Religious fundamentalism in Israel
Since the origin of the Zionist enterprise, fundamentalism has been part of the Jewish state project. Until now, this largely goes unacknowledged, writes Stephen Lendman*
Click to view caption|
'The difference between a Jewish soul and souls of non-Jews -- all of them in all different levels -- is greater and deeper than the difference between a human soul and the souls of cattle' -- Rabbi Abraham Kook
In the book Jewish History, Jewish Religion, by Israel Shahak (1933-2001), it is argued that while Islamic fundamentalism is vilified in the West, comparable Jewish extremism is largely ignored. In the book's foreword, Edward Said wrote: "... Shahak's mode of telling the truth has always been rigorous and uncompromising. There is nothing seductive about it, no attempt made to put it 'nicely,' no effort expended on making the truth palatable... For Shahak killing is murder is killing is murder: his manner is to repeat. (He) shows that the obscure, narrowly chauvinist prescriptions against various undesirable Others are to be found in Judaism (as in other monotheistic religions) but he always goes on to show the continuity between those and the way Israel treats Palestinians, Christians and other non-Jews. A devastating portrait of prejudice, hypocrisy and religious intolerance emerges."
Shahak's Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel picked up on the theme in explaining its pervasive, destructive influence in Israeli politics, the military and society. He noted that substituting German or Aryan for Jewish and non-Jews for Jews makes it easy to see how a superiority doctrine made an earlier genocide possible and is letting another happen now. Shahak called all forms of bigotry morally reprehensible and said: "Any form of racism, discrimination and xenophobia becomes more potent and politically influential if it is taken for granted by the society which indulges in it." For Israeli Jews, he believed, "The support of democracy and human rights is... meaningless or even harmful and deceitful when it does not begin with self-critique and with support of human rights when they are violated by one's own group. Any support of human rights for non-Jews whose rights are being violated by the 'Jewish state' is as deceitful as the support of human rights by a Stalinist..."
THE BIRTH OF MESSIANIC ZIONISM: As a leading Israeli human rights activist and Holocaust survivor, Shahak reviewed Jewish fundamentalist history, examined its currents, and explained the dangers of extremist messianic ones. They oppose equality of Jews and non-Jews and destroy democratic values by espousing dogma, calling Jews superior to all others.
The earlier influence of fundamentalist Rabbi Abraham Kook (1865-1935), or Kuk, was significant. He preached Jewish supremacy and said: "The difference between a Jewish soul and souls of non-Jews -- all of them in all different levels -- is greater and deeper than the difference between a human soul and the souls of cattle." His teachings helped create the settler movement, and his son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, founded the extremist Gush Emunim (GE) under the slogan: "The Land of Israel, for the people of Israel, according to the Torah of Israel."
Like the elder Kook, GE sees state power as a way forward to a new messianic era. It believes that God created the world for Jews. Others are lesser beings. Greater Israel belongs to Jews alone, and holy wars are acceptable to attain it.
Kook was Israel's first chief rabbi. In his honour, and to continue his teachings, the extremist Merkaz Harav (the Rabbi's Centre) was founded in 1924 as a yeshiva or fundamentalist religious college. It teaches that, "non-Jews living under Jewish law in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) must either be enslaved as water carriers and wood hewers, or banished, or exterminated."
It gets no more extremist than that, and highlights the dangers for Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories. Their lives and welfare are being sacrificed for a Greater Israel of Jews alone.
THE RELIGIOUS WAR: Gush Emunim adherents and other Israeli religious zealots plan it. They're active in politics, hold seats in the Knesset, are Netanyahu government coalition partners (including Shas, United Torah and Yisrael Beiteinu) and are prominently represented in Israel's military throughout its ranks and rabbinate. Chief military rabbi, Brigadier General Avichai Rontzki, called Operation Cast Lead a "religious war" in which it was "immoral" to show mercy to an enemy of "murderers". Many others feel the same way, prominently among them graduates of Hesder Yeshivat schools that combine extremist religious indoctrination with military service to defend the Jewish state.
