Religious Fundamentalism in Israel
by Stephen Lendman
Israel Shahak's (1933 - 2001) "Jewish
History, Jewish Religion" argued that while Islamic fundamentalism
is vilified in the West, comparable Jewish extremism is largely
ignored. In the book's forward, Edward Said wrote:
"....Shahak's mode of telling the
truth has always been rigorous and uncompromising. There is nothing
seductive about it, no attempt made to put it 'nicely,' no effort
expended on making the truth palatable....For Shahak killing is
murder is killing is murder: his manner is to repeat. (He) shows
that the obscure, narrowly chauvinist prescriptions against various
undesirable Others are to be found in Judaism (as in other monotheistic
religions) but he always goes on to show the continuity between
those and the way Israel treats Palestinians, Christians and other
non-Jews. A devastating portrait of prejudice, hypocrisy and religious
Shahak's "Jewish Fundamentalism in
Israel" picked up on the theme in explaining its pervasive,
destructive influence in Israeli politics, the military and society.
He noted that substituting German or Aryan for Jewish and non-Jews
for Jews makes it easy to see how a superiority doctrine made
an earlier genocide possible and is letting another happen now.
Shahak called all forms of bigotry morally
reprehensible and said:
"Any form of racism, discrimination
and xenophobia becomes more potent and politically influential
if it is taken for granted by the society which indulges in it."
For Israeli Jews, he believed, "The support of democracy
and human rights is....meaningless or even harmful and deceitful
when it does not begin with self-critique and with support of
human rights when they are violated by one's own group. Any support
of human rights for non-Jews whose rights are being violated by
the 'Jewish state' is as deceitful as the support of human rights
by a Stalinist...."
As a leading Israeli human rights activist
and Holocaust survivor, Shakah reviewed Jewish fundamentalist
history, examined its strains, and explained the dangers of extremist
messianic ones. They oppose equality of Jews and non-Jews and
destroy democratic values by espousing dogma calling Jews superior
to all others.
The earlier influence of fundamentalist
Rabbi Abraham Kook (1865 - 1935), or Kuk, was significant. He
preached Jewish supremacy and said: "The difference between
a Jewish soul and souls of non-Jews - all of them in all different
levels - is greater and deeper than the difference between a human
soul and the souls of cattle." His teachings helped create
the settler movement, and his son, Rabbi Tzvi Yehuda Kook, founded
the extremist Gush Emunim (GE) under the slogan: "The Land
of Israel, for the people of Israel, according to the Torah of
Like the elder Kook, GE sees state power
as a way forward to a new messianic era. It believes that God
created the world for Jews. Others are lesser beings. Greater
Israel belongs to Jews alone, and holy wars are acceptable to
Kook was Israel's first chief rabbi. In
his honor and to continue his teachings, the extremist Merkaz
Harav (the Rabbi's Center) was founded in 1924 as a yeshiva or
fundamentalist religious college. It teaches that "non-Jews
living under Jewish law in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel)
must either be enslaved as water carriers and wood hewers, or
banished, or exterminated." It gets no more extremist than
that and highlights the dangers for Palestinians in Israel and
the Occupied Territories. Their lives and welfare are being sacrificed
for a Greater Israel for Jews alone.
Gush Emunim adherents and other Israeli
religious zealots plan it. They're active in politics, hold seats
in the Knesset, are Netanyahu government coalition partners (including
Shas, United Torah and Yisrael Beiteinu), and are prominently
represented in Israel's military throughout the ranks and rabbinate.
Chief military rabbi, Brigadier General Avichai Rontzki, called
Operation Cast Lead a "religious war" in which it was
"immoral" to show mercy to an enemy of "murderers."
Many others feel the same way, prominently
among them graduates of Hesder Yeshivat schools that combine extremist
religious indoctrination with military service to defend the Jewish
In 1981, Rabbi Harav Lichtenstein's article,
"The Ideology of Hesder: The View from Yeshivat Har Etzion,"
"Hesder....seeks to attract and develop
bnei torah (religious individuals) who are profoundly motivated
by the desire to become serious talmidei machamim (religiously
knowledgeable) but who concurrently feel morally and religiously
bound to help defend their people and their country; who....regard
this dual commitment as both a privilege and a duty....it thus
enables them to maintain an integrated Jewish experience."
