Revenge, murder and our youth movements

Jews do not murder. We may be defensive, pushy and vociferous, but we do not murder in cold blood. That is inconceivable.

This was understood by the rabbis in their interpretations of the Biblical law that when a murder has been committed and the perpetrator is unknown, the elders of the nearest city to site of the murder must wash their hands and declare: “Our hands have not shed this blood neither have our eyes seen it”. (Deut. 21: 7) For the rabbis, it went without saying that Jewish leaders would not sanction murder, so they determined that this passage must mean that Jewish leaders must take responsibility for any societal flaws that might lead to a murder. (Mishnah Sotah 9: 6)

This week, six Jews were arrested for the kidnap and ruthless murder of a Palestinian teenager in East Jerusalem. This ended days of speculation – was it a Jew or an Arab who committed the murder? I cling to the hope that these Jews are innocent. I pray that this murder was not committed by my people. But the very fact that we waited with bated breath to find out the identity of the culprit is indicative of the problem. Having heard the calls for revenge and seen them plastered over the internet, we no longer found it inconceivable that a Jew was responsible. Another great taboo has been broken. In a terrible continuation of the recent downward spiral from Baruch Goldstein who killed twenty nine Muslims at prayer, to Yigal Amir who assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, we must now entertain the possibility that Jews conducted an unprovoked, brutal crime against an innocent Palestinian.

Following a terrible massacre which resulted in the death of tens of thousands of Jews from the tribe of Benjamin; the rabbis pointed the finger of responsibility at the religious leadership of the time. In a striking Midrash about this Biblical story, they taught that when Joshua led the Jews into the Land of Israel, members of the Sanhedrin should have trekked across the country to wherever Jews had established communities teaching them Jewish ethics. Instead the scholars headed home, sat under their vines and said, ‘Everything will all be alright’. Our moral standards declined and the killings took place. (Eliyahu Rabbah 12 commenting on Judges 20)

While most Israelis behaved with great dignity and restraint in the wake of the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers, the last few weeks also witnessed outrageous conduct by some of our leaders. In the face of calls for revenge against innocent Palestinians, not only did they sit passively “under their vines”, they even whipped up the fury. Now the focus is on Rabbi Noam Perl, the head of World Bnei Akiva whose Facebook status spoke of the need for revenge and urged the army of avengers not to stop at “300 Philistine foreskins,” alluding to the biblical tale of David, who killed 200 Philistines and gave their foreskins to King Saul as the bride price for his daughter.

His words were grotesque and irresponsible and his initial apology which took a long time in coming was mealy-mouthed. It placed responsibility on his readers for misunderstanding his words (which we did not) and called for Jewish unity – hardly an apology to Palestinians whose lives are put at risk by this charge to the young people for whom he is responsible.

That apology is posted on his Facebook wall, buried amongst a heap of messages of support for his offensive declaration. He has since offered a more appropriate retraction.

I was privileged to grow up in British Bnei Akiva and drew tremendous inspiration from the moderate path of religious Zionism which it taught with passion. It is to the movement’s credit that so many of its graduates now live in Israel making valuable contributions to Israeli society. I am proud that my children are members of Israeli Bnei Akiva. In my professional life, I meet with young people coming from abroad on Bnei Akiva’s gap year programs. I am enormously impressed by the thoughtful education provided by their first class team of intelligent and sensitive educators.

Currently, Rabbi Perl’s position at the head of World Bnei Akiva is untenable. Across the globe, Bnei Akiva branches have distanced themselves from what he said. They are right to do so, for in the words of our sages, “silence implies agreement”. Our enemies may behave with inhumane violence, but Jewish youth movements cannot sink to these levels. For World Bnei Akiva to restore our confidence in its leadership, there must be genuine display of repentance and that means attempting to right the wrong that has been done (See Rambam, Laws of Repentance 2:9). Bnei Akiva must ensure that its members are imbued with the rich values of religious Zionism and appreciate the wide range of beliefs within Israeli political discourse. It must take its members to speak with Palestinians, learn about their lives and build bridges between our two nations.

If Rabbi Perl can demonstrate the sincerity of his apology, by implementing this tolerant agenda, he will bring much needed moderation to the Religious Zionist community thereby preventing future bloodshed. If he cannot, he must resign immediately.

About the Author
Rabbi Gideon Sylvester is the British United Synagogue's rabbi in Israel. Prior to making aliya, he was rabbi of Radlett United Synagogue, Britain's fastest growing Modern Orthodox synagogue. Rabbi Gideon served as Senior Rabbinic Educator in Israel for T'ruah – The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights and has worked as an adviser at the Office of the Prime Minister of Israel. He directed the Beit Midrash for Human Rights at the Hillel House of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is studying for a doctorate at Bar Ilan University. Gideon writes in a personal capacity and tweets at @GideonDSylveste