In 1981, Rabbi Harav Lichtenstein's article, "The Ideology of Hesder: The View from Yeshivat Har Etzion", explained that: "Hesder... seeks to attract and develop bnei torah (religious individuals) who are profoundly motivated by the desire to become serious and talmidei machamim (religiously knowledgeable) but who concurrently feel morally and religiously bound to help defend their people and their country; who... regard this dual commitment as both a privilege and a duty... it thus enables them to maintain an integrated Jewish experience." Nearly all Hesder graduates perform combat service for up to six years. Today 41 schools operate throughout Israel. In 1991, Hesder was awarded the Israel Prize (the state's highest honour) for its exceptional service to the nation.
One commander expressed how many feel in explaining the military's mission: "We are the Jewish people. We came to this land by a miracle. God brought us back to this land and now we need to fight to expel the Gentiles who are interfering with our conquest of this holy land."
Extremist Israeli rabbis teach this ideology, and in 2003 Rabbi Saadya Grama, in Romemut Yisrael Ufarashat Hagalut (The Majesty of Israel and the Question of the Diaspora), argued that non-Jews are "completely evil" while Jews are genetically superior. Reform and conservative rabbis condemned it. Extremist orthodox ones endorsed it. More moderate rabbis said Grama advocates separating Jews from an intrinsically hostile anti-Semitic world. Rabbi Yosef Blau called the book "a call for a superior people to withdraw from the world and live in isolation while submitting to its enemies and placing trust in God."
THE NEAR THREAT OF EXTREMISM: Others in Israel teach the extremist notion that the 10 Commandments don't apply to non-Jews. So killing them in defending the homeland is acceptable, and according to Rabbi Dov Lior, chairman of the Jewish Rabbinic Council: "There is no such thing as enemy civilians in war time. The law of our Torah is to have mercy on our soldiers and to save them... A thousand non-Jewish lives are not worth a Jew's fingernail."
Rabbi David Batsri called Arabs "a blight, a devil, a disaster... donkeys, and we have to ask ourselves why God didn't create them to walk on all fours. Well, the answer is that they are needed to build and clean." Extremist zealots want them for no other purpose in Jewish society.
In 2007, Israel's former chief rabbi, Mordechai Elyahu, called for the Israeli army to mass murder Palestinians. In fanatical language he said: "If they don't stop after we kill 100, then we must kill 1,000. And if they don't stop after 1,000, then we must kill 10,000. If they still don't stop we must kill 100,000. Even a million. Whatever it takes to make them stop."
In March 2009, Safed's chief rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu called for "state-sponsored revenge" to restore "Israel's deterrence... It's time to call the child by its name: revenge, revenge, revenge. We mustn't forget. We have to take horrible revenge for the terrorist attack at Mercaz Harav yeshiva," referring to an earlier incident in which eight students died. "I am not talking about individual people in particular. I'm talking about the state. (It) has to pain them where they scream 'Enough,' to the point where they fall flat on their face and scream 'help!'"
In June 2009, US Hasidic Rabbi Manis Friedman voiced a similar sentiment in calling on Israel to kill Palestinian "men, women and children". "I don't believe in Western morality, ie don't kill civilians or children, don't destroy holy sites, don't fight during the holiday seasons, don't bomb cemeteries, and don't shoot until they shoot first because it is immoral. The only way to fight a moral war is the Jewish way: destroy their holy sites. Kill men, women and children (and cattle)."
Views like these aren't exceptions. Though a minority, they proliferate throughout Israeli society, and are common enough to incite violence against Palestinians, even when they rightfully defend themselves as international law allows.
THE BROADER THREAT OF EXTREMISM: Israeli extremists are a minority but influential enough to make policy, and therein lies the threat to peace and likelihood of a sovereign Palestinian state. In his book, A Little Too Close to God, David Horovitz recalled that before prime minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination he attended a Netanyahu-sponsored anti-Rabin rally he described as follows: "I felt as if I were among wild animals, vicious, angry predators craving flesh and scenting blood. There was elation in the anger, elation bred of the certainty of eventual success."
