In the minds of many Westerners, Muslim fundamentalism has replaced communism as perhaps the greatest single “threat” to the existing world order. From this perspective the Palestinian intifada becomes just another episode in a “clash of civilizations.” For them, there is an intrinsic link between Palestinian “terrorism” and, say, the al-Qaeda bombing of an American warship off Yemen. Almost totally absent from such arguments is any inclination to examine Jewish fundamentalism, or so much as to ask whether it, too, might be a factor in the conflict over Palestine, one of the reasons why it seems so insoluble.
There is, in fact, a great ignorance of, or indifference to, this whole subject in the outside world, and not least in the United States. This is due at least in part to that general reluctance of the mainstream American media to subject Israel to the same searching scrutiny to which it would other states and societies, and especially when the issue in question is as sensitive, as emotionally charged, as this one is. But, in the view of the late Israel Shahak, it reflects particularly badly on an American Jewry which, with its ingrained, institutionalized aversion to finding fault with Israel, turns a blind eye to what Israelis like himself viewed with disgust and alarm, and unceasingly said so.
American Jews, especially Orthodox ones, are generous financiers of the shock troops of fundamentalism, the religious settlers; indeed a good 10 percent of these, and among the most extreme, violent and sometimes patently deranged, are actually immigrants from America. They are, says Shahak, one of the “absolutely worst phenomena” in Israeli society, and “it is not by chance that they have their roots in the American-Jewish community.” It was from his headquarters in New York that the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the late Menachem Schneerson, seer of possibly the most rabid of Hasidic sects, the Chabad, gave guidance to his many followers in both Israel and the United States.
The ignorance or indifference is all the more remiss in that Jewish fundamentalism is not, and cannot be, just a domestic Israeli question. Israel was always a highly ideological society; it is also a vastly outsized military power, both nuclear and conventional. That is a combination which, when the ideology in question is Zionism in its most extreme, theocratic form, is fraught with possible consequences for the region and the world, and, of course, for the world’s only, Israeli-supporting superpower.
Like its Islamic counterpart, Jewish fundamentalism in Israel has grown enormously in political importance over the past quarter-century. Its committed, hard-core adherents, as distinct from a larger body of the more traditionally religious, are thought to account for some 20 to 25 percent of the population. They, and more particularly the settlers among them, have acquired an influence, disproportionate to their numbers, over the whole Israeli political process, and especially in relation to the ultra-nationalist right, which, beneath its secular exterior, actually shares much of their febrile, exalted outlook on the world. It is fundamentalism of a very special, ethnocentric and fiercely xenophobic kind, with beliefs and practices that are “even more extremist,” says Shahak, “than those attributed to the extremes of Islamic fundamentalism,” if not “the most totalitarian system ever invented.”