by: Rabbi Michael Lerner on July 7th, 2014 | 11 Comments »
“Thou Shall NOT Take Vengeance” is a key law of Torah, but it is being ignored in Israel today both by the government and by significant parts of the people of the State of Israel (read Chemi Shalev’s article and Gideon Levi’s article).
We at Tikkun condemned the kidnapping of three Israeli teens several weeks ago, and we rejected the suggestion by some on the Left and some in the Palestinian world that this act had to be contextualized to the Occupation. Instead we insisted that acts of kidnapping and then subsequently of murder are ethically wrong and should not be minimized or morally excused on the grounds that just before those kidnappings Israeli occupying forces had killed several Palestinians in nearby Hebron.
Now we watch in horror as Israelis march through the streets of Jerusalem and many other cities calling for vengeance, as some Israelis kidnap and murder a Palestinian teen in East Jerusalem, as the Israeli Army blows up dozens of homes of “suspected terrorists” without the slightest attempt to give them an opportunity to defend themselves against this charge, and as the IDF bombs Gaza though there is no evidence that the Israeli teens were killed by order of anyone in Hamas.
This, of course, is not fundamentally different from what the United States did after 9/11, or what China did after the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square or what many other countries do. But it is particularly vexing to ethically conscious Jews for the following reason: Israel claims to be “the Jewish state,” and yet its Occupation policies and the violence that flows from those policies have a devastating impact on the ethical claims of the Jewish people, defame God’s name, and leave a historical memory that for thousands of years will plague our people in the eyes of others and in the relationship that ethical Jews will have to our traditions.
We Jews have to save Judaism from its identification with the policies of the State of Israel toward Palestinians and from the deep anti-Arab racism that has grown deeper and deeper among many Israelis in order to justify the Occupation to themselves.
A first step toward reclaiming the moral high ground of Jewish ethics is taken in the articles from Ha’aretz newspaper that I’ve quoted and linked to below, particularly that by Rabbi Daniel Landes, the director of Pardes (a widely respected Jewish studies center in Jerusalem).
In his article, titled “Bulldoze the Jewish Terrorists’ Homes,” Landes writes:
There is only one sane and truly halakhic way to tackle our current situation: Take the well-known members of the Orthodox Price Tag gang and lock ‘em up, for a long time and in an inaccessible prison. Don’t let them go home for chagim and deny them visitors. Do the best to break and separate them. Freeze monies that go to their families. And when and if we have proven guilty perpetrators, bulldoze their parents’ homes. The last will stop them.
Am I overreaching? Might not Mohammed Abu Khdeir, the Arab teen murdered and his body desecrated, have been the victim of a different Jewish group or of some criminal group, perhaps Arab? Maybe, although I doubt it. But what is not doubtful is that the PTG – the Price Tag Gang – is headed in the direction of creating real havoc with us and with our Arab citizens and with neighboring populations. Since the PTG could care less about Western values, let us refer them to Jewish Law and values and utilize some rules from that body of wisdom.
Landes’s references to Price Tag refer to a group of settlers who have taken acts of violence against Israeli and West Bank Palestinians and even fellow Jews who wish to end the Occupation. He argues:
The PTG is an imminent sakanat nefashot, a danger to life. They are a fire burning on the Sabbath that will destroy not only property, but the lives of soldiers, police and civilians. Indeed, the PTG seemingly wants to cause tension and havoc, leading possibly to war. In their apocalyptic vision, they are confident that Israel will finally “do what it has always needed to do” and act with outstanding force to destroy not only Hamas but the PA and probably all other Muslims.
This is a fiery threat that needs a cold water cannon to extinguish it. When we don’t counter the PTG we destroy a fundamental principle of Torah equality – “One Torah and one Justice should be for you and for the stranger that resides in your midst,” (Numbers 15:16.)
We incarcerate suspected Hamas members and we deal harshly with their infrastructure, because they are a danger to us. The PTG are an equal danger. If you don’t think so ask the twenty soldiers and police outside my house guarding our Abu Tor neighborhood, who have spent the day dodging ricks delivered by slingshot and worrying about worse, courtesy of our cowardly ‘boys’.