In his book, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, Professor Mark Juergensmeyer compared the similarities among religious-motivated extremists, whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh or others. He related a conversation with Yoel Lerner who was imprisoned for trying to blow up the Dome of the Rock, the Muslim holy site, because he believed that an ancient Jewish temple stood there before it was destroyed. He expressed messianic Zionism in saying the "Messiah will come to earth only after the temple is rebuilt and made ready for him," so Jews must assure it's done. These views are prominent in high places and throughout Israeli society -- that is, religious fervour for a Greater Israel for Jews only, a Jewish state excluding all Arabs with violence an acceptable tool to remove them, and conflict will continue until they're gone.
REPORTS ON JEWISH EXTREMISTS: On 24 June, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency wrote a special report on Jewish extremists in which it described, "the face of radical Jewish nationalism in Israel... a movement of settler youths, rabbis, leaders and supporters determined to hold onto the West Bank at any cost." They represent a minority, but are a "vocal and increasingly violent constituency of the Jewish settler movement" rampaging against Palestinians and Israelis, confident that God is on their side, and that one day a "Torah-based theocracy (will) triumph over the State of Israel."
Rabbi Yisrael Iriel is one of its adherents, preaching Jewish superiority and unwillingness to cede any part of biblical Israel to non-Jews. He is one of a "small group of (extremist) rabbis who provide the theological and ideological underpinnings for radical settlers." The Israeli human rights group Yesh Din believes they number about 1,000 but exert considerable influence nonetheless. They constitute an extremist fringe element, determined to use violence to achieve their goals, and are supported by other West Bank settlers. One young adherent expressed their agenda by saying, "I think God chose a good and beautiful land for us," and we'll fight to keep it. If so, it makes peaceful resolution harder than ever to achieve, especially with political hard-liners in charge and most Israelis supporting them.
HATE LITERATURE TO ISRAELI SOLDIERS: Until discontinued on 20 July, a booklet published by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, in cooperation with Rabbi Shmuel Eliahu, entitled, "On Either Side of the Border" was given to Israeli army soldiers containing hateful fiction purported to be true. It suggested that the Pope and Vatican cardinals sympathised with Hizbullah's struggle and conspired with the organisation to kill Jews. It claimed that the Vatican organised Auschwitz tours to teach its members how to do it, and that Hizbullah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, was invited to join a delegation to tour France, Poland, Italy and the Vatican.
The booklet also accused European politicians and journalists of conspiring against Israel. Rabbi Eliahu's aide, David Menahemov, claimed the booklet's material was true, even though the account portrayed was preposterous. Yet one Israeli soldier said everyone in the ranks reads and believes it. Many soldiers told him, "Read this and you'll understand who the Arabs are [and why the Israeli cause is just]."
During Operation Cast Lead, 10,000 mp3s were also distributed to Israeli forces with recorded extremist sermons. Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger urged soldiers to "trust in God and know that war is being waged for the sanctification of His name ... and not to fear. [Soldiers] should not think of [their] wi(ves) or children or [their] mother (s) and father(s)."
Chief Sephardic Rabbi Shlomo Amar called the Gaza conflict "a holy mission that is being waged in the name of the entire Jewish people." Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu said, "Our intention is to uplift soldiers' spirits" in battle against Hamas terrorists. The Israeli army rabbinate division, Jewish Consciousness Field (JCF), also distributed a pamphlet entitled "Jewish Consciousness Emphases for Cast Lead" calling military rabbis "Anointed Priests of War."
A JCF officer, Shmuel Yurman, explained the pamphlet's purpose as follows: "This is the hour to strengthen our fighters in this heavenly commanded war that they have the merit to wage. Each (rabbi) has the knowledge and skills needed to contribute to the IDF battle spirit. Nevertheless, in order to enlighten and focus the spiritual message, JCF learned and prepared itself for this war before the operation began and as it was being fought. In meetings with soldiers and officers on the southern front we listened to the spiritual needs."
