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Terrorism in Israel has a new face, and it’s not what it used to be

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Dr Alexander O’Riordan holds a PhD in Economics from the University of Cape Town, is an associate faculty of Royal Roads University, Canada and is a political analyst who works on a freelance basis largely advising the US Government, European Union and UN institutions on development cooperation. O’Riordan has also been advising on the development of joint cooperation activities in Palestine intermittently since 2010.

Settler violence is a comparatively new phenomenon and little understood because a new cast of characters is perpetrating it, some of them South Africans.

Early this week a Scandinavian diplomat was confronted by a group of violent South African settlers in Hebron. The incident is unlikely to be reported on, not because of some broader bias in the media, but rather because settler terrorism has become a daily feature in the West Bank – as much so as Palestinian terrorism.

The BBC reports more than a hundred settler terrorist attacks on Palestinians monthly; The Times of Israel reported 591 settler attacks in the first six months of 2023.

To be clear, the number of settler terrorist attacks is still markedly lower than reported Palestinian terrorist attacks. The government of Israel has also noted a marked increase in Palestinian terrorism, almost doubling from 2021 to 200 incidents a month in 2023.

New cast of characters

This settler violence though, is a comparatively new phenomenon and little understood because a new cast of characters is perpetrating it. Israel’s settler movement was in the past dominated by political and security policy, whether that was in establishing cooperative (moshavs) or socialist (kibbutzim) farming communities in the occupied territories. In most cases these settler communities were non-religious. 

There were some communities of modern orthodox Jews, and a few settlements like in Shilo and Hebron that were located on sites of religious importance. These settler communities included pious Jews most visibly wearing black hats and coats as is commonplace with Haredi Jews.

Haredi Jews mostly do not support Zionism; it is their perspective that a modern Israel that enables premarital sex and a secular lifestyle is religious abomination. Rabbi Breitowitz of Ohr Somayach, an influential Jerusalem-based seminary (yeshiva) with an international network that includes presences in Johannesburg and Cape Town, explains that the primary obligation for pious Jews is to protect themselves from exposure to secular influences… this rationalisation transfers into a refusal to serve in the Israeli Defence Force.

The combination of settlements established through government policy and religious non-Zionist doctrine meant that in the past, violence in the West Bank was the monopoly of Israel’s security services. Today this is no longer the case.

The South African settlers threatening the Scandinavian diplomat in Hebron this week, as with most of the settler terrorists visible in this Channel Four clip, appear at first glance to be pious, similar to Haredi Jews. However, theirs is a distinctly different uniform.

The black hat is replaced by an oversized crochet yarmulke (head cap) and the black overcoats replaced with white button-up shirts. Unlike the Haredi, these are not religious Jews who live just for their faith, willing to live in poverty and out of sight as long as they are left alone. 

Infiltration

No, this newly emerging group of settlers has decidedly material interests. And, like the emergence of radical Islamic terrorists, they are the direct result of the security services infiltrating religious institutions.

Sadly, too many political commentators appear to have never been involved in organising, thus leading to nonsense concepts like religious extremism as being the driver of terrorism. Any liberation or political movement needs to build a constituency that will march, vote and voice the priorities of the movement.

The foundation of organising is identifying organisers who can bring together disaffected people and articulate how their individual frustrations are caused by the political reality. These organisers need to be articulate and compelled to do the work of organising. Usually, these are misfits in one shape or form and necessarily so because those who are happy with their lot in life tend not to care about changing the political reality.

The best places to find these misfits are on factory floors, in universities and in religious institutions. These misfits are easily identifiable because they are already organising, whether that be in the local religious youth movement or in acting as a shop steward or participating in university clubs.

This is what the influential US-based labour organiser Koebel Price calls “pre-existing organising capacity”. In short, identify those with pre-existing organising capacity, provide them social, ego or other incentives, and you have the building blocks of a social movement. 

In the past few decades, deindustrialisation and anti-union tactics in modern factories has made it increasingly difficult to identify organisers from the factory floor. Universities are excellent sites for recruitment, but not so much if the cause is illiberal.

In South Africa, France, Russia and the US, the birthplace of many of these new settler terrorists, Israel is no longer supported on university campuses and has no factory floors to recruit from. Thus the logical solution is to recruit through religious institutions. 

SA Jewish youth movements

In South Africa, this was done by Israel and its political elites through the Jewish youth movements, namely Netzer Maginim, Habonim-Dror, Betar and to a different extent Bnei Akiva (more of a religious rather than Zionist youth movement).

South Africa has a unique and peculiar Jewish community dynamic in that most Jews are not religious, but are firmly committed to their religious institutions. Accordingly, largely secular Zionist youth movements were able to infiltrate the synagogues and temples and recruit youth activists and organisers in support of Israel.

In the 1970s and 1980s, this created a funnel of young secular Jews supporting and moving to Israel. But in the 1990s, a structural change ripped up the old playbook.

