The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The medieval fantasy that fuels Israel’s far right

Why Israel’s far right lionizes an 11th-century Hebrew poet

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently joined forces with far-right parties to shore up his coalition. (Jim Hollander/EPA-EFE)

This week saw the formation of a new electoral ticket in Israel, part of a run-up to the parliamentary elections in April. The ticket represents a collaboration between the far-right party Jewish Home (Bayit Yehudi) and the even-farther-right Jewish Power (Otzma Yehudit). The Jewish Home platform opposes immigration from African countries, supports annexation of Palestinian territories and characterizes Israel’s Arab citizens as a fifth column. The Jewish Power platform calls for even greater territorial seizures in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and for the deportation of Arabs from Israel.

The rise of the new racist far-right alliance in Israel coincides with the surge of similar movements in the United States and Europe. These movements share more than political goals: They share an attachment to an imagined medieval past. In the United States, where white nationalists in Charlottesville dressed up as Vikings to emphasize their belief that the United States is a historically white and European land, right-wing medieval aficionados envision their heritage as stretching well beyond the United States. The same is true in Israel, where far-right “medievalists” take a wide view of their medieval heritage — in fact, they rely heavily upon a distorted view of the Jewish culture of medieval Spain to promote their vision of racial and religious purity.

By creating a revised version of medieval history, modern politicians can lead their supporters to believe that there is greater historical precedent for their ideas — racist or otherwise — than there ever really was.

The city of Jerusalem is known for its elaborate, stenciled graffiti addressing current political issues. A good spot to find such graffiti is along Shmuel Hanagid Street, a medium-size road, named for an 11th-century Hebrew poet, that has a long retaining wall, providing an ideal surface for graffiti artists and stencilers. Inevitably, somewhere along that retaining wall, someone will ensure that the Hebrew words “Kahane tzadak” (Kahane was right) are legible in red or blue spray paint. The confluence of the graffiti and the name of the street only inadvertently hint at the ways in which the politicians of Jewish Power reach back into the Middle Ages to try to find support for their ideas.

“Kahane” refers to Meir Kahane, an American-born rabbi and Israeli politician who advocated policies of exterminating Arabs. Among his legacies was the foundation of the Jewish Defense League, a Philo-Semitic cultural group that the FBI designated a terrorist organization in 1986 for its willingness to engage in political assassinations and bombings. Kahane’s political party was banned in Israel in 1994 for its racist views, which have now found a home in the platform of Jewish Power, brought there by politicians who see themselves as his ideological heirs.

It is a coincidence that Shmuel Hanagid, after whom the street marked by proclamations of Kahane’s correctness is named, happens to be one of the figures that Kahane’s followers draw upon to invent a fantasy Middle Ages that offers historical support to their claims for racial and religious purity. Also known by his Arabic name, Ismail ibn Naghrila, Shmuel Hanagid has become a vessel for all kinds of modern imaginations because his eclectic background offers something for everyone.

Ibn Naghrila was, in many ways, the archetype of a certain class of Jews living in medieval Spain: a native speaker of Arabic and Spanish, well-educated and well-read, religiously devout, respected by his coreligionists. He was a civil servant working at the highest levels of a government led by a Muslim emir, to whom he displayed loyalty even as he came under attack by other Arab and Muslim political interests. He also wrote a brand of secular poetry dealing with everything from love to the highs and horrors of war and laments over a Jerusalem that was, during that period, in many ways seen as off-limits to Jews.

This varied background enables modern populations of many stripes to latch on to Ibn Naghrila as evidence that their cause is righteous. Followers of Kahane have done just that, seizing upon the figure of the civic-minded, loyal warrior-poet to transform him into a vanquisher of Arabs and champion of a militant brand of Jewish nationalism.

This repurposing appears in both political and cultural outlets. During the past decade, a small Orthodox Jewish press founded by a devotee of Kahane and his thinking began to publish comic books for children about fictionalized, superhero versions of figures from medieval Jewish history, including the biblical commentator Solomon Itzhaki, the polymathic philosopher Moses Maimonides and, of course, Ibn Naghrila.

In ways both subtle and overt, the Ibn Naghrila comic book rips the actual man from his historical world, all so it can propagate a highly ahistoric hostility toward Arabs. Case in point; Ibn Naghrila — both the historical figure and his comic-book alter ego — served in the administrations of two emirs of Granada who belonged to the ethnically Berber Zirid dynasty. Arabic-speaking Berber Muslims sought to underscore their ties to Arabic culture, writing poetry in Arabic to prove their prowess in the language and inventing fictional genealogies that tied them to the most ancient Arab families. In the comic-book version, however, they instead vindicate their heritage by refusing to interact with Arabs and insulting them.

Likewise, in the comic book, the Arabs in court insult and scheme against Ibn Naghrila and his coreligionists because they are Jews, in ways that simply did not happen in medieval Granada before or during his lifetime. It’s not that everyone always got along well or saw eye to eye, but rather that Arab anti-Semitism wasn’t one of the ways in which people clashed. And all the while, we see Ibn Naghrila negotiating palace intrigue, advising the emirs and writing poetry that longs for Jerusalem, even as he and most of his contemporaries believed that Spain was the new, true Zion where Jews could flourish.

In short, the book portrays a medieval Islamic world curiously favorable to Kahane’s anti-Arab perspective and policies, rewriting history to shore up contemporary prejudice.

As Jewish Power tries to insinuate itself into the Israeli political mainstream, it is doing so with a firm foundation built upon a fantasy medieval Jewish history. The political heads of Jewish Power rely upon the teachings and ideology of Kahane to create a modern vision of a national Israel, just as similar devotees try to refashion the medieval past to support those aims.