There is a great danger that copycat revenge activities, including murder, can spew forth from such an event. The Halakhic principle to be invoked is lifnei evar lo teetain michshol, “before the blind do not put a stumbling block,” (Leviticus 19:14.) Rabbinically, the verse is interpreted to refer to someone who is blind to the consequences of his or her act – a perfect definition of the members of the PTG. Harsh prison time, punishment to parents who have not exerted responsibility in reigning in their children and isolation from their peers should convince Jewish terrorists and wannabes from their disastrous road.
Next, Landes speaks out against the Israeli rabbis who have publicly called for acts of discrimination against Palestinians and/or acts of vengeance. He writes:
Rabbis who have been inculcating and preaching the virus of racist revenge need to spend their Daf Yomi [daily Talmud study] time in jail. Ah, but do we not actually owe them our cherished respect? My teacher, the great moral leader Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, often quoted the Talmudic phrase, bimkom hillul HaShem ein mechalkin kavod lerav, “in the place of profanation of God’s name, we do not give honor to a Rav.”
There is no greater Hillul HaShem than a charred corpse of an innocent, murdered by Torah inspiration. The tragedy of the innocent boys murdered by terrorists will haunt us for a long time. But it will not destroy us. Jewish revenge killings will.
Rabbi Landes is one of those who will be remembered by history as a rare voice of religious sanity and Jewish ethics at a time when the best of Judaism is being violated in Israel today. His article is a true Kedushat Hashem (sanctification of God’s name). His article is also a living refutation of the claim that all orthodox Jews are right-wing fanatics – though it is certainly disappointing to me that most rabbis in the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Renewal, and Orthodox Jewish worlds have not yet uttered strong words of rebuke (tochecha) about what is going on in Israel today, or joined Rabbi Landes in his courageous statement.
Another article that illustrates the recent violations within Israel of the Torah’s law against taking vengeance is Chemi Shalev’s Ha’aretz article, “Berlin, 1933 and Jerusalem, 2014: When racist thugs are on the prowl.” Shalev writes:
Both my parents lost their families during World War II, and I need no convincing that the Holocaust is a crime so unique in its evil totality that it stands by itself even in the annals of other premeditated genocides.
But I am a Jew, and there are scenes of the Holocaust that are indelibly etched in my mind, even though I was not alive at the time. And when I saw the videos and pictures of gangs of right-wing Jewish racists running through the streets of Jerusalem, chanting “Death to the Arabs,” hunting for random Arabs, picking them out by their appearance or by their accents, chasing them in broad daylight, “drooling like hysterical beasts” and then beating them up before the police could arrive – the historical association was automatic. It was the first thing that jumped into my mind. It should have been, I think, the first thing that jumped into any Jew’s mind.
Israel in 2014, it goes without saying, is not “The Garden of Beasts” that Erik Larson wrote about in his book on 1933 Germany. The Israeli government does not condone vigilantism or thuggery, as the Nazis did for a while, before Germans started complaining about the disorder on their streets and the damage to Berlin’s international reputation. I have no doubt that the police will also do their utmost to apprehend the murderers of the Palestinian boy whose burnt body was found in a Jerusalem forest. I am even praying that they find that the killing wasn’t a hate crime at all.
But make no mistake: the gangs of Jewish ruffians man-hunting for Arabs are no aberration. Theirs was not a one-time outpouring of uncontrollable rage following the discovery of the bodies of the three kidnapped students. Their inflamed hatred does not exist in a vacuum: it is an ongoing presence, growing by the day, encompassing ever larger segments of Israeli society, nurtured in a public environment of resentment, insularity and victimhood, fostered and fed by politicians and pundits – some cynical, some sincere – who have grown weary of democracy and its foibles and who long for an Israel, not to put too fine a point on it, of one state, one nation and, somewhere down the line, one leader.
In the past 24 hours alone, a Facebook Page calling for “revenge” for the killings of the three kidnapped teens has received tens of thousands of “likes,” replete with hundreds of explicit calls to kill Arabs, wherever they are. The one demanding the execution of “extreme leftists” reached almost ten thousand likes within two days. These, and countless other articles on the web and on social media are inundated, today as in most other days, with readers comments spewing out the worst kind of racist bile and calling for death, destruction and genocide.