First with increasing threats of terrorism against Jewish communities in South Africa and across the world, a new Jewish youth movement was on the rise under the name of the Community Security Organisation (CSO). This youth movement, officially neither Zionist nor religious, excelled where all the others failed – it organised young Jewish adults and was associated with getting Jews to marry one another.

One South African rabbi even complained at a community meeting in the mid-nineties that the funding the Jewish community provided to the traditional Jewish youth movements was a waste because unlike with the CSO, it did not result in any new Jewish marriages.

New Jewish identity

While CSO has no easily defined ideology, the unwritten rules are that to be a Jew means to carry arms and defend the community interests against outsiders. The rise of the CSO and a Jewish identity embedded in the ability to commit violence coincided with the demise of Israel as a point of pride for young Jewish intellectuals. 

Over time, South Africa’s Jewish youth organising started to produce a new Jewish identity that was shaped by being armed and willing to use violence to defend one’s interests and religious leanings. Along with other white men, many young Jewish men have struggled to find the place in the modern economy that they were raised to believe was their right. Many of these disaffected young men found a home in this new Jewish identity.

There is one more toxic dynamic that has come into play. Israel has increasingly become a bifurcated country because of its economic success. With a GDP per capita of $52,000, Israel is now wealthier per citizen than the United Kingdom. But this wealth is concentrated in liberal bastions like Tel Aviv that are home to new tech and/or largely inherited wealth. The average price of an apartment in Tel Aviv is now close to R25-million. 

On the other side of the country is Mea She’arim in Jerusalem, the cramped and impoverished Haredi neighbourhood that looks more akin to what you would imagine an Eastern European ghetto is than the shiny skyscrapers in Tel Aviv. 

The disaffected, somewhat religious, and armed young Jewish men moving from countries like South Africa to Israel tend to have neither the skills nor the wealth to make a life in Tel Aviv, nor are they of the ideological bent to live in poverty in Mea She’arim.

Put together, the solution is obvious: move to the settlements, push the Palestinians further out and build, build, build. DM

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  • Sydney Kaye says:

    As far as I know the CSO mainly functions as emergency para-medics to (but not exclusively to) the Jewish community. It also provides security at synogogues and schools, but is armed with nothing more than cell phones. The sinister connetation you imply are a figment of your imagination.

    • Alexis Kriel says:

      Rather than add to the misinformation about Israel then, this Daily Maverick opinion piece, needs to provide facts to back up his assertion.

    • Mervyn Bennun says:

      From my own experience: the CSO doing “security” service carries firearms, and members wear black military style uniforms with Sam Browne belts loaded with equipment including a telescopic baton. They seem to take over crowd and traffic control where one would expect the police to be in charge. In the City Bowl
      area, also from my experience they operate an excellent ambulance service. I was not asked whether I was Jewish.

  • Anthony Burman says:

    Bizarre stuff about the CSO. They seriously enraged me when they grilled me before allowing me into a Jewish New Year’s gift market in Cape Town last week. It’s not as though I don’t look Jewish, whatever that means. They also phoned me every bloody day without cease, to track my blood oxygen levels when I had Covid. They gave me the oximeter so I suppose I shouldn’t complain, right? If the writer could give me the contact number for a marriage partner that would be very cool. I suspect if I phoned the CSO about that I would get short shrift. My politics? Well they never ask me.

    • Michael Sandler says:

      You are conflating the CSO with Hatzolah, a non-profit medical response organisation serving mainly the Jewish community. They are entirely separate, unrelated institutions. If, having provided you a service in the past, Hatzolah is now hassling you for donations, I suggest you ask them to remove you from their database or mark you as Do Not Call.
      Some CSO volunteers can be overzealous at times. They take themselves very seriously as protectors of Jewish gatherings (which I sympathise with for the most part). I find if you treat them respectfully and answer their questions, invasive as it might seem, they will let you in. Consider it an entrance fee to be paid at the door.

  • Michael Sandler says:

    Please, man, get your facts straight.
    Yes, Jewish violence and intimidation in Israel exists, but suggesting it is fed from a pipeline of South African Zionists is the ramblings of a conspiracy theorist, not a journalist. There are many Jewish institutions and people who work to limit intermarriage, but its laughable to count the CSO among them. Their sole focus is protecting Jews from terrorism and other violence or crime. That’s it. And they do it well.
    What are your sources for the changes you allege are sweeping through South African Jewish society? Who have you spoken to? Is it all speculation? Wishful thinking?
    Disaffected South Africans in Israel tend to return to South Africa. I know plenty of them. They don’t join militant religious settler movements. If you have any support for what you are saying I’d be genuinely eager to see it. This article wasn’t it.

