Rising Extremism–and Racism–in Israel ignored by American Jewish Organizations

In Israel, religious extremism and racism are on the rise while American Jewish organizations–”often the first to decry such developments in our own country–”remain largely silent.

A book recently published in Israel which justifies the killing of non-Jews, even babies and children, has stirred some controversy in Israel, but seems not to be on the agenda of American Jewish groups.

In The King’s Torah (Torat Hamelech), Part One: Laws of Life and Death Between Israel and the Nations, a 230-page compendium of Halacha, or Jewish religious law, published by Od Yosef Chai yeshiva in the illegal West Bank settlement of Yitzhar, Rabbis Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur write that, “The prohibition ‘Thou Shalt Not Murder’ applies only to a Jew who kills a Jew.” Non-Jews are “uncompassionate by nature,” the rabbis explain, and attacks on them “curb their evil inclinations,” while babies and children of Israel’s enemies may be killed since “it is clear that they will grow up to harm us.”

On Jan. 18, more than 100 Israeli security officials forcibly entered Od Yosef Chai and arrested 10 Jewish settlers. The Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic security agency, suspects five of those arrested were involved in the December torching and vandalizing of a mosque in the neighboring Palestinian village of Yasuf.

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger and his Sephardic counterpart, Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, have declined to comment on the book, which was published in November 2009, while other prominent Israeli rabbis have endorsed it–”among them, the son of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Sephardic Jewry’s preeminent leader. Israeli Attorney General Menachem Mazuz so far has remained silent about The King’s Torah.

The “Twelfth of Heshvan,” a coalition of religious Zionist groups named after the Hebrew date of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, asked Israel’s Supreme Court to order Mazuz to confiscate the books and arrest its authors. “You open the book and you feel that you are reading a halachic book. And it’s a trap,” said Gadi Gvaryahu, a religious Jewish educator who heads the coalition. It was, in fact, “a guidebook on how to kill,” he charged.

Co-author Rabbi Shapira was suspected of involvement in a crude rocket attack in 2008 directed against a Palestinian village. Israeli police investigated but made no arrests. A month after the release of The King’s Torah its other author, Rabbi Elitzur, wrote an article in a religious bulletin saying that “the Jews will win with violence against the Arabs.”

In 2003 Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, head of the Od Yosef Chai yeshiva, was charged by then-Attorney General Elyakin Rubinstein with incitement to racism for authoring a book calling Arabs “a cancer.” Nevertheless, in 2006-2007 the Israeli Ministry of Education gave about a quarter of a million dollars to the yeshiva, and in 2007-08 it received about $28,000 from the American nonprofit Central Fund of Israel.

According to the Jan. 29 Forward (see this issue’s “Other Voices” supplement), “…the book’s wide dissemination and the enthusiastic endorsements of prominent rabbis have spotlighted what might have otherwise remained an isolated commentary. At the entrance to Moriah, a large Jewish bookstore steps from the Western Wall, copies of ‘The King’s Torah’ were displayed with children’s books and other halachic commentaries. The store manager…said the tome has sold ‘excellently.’ The book is widely available, being sold in such bookstores as Robinson Books, a well-known, mostly secular shop in a hip Tel Aviv shopping district; Pomeranz Bookseller, a major Jewish book store near the Ben Yehuda Mall in downtown Jerusalem, and Felhendler, a Judaica store on the main artery of secular Rehovot, home of the Weizmann Institute.”

The book’s preface features letters of endorsement from prominent religious figures. Rabbi Yaakov Yosef, son of former Sephardic Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, blessed the authors and wrote that many “disciples of Torah are unfamiliar with these laws.” Dov Lior, chief rabbi of Kiryat Arba–”home of the late settler and terrorist Dr. Baruch Goldstein–”and a respected figure among mainstream religious Zionists, noted that the book “is very relevant especially in this time.”

According to The Forward, “Previously, Israel has arrested settler rabbis who publish commentaries supporting the killing of non-Jews.” Now, however, said Yair Sheleg, senior researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, who specializes in issues of religion and state, “The atmosphere has changed.” While previous governments took a tougher stance against such publications, he noted, “paradoxically, because the tension between the general settler population and the Israeli judicial system…is high now, the attorney general is careful not to heighten the tension.”

In early November 2009, Knesset Member Dr. Michael Ben-Ari appeared in a paid spot on Israel Radio Channel B, a public radio station under the jurisdiction of the Israel Broadcasting Authority (IBA), during prime commuting hours. “To mark l9 years since the assassination of Rabbi Meir Kahane, may his memory be a blessing,” the MK said, “I would like to invite you to the family’s main memorial event, which will take place this coming Thursday.”

At the memorial ceremony, attended by more than 300 people, Itamar Ben-Gvit, Ben-Ari’s parliamentary assistant, declared: “We are the proud Jews, the powerful Jews, the dignified Jews, the Jews who don’t desecrate the name of the Holy One Blessed Be He by allowing a Jew anywhere to be humiliated. Ten years ago, who would have thought we would have a member of Knesset, and one with a Ph.D. in archeology and Israel Studies, representing us?”

Ben-Gvit, who in 2008 was convicted of a string of offenses, including incitement to racial hatred and disturbing the peace, continued: “I don’t know how many times I’ve been in jail. But pretty soon, the authorities will understand–”we’re the establishment now. Kahane was right, and everything he said has come true. We will show the enemies of Israel, may their names be blotted out–”the Arabs and the self-hating leftists–”that the land of Israel belongs to us, the true Jews.”

Reported The Jerusalem Report of Dec. 21, 2009: “While he was alive, Kahane’s following in Israel was largely made up of expat Americans, with only a few religious native Israelis, most of them marginal even in their own marginal communities. But the audience was almost completely native Israeli with few English speakers; the speeches, all in Hebrew, were not translated as they had been in previous years. The styles of dress and head coverings revealed that the crowd represented a wide spectrum of religious observance; at least a dozen of the younger men were wearing Israel Defense Force (IDF) uniforms, the insignias and ranks indicating that they were on active duty…”

In 1994, after the American-born Goldstein, a member of the Jewish Defense League in the U.S. and of Kahane’s Kach party in Israel, massacred 29 Palestinians in the Cave of the Patriarchs, Kach was outlawed completely. Now, signs claiming “Kahane Was Right” are frequently graffiti-sprayed throughout the country. The settler movement once distanced itself from Kahane, but today his staunchest supporters come from the settlements. And while Kahane himself was first ostracized, then legally barred from the Knesset, his avowed follower Ben-Ari is a member of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee.

“Overall, Israeli society has turned to the right,” says Professor Emanuel Gutmann of Hebrew University. “Israeli society in general is less tolerant, less interested in compromise, and more accepting of force as a solution than it was in the past.”

In the face of all of this, why do American Jewish groups, which strenuously argue for separation of church and state in the United States and are quick to highlight any examples of bigotry within our own society, remain silent? The real test of one’s values, after all, may be a willingness to apply those values to one’s own group, as well as to others. Muslims, quite properly, are asked to disassociate themselves from the radical Islamist advocates of terror. Should Jews be held to a lesser standard? Jews cannot proclaim–”as many do–”that Israel is “central” to their religious faith and not bear responsibility for what occurs there. Bigotry, exclusivity and extremism should be equally offensive no matter who the victim is, or who the perpetrator.