On Passover, the festival of freedom, we are commanded to view ourselves as if we personally had come out of Egypt. As such, it’s a traditional time to ponder the concept of liberation from bondage and tyranny and what that might mean in our own lives.
Sometimes the parallels are pretty straightforward. On the first night of Passover 1943 the Warsaw Ghetto rose up in revolt. On the fourth day of Passover 1775 the first shots of the American Revolution were fired at Lexington and Concord.
At other times it’s hard to tell which side is which. In Ukraine right now, the forces of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian Russian imperialism are facing off against a rebel government that seems to unite pro-Western conservatives with an array of fascists and nostalgic Nazi sympathizers.
There are times, though, when the torch of freedom turns out, on closer examination, to be an arsonist’s matchbook. The days leading up to Passover this year saw an alarming pattern, in several far-flung hotspots, of malicious vandalism masquerading as patriotic heroism. On the surface the incidents might seem utterly unrelated, but they bear remarkable similarities, and they point to a larger trend.
On Tuesday, April 8, six days before the Seder, hundreds of Jews in the northern West Bank settlement of Yitzhar staged a violent assault on the Israeli military. A unit of soldiers and Border Police had come to dismantle several illegal structures at the edge of the settlement. A mob of settlers attacked them, wielding sticks, throwing stones and burning tires. Six soldiers were wounded. Two were hospitalized. One group of 50-odd youths then attacked the military post that guards the village, ransacking it while the soldiers looked on. The prime minister and defense minister said perpetrators would be shown zero tolerance. Eight suspects were arrested. Seven were released within three days.
That Saturday, April 12, halfway around the world in the southeastern Nevada desert outside Mesquite, several hundred armed vigilantes surrounded a unit of federal officers. The feds, agents of the Bureau of Land Management, came to confiscate cattle belonging to deadbeat rancher Cliven Bundy. He owes some $1.1 million in unpaid fees and fines for grazing his livestock on federal land, claiming he doesn’t recognize federal authority. His cause has drawn anti-government extremists and far-right militia members from throughout the West. That Saturday the feds saw they were outgunned and withdrew. The outlaws won the showdown.
In both confrontations, Yitzhar and Mesquite, the vigilantes won support from right-wing sympathizers who claim government has no right to enforce its laws on dissenters. In both cases, broader circles of conservatives conceded that laws should be enforced, but decried the “brutal” tactics of gun-toting law enforcement officers.
A Nevada state lawmaker who stood with the vigilantes at Bundy’s ranch, Republican Michele Fiore, told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes that it was natural for citizens to resist if they faced agents “coming to your house pointing guns at your wife and children” merely because they “owed the federal government money.” No mention of the thousands of Americans arrested each year by armed federal agents because they owe the government money in evaded taxes. Nor of the estimated 10 million Americans evicted from their homes since 2007, typically by armed federal marshals and county sheriffs, because they owed money to banks.
The situation in Yitzhar was more complex. It began April 1 when Border Police demolished an illegally-built family home in the settlement, considered one of the West Bank’s most radical. The demolition prompted widespread protest. Some settlers complained that the army constantly cracks down on settler building violations while ignoring Palestinian infractions. (In fact unauthorized Palestinian structures are demolished at about six times the rate of settler buildings, despite Israel’s international commitments and Supreme Court orders.) Days later, settlers slashed the tires of a visiting IDF colonel, and the next day another soldier’s tires. A day later, April 8, came the riot. Even right-wing opinion began abandoning Yitzhar.
On April 10, though, the army blew its advantage. It took over Yitzhar’s Od Yosef Chai yeshiva, a hotbed of anti-Arab and anti-IDF incitement, for use as a base. The religious right was inflamed. Dozens of rabbis signed a protest letter. Hundreds, including prominent rabbis, politicians and far-right luminaries, flocked to Yitzhar for an April 17 protest rally. Speakers compared the Israeli government and military to Soviet communism and to the biblical Absalom, who rebelled against King David.
The closing lecture, by the yeshiva’s chairman and former dean, Rabbi Yitzhak Ginzburgh, focused on Passover as a time for liberation from the “Israeli establishment” and on the “undisciplined” actions of settler youth as “birth pangs” of the messianic age.
The Passover clashes at Mesquite and Yitzhar aren’t sudden or unique events. The American West has seen its share of armed standoffs between federal agents and the anti-government right. Likewise, there have been settler attacks on army bases before, and more than a few violent clashes between settlers and soldiers.
What the clashes do represent is a sort of mile marker in the evolution of the far right in Israel and America — and in the convergence of the two countries’ conservative movements. Both countries are experiencing a steady mainstreaming of what was once a far-right fringe. It’s a movement that views liberalism as profoundly illegitimate, that treats the democratic process as subordinate to its own conservative vision. A 30-year alliance between the two countries’ right wings has created a sort of transatlantic unity. Unlike the European far right, the American-Israeli variety has established itself as a legitimate presence on the mainstream right.
The simultaneous eruption of similar crises in both countries is not entirely coincidental. They’re now feeling strong enough to mount direct challenges to governmental authority and achieve at least partial victories. This is indeed their season of liberation. For the rest of us, I’m not so sure.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at email@example.com
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).