  • Sasha Rodenacker says:

    Some poor journalism:
    1. CSO is not a youth movement and does not have ideological impacts on Jewish identity. Particularly: “that to be a Jew means to carry arms” shows a lack of research into jewish community structures.
    2. This lack of due-diligent research is further seen through various homogenisations which ignores nuance in a complex situation. This is blatantly expressed when the youth movements are discussed without outlining the ideological goals and set-ups thereof. Habonim dror and beitar have vastly different goals, zionist ideals and relationships with the IP conflict.
    3. Many statements with little evidebce provided to back it up- “The disaffected, somewhat religious, and armed young Jewish men moving from countries like South Africa to Israel tend to have neither the skills nor the wealth to make a life in Tel Aviv, nor are they of the ideological bent to live in poverty in Mea She’arim.” Big statement- needs to be supported- but it is not.

    The breakdown of this article can continue.

  • Malcolm Daitz says:

    The mind boggles that someone can pen an article of such unsubstantiated drivel, and DM publish it, without first checking the facts. The article is based on the premise that “a Scandinavian diplomat was confronted by a group of violent South African settlers in Hebron”. Where is the evidence of this “group of violent South African settlers”? Did the journalist ascertain how many of the people concerned were South African?
    Where is the evidence to support the authors’ argument and conclusion that these “violent South African settlers” were products of Jewish youth movements, or, later as he asserts CSO – because they could not be recruited on “uni campuses or factory floors” and that they are “disaffected, somewhat religious or armed”?
    Clearly, NO research has gone into any of the organizations mentioned, no of their political or cultural standpoints, or the purpose and roles they play within the Jewish community and their contribution to society at large.
    Is the quoting of an unnamed Rabbi, apparently “in the mid-90’s”, completely out of context, considered reliable source material?
    This is the hallmark of an agenda, with an all too common narrative of gaslighting Jews. And that’s without even discussing the conflict, which the partial author discloses in the last sentence.

    • David Lees says:

      Absolutely agree – it’s VERY disappointing that DM would publish such blatantly false and unsubstantiated content. I would expect to see this kind of content on the IOL platform, not on the DM 🙁

  • Iam Fedup says:

    I am not a Jew, but a Greek South African, and I cannot disagree more with you on the bigger picture. The Greeks suffered under the Ottoman Turks for almost 5 centuries, and if they were able to organise like the bodies you mention, history would have been very different. For millennia the Jews around the world have suffered through antisemitism, and even in SA today there are ANC and other politicians who waste no opportunity to attack Jews. Would you prefer Israel and Jews all over the world to sit back and not protect themselves? To use the word “terrorism” to describe their defensive actions is abhorrent. You begrudgingly admit that Palestinian terror acts are by far more pervasive in number and grisliness, and although I am not a history expert, it is clear to me that by far the majority of cases of violence used by Israel are in response to attacks by Palestinian terrorists, not premeditated acts aimed at producing fear and death. Apart from being really successful terrorists, what have Palestinians really achieved? I’m sorry, I just don’t buy your arguments.

  • you have got to be kidding me! how can the DM publish such unsubstantiated, bias and bigoted piece of writing. this is not journalism. it is one stupid, ill-informed individual being given a platform to sprout his conspiracy theory. and i do mean stupid. the CSO is a youth movement? a dating agency? a trainer of armed jewish youth in south africa? i mean this is basic stuff. it’s not hard to find out what the CSO does. but i’ll tell you: they protect jewish life and the jewish way of life. nothing sinister in that. and completely necessary in the world we live in. i wouldn’t even argue with the clown who wrote this article, who apparently has been “advising on the development of joint cooperation activities in Palestine intermittently since 2010”. i mean what does that mean exactly? no, i wouldn’t argue with him. but the DM!? come on. you guys have some kind of reputation to uphold. does no one check what idiots like Dr Alexander O’Riordan write? Dr? Alek!

    • I can substantiate some of the articles claims pertaining to the CSO. I was at a Zionist Federation meeting in Durban in the late 90’s where the then head of the CSO made the statement “that any jew not willing to stand outside and protect the synagogue should not be called a jew.” It was a stupid and non-inclusive thing to say and said much about the CSO’s mindset. I also recall the comment from Rabbi Zekery in relation to CSO as having a better track record of Jewish marriages that the youth movements.

  • nikkitemkin says:

    For someone who is evidently not Jewish & biased against Jews — this article is not at all even handed, I would say that you make broad strokes about things you clearly do not understand.
    CSO was formed as a security organization to protect Jewish schools, places of prayer, neighborhoods & communities from any acts of terrorism or violence.
    Not being a Jew yourself you may find this difficult to understand but there is a massive amount of anti- Jewish sentiment, and a rise in anti semitism worldwide and in SA with the likes of the BDS organization as well as rhetoric by populists like Malema. Jews have a right to protect ourselves in SA against crime whether anti semitic or not.
    You make a correlation between settler violence (which I do not support by the way) and CSO- this is puzzling and not explained properly in your “article” which is opinion based and offers no factual accuracy.
    And by the way, CSO has ABSoLUTELY NOTHING to do with Jews having to marry each other.
    Daily Maverick you should be ashamed for publishing such a piece of badly researched, inaccurate “journalism” if you can even call this hogwash that.

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