These calls have been echoed in recent days, albeit in slightly more veiled terms, by members of the Knesset, who cite Torah verses on the God of Revenge and his command on the fate of the Amalekites. David Rubin, who describes himself as a former mayor of Shiloh, was more explicit: in an article published in Israel National News he wrote, “An enemy is an enemy and the only way to win this war is to destroy the enemy, without excessive regard for who is a soldier and who is a civilian. We Jews will always aim our bombs primarily at military targets, but there is absolutely no need to feel guilty about ‘disrupting the lives of, and killing or wounding enemy civilians who are almost entirely Hamas and Fatah supporters.”
And hovering above all of this are Benjamin Netanyahu and his government, who persist in portraying our conflict with the Palestinians in stark terms of black and white, good versus evil; who describe Israel’s adversaries as incorrigible and irredeemable; who have never shown the slightest sign of empathy or understanding for the plight of the people who have lived under Israeli occupation for nearly half a century; whose pronouncements serve to dehumanize the Palestinians in the eyes of the Israeli public; who perpetuate the public’s sense of isolation and injustice; and who thus can be said to be paving the way for the waves of homicidal hatred that are now coming to light.
Meanwhile, Zeev Sternehell, a world famous Israeli historian who wrote about the rise of Nazism in France, has published an important article in Ha’aretz titled “A country paralyzed by fear of the unknown,” discussing the emerging nationalist tendencies of Israel’s center-left. Sternehell writes:
In light of the new terrorist entity that might arise in parts of Iraq and Syria, and the concomitant threats to Jordan, the latest fashion in the Israeli center-left is to line up with the right in the name of “national unity.” The murder of the three teenagers in the West Bank, whom we are all mourning, has bolstered this trend….
Basically we’re returning to the same old method: Whatever does not work by force will work by even more force – more construction in the territories, more annexation, more Jews in East Jerusalem, more degradation of the local people, more privileges for the settlers. And all this happens even though logic dictates the opposite….
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls for the international community to establish a Kurdish state, but why don’t the Palestinians deserve what the Kurds deserve? Is it only because Kurdish independence serves our interests while Palestinian independence negates the settlement of the West Bank?
In any case, to try out a new policy we need a different political elite. Why are there no forces in the middle of the political map capable of thinking about a change in the status quo?
This question has no unequivocal answer, but the facts aren’t controversial – this is the reality that paralyzes Israeli politics, which is built on conformism and a fear of the unknown. The current situation is preferable in the eyes of everyone crowded into the center and worried about the danger of changing direction. No matter how bad the current situation is, a sharp turn creates a fear of the unknown.
Everyone has gotten used to the occupation. Many in the center are disgusted by the daily violence, the cruelty to civilians, the children who are shot for the “self-defense” of soldiers wearing bulletproof vests and armed head to toe. But no one speaks up and draws conclusions.
All the young Labor and Yesh Atid MKs who ostensibly are leftists – or were leftists in their previous careers in the media – keep silent. If only we could say they’ve been bought off with money and favors. But they’re not corrupt or greedy, they’re just helpless. The disaster of Israeli society is that this is the human material that goes into politics.
Gideon Levy’s Ha’aretz article, “Israel’s High Court of Justice” exposes another important aspect of the situation. Levy writes:
In time, when history judges events, it will remember where the High Court was when all this took place. It will record: The High Court was a collaborator.
For the umpteenth time, the High Court on Tuesday denied another petition against demolishing a terrorist’s house. This time the court overlooked such trivia as the fact that Ziad Awad has not been convicted of murdering police officer Baruch Mizrahi. But his family’s house has already been torn down. The Supreme Court does not believe the authorities should wait for a conviction, even if only for appearances’ sake. The IDF and Shin Bet have already judged the man, and to hell with the law and the separation of powers.
To hell with international law, too, which forbids destroying houses as a punitive measure (article 53 in the Fourth Geneva Convention) as well as penalizing individuals for an offense they had not personally committed (article 33 in the convention and article 50 of the Hague Regulations). Forget about the Hague and Geneva, don’t bother the High Court of Justice with those irrelevant institutions. In the Israeli-occupied territories there’s only one sovereign and it is allowed to commit any evil. The proof is the High Court’s stamp of approval.
