"Evangelical Christians and Jewish people will stand together, declaring a God of love, not hatred, and calling for peace, not violence," said Rabbi Riskin, who recently launched the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Israel” (From a press release; see here)The American philosopher Thomas Nagel has pointed to a phenomenon he calls “circumstantial moral luck”. There are people who find themselves in circumstances in which they act immorally. His example is the Germans who supported Hitler in the 1930’s. Certainly, they are deserving of moral censure, because they chose to act immorally. But had these same Germans emigrated before Hitler came to power, they would not have had the opportunity to act immorally. It was their “bad moral luck” to be in Germany. Well, it is not exactly the bad moral luck of Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, Rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Efrat, to be deeply implicated in the immorality of the settlement enterprise. After all, he chose to leave the United States to lead Efrat – arguably one of the most harmful, and certainly the most hypocritical, of the West Bank settlements. (See my "There are no kosher settlements.") Still, had Rabbi Riskin stayed in the United States, he may have had a pretty decent career as a liberal orthodox rabbi. Riskin was never an intellectual or for that matter, much of a talmid hakham. But he was very good at presenting a liberal version of traditional Judaism back in the late sixties and early seventies, and he was a bridge-builder between various communities, Jewish and non-Jewish, in New York. But seduced by the dark side of religious Zionism, and driven by the dream of empire-building on cheap land, he emigrated to Israel and founded (with Moshe Moshkowitz) the town of Efrat, a sprawling settlement built entirely on Palestinian private and public land that never ceases to expand into, and pollute, the surrounding region. Through this his life-project, Riskin has caused more tragedy and pain to more Palestinians than any other rabbi of modern times, certainly more than Meir Kahane and his ilk. Yes, that is a tough judgment. Let me explain what leads me to make it. You see, it hurts me, as an orthodox Jew, when an ethnic chauvinist like Meir Kahane spouts racist pap in the name of traditional Judaism. It hurts me more when a cultured rightwing rabbi like Rabbi Dr. Nahum Rabinowitz appeals to John Locke (!) in order to protest against the evacuation of settlers, But it hurts me most when a “liberal modern orthodox rabbi” like Riskin offers moral justifications for his stands that are so transparently self-serving, and, well, so extraordinarily bad. And, it is not just his arguments, but the consequences of his actions for the surrounding Palestinians of the growth of the Efrat, which should pain any decent human being. To be sure, the initial goal behind Efrat – the creation of a model Torah community in the Land of Israel which would be tolerant of others (at least other Jews) and would offer a liberal vision of Judaism – was a noble one for an orthodox rabbi. One cannot fault Rabbi Riskin for his idealism and his yetzer ha-tov (good inclination). But to build such a community within the 1967 borders was virtually impossible. The availability of West Bank land a stone's throw from Bethlehem, and government subsidies for building in the territories, were too much of a temptation. The yetzer ha-tov bowed to the realities of the yetzer ha-ra’ (evil inclination) eased by the aforementioned moral rationalizations. Take, for example, Riskin’s constant appeal to the “Israeli national consensus”. Already in the late 1970s, he was questioned about the wisdom of building a town on land that was not even annexed by the State of Israel. “Don’t worry,” I heard him tell a potential resident in 1979, “Gush Etzion is in the national consensus. It will never be given back.” I was not sure what he meant by that: Rabin had said around that time that he would not mind traveling to the Etzion Bloc with a passport. The facts that nobody in the world recognized the legitimacy of the settlement movement; that Efrat was even not in the Etzion Bloc, but only in an imagined Etzion bloc that knows no borders, and that the settlements were not entirely uncontroversial even in Israel – did not give him pause. Another example: Although Efrat was built entirely on Palestinian land, Riskin subscribed to the fiction (which was official Israeli dogma then and now, though few besides Riskin actually believed it) that Palestinian public land could be cultivated for Jewish settlement. Of course, it subsequently turned out that most of the land was not public land, but private land, that the public/private distinction made no difference to anybody outside of Israel, and that the Fourth Geneva Convention, according to everybody in the world except for some Israeli and Jewish lawyers, forbade the expropriation of the Occupied Territories by Israel. Any argument in a storm. With the advent of Oslo, Riskin could no longer masquerade as the liberal orthodox rabbi who was willing, “theoretically”, to trade land for peace. He wasn’t even ready to consent to a temporary freeze on Efrat’s expansion that was declared by the second Rabin government, on one of those rare occasions that Israel attempted to adhere to its commitments on settlement freezes. Like the “states-rights” segregationists of the sixties, Riskin appealed to a higher law. In one of the most farcical moments of the Oslo years, he was arrested, draped in a tallit and holding a Sefer Torah (!), on a hill outside Efrat. Here were some of his self-serving justifications made to reporter Ira Rifkin in 1995, the year which outed him as a rightwing extremist in moderate's garb:
