My wife, newborn daughter and I have had the unique occasion of participating in what has popularly become known by travel enthusiasts as a home exchange. As a result, we have been privileged to make the city of Haifa our temporary dwelling place for the duration of this summer.
Haifa is celebrated by many as one of the few places in the region where one may find flourishing Arab-Jewish coexistence. As a Christian-Arab taxi driver put it to me on our way to the Wadi Nisnas neighborhood ("Riverbed of the Marten"), also home of the Arab Jewish Centre: "Haifa is the Alexandria of our time."
It is here, from this vantage point, that I offer a commentary on the horrendous attack by a Jewish extremist against Arab-Israeli residents in the mixed Arab town of Shfaram, which has killed four people and wounded 12. In the immediate days following the attack, it was apparent from the standpoint of my wife and I that the attack had rekindled a discourse in the Israeli media about the dangers posed by Jewish extremism. Thankfully, aside from a few very minor incidents, it seemed as if Haifa was unscathed by the attack. Life went on and Jewish Arab interactions remained altogether peaceful. The city's social fabric came under assault, as did all of Israel, but proved to be resilient in the face of Jewish extremism as it did many times before when it was directly hit by Islamic extremists.
This all begs the question: Who is a Jewish extremist? To begin with, all religious extremist ideologies are held by their devotees to be fundamentalist. This is to say that the religious extremist believes that he possesses an unadulterated, more accurate, and likewise "fundamentalist" rendition of the holy texts. What differentiates a religious extremist from his coreligionists, who also affirm the same belief? This of course is a relative question. However, for most, an extremist is one who's viewpoint and deeds are situated on the outermost fringes of the mainstream. Qualifying who or what should be situated on the periphery depends, in large part, on the particular time and place in history where one finds him/herself. What may be considered extreme under modern social conditions may have been the accepted norm at some early point in time. Accordingly, most ideologies are transient and subject to the will of people. Although it may seem that those ideologies that are believed to be divinely inspired could not be subject to change, the reality is that in both Jewish and Muslim circles, the human component becomes the dominating force.
The unparalleled number of attacks intended to kill Jews in Israel and this attack aimed at Arabs have one clear thing in common: they have been classified by people of good sense as terrorist attacks perpetrated by religious extremists. The ultimate goal of such terrorism is to safeguard their radical interpretations of their holy texts that have been somehow challenged by the national and/or religious activities of the other.
And so the perceived challenge caused by Israeli-Arabs motivated Eden Natan Zada (also known as Eden Tzuberi) violence in the Shfaram. Eden, and other Jewish extremists, views all of Biblical Israel (I.e., "Greater Israel") as an eternal inheritance of the Jewish people and that all non-Jews should be banished. This view is extreme because it demonstrates a great departure from a Maimonidean teaching that permits monotheists, "Sons of Noah" to remain in the Land of Israel as "resident aliens." Certainly, the State of Israel and the majority of its Jewish citizens make no such distinctions in their relations with Israeli-Arabs. However, those of religious conviction that do depart from this principle have ultimately deviated from a classical Jewish posture that has existed as a dominant position since Maimonides' epic work, the Mishneh Torah.
It should be noted that it is this same brand of Jewish extremism that incited Baruch Goldstein to enter a mosque on Purim in 1994, and machine gun to death dozens of Moslem worshippers. It is also the same movement that declared that anyone who surrenders parts of Israel must be labeled a traitor and dealt with accordingly. As such, this is the same ideology that produced Yitzchak Rabin's assassin, Yigal Amir.
From the standpoint of the extremists, they do not exploit religion, as many have charged, rather, they offer a proper treatment of fundamental Jewish principles, a restoration of a lost ideal. For extremists on both sides of the conflict, any compromise to these uncompromising ideals would signify a capitulation and a failure to uphold what they believe to be divine legislation.
Instead of bringing in an era of peace, such extremism only agitates, expands, and puts off any resolution for future generations. With the model of Haifa in mind, let us hope that in the face of future terror, level headed thinking will overcome.
Jimmy Bitton is a teacher of Jewish history in Toronto and a graduate student at York University.