Between Torah and racism
Benzi Gopstein believes Arabs are the enemy, Jewish women who married Arabs did not receive enough love, and rabbis who oppose him are cowards. So what did I study Torah with him? Because ignoring him doesn't mean he'll disappear.
When I asked my Palestinian friend, Sami Awad, if he believed Israel had a partner for peace, he replied: "Yes, and the peace talks must begin with your worst and most difficult opponent."
Faithful to this teaching of Sami's, I decided to study Torah with Benzi Gopstein, CEO of the Lehava
organization, which seeks to prevent assimilation through intermarriage in Israel. To my surprise, Gopstein accepted my invitation to meet at my office at the Hebrew Union College's academic-Reform center in Jerusalem.
As I set a time with Gopstein for our "chevruta" to study the weekly Torah portion of "Shoftim," I imagine God reclining on her throne, smiling in amusement as more than a few of the verses from this Torah portion can play into the hands of a person who views himself as a student and disciple of Rabbi Meir Kahane.
(Deuteronomy 18:9) "When you come into the land which the Lord your God gives you, thou shalt not learn to do after the abominations of those nations." (Deuteronomy 19:1) "When the Lord your God shall cut off the nations, whose land the Lord your God gives you, and you succeed them, and dwell in their cities, and in their houses."
Gopstein mentions the following verses as being currently relevant and having an important lesson for the war in Gaza that he felt ended too early as "we should have erased Gaza off the face of the earth."
(Deuteronomy 20:1-4) "When you go forth to battle against your enemies... let not your heart faint; fear not, nor be alarmed, neither be affrighted at them; for the Lord your God is He that goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies, to save you."
"You see," he says, "the Torah forbids us to be afraid, yet we on the other hand, in this war as well, sinned with a double fear: Fear of international condemnation and fear of Arabs. Unfortunately, even the Ultra-Orthodox were guilty of this sin and did not do their fair share in the war."
"But perhaps it is possible to call this practical considerations and not fear?" I ask. "Is it wrong for a nation to take into account practical considerations?"
"'Practical considerations' are invalid and are considerations for fear," he replies. "Any 'practical consideration' is in effect fear. Every 'practical consideration' is a concession on the honor of the people of Israel. It is forbidden to concede the honor of the people of Israel because this is actually God's honor."
At this stage Benzi reached an explanation which is simply intolerable for me. I don't know if he is naively raising it without understanding that a feminist is sitting in front of him, or if he is just vulgarly ignoring the fact that not everyone is able to identify with his imaginary world.
"You see," he says, "from a grammatical perspective the word for 'land' in Hebrew is feminine. 'Land' is like a woman, two nations on one land is like two men with one woman. This is impossible."
I remind myself that I swore I would not fight with him, and I was anyway speechless with shock. For years I have been rummaging through modern and ancient Jewish textual sources in order to point out the patriarchal foundations for the separatist worldview in Jewish culture, and behold they are presented to me immediately at the opening of our "chevruta" study in unapologetic phrasing.
With terminology like "honor" and "sexually penetrating the woman" ("be'ilat ha'isha"), how will we have peace? How?
Benzi Gopstein at Baruch Goldstein's grave. 'I am not against what he did' (Photo: Gur Dotan)
Further on, Gopstein will speak painfully about the accusations, which he believes are unjustified, against the Lehava organization of objectifying women and misogyny, and I have no doubt that he really does not see the connection between the xenophobia and the misogyny in his religious world view.
"Why are you talking about misogyny?" he asks. "We don't hate women. The opposite is the case. A woman for me is like a queen who should be taken care of.
"We take care of unfortunate Jewish women who suffered in their homes and did not receive enough love and then find warmth and love with Arab men. We are concerned for them and I don't understand why we are being attacked in regards to this issue.
"In my lectures I say to the audience that we are responsible for the suffering of Jewish women who marry Arab men. We don't spoil and love our women enough. If we would treat them better, they wouldn't feel the need to be with Arab men."
Do you hate Arabs?
"No. What I do is out of love for the Jewish people. I hate my enemy, and currently my enemies are Arabs. But despite what is said about me, I am not a racist. There are a few Arabs who have converted to Judaism and I assist them greatly. I do not hate them out of racism. I hate them only because they want my land."
Could it be that there are Arabs who don't hate us?
"Any Arab who thinks that this land is his is my enemy. In this week's Torah portion, it is written (Deuteronomy 19:1), 'When the Lord your God shall cut off the nations, whose land the Lord your God gives you, and you succeed them, and dwell in their cities, and in their houses.'
"The Torah is not afraid of 'occupation' and we do not need to be afraid of it either. I appreciate Arabs who wage wars against me. They think this land is their land and that is perfectly fine. I have no problem with the Arab fighting against me, as from his perspective he is perfectly correct in doing so. I respect his opinion, and I will kill him. According to the Torah there is no solution other than war."
How do you intend to "cut off all the nations from the land"?
"The state needs to do this. They should be brought to a situation where they want to escape from here."
