The so-called “price tag” attacks in Israel have gone on far too long.
This abhorrent phenomenon, which began in 2008, is antithetical to Jewish values, and stands in stark contrast to the democratic ethics on which the State of Israel was founded. If continued unchecked, these heinous acts motivated by hate could threaten the foundations of Israeli society.
They should stop, and the perpetrators should be vigorously investigated and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
Price tag attacks – translated from the Hebrew "tag mechir" – are essentially reprisal assaults on religious sites, private property, cemeteries, vehicles and other structures carried out against Arabs and sometimes even against Israeli soldiers by extremist, and often young, Israeli Jews.
These individuals react to any number of events - including the dismantling of illegal settlements by government officials, progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and terror attacks against Israelis - by vandalizing mosques and churches with offensive graffiti, slashing tires on cars belonging to Arabs and destroying other Arab property, and stoning vehicles belonging to IDF soldiers.
The perpetrators are driven by a philosophy of vengeance directed at those who do not share their extreme political or religious beliefs, and are often inspired by religious and other communal leaders espousing messages of hate. Infamous among these is Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburg, who gave his endorsement to the hateful Torat Hamelech tractate, which advocates for killing of Arab children. Israeli security officials estimate that close to 100 individuals involved in supporting and carrying out price tag attacks were “inspired” by Ginsburg’s writings and teachings.
In reaction to the recent escalation, senior Israeli officials including the prime minister, president and government ministers – have made increasingly strong statements critical of the attacks. They have pledged to do all in their power to combat this phenomenon. And legislation was proposed in the Knesset to classify hate-motivated price tag attacks as a form of terrorism, a rhetorically and politically loaded term.
Beyond those important statements there seems to be little visible action to bring to justice those responsible. The terrorism classification failed to reach the Knesset plenary for a vote, and police action has had only minimal success with the apprehension of just a handful of individuals, many of whom were subsequently released.
Still, the price tag actions have struck a chord across broad swaths of Israeli society, and resonate in many segments of the American Jewish community. In January, a letter signed by more than 100 Israeli rabbis denounced price tag attacks as “forbidden according to the Torah and ethics.” Responsible settler leaders have also strongly condemned the attacks, and some residents of the Yitzhar settlement, where many of Ginsburg’s followers reside, have begun reporting suspicious actions to law enforcement officials.
“Tag Meir,” a diverse interreligious collation of 40 organizations working to counteract the destructive impact of price tags with post-attack cleanup efforts and events promoting tolerance and coexistence, has been very vocal and active in their efforts to raise awareness about this growing epidemic of hate.
All of these individuals and organizations, as well as the vast majority of Israelis, recognize the danger price tag attacks pose to the moral fiber of Israeli society and to the democratic and Jewish nature of the state, and they understand the urgent need for swift and effective measures. Yet many in Israel are frustrated by the failure to arrest and effectively prosecute perpetrators. The lack of a visibly strong plan of action undermines the credibility of the recent outpouring of official condemnations.
A number of high-ranking current and former Israeli security officials have stated that the lack of results in stopping price tag attacks is directly due to lack of proper law enforcement and legal tools to counteract the lawlessness. If given authorization, they argue, Israel’s police force and security agencies could quickly put an end to these attacks. Israeli politicians must find a way to empower law enforcement to effectively and efficiently pursue those inciting, supporting and carrying out these heinous hate crimes. Once they are apprehended, Israel’s legal system must provide the means to administer a proper punishment to those who, thus far, have acted with seeming impunity.
On May 24, Pope Francis is scheduled to make his first papal visit to Israel, in what will undoubtedly be a historic pilgrimage for a man who has demonstrated great reverence for not only the Jewish people but indeed all of humanity. Because churches across Israel are frequently targets of price tag attacks, often accompanied by hateful messages about Christianity, church leaders have already expressed fear about the potential for attacks during the pope’s visit.
Israeli government officials should pay close attention to these warnings and act immediately to effectively empower law enforcement against price tag perpetrators and their hate crimes. The longer they wait, the more dangerous price taggers become.
It is not just a matter of protecting the victims of assaults and preventing vandalism of religious sites sacred to Christians and Muslims; it is a matter of living up to the ideals of the democratic and Jewish soul of the State of Israel.
The stakes are high. These attacks do indeed come with a price.