The dog days of August brought serious wakeup calls for Israel and the United States in their respective struggles against terrorism. Both nations were shaken by violent attacks coming from a direction they hadn’t been watching: racist, right-wing nativists. The similarities between the crises are instructive, and disturbing. So are the differences.
For Americans, the month opened with the all-too-familiar sight of a mass shooting, this time at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis., by a known racist skinhead. Israelis were shocked 12 days later by twin anti-Arab attacks, including the firebombing of a Palestinian taxicab just outside the Kahanist settlement of Kfar Tapuah in the West Bank, injuring six, including 4-year-old twins, and by the lynch-style attack on an Arab teenager hours later by a mob of Jewish youngsters in downtown Jerusalem.
All three incidents were labeled by officials — the FBI in America, government ministers in Israel — as terrorist incidents. All three fit into a growing pattern in the two countries of vigilante attacks by self-styled patriots against a minority group widely perceived as a threat.
And they highlight a startling paradox: While the terrorist threat that draws most public and law enforcement attention in both countries comes from Islamic extremism, both countries also face a serious and growing threat from nativist extremism and ultra-nationalism — Jewish in Israel, white supremacist or Christian in America — that receives far less attention. Indeed, right-wing terrorism may be downplayed by leaders in both countries who see it as a regrettable reaction to Muslim attacks — though the numbers don’t bear that out.
That’s where the similarity ends. The two attacks in Israel prompted a national wave of outrage and soul-searching from both left and right. Government leaders from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on down have called for a re-examination of the educational system that might have led a seemingly random group of teenagers to launch a murderous attack on an Arab passerby. The firebombing incident, promptly labeled an act of Jewish terrorism by Vice Premier Moshe Yaalon — even though the perpetrator has yet to be identified — has led to widespread calls, even by some settler leaders, for a crackdown on violent settler extremists.
It’s worth noting that the numbers are surprisingly small. Since the beginning of 2009, five Palestinians have been killed in 1,045 settler attacks, according to B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights group. During the same period, 21 Israelis have been killed in Palestinian terrorist attacks originating in the West Bank, and another 19 in cross-border attacks and shelling from Gaza and Sinai.