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Benjamin Birely

The Torah of Revenge & What Some Jews From the Diaspora Aren’t Understanding

Protest in Jerusalem, 5/7. Photo belongs to the author.
Protest in Jerusalem, 5/7. Photo belongs to the author.

When the Supreme Court disqualified Aryeh Deri from serving as a minister in January — an event that set the tone for the coming months — Avshalom Ohayon, a long-time Shas activist and close friend of Deri, spoke to the crowd gathered outside of Deri’s building in Jerusalem.

Aryeh Deri seen outside his home in Jerusalem on January 18, 2023, hours after the ruling. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“Ten white Ashkenazi judges! The same ones that murdered our fathers! We won’t shut up. Bezrat Hashem, the will of the people will finally come to safety. Corrupt whites, you’re done!”

In my many conversations over the past 6 months with Israeli (born and raised) supporters of the current government’s legal overhaul, one constant theme underpins most arguments: the desire for revenge.

Whether it’s revenge against the “Ashkenazi elite” for the institutional and social discrimination against Middle Eastern and North African Jews in the first decades of the state, against secular Israelis for their perceived intolerance toward religion in general and Haredim in particular, or against those who supported the 2005 Disengagement from Gaza — a trauma that some segments of the Religious Zionist world carry as an open wound — legal arguments take a back seat to a deep-seated hatred that won’t be satisfied until the other side feels the same pain they do.

This past Wednesday evening as thousands of anti-legal overhaul Israelis hit the streets across the country following the resignation of Tel Aviv police chief Ami Eshed due to alleged pressure from Ben Gvir and other government ministers to violently crackdown on protests, I joined the protest here in Jerusalem.

For the first time in the Jerusalem protests I witnessed police officers (notably, undercover police officers or volunteers — it was unclear which as, when asked, they refused to identify themselves) employ obviously disproportionate force toward protestors. Unprovoked, one undercover police officer/volunteer told me I should be ashamed of myself for participating in this protest before shoving me in the back. Another high-ranking police officer violently pushed an older middle-aged protester, causing him to fall backwards and hit his head on the pavement.

Protest in Jerusalem, 5/7. Photo belongs to the author.

This surprised me.

This isn’t Tel Aviv. The Jerusalem protest crowd is tame, generally older and includes many traditional and religious moderates — including a significant element of Jerusalem anglos.

Yes, there are energetic Hebrew U students who rev up the crowd, but they’re not threatening or violent.

But what didn’t surprise me were my conversations with normative onlookers on the sidewalk who support this government and the legal overhaul.

“Do you know how they treat Haredim at protests? They should do the same to you!”

“During the Disengagement, they ripped families from their homes! Where were you?! I hope the police beat you up so you know what it’s like!”

“We always win elections but what we want never happens. The left always stops us. We’ve suffered for decades, now it’s your turn!”

“The police should give these privileged people (הפריבילגים האלה) what they deserve!”

And these were the comments from the normative, reasonable onlookers.

It’s not even worth mentioning the more extreme voices who yelled profanities.

None of their arguments were driven by legal or constitutional arguments or a desire to check judicial activism for the good of all Israelis. Even the most logical voice in the crowd, an intelligent, young man from the modern end of the Haredi world, with whom I spoke for over an hour, argued that we need to curb unchecked judicial power as a kind of pitzui or reparations (the latter is my terminology) for the injustices the secular elite has inflicted on Haredim and traditional Mizrahim via the courts.

Most Jews abroad and many olim here in Israel who live in communities or social circles made up mostly of other olim of the same or similar background are genuinely unaware of the deep anger and desire for revenge that is driving popular support for the legal overhaul.

And, ironically, many politically conservative Jews from in English-speaking countries who usually shirk away from populist left-wing identity politics, are supporting a government here in Israel with revenge-based identity politics on steroids.

Our Minister of Regional Cooperation, Likud’s Dudu Amsalem (who is currently calling to arrest the anti-overhaul protest leaders and wants former PM Ehud Barak “to be in the interrogation room” for his role in the protests) gave a speech in the Knesset back in February in which he accused the protests of being made-up of “elitists with Rolexes”.

Likud lawmaker David Amsalem speaks at the Knesset in Jerusalem, February 13, 2023. Image from TOI article linked above.

He continued:

“This struggle isn’t about laws, it’s about whether an elite and the nobility continue to run the country, and we remain the vassals.”

He was partially right. Right now, on a social level, this really isn’t about the specifics of laws.

No matter what happens in the coming months — whether this dangerous and convoluted overhaul is passed in part or in full, whether compromise is hopefully worked out on the key issues where there’s wide consensus or not — the roots of the toxic divisions in Israeli society continue to fester.

And we’ll never be able to move on and pursue actual (and essential) constitutional reform until our past is appropriately addressed and Torat HaNekama is finally laid to rest… and those who use it to stir up populist, baseless hatred are sent home.

About the Author
Benjamin made aliyah in 2011 and lives in Jerusalem. Over the past decade he served as a lone soldier, completed a B.A. and M.A. in Ancient History at Tel Aviv University, and worked in Israel's tech industry. He will begin his PhD in Fall 2024. See his account HolyLandSpeaks on TikTok and Instagram.
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