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Modern Judaism is no place for thought police

Defend your ideals and support your causes, but don't attack others for having different beliefs

“Idols will have their heads cut off” was the Hebrew graffiti scrawled on a wall of the Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha before the interior was consumed by fire on June 18. Such events make both Diaspora and Israeli Jews cringe. We are embarrassed that such a thing could happen in a democratic Jewish State of Israel.

We are in a state of shock when we see ISIS iconoclasts destroy 3,000-year-old artifacts in Nimrud. ISIS is said to be extremists, not representing the religion of Islam. Similarly, church-burning zealots do not represent the modern Jewish religion or Jews.

My initial confusion brings forth rationalizations such as, “Only a non-Jewish terrorist trying to give Jews a bad reputation could do such a thing.” Then along comes Bentzi Gopstein to again prove that there are crazy Jews, too, if we ever seriously doubted it.

Gopstein just couldn’t resist taking the bait when he was asked during a Wolfson Yeshiva theological discussion about the Deuteronomy command to destroy idolatry. In view of his past arrest for incitement, he also was asked whether he supported burning churches. It seems that Maimonides had voiced his opinion that certain Christian practices of the Middle Ages were idolatrous.

This really put Bentzi on the spot. If he opposed the burning of churches, then he might appear to be in direct opposition to the Rambam. Perish the thought. So with cameras and tape recorders running, he exclaimed, “I’m willing to sit in prison for 50 years for the truth.” He later commented, “I said that according to Maimonides, idolatry should be burned.” Ouch!

Condemnation of the Tabgha arson came from all sectors of Israeli society. Tzipi Hotovely was quick to reassure the world that the State of Israel safeguards the freedom of worship of all faiths. The Vatican representative in Israel called for urgent action against Gopstein because the Custodia de Terra Santa believes there is a real danger to the Christian communities in Israel. Three far-right Jewish extremists have been charged in the arson and Bentzi has been detained again for questioning.

The Christian share of the overall population in the Middle East decreased from 10% to 5% between 1900 and 2010. Since then, Christian populations have been fleeing persecution throughout war-torn Arab countries. According to Pew Research, Christians faced more religious harassment in the Arab Middle East and North Africa than in any other region in 2012.  In contrast, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, Christianity is growing in Israel at about 1.3 percent annually.

“If in the name of Judaism one could destroy, in the name of Judaism one should also rebuild,” Rabbi Goshen-Gottstein wrote in a blog post. The Restoring Friendship drive, which he started in order to raise funds to repair the damaged Church of the Multiplication, exceeded its goal. We take great pride in such Jewish efforts to heal the misunderstanding between faith communities.

I never heard church burning discussed during 30 years of regularly attending shul, nor did I hear anything but the staunchest support for people of other religions to believe whatever they wanted. My minyan buddies would’ve been aghast if the subject of church burning had ever been brought up within the context of idolatry.

In general, I don’t believe in attacking other people’s religion. I’m not a Christian and I don’t attend church. What they believe is their business. I’m not a Muslim and I don’t attend a mosque. So I shouldn’t be meddling in their affairs. I don’t rail against the Trinity although for as long as I can remember the belief has been totally foreign to me. I’ve never wanted to burn a building where they believed what seemed to me a strange idea.

What’s the point of arguing about theology? By definition, theology cannot be proven or it would be called science. There is so much more to the Torah than just theology. Torah is the founding document of our nation and the bedrock of western civilization.

I cannot imagine being willing, like Bentzi, to spend time in prison just to get to incite to violence. In my opinion, there are some ideals worth defending. Israel is one of them. Support for democratic values in our Jewish State is another. Burning churches? Not so much. Get a life, Bentzi.

Yoeli’s Mandate: Leave your mark, make a difference for the good, and do your part to make sure that they never again devour Jacob or make his habitation waste.

You may email Eli at

About the Author
Yoeli Kaufman earned his bachelor’s degree in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures and then worked as an analyst and Arabic translator for U.S. Army Intelligence. His master’s degree was in Educational Administration from Temple University in Philadelphia. Eli now regularly writes for the Jerusalem Post, the Times of Israel, and Diario Judío México.
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