Recent Attacks Rooted in State-Funded Religious Extremism
Terror struck twice in Israel this Thursday.
First, an ultra-Orthodox zealot went on a slashing rampage at the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade, stabbing six, and fatally wounding a 16-year-old girl.
Then, extremist Jewish settlers firebombed the house of a Palestinian Arab family in the West Bank village of Duma, critically wounding three, and burning alive an 18-month-old toddler.
On a wall, the arsonists spray painted a Star of David and the Hebrew word for “revenge.” This marks the crime as a “price tag” attack. This is the term used by settlers for attacks meant to, “exact a price… for any action taken against their settlement enterprise,” as Uri Friedman put it in The Atlantic.
Graffiti on another wall read, “Long live the Messiah King.” This is a manifestation of the messianic religious Zionism that has been the spiritual driving force of the Israeli settler movement since its beginning.
Both attacks are to a great extent rooted in a religious extremism that has been sponsored and harnessed by the State of Israel.
One might expect Israel to have a separation of religion and state. The Labor Zionist movement that founded Israel was very secular, even atheist. And to this day, the Jewish population of Israel prides itself in its secular culture.
Yet, synagogue and state have been wedded since Israel’s inception. Israel’s military and political “George Washington” figure David Ben Gurion, a secular Labor Zionist, unabashedly exploited religious sentiment to marshal Jewish support for Israel’s founding war to either drive out or subjugate the Arab population of Palestine.
Then as Israel’s first prime minister, Ben Gurion established an official “Chief Rabbinate” for the new state. To fill it, “he pulled from a pool of religious nationalists following in the tradition of the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi, Abraham Isaac Kook,” as Max Blumenthal wrote in his book Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel .
Just as the decadent, worldly House of Saud purchased the loyalty of Wahhabi clerics to drape itself in spiritual legitimacy and propel itself with religious fervor, so did the irreligious, secular State of Israel purchase the loyalty of nationalist rabbis to do much the same.
Ben Gurion defended this cynical ploy against the criticism of the great anti-Zionist Israeli scholar Yeshayahu Leibowitz, telling him:
“I will never agree to the separation of religion and state. I want the state to hold religion in the palm of its hand.”
Blumenthal told of Leibowitz’s reply:
“Leibowitz chastisted Ben Gurion for his fecklessness, warning that however mediocre and malleable the state rabbis might have seemed, their thirst for power was insatiable, and their reactionary impulses obvious. As usual, his prophecies were ignored, and his most dire predictions were fulfilled.”
Leibowitz, who Isaiah Berlin once called “the conscience of Israel,”
“…argued vehemently for the separation of church and state, warning that failing to do so would give rise to a corrupt rabbinate that would warp Judaism into a fascistic cult. ‘Religious nationalism is to religion what National Socialism was to socialism,’ Leibowitz famously declared.”
Indeed, religious Zionism saw itself as the one holding secular Zionism in the palm of its hand, using the latter as a mere vehicle for reaching the messianic goals of the former.
Rabbi Kook himself (mentioned above) saw the Labor Zionists as unwitting agents of a divine plan to finally redeem the people and land of Israel and precipitate the phrophesied coming of the Messiah.
Kook died in 1935, and so did not live to see the 1948 establishment of the State of Israel which he believed would mark the beginning of the Messianic Age. But his son and successor Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook did. Moreover, the younger Kook’s refinement of his father’s doctrine would play a formative role in the rise of both Israeli religious nationalism and the Jewish settler movement.
Formerly marginalized, Kookist messianic Zionism and the settler movement it would animate both came into their own after 1967. In the Six Day War of that year, Israel conquered and occupied the Arab-populated West Bank and Gaza Strip of Palestine. In the following decade, students of Rabbi Kook created the Gush Emunim movement which was dedicated to aggressive Jewish settlement and ruthless Arab dispossession in the Occupied Territories, on the grounds that according to the Torah, the land was given to the Jews by God. Thus was the modern Jewish settlement movement born.
