The Anatomy of Radicalization: My Journey from a Jewish Extremist to a Peace Advocate, Part II
This is part two of four parts series for Part One, click here.
Part Two: My Extremist Teen Years
2021, June 15th, East Jerusalem
Earlier this week, a friend sent me a disturbing link to a (now widely shared) video of a large crowd in Jerusalem chanting: “Death to the Arabs.” Immediately, I was struck by the overwhelming amount of young people participating and wondered how it was possible for kids so young to have such a cemented hatred towards others — their own neighbors in fact…
Then just as immediately, I remembered that I used to be exactly like them. The boys in the video could easily have been me and my friends twenty-seven years ago. In 1994 (and likely, generations before that) it was the same messaging. My thirteen year old self had written “Death to Arabs” on the walls of Jerusalem and had thrown rocks at Palestinian in the South of Israel.
Generations of hate before me, generations of hate after me — and what can be done to disrupt the cycle? How do we shift the perception enough to change the narrative in the next generations? How do we then continously support our young people of Israel and Palestine to see each other differently? My own path took me from ingrained, learned hatred to deeply felt compassion, from violence to peace, from anger to understanding. I know we sometimes read about the Middle East and write it off, like, it’s been that way forever, it’s too complicated, it will never change. But here I am to tell you otherwise. People can change, people do change. And people who change can change entire systems. We know it’s possible. It’s possible here, too.
I’m not trying to be an idealist here — in every conflict, some will continue in cycles of hatred, but some will make an attempt (not an easy one, believe me) to see it differently, and to get off the proverbial treadmill — and they will need our support, time and empathy to sustain it. Every person who will make it to the space of understanding and compassion, to seeing each child as if it could be their own child, to learning that we have been taught the same lies in order to perpetuate the same tired, devastating narrative, to choosing instead to support human rights and justice, is priceless. Every single one. Because one day, one of them will play a key role in ending the decades of pain and suffering, or even better — one day there we will outnumber the ones who choose hate.
1994, Kiryat Malakhi
When the Oslo Accords took place, I was 12 years old. My family lived in the ultra-orthodox Chabad community in the Southern District of Israel in the development town of Kiryat Malakhi, City of Angels. Everyone in the community was called upon to stand firmly against the peace process by our Rabbi, Menachem Mendel Schneerson of the Chabad-Lubavitch, who said that it was a grave and serious sin to give land back to the enemy. And so, everyone, children included, would come to the protests because the rabbi said it was the right thing to do. As a teenage boy from an average family of ten with plenty of time on my hands to fight for what I believed was a just and holy cause, it was easy to devote my time here: I was deeply encouraged to spend my time here (and so I spent most of it — as television or any non-Orthodox activities were not allowed).
Then one day, at the height of the Oslo Peace process, my friends and I attended a secret meeting at the main synagogue, where we watched together a video by Moshe Feiglin, the founder of Zo-Artzeino (This Is Our Land) who years later became a member of Knesset, Israel’s parliament. In the video which openly dehumanized Palesitians, he showed us step-by-step how to use civil disobedience strategies to stop the peace process. As you likely remember yourselves, as young people, we dream of protecting and advancing worthy causes in which we deeply believe, and as such, I was fully, hungrily invested — every day I spent hours creating signs, making phone calls, recruiting people to organize at a local Chabad chapter office, and organizing protests at the Kastina Junction, the main intersection near our town. I was such a good and engaged recruit for the cause.
A few times a week, mainly in the afternoons, we would walk or drive around with our megaphones, calling people to come to the protests. At night, we’d put posters on walls all around the neighborhood, or go with a bucket full of flour-and-water paste and a large, square paint brush, calling for protests with every picture we pasted up, mainly pictures of the dead, naming Rabin, the prime minister, as the responsible traitor. Because the leftists and the government were giving the Palestinians guns so that they would have autonomy in their own area, there was a great sense of threat to our existence as those who deeply believed in the orthodoxy, and that it would be carried out by our Jewish brothers together with the enemy was unbearable. What had our rabbi just said? Disrupt. So, we would go early in the mornings and hide empty wheels and big stones to block one of the main roads, which connected the center and the south of Israel. The adults as well as children would stand together holding signs that read, “Do not give them guns,” “These guns will kill us,” and “Rabin the Traitor.” It was a common subject in all of our conversations: we felt that we were going to lose everything that had been built and we refused to sit in silence while they were destroying our nation and our purpose for living — and so we routinely took to the streets. I also began to educate myself by going to the library in another neighbourhood and reading books about the 1948, 1967, 1973 wars and the WW2 — all that from one specific perspective only, of course, the realness of the “danger of the single story” — all of it reinforced my belief of being so deeply hated by Palestinians, “the others,” that I believed they wanted nothing more than to kill us all.
At that time, I went to every single major protest against the peace process in my area and in Jerusalem, often holding signs claiming that Rabin is a traitor. By then, the hate in me was reaching its absolute peak, reinforced by the same sentiments in my community and among my friends. Contrary to the majority of Israelis, our community absolutely relished Rabin’s assassination.
This period of my life was the first time I was arrested, and it was for beating a police officer who had jumped on my friend while we were blocking the main road. I was honored to do it — it was holy to protest and he was attempting to block our holy actions. This period of my life was also the first time I saw a gun being fired by someone close to me, and it too was in service of these beliefs. This moment stays with me even now. On October 18, 1994 in the city of Hebron — without warning, the person to my left, a man who I would later learn was an American Jew nicknamed “Rambo,” raised his mini-uzi and fired into the dark at the Palestinian house in front of him. Standing beside him, I was in shock as lightning flashed from the gun. My inner voice had been deeply indoctrinated at this point, and it was enthusiastically telling me that this is good, that they deserve it after all for stealing our holy land and causing all of this pain. But the shots on that Friday afternoon in Hebron paralyzed the thirteen year old child deep within me: a boy who loved my faith, and the prayers had just ended and Shabbat was beginning, yet in that moment, watching the bullets fly in the direction of the people I was taught to hate, I couldn’t hear anything else. The hate spoke loudest of all.