"But this land is too small for a separate Palestinian state. It's a prescription for war, and I don't want to commit suicide -- that's also an ethical value," he said.Riskin’s first justification was not unreasonable, then or now. After Israel had prevented the establishment of a Palestinian state for almost a half-century and, contrary to international law and common-sense morality, had expropriated Palestinian land for Jewish settlement and denied both the right of self-determination and Israeli citizenship to the occupied population, the resultant Palestinian state that had international legitimacy since 1947 was, and is, not obviously viable. But it was the conclusion that he drew that showed the defects of his reasoning. After all, the territory allotted to the Zionists by the 1947 partition plan was also tiny and raised the question of that state’s viability. But rather than work to see how a viable Palestinian state would be possible, which would have been a just way to proceed, he decided to deny 3 ½ million people under occupation, and millions of people in exile, any sort of self-determination in their homeland. And why? In order to expand his Torah community, complete with red-roofed villas and swimming pools. (A comparison of the water allotment to Efrat per capita to that of the neighboring El Khader boggles the mind.) Here is another Riskinesque argument from the same article:
[When Efrat was founded] "It was unthinkable that Israel might one day consider giving up this community, and we're not going to leave here.”Unthinkable? Perhaps. The city of Efrat was illegal under international law, but not under the law of the occupier. Before the First Intifada, Riskin could, like a nineteenth-century British colonialist, rely on his self-declared good relations with the village chieftain of neighboring El-Khader to ease any doubts. The land-grab was in full swing, and Riskin could, in his mind, fall back on the idea that Efrat was in the national consensus. But anybody with half-a-brain and not motivated by blind nationalism and a lust for expansion could see that there was something – how should I say – “risky” about building over the Green Line. The sole Israeli argument for Jews settling the Etzion bloc was that it had been settled by Jews prior to 1948, an argument that can justify the return of millions of Palestinians to Israel. But for Israelis like Riskin, the Jews have a right of return to their pre-48 places of residence, but the Palestinians do not. So that is why Riskin in 1995, betrayed by the Palestinans of the First Intifada in 1987, and by the Rabin government in 1993, had to resort to another argument:
“Turn the other cheek is not a Jewish ideal.”Well, “turn the other cheek” is certainly not the ideal of a mafioso, barbarian, or tyrant. But Riskin’s option in the late seventies was not of turning the other cheek but rather of driving people from their lands, people who had rights to those lands even if they had made war on Israel from them, which many of them had not. (By the way, anybody familiar with Jewish writings on ethics know that “turning the other cheek” is a Jewish ideal. To say otherwise is to appropriate an anti-Jewish Christian stereotype, which many modern European Jews, mostly secular, did. As usual, the orthodox later adopted the apologetics of their secular brethren.)
"To the victor belongs the spoils if the victor is moral," he added. "For the immoral loser, there can be no spoils."Ribono shel olam, it is hard to know which is more offensive – the sheer stupidity of the remark or the obtuse moral premise on which it is based. Even if the Palestinian people had, without any provocation, declared an offensive war on Israel, they STILL would have the same right to self-determination as the Israelis had. The question was never one of who started the war, but what people had the right to a state. And it was internationally recognized (though, as Rashid Khalidi points out in the Iron Cage, not recognized enough) that the Palestinians had a right to a state. And who gets to decide who is the aggressor and who is immoral – the victor? Who declared the Palestinians the aggressors? Israel? Riskin’s decline -- or his display of his true colors -- continued. After 1995, if not considerably earlier, he abandoned the argument of “Gush Etzion” for the fundamentalist arguments of Gush Emunim. Suffice it to say that when the question of the illegal outposts arose, all pretence of Efrat’s “legality” was thrown to the winds. In the Fall of 2007 he supported the settlers of Givat Eitam, an expansion of Efrat that was illegal, even by Israeli expansive legal standards. See here. So, given his downward moral spiral of the last thirty years, should we be surprised that the rabbi who marched with Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma in the sixties (he says) is now allied with conservative Christian evangelicals like the Reverend John Hagee? Now, it is not unusual for orthodox Jews to make common