Kook infused the settler movement with a more militant and elaborate formulation of his father’s doctrine. As Blumenthal explained:
“Kook told his disciples that they represented the modern incarnation of the Jewish Messiah. In order to bring about the ‘final redemption,’ he instructed them to exploit the achievements of the secular Zionists, who had performed the necessary work of colonizing ‘Israel proper’ in 1948 and conquering the West Bank in 1967. Just as the Messiah appeared riding an ass in biblical prophecy, Kook presented the secular public as an ass that the religious nationalists could ride all the way to dominion.
According to Kook’s teachings, as soon as the Labor Zionist camp that colonized Israel became politically irrelevant, the religious nationalists would be free to institutionalize his vision of untrammeled religious supremacy into law.”
Far from holding religion “in the palm of its hand,” Ben Gurion’s secular state was, in Kook’s vision, nothing but a donkey to be ridden by extremist theocrats and euthanized once it has outlived its usefulness.
And it seems that Kook’s (and Leibowitz’s) vision was much more far-seeing than Ben Gurion’s. Especially in recent years, the messianic settler movement has politically gone from strength to strength and has continued to radicalize. This is, in large part, thanks to generous state funding for fundamentalist rabbis and yeshivas (religious schools), especially in West Bank Jewish settlements.
One such rabbi is Yitzhak Shapira, who leads a yeshiva in a West Bank settlement not far from where the recent firebombing occurred. There, as Blumenthal relates, he held sway,
“…over a small army of fanatics eager to terrorize the Palestinians tending to their crops and livestock in the valleys below them.”
Shapira’s yeshiva, as of Blumenthal’s writing in 2013, had,
“…raked in nearly $50,000 from the Israeli Ministry of Social Affairs since 2007. The Israeli Ministry of Education has supplemented the government’s support by pumping over 250 thousand dollars into the yeshiva’s coffers between 2006 and 2007.”
Out of that fevered and well-funded environment arose Shapira’s magnum opus: a 2009 book co-written by him and Rabbi Yosef Elitzur titled Torat Ha’Melech (The King’s Torah). The book was characterized by an Israeli newspaper as:
“230 pages on the laws concerning the killing of non-Jews, a kind of guidebook for anyone who ponders the question of if and when it is permissible to take the life of a non-Jew.”
As Blumenthal explained:
“Torat Ha’Melech was written as a guide for soldiers and army officers seeking rabbinical guidance on the rules of engagement. Drawing from a hodgepodge of rabbinical texts that seemed to support their genocidal views, Shapira and Elitzur urged a policy of ruthlessness toward non-Jews, insisting that the commandment against murder ‘refers only to a Jew who kills a Jew, and not to a Jew who kills a gentile, even if that gentile is one of the righteous among the nations.'”
The book teaches that:
“…non-Jews are ‘uncompassionate by nature’ and may have been killed in order to ‘curb their evil inclinations.’ ‘If we kill a gentile who has violated one of the seven commandments [of Noah]… there is nothing wrong with the murder,’ Shapira and Elitzur insisted.”
“The rabbis went on to pronounce all civilians of the enemy population ‘rodef,’ or villains who chase Jews and are therefore fair game for slaughtering. Shapira and Elitzur wrote, ‘Every citizen in the kingdom that is against us, who encourages the warriors or expresses satisfaction about their actions, is considered rodef and his killing is permissible.’
Shapira and Elitzur also justified the killing of Jewish dissidents. ‘A rodef is any person who weakens our kingdom by speech and so forth,’ they wrote.”
As Blumenthal clarified:
“Though he did not specify the identity of the non-Jewish ‘enemy’ in the pages of his book, Rabbi Shapira’s longstanding connection to terrorist attacks against Palestinian civilians exposes the true identity of his targets.”
Most relevant to our present concerns are the book’s teachings on the killing of children. Blumenthal related:
“Citing Jewish law as his source (or at least a very selective interpretation of it) he declared, ‘There is justification for killing babies if it is clear that they will grow up to harm us, and in such a situation they may be harmed deliberately, and not only during combat with adults.'”
