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No, Rowdy Settlers Aren’t Hebrew Neo-Nazis

Israeli author Amos Oz’s provocative public statement has a logical flaw

Liel Leibovitz
May 12, 2014
A Palestinian poses in his bulldozer on which suspected Jewish vandals painted a graffiti reading in Hebrew 'Death to Arabs' and 'Price tag' on May 5, 2014 near the Arab Israeli town of Abu Ghosh. (AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images)
A Palestinian poses in his bulldozer on which suspected Jewish vandals painted a graffiti reading in Hebrew 'Death to Arabs' and 'Price tag' on May 5, 2014 near the Arab Israeli town of Abu Ghosh. (AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images)

On Friday afternoon, on stage at Tzavta—the cultural epicenter of Tel Aviv’s left-leaning bohemia—Amos Oz had harsh things to say about the Hilltop Youth, the fringe group of settlers whose particular form of teenaged ennui sometimes involves defacing mosques with hurtful graffiti, torching cars, and other acts of baboonery. These settlers, Oz thundered, were nothing less than “Hebrew Neo-Nazis.” Predictably, a small storm ensued, with a settler organization filing a complaint accusing Oz of incitement to racism and Israeli media talking about little but the famed author’s wrathful words.

Oz himself went on a popular Israeli radio show yesterday in an effort to defend his words. “I object to comparisons to the Nazis,” he said. “The comparison I made on Friday wasn’t to the Nazis but to the Neo-Nazis. Nazis erect ovens and gas chambers; Neo-Nazis desecrate places of worship, desecrate cemeteries, beat up innocent people, and scribble racist slogans.”

It’s a silly comparison, with reasons that have more to do with philosophy than with politics. Adhering to some strict permutation of Kantian ethics, the Israel Prize laureate seems to be telling us that an action is an action, intents and purposes be damned. Believe that, and you believe that the skin-headed thug from Austria and the yarmulked man from Samaria are both indistinguishable occupants of a category populated by vandals, a category that also includes the French youth who smashed Peugeots outside of Paris in 2005, the mob who went haywire in London in 2013, and every soccer hooligan who has ever expressed his allegiance to his team by leaving the stadium with a lighter in hand.

A more nuanced approach, of course, would have dismissed such a worldview out of hand, realizing that there are 50 shades of thug out there and that while police should deal with them all, we should only really be worried about those whose outbursts were an expression of a more ambitious conviction, such as the reinstatement of a regime responsible for the systematic murder of millions of human beings based on no other reason save for their religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or political views. Take this stand, and you realize that while the Neo-Nazis are a problem, the Hilltop Youth are not.

To be sure, any organized act of violence is a problem, and should be dealt with swiftly and effectively. Recent reports indicate that when it comes to the fringe groups of Jewish fanatics in Israel, the Israeli police is doing just that: last year, the General Security Service—better known by its Hebrew acronyms, the Shin Bet—stepped up its efforts to crack down on the loons, resulting in key arrests. The rest of Israeli society also did its part, engaging in a public debate about the socioeconomic, political, and psychological factors that gave rise to the Hilltop Youth phenomenon, from the trauma of relocating Jewish communities after Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza to the intergenerational dynamics within the settler movement itself. Surprisingly, these public conversations, taking place on television, in newspapers, and in living rooms across the nation, have been nuanced and insightful. Oz’s comment was anything but.

Some decades ago, stirring up a storm of his own, the renowned Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz argued that occupation of the West Bank will send the Jewish State down a path not too dissimilar than the one that had led Germany to Hitler’s arms. Even those who, like myself, strongly oppose this line of argument could see its value as a tool of political discussion, and the debates sparked by the bespectacled philosopher’s incendiary statements were considerably more substantive and civilized than the hot-headed Israeli norm. But Oz is no Leibowitz: his comment was designed not to start a conversation but to end one. And unlike Leibowitz’s, Oz’s argument wasn’t moral but political, a fact that only compounds its already glaring flaws. Let’s ignore it then, and take comfort in knowing that even the most culpable of Israel’s ideological outlaws are still a long way from Sieg Heil.

Liel Leibovitz is editor-at-large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.