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The Revenge Killing in Israel Has Resurrected Jewish Demons

A report from Jerusalem, where there's a frightening resignation in the face of racism

JACK GUEZ/Getty Images

Almost 30 years ago, Leon Wieseltier penned a cover story for the New Republic, The Demons of the Jews.” The title described the extremist Brooklyn-born rabbi and Israeli politician Meir Kahane, but it also referred to the pathologies in Israeli society that allowed Kahane’s racist incitement to find purchase. When, decades ago, Kahane and his followers were banished from Israeli politics, we dreamed we had exorcised these demons. But this past week, as an Arab youth’s murder defiled the forests of Jerusalem, our Jewish demons returned.

When “The Demons of the Jews” was published, Jews were still relatively new to power, only recently introduced to political authority and military might. And the realization that Jews have demons, too, that Israeli society had national pathologies and racist demagogues, was unsettling partially because it was surprising. With our Bible and our millennia of victimization, there was a tendency toward moral exceptionalism deep within the Jewish national soul. We have been oppressed and slaughtered, we told ourselves, but we would never produce oppressors and slaughterers.

That myth still holds power. And so for days after the murder of Muhammad Abu Khdeir, the Israeli Arab boy abducted and killed last week in Jerusalem, outlandish theories of honor killings and intra-family violence flew fast and thick. After all, a Jew would never do such a thing. But with yesterday’s announcement by Israeli police that several Jewish extremists had been arrested and confessed, denial is no longer possible. Our demons are free again. As with the astounding surge in Kahane’s popularity decades ago, as with the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and as with Baruch Goldstein’s killing spree at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, there must be a reckoning.

However, social reckonings are a complicated business. Critics of Israel are far too quick to characterize the murder as somehow symptomatic, or the inevitable product, of rightist Israeli politics. This is its own form of blood libel. Neither the Jewish people, not Israel, nor even the Israeli right is guilty of this murder. There is plenty of space—both conceptually and sociologically—between the logic of a hawkish defense and territorial maximalism on the one hand and the murder of innocents on the other. And those who conflate the two are guilty of the same chauvinism as those who vilify Islam for the sins of Islamist fanatics.

But ideas have power, and it would also be a mistake to write these murders off as the insane acts of deranged lone wolves. The perpetrators were deranged, but they were not alone. The same pathologies that animated Kahane’s followers and that Wieseltier identified decades ago have not disappeared. Radical nationalism, militant millenarianism, and social resentment—often tinged with the fundamentalism of religious dogma—are all too alive in Israel’s underclass. And after years of steady Palestinian violence and rejection, too many in Israel shrug off the rhetoric of its own racists as regrettable, but understandable.

A scene from Sunday in Jerusalem might provide some sense: Walking home from dinner, I passed a march of a few hundred peace activists winding their way through the center of Jerusalem’s downtown. They carried signs and chanted, calling for an end to racism and violence. The turnout was respectable for a last-minute rally at 9 p.m. on a Sunday. But the disturbing thing was the handful of adolescents who thought it was quite cool to walk at the edge of the march yelling “death to the Arabs.” Now, every society has its fair share of low-life teenagers, and no doubt, many of them are racist ignoramuses. But the problem is bigger than just a few hoodlums. In the time since the murder of three Israeli schoolboys three weeks ago, tens of thousands of Israelis took to Facebook to demand revenge—and most Israelis seemed to shrug it off. Just as last night, the average passer-by seemed to shrug off the teenagers, as if to say, “What do you expect just two weeks after three of our school-boys are murdered in cold blood?” And, to be fair, all they’re doing is yelling.

It’s that resignation in the face of racism that scares me, and partly that’s because it comes from a place I understand. There is something beautiful about the belief that because we are Jews, racist rhetoric will never lead to brutal murder. And there is beauty to the genuine shock—not just horror, but surprise—when it does. Do you remember when American newscasters and presidents could still honestly declare themselves “shocked” and “unsettled” by mass shootings and school violence? In retrospect, that shock was a beautiful thing. But in the United States, those days are gone. We have grown accustomed to domestic mass shooting. And I fear that a similar thing is happening here in Israel—that this will be the last time that an Israeli defense minister can seem genuinely shaken by the reality of Jewish terror.

But for all its beauty, this moral exceptionalism is also pernicious. It creates a false sense of complacency, a sense that the worst can’t happen. And if we don’t believe that it will happen, that rhetoric won’t become reality, then it’s not worth that much to fight its early beginnings or underlying causes. We might as well shrug off the stupid hoodlums in the street, because no Jew would ever act on such a thing.

But now our demons are visible, and our myth is shattered. In Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reaction to Khdeir's murder, he emphasized Israel’s response. He couldn’t promise that it will never happen again, but he pointed to the wall-to-wall condemnations and the swift investigation and arrest of the perpetrators. The response, he said, reveals Israel’s character as a nation of law and justice. And although his quickness in comparing Israel’s disgust at its own terrorists with its neighbors’ glorification was tasteless, it also rings true. But the bar has been lowered dramatically. Israel is no longer holding itself to the standards of Jewish mythology, but measuring itself by the robustness of its justice system and the universality of its denunciations of violence.

But as Wieseltier wrote years ago, denunciations are “easy, and not quite the end of it.” And that’s because the demons are not just the rabid individuals who commit heinous acts, but the social pathologies that create their supporters. Recognizing this fact need not be either a condemnation of a society or an exoneration of the perpetrators themselves. But the first step to combatting these pathologies is to realize that they have consequences, even for the Jews—and there is no stepping back from that sorry realization.