“Finally, the rabbis issued an extensive but crudely reasoned justification for the killing of innocent children, arguing that in order to defeat ‘the evil kingdom,’ the rules of war ‘permit intentional hurting of babies and of innocent people, if this is necessary for the war against the evil people.’ They added, ‘If hurting the children of an evil king will put great pressure on him that would prevent him from acting in an evil manner—they can be hurt.’
Shapira and Elitzur justified killing babies and small children on the grounds of satiating the national thirst for revenge. ‘Sometimes,’ the rabbis wrote, ‘one does evil deeds that are meant to create a correct balance of fear, and a situation in which evil actions do not pay off . . . and in accordance with this calculus, the infants are not killed for their evil, but due to the fact that there is a general need of everyone to take revenge on the evil people, and the infants are the ones whose killing will satisfy this need.’”
This is a direct endorsement of the settler movement’s “price tag” policy discussed above. One must “exact a price” in order to “create a correct balance of fear.” It is also a pre-endorsement of the specific “price tag” immolation of the baby boy in Duma, as it explicitly condones the killing of babies and small children for the sake of national revenge.
To gauge the impact of the book on the youth of the settlement movement, Blumenthal asked a 22-year-old settler:
“…if he was willing to defend the provisions in Torat Ha’Melech justifying the murder of innocent children. Without hesitation or any initial shame, the young man, who refused to give his name, told us, ‘There is such a concept in Jewish law as an enemy population, and under very, very specific circumstances, according to various rabbinic opinions, it would be seemingly permissible to kill, uh, uh . . .’ For a moment, he trailed off, and his eyes darted around the room. But the settler managed to collect himself and complete his statement. ‘To kill children,’ he muttered uncomfortably.”
Such a message was too much even for the ultra-right Likud government under Benjamin Netanyahu, which tried to crack down on the authors. However, the attempt went nowhere. The rabbis simply refused to show when summoned, and the government dared not press the matter further. And Netanyahu, who doesn’t hesitate to smack talk a sitting President of the United States, wouldn’t utter a peep against the radical rabbis.
“Following the publication of Torat Ha’Melech, Netanyahu strenuously avoided criticizing its contents or the authors’ leading supporters. Netanyahu’s submissive posture before the country’s religious far right highlighted the power religious nationalist figures wielded both in his own party and in his governing coalition. For the prime minister, a showdown with the rabbis threatened to unravel his coalition, derail his agenda, and alienate his party’s hardcore base in ‘Judea and Samaria.'”
(“Judea and Samaria” is Biblical settler-speak for the West Bank.)
Subsequently, Torat Ha’Melech became so successful that, as Blumenthal wrote:
“The book had come to represent the unofficial code of the religious nationalist soldier.”
And now such soldiers are legion, as state-funded settlement yeshiva graduates have flocked to the military. By less than two years after the publication of Torat Ha’Melech,
“…the ranks of the army were overrun by religious nationalists, with more than a third of infantry officers expressing a right-wing religious point of view—a 30 percent jump since 1990.”
All this probably goes a long way toward explaining the apparent recent uptick in the military’s unflinching willingness to slaughter children, especially in that 51 Day War of last summer, and most graphically manifested in the IDF’s cold-hearted shelling of four young Gaza boys playing soccer on a beach.
As Blumenthal concluded:
“The Torat Ha’Melech affair demonstrated how far the Kookists had come since embarking on their heavenly mission. The dynamic that Ben Gurion had hoped to create had been entirely reversed, with the Israeli rabbinate holding the state in its palm, and molding it as it pleased.”
The settler movement’s rise in political power has been attended by a rise in settler impunity, which in turn, along with its religious radicalization, has led to a rise in settler violence.
“Jewish settler violence has been a fact of life in the occupied West Bank since the 1970s. Since 2007, however, settler violence has spiked dramatically. A 2008 article in Ha’aretz attributed the rise in attacks to the 2005 withdrawal of settlers from the Gaza Strip, after which West Bank settlers vowed to answer each state action against them with a ‘price tag’ assault on Palestinians, thus establishing a deterrent ‘balance of terror.’ But a detailed analysis of documented settler attacks that occurred during the past decade by the Washington-based research institute, the Palestine Center revealed the violence as structural, not reactive. Staged without pretext and most frequently in West Bank areas under Israeli security control, the settlers acted without restraint. The report identified northern settlements such as Yitzhar [Rabbi Shapira’s settlement] as hotbeds of violent activity, with shooting attacks and arson on the rise. According to Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights group, the Israeli police closed 91 percent of investigations into settler attacks without indicting anyone, and usually failed to locate the suspects.”