Nearly all Hesder graduates perform combat
service for up to six years. Today 41 schools operate throughout
Israel. In 1991, Hesder was awarded the Israel Prize (the state's
highest honor) for its exceptional service to the nation.
One commander expressed how many feel
in explaining the military's mission:
"We are the Jewish people. We came
to this land by a miracle. God brought us back to this land and
now we need to fight to expel the Gentiles who are interfering
with our conquest of this holy land."
Extremist Israeli rabbis teach this ideology,
and in 2003 Rabbi Saadya Grama's book, "Romemut Yisrael Ufarashat
Hagalut (The Majesty of Israel and the Question of the Diaspora),
argued that non-Jews are "completely evil" while Jews
are genetically superior. Reform and conservative rabbis condemned
it. Extremist orthodox ones endorsed it. Some more moderate ones
also saying Grama advocates separating Jews from an intrinsically
hostile anti-Semetic world. Rabbi Yosef Blau called the book "a
call for a superior people to withdraw from the world and live
in isolation while submitting to its enemies and placing trust
Others in Israel teach the extremist notion
that the ten commandments don't apply to non-Jews. So killing
them in defending the homeland is acceptable, and according to
Rabbi Dov Lior, chairman of the Jewish Rabbinic Council:
"There is no such thing as enemy
civilians in war time. The law of our Torah is to have mercy on
our soldiers and to save them....A thousand non-Jewish lives are
not worth a Jew's fingernail."
Rabbi David Batsri called Arabs "a
blight, a devil, a disaster....donkeys, and we have to ask ourselves
why God didn't create them to walk on all fours. Well, the answer
is that they are needed to build and clean." Extremist zealots
want them for no other purpose in Jewish society.
In 2007, Israel's former chief rabbi,
Mordechai Elyahu, called for the Israeli army to mass-murder Palestinians.
In fanatical language he said:
"If they don't stop after we kill
100, then we must kill 1000. And if they don't stop after 1000,
then we must kill 10,000. If they still don't stop we must kill
100,000. Even a million. Whatever it takes to make them stop."
In March 2009, Safed's chief rabbi Shmuel
Eliyahu called for "state-sponsored revenge" to restore
"Israel's deterrence....It's time to call the child by its
name: Revenge, revenge, revenge. We mustn't forget. We have to
take horrible revenge for the terrorist attack at Mercaz Harav
yeshiva," referring to an earlier incident in which eight
"I am not talking about individual
people in particular. I'm talking about the state. (It) has to
pain them where they scream 'Enough,' to the point where they
fall flat on their face and scream 'help.' "
In June 2009, US Hasidic Rabbi Manis Friedman
voiced a similar sentiment in calling on Israel to kill Palestinian
"men, women and children."
"I don't believe in western morality,
i.e. don't kill civilians or children, don't destroy holy sites,
don't fight during the holiday seasons, don't bomb cemeteries,
don't shoot until they shoot first because it is immoral. The
only way to fight a moral war is the Jewish way: Destroy their
holy sites. Kill men, women and children (and cattle)."
Views like these aren't exceptions. Though
a minority, they proliferate throughout Israeli society, and are
common enough to incite violence against Palestinians, even when
they rightfully defend themselves as international law allows.
Religious Extremism Threatens Any Chance
for an Equitable Solution to the Israeli - Palestinian Conflict
Israeli extremists are a minority but
influential enough to make policy, and therein lies the threat
to peace and likelihood of a sovereign Palestinian state. In his
book, "A Little Too Close to God," David Horovitz recalled
that before Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination, he attended
a Netanyahu-sponsored anti-Rabin rally he described as follows:
"I felt as if I were among wild animals,
vicious, angry predators craving flesh and scenting blood. There
was elation in the anger, elation bred of the certainty of eventual
In his book, "Terror in the Mind
of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence," Professor
Mark Juergensmeyer compared the similarities among religious-motivated
extremists, whether Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist,
Sikh or others.
