It’s difficult for me not to hold a sense of warped admiration for some of the prominent Orthodox rabbis here in Israel. The level of ignorance that many in the rabbinical establishment display in social, political and military affairs never ceases to astonish. Their indissoluble faith in God, Judaism and the Torah grants them the profound audacity to make declarations that surpass any statement that a well-educated, secular individual would have the courage to say even in the privacy of their closest associates, much less to the international media. If anything, it would be unfair to call them disingenuous. Maintaining such unquestionable faith in an age of logic, reason and immense scientific achievement is an aptitude that I personally lack.
Last week, Kiryat Arba’s Chief Rabbi Dov Lior called for the IDF to impose “collective punishment” on rioters in response to the death a father and son whose car flipped over after a rock hurled by Palestinians. Just recently, Lior also claimed that Israel’s growing isolation and hatred of the Jews worldwide is punishment for the demolition of three meager shacks in the Migron outpost two weeks ago. He said Arabs are “evil camel riders” who should be expelled from the Land of Israel and given a right of return to countries like Saudi Arabia. As usual, Rabbi Lior also reiterated the Jewish claim to settlement of Judea and Samaria as an inalienable Jewish right.
Unfortunately, Rabbi Lior’s statements are common fare here in Israel, and the rabbinical religious establishment has never been shy about postulating bigotry and racism – based firmly in the framework of Jewish religious law - towards other Jews and non-Jews alike.
Back in 2010, some 50 of Israel’s most prominent rabbis issued a religious edict against Jews renting property to gentiles, especially Arab-Israelis. Thirty-nine of those rabbis are on the government’s payroll, although their opinions vary drastically from the State of Israel’s official laws and ethos. After this incident, no rabbi was fired or brought to court for incitement.
Apartment ban on ArabsThe aforementioned edict marked the culmination of several similar instances of religious bigotry that went relatively unaddressed by the majority of public officials here in Israel. In the Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak, the municipality acted to ban migrant workers from living in the area and attempted to force those residing there to flee the area. Safed’s chief municipal rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu had previously urged Jewish residents not to rent property to the town’s Arab minority. Unfortunately, the list of examples is long and disheartening, and similar sentiments are expressed on a daily basis in many Orthodox yeshivas.
What we are witnessing is a deliberate attempt to use Judaism not only as a religious dogma, but as a powerful and effective political tool utilized in order to maximize the agendas of religious Jews and the ultra-right wing here in the State of Israel.
Regrettably, the use of political Judaism has extended itself well beyond the realm of property ownership and real estate. Fresh in our memories is the public controversy over the publication and rabbinical support of “The King’s Torah,” a 230-page manuscript focusing on Jewish-Gentile relations, discussing matters such as ethics in warfare, human rights (or lack thereof) and issues such as the killing of non-Jews.
The most hardcore adherents to Judaism will inevitably defend at least some, if not all, of the religious positions discussed above. In fact, the rabbis vehemently defend their actions on the grounds of their statements being based in the Torah. It’s not racism, they claim; it’s Halacha, or Jewish Law.
Members of the Orthodox establishment maintains a strict interpretation of Jewish law as found in the Torah and Talmud, which they claim doesn’t evolve over time. Ultimately, some of these rabbis are simply promulgating an ultimate idea that they’ve never attempted to hide: the establishment of a Jewish theocracy governed according to the principles of Halacha. For a secular Jew such as myself, the thought is petrifying.
Torah trumps lawMany in the orthodox establishment have made it clear that Torah law will always supersede the laws of the State of Israel. Such sentiment not only complicates the widening religious-secular divide, but is problematic from an Israeli legal perspective, as Israel has explicit laws against incitement to racism. However, the police and judicial branches are often hesitant to enforce these laws; in many instances, the rabbis’ statements border on the fine line between freedom of expression and blatant incitement. Furthermore, many of these rabbis command a significant following in their communities. Attempts to question, arrest or indict rabbis have led to riots and violent clashes between police and the rabbis’ followers.
Sadly, political-religious racism in Israel is on the rise, and, sadly, not just in the religious sector. In the 2011 Israeli Democracy Index, conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute back in March, Dr. Mina Zemach found that nearly one-third of the population didn’t consider Arab citizens of Israel to be “Israelis.” The number was significantly higher amongst the religious sector.
Of course, we see vicious racism in the Muslim world as well. However, as the only true democracy in the Middle East, we should stay away from pointing fingers at our neighbors and compare our own actions to theirs. Israel constantly strives to distinguish herself from its neighbors in social, economic, cultural, military and religious terms, and for good reason. Hence, we can’t claim the moral high ground on one hand, while measuring our actions against our enemies’ actions and behavior on the other.
There are many Jewish organizations and factions of Judaism, including Orthodox sects, that have protested strongly against the statements emerging from the abovementioned camps. Such elements need to be encouraged and reinforced by state and social institutions in their struggle to prevent Judaism from being hijacked to support a radically racist agenda. Most Israelis don’t support these rabbis, but their influence remains a dangerous impediment to ensuring that Israel adheres to the social and cultural values expected from a strong, vital democracy.
Avi Yesawich is an independent journalist and political commentator on Middle East affairs. He holds degrees from Cornell University and Tel Aviv University, is an IDF combat reservist and is co-founder of www.israelicentrism.com
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