cause with conservative Christians on social issues -- and against liberal Jews. That tradition goes back at least as far as fifteenth-century Spain – just read the praise of Christian thinkers by such Jewish conservatives as Isaac Abravanel and Isaac Arama, etc., against earlier Jewish thinkers” such as Joseph ibn Kaspi and Moses of Narbonne (thinkers who had been led astray, according to Abravnel and Arama, by Arabic Aristotelianism.) And in the nineteenth century, the first orthodox Jewish political party made common cause with Polish Catholics in their fight against Jewish liberals. The coalition managed to win a seat in the Austrian parliament for the orthodox chief rabbi of Cracow. The coalition of orthodox Jews and conservative Christians is as Jewish as bagels and lox. What is irksome in the Riskin-Hagee partnership is that what brings them together – outside of their shared lust for the Holy Land – is their common hatred for Islam. “Islam itself seems poised for world domination,” opines Rabbi Riskin, “following a line of jihad-inspired Wahhabi fanaticism.” Pretty soon he will have us reading the Protocols of the Elders of the House of Saud, I suppose. Contrast Riskin’s new rightwing “Center for Jewish Christian Understanding and Tolerance” in Efrat with the more inclusive “Institute for Christian and Jewish Studies” in Baltimore. Both groups were founded for the purpose of fostering understanding between two religions. Yet when the Baltimore Institute saw the ignorance and growing prejudice of Jews and Christians against Islam, it hosted a lecture series last spring, inviting four prominent experts on Islam to explain “What Jews and Christians Need to Know About Islam.” Whereas Riskin’s group’s mission statement raises the specter of “confused and concerned masses threatened to be overwhelmed by material secularism on the one hand and Islamic fundamentalism on the other.” In other words, Riskin’s group has bought into the bigotry of the Christian right against Islam. Nary a mention of moderate Muslims. Of course, Rabbi Riskin is savvy enough to know about the moderate Muslims. But God forbid he should mention them, or how they are the majority of the world’s billion plus Muslims. That would ruin his lucrative coalition with the Christian Islamophobes. You know, the yetzer ha-ra’ (“evil inclination”) works in mysterious ways. Instead of fighting bigotry (which would include, in my mind, fighting Islamic, Christian, and Jewish bigotry) it seduces “moderate” rabbis like Riskin into sanctifying bigotry. How ironic that in order to justify Jewish dialogue with Christians, Rabbi Riskin cites the following passage from Maimonides’ Code of Law.
"There is no human power to comprehend the designs of the Creator of the Universe since our ways are not His ways and our thoughts are not His thoughts. Hence all of the words of Jesus the Nazarene and of the Ishmaelite who came after him (Muhammad) served to pave the way for the King Messiah and to repair the whole world to serve the Lord in unison, for it is written, (Zephania 9:3), 'I shall make all the people pure of speech, so that they all call upon the name of the Lord and serve Him with one heart.' "How so? The entire world has been filled with the words of the Messiah and the words of the Torah and the words of the commandments, and these words have been disseminated even to faraway islands, and to many nations of uncircumcised hearts, who are now dealing with these concepts and with Biblical commandments…"Now, as Rabbi Riskin knows, Maimonides considered Islam to be a monotheistic religion and, theologically less objectionable than Christianity. Maimonides preferred Islam to Christianity, although he was certainly familiar with fanatical Muslims like the Almohads, who had forced him and his family to leave Spain. But on Riskin’s interpretation, Maimonides’s statement justifies a partnership only with Christians. Muslims – even non-Arab Muslims -- are dropped from the team. The truth is that Maimonides’ statement justifies nothing of the kind. It doesn’t speak of partnership or tolerance; rather, it is an attempt by a medieval thinker to fathom why God would allow such “false” religions as Islam and Christianity to thrive. If, however, we want to use Maimonides for the sake of interfaith understanding, we should at least be true to the symmetry he posits between the two religions, Islam and Christianity. But to do that, one would not have to be a truly liberal orthodox rabbi who believes in fostering understanding between religions for its own sake (such as Rabbi David Rosen, whom you should read about here), and not one who speaks with the voice of a liberal Jacob, but wears the garb of an Uzi-wielding Esau. Not a rabbi who divides his moral universe into those who support his empire and those who do not. U-ve-khol zot. And yet…Rabbi Riskin has been a moderating force in some areas of orthodoxy, such as the participation of women in advanced Torah study, and the plight of the agunah. What a pity that he had the bad “moral luck” to be caught up in the settlement enterprise. When the Jews leave Efrat – and by God they will, sooner or later (unless they live there under the jurisdiction of the state of Palestine, may it speedily be built),-- some of Riskin’s legacy may be salvaged in his institutions of Torah learning. Unless they succumb to the morality of their founder.