical heartland of the Jewish state, given exclusively and forever to them, as Jews, by God.

And outrage at successive Israeli governments and politicians -- from both the Left and the Right -- who have for decades supported and colluded in the reckless settlement enterprise. Outrage at Israelis and Jews around the world who have turned a blind eye to the ugliness and immorality of the settlers actions. All of whom now have the chutzpah to feign shock and dismay over the situation Israel finds itself in today.

With these latest attacks by the settlers on the IDF, Israel is reaping what it has sowed for four decades in the settlements. Decades of ignoring settler attacks on Palestinians. Decades of treating settler attacks like the Rabin assassination and the Hebron Massacre as "aberrations," not indicative of an underlying problem. Decades of teaching settlers, by Israel's own actions, that they need not heed or fear Israeli law or Israel's courts.

"Pangs of the Messiah" ends with Benny's wife telling Benny: "Abba [father] will speak on our behalf. Maybe the Almighty will have mercy on us." The question facing Israel today is more prosaic: Will the state of Israel be able to deal with this disaster that it has wrought unto itself?