Are Jewish fundamentalists more dangerous than the secularists ? – ask their Palestinian victims

Joseph Massad

Middle East Eye  /  April 12, 2023

There is nothing Zionist Jewish fundamentalists have called for that has not already been committed or advocated by secular Zionists.

For decades now, secular Zionists and even anti-Zionists have been hectoring us about the danger of Zionist Jewish fundamentalism. Their voices have become more trenchant in the last few months with the accession to power of Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government, which includes the largest number of Jewish fundamentalists ever in an Israeli cabinet.

Most of the secular Zionists worry that Jewish fundamentalists are very dangerous to Israeli Jews, others that they are also dangerous to Palestinians, while some, including anti-Zionist secularists, insist that they threaten the entire gentile world.

Yet, it has always been secular Zionists who commit the most horrific massacres of Palestinians, who conquered and colonised their lands, who discriminate against Mizrahi Jews, and who remain friends with antisemitic regimes and forces around the world – from Hungary’s Viktor Orban and other right-wing European political movements to American evangelical fundamentalists.

It is also secular Zionists who continue to use military censorship on all media in Israel, and who have continued to rule the country under Emergency Regulations since 1948. It is also the secularists who enacted all the racist laws for which Israel is so infamous.

What, then, makes the Zionist Jewish fundamentalists more dangerous than secular Zionists?

Secular fundamentalism

Many of the anti-Jewish fundamentalist disquisitions are, in fact, akin in tone and bias to the anti-Muslim – let alone the anti-Islamist – treatises published by Islamophobic westerners, and Arab and Muslim secularists.

Indeed, what the anti-Jewish fundamentalist tracts have in common with the anti-Muslim and anti-Islamist tirades is an unreserved commitment to white Protestant European liberal secularism, deployed as the main “enlightened” reference with which Islam, Islamism and fundamentalist Judaism (if not Judaism itself) are always compared, and which leaves all the others wanting.

A relevant example is the long interview that the Israeli newspaper Haaretz ran a couple of weeks ago about the influence of the American-born Israeli fundamentalist rabbi, Yitzchak Ginsburgh. The interview was conducted with the Israeli-educated and US-based professor of religion Motti Inbari, a scholar of Ginsburgh and his movement. As a secular Zionist, Inbari warns readers that Ginsburgh wants to transform Israel into “Iran”, as he seeks:

“To uproot the Zionist-secular spirit and to topple the government, until a Torah-based regime can be established. The Supreme Court, with its criminal decisions, must be crushed. The army does not need to be crushed, only subjugated. In this context, it’s important to draw comparisons, and this must be stated explicitly: This is the way of thinking of ISIS and Al-Qaida.”

Inbari adds that Ginsburgh is also dangerous to Palestinians and other gentiles as he believes that “Jewish blood is worthier than gentile blood”, and that “the Jews are above nature, and therefore, in a situation in which a gentile intends to kill a Jew, the gentile must be liquidated in order to protect the Jew”.

These are hardly new warnings. In a book published three decades ago on Jewish fundamentalism in Israel, the pro-Israel American Jewish political scientist Ian Lustick, who opposes the 1967 occupation and supports peaceful negotiations, insisted that the “belief system” of fundamentalist Jews was “radically different from the liberal humanitarian ethos shared by most Israelis and Americans”.

Lustick identified fundamentalists as “the greatest obstacle” to what he called “meaningful negotiations”.  He claimed that, unlike secular Jews who might oppose “peace” based on “security”, the fundamentalists do so based on “ideology”. It would seem secular Zionists have no ideology to guide them.

Lustick, who worried about US relations with Israel being weakened by a Jewish fundamentalist takeover in Israel, cautioned that such a fundamentalist regime “would destroy the special relationship with the United States” that is based on “perceptions of common moral, political, and cultural purposes”.

Such a fundamentalist Israel in possession of “a large and sophisticated nuclear arsenal”, Lustick concluded, would be as threatening to US interests as “the Islamic Revolution in Iran”.

The adherence of Lustick and Inbari to official US propaganda about Iran’s state structure as “fundamentalist” – or that it constitutes a threat to the US – goes unquestioned, which is why Jewish fundamentalists are compared by both of them to Iran as the worst bogeyman of western secularists.

More dangerous ?

Not to be outdone, the late anti-Zionist Israeli activist Israel Shahak was even more forthright in his dire anti-fundamentalist fulminations. In a book he co-authored in 1999 on the topic, he announced that Jewish fundamentalists are a danger not only to Palestinians but to “all non-Jews”.    

Like Inbari more recently, Shahak explained how fundamentalist Judaism considers Jews unique racially and genetically, with special Jewish blood and Jewish DNA which, in turn, makes Jewish life special and more valuable than non-Jewish life. While Shahak was aware of secular Zionist anti-Arab racism, anchored in European secular racism, it is unclear why he represented the Jewish fundamentalists’ racism as somehow more dangerous to Palestinians or other gentiles.

Indeed, Shahak went as far as attributing secular Zionist racism to Judaism itself, and not to European secular racism. Thus, the Jewish supremacist attitude prevalent among the fundamentalists, we are told, seeped into the belief system of secular Jews, to the point that Israeli protesters against Israeli military involvement in Lebanon never mentioned Lebanese casualties.

