Worried about where the Kyle Rittenhouses and white militias/vigilantes will take us? Or maybe worse, are you not worried about it, thinking (hoping) it’s just a small group of people who will always be on the margins?
No matter where you come down, it is worth all of us focusing for a moment on violence committed by settlers in the West Bank to start to get a picture — and consider what we can do about it. What started as a small group of extremists acting violently toward a marginalized group in the name of “security” and defending “God-given rights” against “domestic terrorists” have come to be not only normalized but a major influence on national politics and the trend in Israel toward authoritarianism. And though a majority of the general Israeli population opposes these actions, because that opposition was not sufficient to overcome the ferocity and determination of the extremists, the ability to stop it appears to have nearly vanished.
Let me say up front that it’s always tricky to compare leaders, movements, or contexts. In my “day job,” I focus on conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa, and the tendency to compare, say, President Trump to authoritarians there is easy to understand yet deceptive and often inaccurate. There may be patterns or dynamics that are similar, but the specific details and nuances are often what is most essential to understand and where the comparisons break down.
So I will acknowledge at the outset that the cases of white militia/vigilante groups in the United States — dating back to the pre-colonial era through to the KKK shortly after the Civil War to lynch mobs to militias that attacked Native American populations to anti-government extremists in the West to Kyle Rittenhouse and the broader movement now — is uniquely American. And so too the settler movement in the West Bank post-1967, and in many ways, post-Oslo, is uniquely Israeli.
Nevertheless, there are some key trends in how settler violence against Palestinians has evolved that need to be at the forefront of everyone’s thinking and actions in the coming weeks and months as we think about how to address the next Kyle Rittenhouse:
- The extremist settler movement emerged shortly after the Occupation began in 1967. Initially it was a small group of a few hundred focused on re-establishing Jewish presence in places like Hebron, which is an important site for Jews and had been the site of violence against Jews in 1929. Although far-right religious Jewish groups have been a part of Israeli society since its founding and always maintained an outsized share of power, at that time in history, they were not a dominant force. The same is generally true of far right groups and vigilantes in American society — they began and have remained, until recently, on the relative margins clinging to important symbols of historical and religious significance as a way of both garnering influence and support and making it difficult to remove them.
- With sympathetic elements in the government, law enforcement, and military, combined with the majority’s unwillingness to take strong action against this small movement, it grew in size and power — now more than 600,000 (and importantly, many of the most extreme settlers are American Jews). There are many iterations of this in Israel in the 1970s and 1980s, and the settler movement also grew to include non-extremists, but the point is the extremist movement was able to normalize and establish itself as a formal presence in Israeli society, politics, and as a key factor in any negotiations around the and the conflict with the Palestinians. From a small movement in a few places, settlements are now arguably the most difficult obstacle to a final resolution of the conflict and a critical force in Israeli politics. So, too, do we see the ideology, influence, and language of the extremist militias in the United States becoming a more normalized part of political speech and policy, particularly within the Republican Party.
- Settlers have not simply been huddled in their homes and synagogues clinging to the land, studying, and praying. They have built expansive cities, roads, and infrastructure now including several hundred thousand people. The entire enterprise has been normalized, with many settlements serving as bedroom communities for Israeli Jews working in Jerusalem.
But more to the point, their expansion has always been coupled with aggressive and racist violence against Palestinians rooted, in essence, in Jewish supremacy. This violence has been a constant for the last several decades and is rooted in anti-Arab racism (graffiti in Hebron, for example, will consistently refer to Arab as “rats”) and designed to create fear and economic hardship among the Palestinian population (the annual olive harvest is a constant target). The settlers committing violence dehumanize Palestinians and advance a version of Jewish supremacy that focuses on Jews being the only ones with rights to the land and that their violence is taken in the name of “defense” and “security” against the lesser Palestinians.
So too do the Kyle Rittenhouses of the world focus on their having the true rights to America, whether in identity, land, or meaning. Those rights are rooted in white supremacy and focused on consistently reminding black and brown people of their lower status. Even moreso at times when black and brown people are challenging the system and showing up to demand change and assert their own power. Despite protest and change being core to American democracy and values, when done by black and brown people and their allies, it is a “threat” to “law and order” that requires “defense.”
