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A look at Jewish extremism in Israel

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Events over the weekend have prompted a new look in Israel at how it should handle Jewish extremists.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in non-English language).

KELLY: That is from Sunday. The chant there, death to Arabs, rang out from nationalists marching through the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem's Old City. They went on to harass and assault Palestinians who live there. NPR's Daniel Estrin witnessed this. He is in Jerusalem and joins us now to talk about whether Israel might take new steps to control these extremists. Hey, Daniel.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: I want to hear a little more. I want to understand more what exactly you saw on Sunday.

ESTRIN: I saw groups of Israeli teens roaming the Muslim quarter of the old city of Jerusalem. They assaulted Palestinians. They taunted them. I also saw some Palestinians curse at Israelis, too. And that was for hours even before the flag parade began. I then saw tens of thousands of Israelis marching through an area that's usually a bustling gathering place for Palestinians. There were all kinds of people, mainly fairly mainstream orthodox Jewish groups, chanting religious songs. But then the most common chants that I heard were, death to Arabs, may your village burn and insults of the Prophet Muhammad.

I saw a lot of T-shirts with rifles inside stars of David. I watched a mob lurch at a Palestinian video journalist, try to grab his equipment. Reporters from the BBC were also assaulted, too. And these are the kinds of scenes we see every single year when this march takes place. Last year there was so much consternation and threats of violence from Hamas that the march was actually canceled, but it was too late. Hamas launched rockets, and the Gaza war began.

KELLY: Well, so that prompts a question. If, last year, a war began and I know, in years past, this march has sparked violence, why did Israel allow it to go ahead this year?

ESTRIN: The Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, says he did not want to give in to threats from Hamas this year. He said it was important to demonstrate Israel's control over East Jerusalem, which is predominantly Palestinian. He considers the parade on Sunday a success - no deaths. And he said that the ugly scenes were the work of a small minority. He ordered police to prosecute people. In reality, police only arrested two Israelis that day. Israel is now singling out two far-right groups as being responsible for the extremism.

KELLY: Yeah, I was going to ask how organized this is. Who are these two far-right groups?

ESTRIN: Well, they're both anti-Arab groups. And the most prominent one is called Lehava. It's a group that's against romantic relationships between Arabs and Jews - a lot of teens in this group. The defense minister is saying that these groups should be outlawed. But there have been calls to outlaw these groups for years, and Israel has not. So, you know, Palestinians and Israeli liberal groups say that the government does not take Jewish extremists seriously. Israel, of course, points to Palestinian extremist groups - Hamas, Islamic Jihad - which have committed deadly attacks on Israelis. And Israel, says Palestinian officials, have not done enough to rein them in. But, you know, Palestinian property is vandalized. Israeli settlers in the West Bank attack Palestinians - very few prosecutions against Israelis.

KELLY: And this is a big question. But what is fueling this extremism?

ESTRIN: There are bigger trends in Israeli society. The far right is represented in parliament. They conflate Arab citizens, 20% of the population, frequently with terror. And I spoke to the former foreign minister in Israel, Shlomo Ben-Ami, and he said what we saw on Sunday was not just a couple of extremist groups.

SHLOMO BEN-AMI: I am ashamed. I am ashamed. Jewish supremacism - this is what it is. I think it is a direct representation of Israeli power. I have no doubt about it.

ESTRIN: Now, Mary Louise, I should let you know that there are, of course, Israeli groups trying to do the opposite and promote reconciliation. There was a group handing out flowers to Palestinians the day of the march in Jerusalem. And, you know, I heard one story recently about high schoolers that were from a Jewish Orthodox high school shouting at Arab elementary school kids in a public park, calling on them to leave the country. And you know what? The Jewish principal came to the Arab school, apologized and sent the kids on a free trip to the zoo.

KELLY: NPR's Daniel Estrin reporting there on so much complexity in Jerusalem. Thank you, Daniel.

ESTRIN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.