Yet, can this omission be adequately explained by Jewish fundamentalism alone? In the US, for example, reference is often made to the 58,000 or so US soldiers killed in Vietnam without mentioning the more than three million Indochinese these US soldiers killed.

Would a chauvinist and racist secular nationalism which privileges European white life – in its Zionist guise in Israel and its anti-communist and anti-Asian camouflage in the US – over the lives of non-whites also be the culprit, and not only Jewish fundamentalism which privileges Jewish life?     

From the outset, Shahak’s views, similar to Lustick’s and Inbari’s, deploy a comparative grid between fundamentalist Judaism, on the one hand, and Protestant secular liberal Europe and its Israeli secular imitators, on the other. It is within this grid that many such authors tell their stories of horrific Jewish fundamentalism.

Shahak’s book continues like most recent western tracts on Islamism, which exoticise Muslims and Islam before proceeding to make the most outrageous conclusions about them.

The main difference, of course, is that, unlike the anti-Islam pundits who are part of hegemonic western propaganda against Muslims, Shahak’s book challenges the hegemonic and distortive Zionist rewriting of Jewish history. What the book shares with the many anti-Islam tracts, however, is the a priori positive valuation of the Protestant liberal secular West.

Shahak goes so far as to volunteer that “The tension between fundamentalist and secular Israelis, therefore, stems mostly from the fact that these two groups live in different time periods”.

Such evolutionist and Social Darwinist representations are characteristic of many Western and some Muslim authors who write on Islam and the Third World more generally.

‘Enlightened’ racism

The secular Shahak confuses religious piety with fundamentalism. Unlike the secular Ashkenazim who are presented as “enlightened” on the issue of Judaism and rabbinical authority, we are treated to the patronising account that “almost all Oriental [Jewish] politicians, including the Black Panthers of the early 1970s and the members of the tiny Oriental peace movements, commonly bow to and kiss the hands of rabbis in public”.

Aside from the similarity of this non-fundamentalist pious gesture to how pious Arab Muslims and Christians treat their clerics, this Orientalist panic in Shahak is compounded by the description of the Mizrahi peace movements as “tiny” (which indeed they had been historically), as if to suggest that the Ashkenazi “peace” movements constituted mass popular movements (which they never did).

Shahak had long predicted a civil war in Israel that never materialised during his lifetime. In this book, he had more startling predictions to make: “It is not unreasonable to assume that [the fundamentalist Jewish settler movement] Gush Emunim, if it possessed the power and control, would use nuclear weapons in warfare to attempt to achieve its purpose.”

This is fully consonant with US propaganda about Islamists and Muslim “rogue” states’ alleged readiness to use nuclear weapons, which, unlike Israel, they do not have, against the West – especially so as Shahak goes to pains to tell us that the gentiles do not only include the Arabs but “all non-Jews”.

Absent from this narrative is the fact that Israeli prime ministers Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir, secular Zionists, were the ones who almost used nuclear weapons against Egypt and Syria in 1967 and 1973Shahak, who has written on Israel’s nuclear capability, was no stranger to these facts.

The point is not that Gush Emunim in the 1990s or today’s Jewish fundamentalists would not use nuclear weapons (which Israel has in abundance), but that they would not use them solely based on their fundamentalist interpretation of Judaism, but based on their Zionist convictions, which colour their view of Judaism in the first place.

Most remarkable is that Shahak, Lustick, and Inbari do not see the American Jewish fundamentalist colonist Baruch Goldstein – who massacred Palestinians at al-Ibrahimi Mosque on Purim in 1994 – in the context of a racist and colonialist secular Zionism and its myriad massacres of Palestinians since the 1930s, but rather as part of Jewish fundamentalist commitments.  

For background to the massacre, Shahak, for example, even speaks of the “well-documented cases of [Jews who committed] massacres of Christians and mock repetitions of the crucifixion of Jesus on Purim, most of which occurred either in the late ancient period or in the Middle Ages”.

Unlike these incidents, however, secular Zionist and Israeli massacres of Palestinians are ongoing occurrences and provide more immediate examples to emulate for the likes of Goldstein, rather than some medieval Jewish practices. In invoking some ancient Jewish instances of killing Christians on Purim, the anti-Zionist Shahak unwittingly lets secular Zionism off the hook.

There is to date nothing that Zionist Jewish fundamentalists have called for that has not been already committed or advocated by secular Zionism. This was perhaps best expressed by Israel’s Jewish fundamentalist Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir when he was a young man in 1994.

In an interview, the young Ben Gvir castigated his hypocritical secular leftist Jewish interlocutors who accused Ben Gvir of supporting murder due to his defence of Goldstein.

To their horror and yells, Ben Gvir astutely and with sincere honesty reminded his secular accusers that all the heroes of the Israeli army and the pre-state Zionist militia, the Haganah, are heroes because they murdered Palestinians. He was not wrong.

As for the ongoing propaganda campaign that Jewish fundamentalists are somehow more dangerous or violent or murderous than the secularists, ask their surviving Palestinian victims and they will readily echo Ben Gvir’s accurate account.

Joseph Massad is professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, New York; he is the author Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan; Desiring Arabs; The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians, and most recently Islam in Liberalism