He related a conversation with Yoel Lerner
who was imprisoned for trying to blow up the Dome of the Rock,
the Muslim holy site, because he believed that an ancient Jewish
temple stood there before it was destroyed.
He expressed messianic Zionism in saying
the "Messiah will come to earth only after the temple is
rebuilt and made ready for him," so Jews must assure it's
done. These views are prominent in high places and throughout
Israeli society; that is, religious fervor for a Greater Israel
for Jews only, a Jewish state excluding all Arabs with violence
an acceptable tool to remove them, and conflict will continue
until they're gone.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency's (JTA)
Report on Jewish Extremists
On June 24, JTA wrote a special report
on Jewish extremists in which it described "the face of radical
Jewish nationalism in Israel....a movement of settler youths,
rabbis, leaders and supporters determined to hold onto the West
Bank at any cost." They represent a minority, but are a "vocal
and increasingly violent constituency of the Jewish settler movement"
rampaging against Palestinians and Israelis, confident that God
is on their side, and one day a "Torah-based theocracy (will)
triumph over the State of Israel."
Rabbi Yisrael Iriel is one of its adherents
in preaching Jewish superiority and unwillingness to cede any
part of biblical Israel to non-Jews. He's one of a "small
group of (extremist) rabbis who provide the theological and ideological
underpinnings for radical settlers."
The Israeli human rights group Yesh Din
believes they number about 1000 but exert considerable influence
nonetheless. They're an extremist fringe element, determined to
use violence to achieve their goals, and are supported by other
West Bank settlers. One young adherent expressed their agenda
by saying "I think God chose a good and beautiful land for
us," and we'll fight to keep it. If so, it makes peaceful
resolution harder than ever to achieve, especially with political
hard-liners in charge and most Israelis supporting them.
Hate Literature Distributed to Israeli
Until discontinued on July 20, a booklet
published by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America,
in cooperation with Rabbi Shmuel Eliahu, titled, "On Either
Side of the Border" was given to IDF soldiers containing
hateful fiction purported to be true. It suggested that the Pope
and Vatican cardinals sympathized with Hezbollah's struggle and
conspired with the organization to kill Jews. It claimed that
the Vatican organized Auschwitz tours to teach its members how
to do it, and that its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, was invited to
join a delegation to tour France, Poland, Italy and the Vatican.
It also accused European politicians and
journalists of conspiring against Israel. Rabbi Eliahu's aide,
David Menahemov, claimed booklet material was true even though
the account portrayed was preposterous. Yet one Israeli soldier
said everyone in the ranks reads and believes it. Many soldiers
told him, "Read this and you'll understand who the Arabs
are" and why the Israeli cause is just.
During Operation Cast Lead, 10,000 mp3s
were also distributed to Israeli forces with recorded extremist
sermons. Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger urged soldiers to
"trust in God and know that war is being waged for the sanctification
of His name....and not to fear. (Soldiers) should not think of
(their) wi(ves) or children or (their) mother(s) and father(s)."
Chief Sephardic Rabbi Shlomo Amar called
the Gaza conflict "a holy mission that is being waged in
the name of the entire Jewish people."
Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu said "Our intention
is to uplift soldiers' spirits" in battle against Hamas terrorists.
The IDF Rabbinate division, Jewish Consciousness Field (JCF),
also distributed a pamphlet titled "Jewish Consciousness
Emphases for Cast Lead" calling military rabbis "Anointed
Priests of War."
A JCF officer, Shmuel Yurman, explained
the pamphlet's purpose as follows:
"This is the hour to strengthen our
fighters in this heavenly commanded war that they have the merit
to wage. Each (rabbi) has the knowledge and skills needed to contribute
to the IDF battle spirit. Nevertheless, in order to enlighten
and focus the spiritual message, JCF learned and prepared itself
for this war before the operation began and as it was being fought.