Your rabbi (Meir Kahane) suggested that they be paid to leave.
"Financial inducement, intimidation, I don't care which. Anything that will cause them to leave is good from my perspective."
And if they don't agree to go?
"We will do what is written in the Torah to whoever doesn't leave. We will cut them off."
And what should we do with their children?
"We will take their children and expel them from here. They need to be evacuated with tenacity and sensitivity just like the children from Gush Katif were evacuated. And if there is no choice, the State of Israel already kills children... Whoever leaves their children will be responsible for what happens to them."
Gopstein considers revenge against Arabs a religious commandment as well as the solution. But he is cautious. Throughout the entire conversation, his words are carefully considered and tempered.
He does not recommend to the followers in his organization to take revenge against Arabs, not because this is wrong, but because it would be a shame to sit in prison for doing so... He wants that the revenge be institutional, by the state.
So are you willing to denounce acts of revenge by Jews against Arabs?
He is cautious. Weighing his words, but not ready to denounce. Revenge, according to his opinion, is the right religious action, and his problem is only with the punishment.
God gives me and my worldview a few nice supporting verses in the Torah too.
(Deuteronomy 20:10) "When you come close to a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it," I quote with cautious joy, knowing every verse is a double-edged sword and the exegetical gates have not yet been locked shut.
Indeed, Gopstein immediately explains that there are rabbinical disputes over the question of whether the Biblical obligation to initially "proclaim peace" deals with wars for conquering the land or only for "optional" (expansionist) wars.
He also reminds me of the following verse, according to which any nation that agrees to the peace proclamation will only be granted the status of slaves (Deuteronomy 20:11): "And it shall be that... all the people that are found therein shall become tributary for you and shall serve thee."
From his perspective, this is the status of the Israeli Druze, who he doesn't hate nor perceive as an enemy because they accept our position, the Jews, as masters of the land, "and therefore we must give the Druze equal rights and treat with respect."
But in the Torah it is written that they need to be our slaves, I try to challenge him.
"Look, that is not exactly correct. You have to see how to interpret this." Suddenly, in front of my eyes, Gopstein starts splitting hairs and does not stick to the literal understanding of the Torah.
Over the course of the entire conversation, I am surprised by Gopstein's measured speech, by the quiet and the constant effort to weigh his words. He is not stupid nor impassioned. He is different from the preconceived stereotype that I had for a "street thug leader."
"Look", I say to him, "you are an intelligent person and you carefully choose your words. But throughout our entire conversation you cling to your position that your opinion is the only possible interpretation to the Torah and the teachings of the Rabbinic Sages. Isn't it a little superficial and arrogant to think that you are right and everyone else is wrong?"
"No," he says. "There is no other option. I really checked. I studied Torah, discussed with other rabbis, and all the challenges they proposed to me I found a response. In that regard, my approach is the only Jewish approach. Only this way is it possible to understand and interpret the Torah. If someone will prove to me that I am mistaken, I will be happy to change my opinion, but this has never happened.
"All the other rabbis are cowards that 'skip between two sticks,' in the words of Elijah to the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:21). People only interpret the Torah different than me because they are afraid of the conclusions of the truth. Whomever correctly studied Torah knows that I am right."
So what is the deal with the teaching that there are '70 faces to the Torah'?
"That rule only applied in certain matters, but in essence that is not true. There are not '70 faces to the Torah.' There is only one way."
And you know what that is?
As he departs my office, Gopstein says to me: "You, the left, who wave the banner of free speech to whoever is called Zoabi,
don't even let us open our mouths. I said to the Shin Bet, and I'm saying it to you too, that you need to allow my organization to exist. If they would not have outlawed Kahane, there would have been no Baruch Goldstein
or Yigal Amir."
So do you oppose what Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir did?
He is silent. I insist and keep asking. Finally he answers, "Look, I am not against what Dr. Goldstein did. I think that it is not worth doing because he paid a heavy price, but I appreciate his action. Yigal Amir is a different case because I am against civil war, but (slain Prime Minister Yitzhak) Rabin didn't leave him any choice."
Why am I studying Torah with Benzi Gopstein? This question does not leave me for several days now. Why should I meet with him? Why should I provide a platform for racist opinions? I don't have a complete answer, but I have the beginnings to a few thoughts:
- Because ignoring hum doesn't mean he will disappear.
- Because several of my spiritual teachers taught me that every person must be acknowledged;
- that compassion must be everywhere;
- that I must remember that with different life circumstances I too could have held racist beliefs.
- Because Bruria, the female Mishnaic sage, taught me that one must distinguish between a person and their opinions, and that we must hope and strive that everyone will repent.
- Because Gopstein told me that we, the left, are smug and condescending to the sad and neglected children who he collects every week at Jerusalem's Cat Square, and in this regard he is right.
- Because everyone should be acknowledged and spoken to.
What do you all think?
Translated by Uzi Bar-Pinchas.
to read this article in Hebrew.