- Settler violence is not simply tolerated by the State of Israel and Civil Administration that rules over the West Bank. Settlers who commit violence are almost never stopped by law enforcement and rarely prosecuted. Just as Kyle Rittenhouse was able to walk openly through Kenosha and then return home, settlers are rarely stopped by Israeli soldiers or border patrol; indeed, many Breaking the Silence testimonies focus on the idea that soldiers understand that they are not allowed to intervene to stop settlers, i.e. protect Palestinians; rather, they are there to protect Jews so generally only step in if the settlers are the ones who will end up being hurt.
And not surprisingly, after being enabled by Israeli authorities for so long, the settlers have now turned their sights on — the authorities. When the settlers perceive that they are being pursued, that the authorities are being too protective of Palestinians, or that the authorities are not going far enough in their own pressure on Palestinians, the settlers attack them. Because, in essence, the settlers are the state in the West Bank.
In the United States, while Kyle Rittenhouse may have been arrested, he is a long way from being prosecuted and sentenced to the equivalent of what a black 17-year old would have faced. The connection of some law enforcement officers to white supremacists and militias is well-documented and at the core of some of the “defund the police” advocacy efforts, but still little understood or acknowledged by most Americans. With President Trump increasingly focusing his wrath on cities run by Democratic mayors, it is not hard to imagine militias and vigilantes turning their gun sights on law enforcement they deem too weak or complicit with Black Lives Matter protesters.
Of course, each of the above trends has a range of nuances and details that are beyond exploration in this blog. But the similarities that exist are concerning enough, and some clear action steps are needed to avoid the further settler-ization of the American militia movement:
- Learn about/call out what is happening. Israeli NGOs like Peace Now, B’tselem, Breaking the Silence, and others have documented the trends of settler violence for many years. While their reports are consumed on the left (in Israel and abroad), they are not sufficiently understood by the mainstream of Israeli society or American Jewish community. So too with those documenting the connection of law enforcement to militias and vigilantes; the information is there but insufficiently understood. It is for all of us to learn about this and be vocal about it; in the end, law enforcement acts on behalf of and reflects the values of all of us. Organizations like the Western States Center, SPLC, ADL (though the ADL’s record in calling out racism in Israel is quite problematic, its work in this area is notable), Bend the Arc, and others have been carefully documenting and analyzing these trends. If we allow those values to be defined by Kyle Rittenhouse, then we have lost.
- Show up. Israeli and international NGOs, including heroes like Rabbi Arik Ascherman and Jewish organizations like the Center for Jewish Nonviolence, have for many years come to the West Bank to witness and, in some cases, intervene. This can be dangerous, of course, and the most direct acts require extensive knowledge and training. But to show up to protests to observe and to demonstrate to militias that they are outnumbered is also essential work. This is challenging in the West Bank because of legal restrictions in place on who can be there. But, at least for now, we have the ability to be present and impact how law enforcement acts.
- Vote. Settler power (including violence) and the Netanyahu regime are very closely connected, as the far right make up Bibi’s “base.” As with Trump, Bibi himself is not religiously observant and often acts in ways that appear entirely in contrast with what settlers claim to believe, but nevertheless, they work hand in hand together and need each other for power. That dynamic is also clear in the United States, with Trump and the right overall enabled by/enabling the militia movement. We have a choice on November 3 to change that trend on the national level.
But the voting urgency doesn’t start and end with President. Understand where candidates for Congress, state legislature, mayor, sheriff, and other critical offices on a local level stand on the militia movement and hold them accountable at the ballot box.
Fox News’ Tucker Carlson said in partial defense of Kyle Rittenhouse, “They stood back and watched Kenosha burn. So are we really surprised that looting and arson accelerated to murder?” If too many Americans stand back and watch vigilantes like Kyle Rittenhouse and the broader militia movement grow, we should not be surprised if their initial acts accelerate to something much scarier and far harder to dismantle.
(Note: I recognize that the cover image for this post is offensive and can be triggering. It’s from Hebron in 2002 and encapsulates the core of the settler violence mentality. And it has haunting overlap with American racism. As a result, it felt necessary to demonstrate the meaning of the post and the intersection of settler violence and American racist language and actions).