In meetings with soldiers and officers on the southern front we
listened to the spiritual needs."
JCF's head, Rabbi Tzadok Ben-Artzi, justified
the war saying:
"We, the people who contributed to
the world the book of books, who want to build a society based
on creativity and peace, love of mankind and faith in good, find
ourselves chased by blind hatred that is motivated by 'religious'
terminology and aspires to bloodshed and cruelty."
He advised IDF rabbis to say that the
war's aim is "to save the Jewish people from its enemies"
and eradicate evil in the world. Other extremist rabbis voiced
the same sentiment, and, under Brigadier General Avichai Ronzki's
command, the IDF's rabbinate theologized military missions and
fed messianic dogma to young minds. Many in the ranks are already
zealots enough to make spreading this gospel all the easier.
Ronzki explains it by saying that "as
military rabbis, (we're) supposed to deal with helping soldiers
to internalize Jewish values, spirit and consciousness as presented
in Jewish sources. This is our main function as rabbis....(to)
teach....what Judaism is."
Different Sides of Israel's Religious
Ronzki and other zealots represent one
side of Israel's religious community, comprised of two major groups
- religious Zionists and Charedim. Governed by their ideology,
the former believe in the special relationship between God and
Jews and see Israeli governance from that perspective. They comprise
about two-thirds of the religious community and 8% of the population.
Representing the other third and about 4.5% of the population,
the Charedim see Israel as a secular state like most others in
Ethnicity also defines religious segments.
Sephardic Jews originated from the Middle East, North Africa and
Spain. Ashkenazi ones are from Eastern Europe and differ in religious
and cultural traditions. Both communities attend separate synagogues
in different neighborhoods, yet are represented in religious Zionist
and Charedim camps. Israel has two chief rabbis, one Ashkenazi,
the other Sephardic.
Though a minority, Israel's religious
community wields considerable influence politically, in the military
and society overall. Moreover, synagogues and yeshivas are popular
places where people gather to discuss issues of common interest
and hear the views of their rabbinical leaders.
The most extreme believe in Jewish sovereignty
over all biblical Israel, so foregoing any of it is unthinkable.
Thirteenth century Rabbi Moses Ben Nachman was their spiritual
godfather. He wrote that Jews "should settle in the land
and inherit it, because He gave it to them, and they should not
reject God's inheritance." Our rabbis say it's "a mitzvah
(commandment) to settle in the land and it is forbidden to leave
Similar dogma today holds that reclaiming
Israel for Jews will foreshadow the coming of the messiah. Rabbi
Avraham Kook preached it. Today's most extreme zealots believe
that conceding any biblical land will delay or subvert messianic
redemption, so it can't be tolerated. Palestinians are called
enemies for wanting land of their own. Yielding any violates Jewish
law they believe.
In contrast, secular Charedim accept land
concessions for peace and want the government to make policy,
not religious Zionists based on biblical law. They believe Israel
should serve the interests of all Jews, not one segment over another,
and feel no part of Israel is too sacred to concede (except Jerusalem)
if it best serves the Jewish people overall.
They believe that the Torah promotes peaceful
co-existence and, except for defense, conflict is counterproductive.
Like religious Zionists, they feel all biblical Israel belongs
to the Jews, yet they're willing to concede some in the interest
Most religious Israelis fall somewhere
between these groups. They believe that biblical Israel was promised
to Jews, yet accept compromise to one degree or another to preserve
life and serve the best interests of all Jews.
How the future balance of power shifts
from one side to the other will greatly influence the makeup of
future Israeli governments and determine whether peaceful co-existance
can replace over six decades of conflict and repression. So far
it hasn't, and nothing suggests it will any time soon, not while
extremist Zionists run the government, serve prominently in the
IDF, and, according to critics, are gaining more power incrementally.
Stephen Lendman is a Research Associate
of the Centre for Research on Globalization. He lives in Chicago
and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.