Earlier that same Friday, we had visited Kahane Park in Kiryat Arba, to honor the tomb of Dr. Baruch Goldstein (a resident of Kiryat Arba, who murdered 29 and wounded 125 Muslim worshippers at the Cave of the Patriarchs). The community I was part of at the time wholly respected the act; people widely and easily spoke about his bravery. For me and for my friends, he was a righteous hero worthy of our adoration. At his tomb, we said psalms and prayers, then we walked from there to the center of the city, actively pushing any Palestinians we encountered along the way, even throwing stones at them, all the while considering ourselves powerful young Jews, as Rabbi Meir Kahane wanted us to be.
I was very inspired by Kahane’s books: he understood what I most wanted for my family and my community and his texts encouraged the use of force in order to achieve the goal of a greater Israel. The books talked about the right of the Jewish people to go back to the old days, when they controlled a large portion of the Middle East (something deeply appealing to many Jews). The answer, in his opinion, was the use of force in order to achieve the objective “two eyes for an eye.” Motivated, I joined the Israeli organization Kach (my time in its youth division and the ‘how’ is another story that I am sure you can infer from what I have alluded to above). I proudly wore the signature yellow shirt of the Kach (which in the center had a fist, above the words “Long Live Kahane”) to my school, and many times, cultivated relationships with friends who liked and wore them as well. Although I idolized him, it is important to note that Kahane was an outlaw to Israel, and many Jews considered Kach to be a terrorist organization. Eventually, it was illegal to even wear the yellow shirt. (I mention this because it’s important to note that my story is one of radicalization and this isn’t the story of all, or even of most Jews.)
In Kach, we routinely participated in attacks on Palestinians. We threw stones at passing cars in my town. I had a toy tear-gas can and would knock on the windows of cars belonging to Palestinians, pretending that I was going to gas them in the face, to show them the Jewish power. My friends and I broke their car windows. And with each of these acts, we felt such pride, secure in our beliefs that we were contributing to the goal of removing the Palestinians from our Holy Land. I came to find any use of aggression strongly desirable. It fulfilled my sense of identity. It was also wholly satisfying to be part of something much bigger than myself. I felt I was a messenger of God’s will for the Jewish people. At that time, as painful as it is to type this now, when I looked at Palestinian people, I did not think of any of them as human.
June 2019, New York
Each time there’s is a major event, I find myself momentarily in a mental loop, often feeling frozen and helpless - reliving it all - and heartbroken for the Gazans who never had a chance. I want to understand it myself: why I became an extremist, and how and why I changed to make the choices I do today. This is what I want to contribute to this world when I pass, whether it’s today or fifty years from now: I everyone whom I have loved or have met in this life to know, including people who think and believe differently, that this was a worthy and possible struggle, this becoming. I want them to know my experiences; I want them to know the complexity of who I am, the complexity of the struggle itself, the complexity experienced by all of those who live in the region. By understanding this complexity, we can understand the conflict in a new way. It’s challenging for every one of us to look in the mirror, to sit with “the enemy” and see them differently. We embody the complexity of the conflict within ourselves. It’s a worthwhile endeavor.
The night of the Basketball Murders changed my life. When I realized the following morning that I had a deep desire to kill the innocent, I made a choice to investigate my own motives. Over time, over routine, daily choices, this evolved into a goal to learn any aspect of conflict from as many perspectives as possible and, when ready, to look the ‘enemy’ in the eyes, but in their homes, to hear their stories, talk with their communities. To not be controlled by the media on either side or by my own social, national, and religious upbringing and identity. To be informed enough, evolved enough, steeped enough in all aspects to make conscious choices rooted in compassion, in empathy, in human dignity.
By welcoming the challenge to walk that path, despite my fears, I am able to live in the peace of which I have dreamed. It is not ideal for me or for anyone affected by the conflict, but it is a start. By now, I have worked with and become friends with Syrians, Lebanese, Palestinians, and many people from other states and nations that my people would call “ the enemy.” I had experienced almost every aspect of social life in Israel, from ultra-religious to a religious Zionist to a secular Jew, to now — having deeply studied about conflict and how to move it towards peace, in conflict resolution and negotiation, being an open and free thinker living in New York.
Engaging with the complexity of mindsets, worldviews, and personal experiences; all of this interacting with social (including social media), economic, and political systems that are themselves adapting to the changes in the meaning making and power structure — the game is different. The meaning-making processes are changing and so are we. Remember that most often, we are socialized into simple identity politics when the reality is much deeper and much more diverse. Most of us stay in the same circles, and from that vantage point, we cannot break the boundaries of those beliefs. But we have to break them, because they limit us, and they oppress “others” who are really just us in other contexts.
Once this understanding touched and changed my own life, I promised myself that my life’s work, no matter how long it would take, would be to bring people together to learn from each other, to share experiences that would transform our societies, because we can, by focusing on human dignity and shared values of humanity. It is a process, it is not easy, it takes days and years of reading, talking, and most importantly listening, but I promise you — it will always be worth it. As long as I am alive, I promise to serve humanity in the best and most humane way I can. I will learn, I will grow, I will do differently, I will listen, I will effect real change, I will rebuild. And you? You can too.
This is a 4-part series — thank you for taking your time to read Parts One & Two. Part Three: “Breaking the Enemy Images” will be published on TUESDAY, 22 June.