My final interview on Tuesday was with Yekutiel Ben-Ya’akov, also known as Mike Guzofsky, a former leader in the banned Kach and Kahane Chai movements. These organizations were declared terrorist organizations and forcibly disbanded in 1993 by Israel following the Baruch Goldstein massacre at the Tomb of the Patriarchs.
Yekutiel has remained active in Israeli local politics as a former councilmember in the Kfar Tapuach municipality, a vocal activist against further Israeli territorial withdrawals, and occasionally distributing news commentary in his Voice of Judea newsletter. His former radio program, print newsletter, and occasional television program by the same names have been shut down by the state on numerous occasions and the servers and urls of his associated website as well as kahane.org have been frozen. He has been arrested many times, although never for violent offenses, and is under regular surveillance by Israel’s internal security service.
He now runs the Tapuach Canine Unit, an organization which trains handlers and security dogs to patrol and conduct search and rescue missions. Their 30 dogs are stationed in 15 different Jewish communities, primarily in the West Bank but also at some locations in Northern Israel and the Negev. This project too has been shut down by the state on various occasions, including one notable raid in 2006 in which their kennels were closed, computers were confiscated, and a number of members of the group were arrested. This came after Yekutiel and a number of other “secessionists” met in Jerusalem for a conference in which they proposed the establishment of an independent state of Judea in the West Bank earlier that month.
For those afraid of organizations such as his, he has this message: the state in increasingly effective at shutting down Kach materials, messages, and websites. “When you fight for Jewish civil rights here, there is no hope that you will be awarded a Nobel Prize for fighting government repression of freedom of expression. We are not going to get any foreign help. It is just us and our belief in G-d alone.”
After the recent Mavi Marmara incident, when the state was preparing to release the passengers from detention, Yekutiel (and a large number of other people representing many different interests) submitted petitions to the Israeli Supreme Court, in his case to delay their release. His petition before the court was essentially two fold: 1) to freeze the release of terrorists (in this case and in others), and 2) to demand a clarification of the law on soldiers refusing orders. In Israeli law, soldiers are obligated to disobey when given orders to use excessive force. Here Yekutiel believed that the state should also rule that soldiers should be given legal cover when refusing orders when in a position to use too little force, namely paintball guns when faced with armed combatants.
The ideological and legal ramifications of these arguments aside, the ruling by the court (which did authorize the detainees’ release) in response to his petition is interesting. One judge noted that from Yekutiel’s “world view,” his argument was legally valid, but from the court’s position it was not. “For you,” the judge reported said, “isolation is a blessing. For us it is not. To release terrorists is better than isolation of the Jewish state.” For Yekutiel, the question then is will Israel be an independent Jewish state or one dependent upon the other states of the world. Will it do what is necessary to defend itself or will it carry out external dictates?
The view of the court and the Israeli mainstream he believes is not about whether or not to defend the rights of the Jews, but to work within a smaller policy space of what “the world will tolerate.” From this perspective, Israel agreeing to a further settlement freeze in exchange for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, and their consequent refusal, is intended to signal to the world that the Arabs do not want peace. The rest of the world, however, does not see it this way. There will come a time, he believes, when Israel will have to say no to international demands. The question is how weak Israel will be at this point, having “given in to international pressure and blackmail.”
He represents the view that what Israel needs to survive is not international support but “Jewish power and G-d.” As such, Israel must do whatever is in its interests to survive. This is what normal, independent states do and Israel must be independent like the other normal states of the world. It is his hope that by training guard dogs and their handlers, he can contribute to this security.
When speaking to people on the left, Yekutiel contends, they like to talk about settlements and occupation, as if Tapuach is different from Jerusalem is different from Tel Aviv. From his perspective, there is no difference between the three. It does not matter if it is a small outpost without resources and without armed guards who might needs a security dog to patrol their hilltop, a well funded yishuv whose security forces receive a great deal of resources from the state but need dogs to catch infiltrators, or the Jewish farmer in the Negev who needs a dog to stop thieves. In the last year alone, he contends, their guard dog patrols have stopped seven attempted attacks.
But why should Jews be living in the settlements at all? He asserts that Jews have a right to live anywhere they want and, like everyone else, they have a right to be protected wherever they live. This right extends to those who live even in places where he firmly believes Jews should not be living, even the United States. If you are religious, you should be living in Israel for religious reasons. If you are a Jew who appreciates Jewish history, this is where it can be found. If you are a Jew who appreciates Israel’s future, their is “obviously” no future for Jews outside of Israel.
While many Jews are comfortable, safe, and secure living outside of Israel, he argues that one should not believe that the present either negates the past or determines the present. “You do not have to be a right-wing fringe lunatic to appreciate the speed of world events,” particularly economic crises and the rise of radical Islam. Today, he argues, Israel has been blamed for the bloodshed of American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq and blamed for the lack of progress in Middle East peace talks and the continued violence here. He asks, “What is the difference between this and the blood libel?”
Is it a security liability for Israel for Jews to be living in the West Bank? Yekutiel responds that we should recognize the difference between the passion of an “irrational frightened person” and the position of those who base their arguments on facts and logic. Every time Israel has surrendered land, he insisted, it has been used for attacks against Israel. While the reason that Israel should maintain control of Yehuda and Shomron has nothing to do with security, it certainly does provide security advantages to to the rest of the country. Israel “liberated, conquered these areas after wars launched against the Jewish people. There is a price to be paid for this.” Holding land is a deterrent, not just as a buffer zone but as “the only reason” that Arab states have not again declared war.
The appropriate territory of the Land of Israel, Yekutiel believes, is the post 1967 borders and “whatever we conquer and annex in the next war.” He acknowledges that there is a problem of large Arab populations in these areas, but what is to be done? If you are a “racist” leftist, you do you not believe that you can live with them, and if you are a “racist” rightist, you fear being outpopulated by them. But what can they do about this problem? The left demands evacuation of occupied territories and people like Avigdor Lieberman believe in land transfers.
Yekutiel argues both of these are non-starters. There is only one choice, “to remove the hostile Arabs who threaten the security and Jewish character of the state.” Recent calls for the imposition of a loyalty oath by all new, non-Jewish citizens of Israel to declare their support for the country as a Jewish, democratic country is a critical first step. “The logical next step is that anyone who does not pledge allegiance to the state cannot be either a citizen or a resident.”
What is the difference, he asks, between a law of return which allows Jews from around the world to emigrate to Israel to bolster its Jewish character and preventing those who threaten that character from maintaining residence? This move is no more racist than the founding of the state itself and the law of return. “Ask any Arab, they will agree.” Indeed, one could ask most non-Israeli leftists and they too would agree; Israel is a racist state. Surely this is not the message that proponents of the bill wish to send to an international or, arguably, even a domestic audience. But it is a debate that they must confront if they wish to push this controversial proposal forward.
Yet Yekutiel insists, it is not crazy to suggest that laws may be necessary to sustain the state. “Crazy is that people came from Pinsk, Minsk, and Brooklyn to establish the State of Israel. We just want to keep the legacy alive.”