Paul Gross

Religion, its abusers, and their victims

Benjamin Netanyahu – and others – have referred to the killers of Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-ad Shaer and Eyal Yifrach  as “animals”. In particular after hearing them whooping and singing after shooting their captives in the back of the car, one has to concur with that assessment. Two young Palestinian men, driven by a fanatical hatred of Jews to divorce themselves from humanity and the most basic moral norms.

At the time of writing this, it is looking likely that 16-year old Muhammad Abu-Khdeir was kidnapped and murdered by Jewish extremists, ‘avenging’ the atrocity committed against the three Jewish boys. It seems therefore, that we have some animals of our own.

Proportionally fewer for sure. Our society does not celebrate their brutality en masse. Netanyahu and other political leaders, including those further to the Right, condemned the murder of Abu-Khdeir within hours of it being reported. Mahmoud Abbas issued his – I believe – sincere condemnation of the kidnapping of the three boys several days after the event. What’s the difference? Israel’s political class know that the vast majority of their electorate are disgusted and appalled at the idea that Jews would have killed a young Arab boy for nationalistic reasons. Abbas on the other hand would have been only too aware that, across the West Bank and Gaza, there were Palestinians loudly celebrating the kidnapping.

However, we should be gratified by this important distinction, but not smug about it. For smugness breeds complacency and we have little room for that.

Even if it transpires that Jews were not responsible for the death of Abu-Khdeir, the disgraceful scenes in downtown Jerusalem the previous night, when a mob of extreme Jewish nationalists went looking for Arabs to physically assault, is cause for serious concern. No one who saw those thugs in action could have doubted the possibility, at least, that some of them had murderous intent.

More dangerous still is the fact that their racist and radicalized version of Judaism was not independently arrived at. It was taught. There are certain yeshivot and certain Rabbis who are no less guilty of inciting violence and hatred of ‘the other’ than the Islamist preachers who threaten Israel and the West.

So yes, we have our own ‘animals’. And they are being bred.

Religious extremism in the Middle East is nothing new of course. In fact it is spreading and becoming increasingly and terrifyingly barbaric. The beheadings, mass executions and crucifixions by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have raised the bar of atrocity in our cruel region. Israel’s leaders have, justifiably, tried to focus the world’s attention on our status as an island of democracy, freedom and tolerance in the sea of insanity flowing around us. We cannot afford to ignore that small minority in our midst that wishes to drag us down to level of some of our neighbors.

The reality then is that Israel is threatened by extremist Islam externally and – to a lesser extent for sure – by extremist Judaism internally. We need to be harsh and uncompromising in our response to both. Contrary to what too many of our western allies imply, Hamas is not moderating, nor will it. Like the Islamist regime in Iran and its terrorist proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon, any apparent ‘moderation’ on the part of Hamas is tactical. One does not have to look hard for explicit statements from Hamas leaders that it will never recognize Israel and will continue its “resistance” until the Jewish state has been vanquished. Israel must, therefore, remain ready to use whatever means are required to defend its citizens from this implacable enemy.

Jewish extremism should be tackled, in the first place, by cutting off state funding to those individuals and institutions that violate fundamental democratic norms – in particular the principle of equal rights regardless of race or religion. It is not acceptable that blatant racism, which would be illegal as part of a secular political platform, is allowed when it is publicly preached by a Rabbi. The Chief Rabbi of Tsfat, Shmuel Eliyahu, was indicted for racial incitement for claiming that halacha (Jewish law) forbade the renting of apartments to Arabs, but this was dropped after he apologized. He continues to draw a state salary.

The publication of Torat Hamelech in 2009(which gave Rabbinic sanction to the killing of the children of enemies of the Jewish people) and its endorsement by prominent Rabbis was further evidence of toxic extremism within a section of the national-religious camp.

More reprehensible still is the case of Kiryat Arba Chief Rabbi and resident inciter of racial hatred, Dov Lior. The list of Lior’s misdeeds includes providing the religious sanction for the members of the terrorist ‘Jewish Underground’ to attack and maim two Palestinian mayors in 1984 (according to the testimonies of the perpetrators); describing the mass murdering Baruch Goldstein as “holier than the martyrs of the Holocaust”; and pronouncing a din rodef on Yitzhak Rabin – essentially the halachic sanction for his murder. Dov Lior remains a municipal Rabbi paid from the public purse, and is the spiritual leader of the Tekuma political party, which today sits in the Knesset as part of Naftali Bennett’s Bayit Yehudi.

Either we’re serious about tackling the plague of Jewish religious extremism or we’re not.

These Rabbis and others have the authority and influence to effect the way that thousands of young Jews interpret their religion. They are not guilty of misinterpreting Judaism, but of deliberately interpreting it to fit a bigoted world view. From the Talmud onwards, Rabbis have found ways to reach pre-determined halachic conclusions by prioritising certain competing values or narratives over others. It is certainly possible to interpret halacha in such a way that renting apartments to Arabs is forbidden, but it’s just as easy to interpret it otherwise. (For example, two legendary Jewish thinkers separated by 800 years, Maimonides and Rav Kook, ruled that the prohibition on renting property to non-Jews applied only to pagans and should not be in force against Christians or Muslims.) It was Rabbi Eliyahu’s choice to interpret it as he did.

The point has wider implications. There are many who claim that any criminal charges brought against these Rabbis are an attack on Judaism itself. An argument with rhetorical power, except that Judaism teaches that we are in partnership with God. He has given us the freedom and responsibility to interpret his Torah. Therefore evil done in His name is our responsibility, not His.

For more than two weeks, Israel and much of the wider Jewish world was unusually united as we hoped and prayed for a happy outcome to the terrible ordeal suffered by the Fraenkel, Shaer and Yifrach families. Regardless of where we stood on the political or religious spectrum, we were left distraught by the terrible conclusion to the story.

We need similar unity and strength of purpose in overcoming the Islamist terrorists who threaten our very existence here.

Meanwhile the majority of Israeli Jews that reject racism and chauvinism in religious guise, must stand tall against the wave of extremism and hatred gushing forth from the darkest corners of our society.

About the Author
Before moving to Israel from the UK, Paul worked at the Embassy of Israel to the UK in the Public Affairs department, and as the Ambassador's speechwriter. He has a Masters degree in Middle East Politics from the University of London. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem - though he writes this blog in a personal capacity. He has lectured to a variety of groups on Israeli history and politics and his articles have been published in a variety of media outlets in Israel, the UK, the US and Canada.
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