With such chronic impunity, it is no wonder that the perpetrators of Thursday’s attack were bold enough to burn an infant alive and retreat to the safety of a nearby Jewish settlement. And it will be no surprise if they are never brought to justice, and if it happens again in the near future.
It is not only electoral calculations that lead the Israeli government to go soft on settlers. The settlement movement is merely the vanguard of the Zionist colonialism that has been both the raison d’État and raison d’être of the State of Israel from the very beginning.
Furthermore, it is a bit rich for Netanyahu to quail over the murder of a Palestinian baby and a book endorsing such acts, when he’s killed more children than every school shooter in history put together. Netanyahu is Adam Lanza with a military budget. He merely justifies his own acts of infanticide on grounds that are more palatable to the modern mind than those offered by Rabbi Shapira and perpetrates his own baby immolations under color of authority. (For more on this point, read this outstanding essay by Rania Khalek.) In last year’s attack on Gaza alone, Netanyahu and his military killed 551 children, including 108 preschoolers and 19 babies. And it hardly began with him. From the 1948 Nakba, to the 1982 terror-bombing of Lebanon, to the 2008–09 Operation Cast Lead, the State of Israel is a seasoned expert in infanticide.
Indeed, the Israeli government, after denouncing Thursday’s murder of a Palestinian minor, has responded to the incident by… murdering Palestinian minors. Israeli forces have shot to death at least three teenagers trying to protest the baby burning.
When Blumenthal attended a religious nationalist confab to gather research, he was accompanied by his roommate Yossi David who was:
…the perfect person to help me translate the seemingly arcane Hebrew religious formulations that were likely to fill discussions at the event. Yossi was raised in an ultra-Orthodox home and was forced to spend his adolescence in a stuffy yeshiva where sports and the study of foreign languages were forbidden. He suffered under layers of stiff religious garb in the stultifying summer heat but never turned against the faith until the extremist environment his rabbis cultivated became unbearable.
After forswearing both ultra-Orthodoxy and Zionism, Yossi began to expand his cultural horizons:
“In 2005, Yossi visited Jerusalem’s first gay pride march out of curiosity. He arrived at the end of the event, finding himself in a scene of chaos. A young man had just lunged into a crowd of marchers and slashed three men with a knife he had just purchased. The perpetrator turned out to be a thirty-year-old ultra-Orthodox fanatic named Yishai Shlisel. “I came to murder on behalf of God. We can’t have such abomination in the country,” the unrepentant Shlisel said afterward. Yossi remembered Shlisel from his yeshiva days. “I realized then that if I had stayed, if I hadn’t asked questions, that he could have been me,” he said of the fanatical slasher.”
After a ten year prison term, this product of a state-funded extremist yeshiva was obviously still unrepentant. Yet, upon his recent release, he was allowed to immediately make his way, unmonitored, to this year’s Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade, and repeat his crime on Thursday of last week, this time managing to claim a life.
Let it not be thought that all Orthodox, or even all ultra-Orthodox strands of Judaism are proto-fascist in the above regards. In fact, a great many Orthodox Jews have been heroically anti-Zionist; and this has been so since before the founding of Israel. For example, it has been certain Orthodox yeshivas that have faced the ire of the State by resisting Israel’s military conscription.
The problem of state-sponsored religious extremism and religious terrorism is not just about Saudi-sponsored madrassas and radical Islam, but also Israeli-sponsored yeshivas and ultra-nationalist Judaism. And it is a crisis in Israel that shows no sign of abating, especially with Kook’s kooks now so firmly ensconced in political power. The only solution is to cut the funding at its ultimate source: US aid to Israel. If the sponsor won’t quit, the sponsor’s sponsor must.