The Jewish Ayatollahs

Jonathan Haidt notes that secular liberals are an anomaly in the non-Western world. Increasingly, this is true of Israel, often touted as “the only democracy in the Middle East.” The reality is that Israel is gravitating to its Middle Eastern Jewish roots, and that means a turn toward religious fanatics gathered around their charismatic rabbis—the guru phenomenon of Jewish social life. A good primer on this is Christiane Amanpour’s God’s Jewish Warriors.

Uri Avnery is an honest Jewish secular liberal, a remnant of the Jews who were influenced by Western thinking and a dwindling minority of Israeli Jews. He is a trenchant observer of the rise of religious fundamentalism in Israeli politics. His latest column, “The Jewish Ayatollahs“) discusses the controversy over recent rabbinic rulings, beginning with pointed examples showing how such things go completely against the grain of contemporary Western culture: “The Archbishop of New York announces that any Catholic who rents out an apartment to a Jew commits a mortal sin and runs the risk of excommunication.” But in Israel, “The rabbi of Safed, a government employee, has decreed that it is strictly forbidden to let apartments to Arabs— including the Arab students at the local medical school. Twenty other town rabbis—whose salaries are paid by the taxpayers, mostly secular, including Arab citizens—have publicly supported this edict.”

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The latest controversy is about a book by Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira, “perhaps, the most extreme inhabitant of Yitzhar, which is perhaps the most extreme settlement in the West Bank. Its members are frequently accused of carrying out pogroms in the nearby Palestinian villages, generally in “retaliation” for army actions against structures that have been built without official consent.” The book advocates the killing of non-Jews in time of war, and, since Israel is constantly at war, that means it’s okay to kill non-Jews, even if they are not threatening Jews and have no responsibility for the situation.

It’s interesting that the book reiterates the idea, central to Jewish ethics, that prohibition against killing in the Ten Commandments applies only to Jews. The moral universalism so central to Western ethics is completely missing here. (Indeed, some Orthodox rabbis distanced themselves from the book, not for any principled reasons, but “if only on the ground that it violated the religious rule that forbids ‘provoking the Goyim’”.)

Righteous non-Jews who behave according to the Noachide laws, thus have some moral value, but they are not morally equivalent to Jews. Being a righteous non-Jew gives no protection if Jews are at war. Avnery suggests that this was the implicit logic in Operation Cast Lead in Gaza when “to protect the life of a single Israeli soldier, it is permissible to kill as many Palestinians as necessary. The result: some 1300 dead Palestinians, half of them non-combatants, as against five soldiers killed by hostile action.”

The ruling applies to all non-Jews, including children if there is a possibility that they could be a threat to Jews when they grow up.

Shapira’s book was endorsed by four leading rabbis, including Rabbi Dov Lior, “the rabbi of Kiryat Arba, the settlement on the fringes of Hebron that cultivates the teachings of Meir Kahane and that produced the mass-murderer Baruch Goldstein.” Lior was questioned by police investigating the possibility that he had violated Israel’s laws against incitement (which resulted in a riot by his followers). Such laws are clearly antithetical to free speech. Interestingly, the Israeli law is being advocated by some as a way to curb the First Amendment free speech rights in the U.S.. The organized Jewish community has vigorously pursued attempts to curb free speech throughout the West.

There is an irony here. In Israel, the action against incitement represents an attempt by a dwindling liberalism to prevent the dominance of an intolerant anti-democratic religious majority:

For Israelis, this is not just an academic question. The entire religious community, with all its diverse factions, now belongs to the rightist, ultra-nationalist camp (except for pitiful little outposts like Reform and Conservative Jewry, who are the majority among American Jews [i.e., these movements are best seen as ways of blending into Diaspora societies by downplaying the aspects of Judaism likely to lead to hostility from non-Jews]. Transforming Israel into a Halakha state means castrating the democratic system and turning Israel into a second Iran governed by Jewish ayatollahs.

Tell that to Michele Bachmann and the rest of the American political class (see also this comment by Observerx on the recent blog on Bachmann). And also notify them that the rising political class in Israel intends to be at war far into the future:

It will also make peace impossible for all time, since according to the rabbis all of the Holy Land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River belongs solely to the Jews, and giving the Goyim even an inch of it is a mortal sin, punishable by death. For this sin, Yitzhak Rabin was executed by the student of a religious university, a former settler.

Actually, not a few of these rabbis take seriously God’s pledge to Abraham in Genesis promising all the land between the Nile and the Euphrates to Israel—a point made by Israel Shahak and Norton Mezvinsky in their Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel. It’s no wonder that Pres. Obama’s suggestion of land swaps for a peace deal was so anathema to the Israeli right. The following quote references God’s promise to Israel in the context of a discussion of an earlier rabbinical ruling on the permissibility of killing non-Jews:

Many Jews, especially religious Jews today in Israel and their supporters abroad, continue to adhere to traditional Jewish ethics that other Jews would like to ignore or explain away. For example, Rabbi Yitzhak Ginzburg of Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus/Shechem, after several of his students were remanded on suspicion of murdering a teenage Arab girl: “Jewish blood is not the same as the blood of a goy.” Rabbi Ido Elba: “According to the Torah, we are in a situation of pikuah nefesh (saving a life) in time of war, and in such a situation one may kill any Gentile.” Rabbi Yisrael Ariel writes in 1982 that “Beirut is part of the Land of Israel. [This is a reference to the boundaries of Israel as stated in the Covenant between God and Abraham in Genesis 15: 18–20 and Joshua 1 3–4; Genesis 15:18: On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram and said, “To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the Euphrates] . . . our leaders should have entered Lebanon and Beirut without hesitation, and killed every single one of them. Not a memory should have remained.” It is usually yeshiva students who chant “Death to the Arabs” on CNN. The stealing and corruption by religious leaders that has recently been documented in trials in Israel and abroad continues to raise the question of the relationship between Judaism and ethics. (Adelman, T. Z.1999. Jewish ethics: Are they ethical? Are they Jewish?  The Jewish Agency for Israel, Department for Jewish Zionist Education, August 22.; quoted here, pp. 9-10)

Avnery concludes ominously:

Not the whole religious camp subscribes to the unrelenting extremism of Rabbi Lior and his ilk. There are many other trends. But all of these keep quiet. It is Lior, the rabbi who Possesses the Light, and his like-minded colleagues, who chart the course.

And, since those who are charting the course are the ones having the children, these trends will become far more pronounced in the future than they are now.

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