The head of JCF head, Rabbi Tzadok Ben-Artzi, justified the war saying: "We, the people who contributed to the world the book of books, who want to build a society based on creativity and peace, love of mankind and faith in good, find ourselves chased by blind hatred that is motivated by 'religious' terminology and aspires to bloodshed and cruelty." He advised Israeli army rabbis to say that the war's aim is "to save the Jewish people from its enemies" and eradicate evil in the world. Other extremist rabbis voiced the same sentiment, and, under Brigadier General Avichai Ronzki's command, the Israeli army's rabbinate theologised military missions and fed messianic dogma to young minds. Many in the ranks are already zealots enough to make spreading this gospel all the easier.
DIFFERENT SIDES OF ISRAEL'S RELIGIOUS COMMUNITY: Ronzki explains his actions and those of the military rabbinate by saying that "[we're] supposed to deal with helping soldiers to internalise Jewish values, spirit and consciousness as presented in Jewish sources. This is our main function as rabbis... (to) teach... what Judaism is." He and other zealots represent one side of Israel's religious community, comprised of two major groups -- religious Zionists and Charedim. Governed by their ideology, the former believe in the special relationship between God and Jews and see Israel from that perspective. They comprise about two-thirds of the religious community and eight per cent of the population.
Representing the other third and about 4.5 per cent of the population, the Charedim see Israel as a secular state, like most others in the country.
Ethnicity also defines religious segments. Sephardic Jews originated from the Middle East, North Africa and Spain. Ashkenazi Jews are from Eastern Europe and differ in religious and cultural traditions. Both communities attend separate synagogues in different neighbourhoods, yet are represented in religious Zionist and Charedim camps. Israel has two chief rabbis, one Ashkenazi, the other Sephardic.
Though a minority, Israel's religious community wields considerable influence politically, in the military and society overall. Moreover, synagogues and yeshivas are popular places where people gather to discuss issues of common interest and hear the views of their rabbinical leaders. The most extreme believe in Jewish sovereignty over all biblical Israel, so foregoing any of it is unthinkable. Thirteenth century Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman was their spiritual godfather. He wrote that Jews "should settle in the land and inherit it, because He gave it to them, and they should not reject God's inheritance." Now rabbis say it is "a mitzvah (commandment) to settle in the land and it is forbidden to leave it."
THE MESSIANIC COMING: What Rabbi Avraham Kook preached on the dependence of the coming of the messiah with Jews claiming hold on Israel also stands today. Today's most extreme zealots believe that conceding any biblical land will delay or subvert messianic redemption, and so can't be tolerated. Palestinians are called enemies for wanting land of their own. Yielding violates Jewish law, zealots believe.
In contrast, secular Charedim accept land concessions for peace and want the government to make policy, not religious Zionists based on biblical law. They believe Israel should serve the interests of all Jews, not one segment over another, and feel no part of Israel is too sacred to concede (except Jerusalem) if it best serves the Jewish people overall. They also believe that the Torah promotes peaceful co-existence and, except for defence, conflict is counterproductive. Like religious Zionists, they feel all biblical Israel belongs to the Jews, yet they're willing to concede some in the interests of peace.
Most religious Israelis fall somewhere in- between these groups. They believe that biblical Israel was promised to Jews, yet accept compromise to one degree or another to preserve life and serve the best interests of all Jews. How the future balance of power shifts from one side to the other will greatly influence the makeup of future Israeli governments and determine whether peaceful co- existence can replace over six decades of conflict and repression. So far it hasn't, and nothing suggests it will any time soon; not while extremist Zionists run the government, serve prominently in the Israeli army, and -- according to critics -- are gaining more power incrementally.
* The writer is a research associate of the Centre for Research on Globalisation.