[Update: This post, written out of the pain I felt last week, gave the impression that all religious Zionists range from enlightened colonialists to mafia-morality tribalists. That’s not true. I happen to know personally several religious Zionists who are moral exemplars, who recognize our guilt has perpetrators of crimes against the Palestinian people, and who do what they can to achieve peace and justice. Their voices are barely heard in orthodox Jewish circles and almost never amplified in the press. It may be hyperbolic to say so, but when it comes to religious Zionism as a movement, they are the righteous in Sodom.]
[Second update: the translation of Noam Perel’s statement has been changed; h/t to Shunra for pushing me on this, though I still claim there is a double entendre, for which, see Comments.]
It’s time to say this out loud: the most morally distasteful form of Judaism today is Israeli religious Zionism. I am not just referring to the ultra-nationalist religious Zionist rabbis and their minions, who claim religious authority for their mafia morality. These are the garden-variety racist/bigots common to all ultra-nationalist religious fundamentalisms. I am not even referring to somebody like Noam Perel, the General Secretary of World Bnei Akiva, the main religious zionist youth group, who wrote on his Facebook status earlier today:
An entire people and thousands of years of history demand vengeance. The government of Israel has convened a meeting of vengeance, which is not a meeting of mourning. The landlord (master of the house) has gone crazy at the sight of his sons’ bodies, a government that will convert its army to an army of vengeance, a soldier that will not be stopped at the “line of 300” [kav 300] Philistine foreskins, through the blood of the enemy the disgrace will be atoned, not through our tears.
The operative term here is not only “vengeance” but disgrace, the disgrace that the superior feels when he is successfully wounded by an inferior. Like the hate-filled whites in the segregated US south, Israelis of this sort feel humiliated and violated by any Palestinians with any power. How dare these pishers murder our boys?
And when the negative reactions came in to Perel’s inflamed rhetoric, and they did, he was quick to clarify that he wanted the government and the army to take vengeance, for the sake of deterrence, as it had done in earlier cases of reprisal raids. In other words, killing and terrorizing civilians in the name of Jewish honor (a.k.a. ‘establishing deterrence’) should be left to the state and its army, and not to private initiative.
Whew, now that makes me feel a lot better!
It’s easy to go after somebody crippled by religious Zionist education like Noam Perel, who represents the mainstream. But my argument is also with “liberals” like Rabbi Benny Lau in his response to Perel. Let me first say that I agree with Rabbi Benny on many things, and that when it comes to religious Zionist rabbis, I think that he is the best of the lot. (Full disclosure: I attend his synagogue.)
Lau criticizes Perel for running away with his emotions, for reacting with the anger of a fifteen-year old (By the way, my fifteen year old children never reacted that way). Here are some excerpts of Lau’s response to Perel, interspersed with my comments. After Lau strongly condemns the call for revenge, he writes,
“We pray that God will take vengeance of our enemies, but do we want the character traits of our enemies?”
Commentary: Arabs seek vengeance because it is in their nature.
“We have a state, an army, a defense establishment, and prayer.”
Commentary: God forbid the other side should have the dignity of having a state, an army and a defense establishment. After all, they don’t have the same rights to self-defense that we do.
“We tell our students the words of Golda Meir, who said that she will not forgive our enemies who cause us to raise generation after generation of soldiers. We turn to God with our appeal because we become people who fight not according to our nature.”
Commentary: Jews are by nature peace-loving; it’s only because the Arabs want to drive us into the sea that we have an army. It’s not because of national pride, or because of the peer pressure of eighteen-year olds, or because a Jewish state should have a Jewish army. We are most unwilling soldiers.
“Do we want to anoint for ourselves a culture that is completely evil? That is foreign to what we represent.”
Note there is no call for empathy for all victims, not to mention empathy with the natural desire for all people to live a life of dignity, free from humiliation. Note that by definition, it’s the Other, not the Jew, who has all the negative traits. If Rabbi Lau was not suggesting that Arab culture is a culture of evil, why doesn’t he take the opportunity to make that clear?
“To call for the authorities not to make concessions when a citizen is harmed is justified, but between this and the call for vengeance there is a deep gap.”
Commentary: What concession is the rabbi referring to? Blowing up the homes of the alleged assailments, collective punishment for the families of the innocent-until-proven-guilty suspects?
In Rabbi Lau’s statements above, substitute “Christian” or “Englishman” for “Jew” or “we”, and substitute “African” or “Indian” for “our enemies”, and you have your garden-variety colonialist morality of the Age of Empire. To be sure, the practical consequences or Rabbi Benny’s rebuke are much better than those of Perel. The abhorrent theological belief that God is a vengeful God (Maimonides allegorized the verses away) may help to restrain the passion that all humans qua humans feel. And restraining passions is a good thing in these instances.
But moral chauvinism and feelings of Jewish superiority simply ooze from the rabbi’s words. And if that’s the best religious Zionism has to offer – and it is – well, no, thanks. I grew up hearing my Christian friends rebuke their fellow Christians by saying, “True Christians don’t do those sorts of things.”
Well, guess what? They do, and did. And so do Jews, who are no different from all other folks, neither better nor worse.
Except that here, in Israel/Palestine, we Jews have virtually all the power. And we use it, all the time whining about Jewish honor, as if we were cowering before the nobleman and his dog.