The High Court approves almost every whim of the defense establishment. For years its judges have evaded a decision on the issue of torture, they have never dared form an opinion on the settlements’ legality, they’ve almost always approved deportations, administrative detentions and destroying houses.
They will always pull the appropriate excuse out of their sleeve. They’ll say destroying houses is not a punitive step but a “deterring” one (even if a military panel, appointed by Moshe Ya’alon when he was chief of staff, ruled in 2005 that demolition hardly deters at all and does more harm than good). Nor do the champions of Israeli justice see demolition as collective punishment – it’s no more collective punishment than is arrest, for which the family suffers, too, they ruled in the past. International law in the territories is subject to something more sublime in their eyes – amendment 119 to the Defense (Emergency) Regulations promulgated by the British authorities in mandatory Palestine.
The justices sitting in the High Court are supposed to assist petitioners and administer justice even when it’s not in keeping with the dry letter of the law. But in matters concerning the occupation, the court sees no need to provide either assistance or justice. It makes do with the services provided by the benevolent occupation’s authorities. As far as the High Court is concerned, Awad’s brother’s house is the same as Awad’s own house, his wife and children are guilty and their houses will be destroyed as well. Whether in Cheshin’s poetic tongue or in the bureaucratic words of Miriam Naor, Yoram Danziger and Uri Shoham, it’s the same depressing, frightening message: Keep occupying, punishing, evicting, dispossessing and abusing – the High Court is behind you.
The final Haaretz article that it’s vital to take in right now is Or Kashti’s piece, “Is it too late to clean Israel’s education system of its racism?” Kashti writes:
It may be difficult to accuse Education Minister Shay Piron of direct responsibility for the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir from Shoafat at the hands of Jews, be they youths or adults. But his responsibility is much clearer in ignoring the racist cancer infecting tens of thousands of young people who learned in schools that it is possible – and maybe even necessary – to wipe out the other.
This is malignant apathy, different only in its style from the nationalist indoctrination of Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar. The fruits whose seeds were planted by education ministers such as Zevulun Hammer, Limor Livnat and Sa’ar are now being harvested. An entire generation is demanding a victim, but Piron excels in turning his gaze in other directions….
Piron and his ministry’s ignoring of their responsibility for the racism afflicting Israeli youth is nothing new. In November last year, a group of Jewish youths was charged in Jerusalem District Court with attacking Arabs. Then a month ago, in honor of Jerusalem Day, dozens of students banged on doors in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City while crying out, “Destroy the seed of Amalek,” “The Temple will be rebuilt, the mosque burned,” “Mohammed is dead,” and “Death to Arabs.”
In both cases the Education Ministry chose to shut its eyes and not respond. Willed blindness has turned into a policy, which trickles down to the schools. It is lucky that the summer vacation started a few days ago. Otherwise, someone might have expected the Education Ministry to do something, for Piron to say something.
Many teachers are afraid to confront their students. During the Sa’ar years – which included trips to Hebron, army officers’ visits to schools, the firing of the liberal-minded person in charge of civics education, Adar Cohen, and more – are still etched in our memories. The Adam Verete affair at the ORT high school in Kiryat Tivon (and Piron’s silence for days during the politicized ordeal) likewise did not add to the sense of security felt by teachers, who are asking – despite the spirit of the times and despite the difficulties – to deal with issues such as human rights, freedom of expression and even – in exceptional cases – different historical narratives and the situation surrounding us. As for support or system-wide backing for such teachers, there is nothing to talk about. At most they will receive quiet and modest encouragement from their school superiors, but that remains under the radar of the Education Ministry authorities.
A year ago, with another wave of hate crimes in the background, I visited a high school in Jerusalem. There were students there who declared they hated all the Arabs, that they did not want to see Arabs anywhere – “Not in the street, not in the mall, not on the light rail” – alongside others who offered a more complex message. Research and surveys in the last 20 years show that the strength of the first group has grown steadily, while the second group is shrinking and going silent. Hatred has become a major component in the personal and group identity of our youth. It is present all the time, and sometimes, in some places and depending on the events, it also rears its head toward immigrants and leftists.
This piece about racism in Israeli schools is so very painful to those of us who still care about Judaism, the Jewish people, and the future survival of Israel.