Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Religious Zionism and Its Moral Defects

[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.


Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree more. I find myself yelling at the radio in frustration as I hear rabbi after rabbi being interviewed, supposedly condemning the violence, but talking about how "we" are not like "them." And it's time we all understood that the very soul of Judaism in our generation is at risk.

wkovacs said...

you are so right. religious zionists are so much worse than religious anti zionists

Anonymous said...

Excellent and very learned article. Thanks for sharing and thanks for your humanity.

Jerry Haber said...

Geoff, there's not much, if any difference, between the mainstream orthodox views towards the Arabs, from Satmar to leftwing religious Zionism. That is because all of them are tribalists and concerned only with the well-being of the tribe, and, like tribalists everywhere, don't recognize how much everybody of all tribes is alike.

I also agree with those who condemn the rebbe for tastelessness and insensitivy, both in timing and timing.

All that said, the ultra-orthodox generally do not engage in anti-Arab violence (although this, alas, is changing), and they are not to take vengeance. Their bigotry is internal and has little practical applications for gentiles.

As for the general point that Jews have endangered themselves and other Jews by engaging on the reckless projects associated with Zionism, especially after it declared its intentions, well, I agree with those sentiments, and history has born that out. The least safe place for Jews in the last sixty years has been in the State of Israel, and Jews have been endangered outside of it when the State, which claims to be the state of all the Jews, behaves badly.

Shunra said...

Just a translation note, here: he didn't say he'd not stop at bus 300; he said he wouldn't draw the line at 300 Philistine foreskins.

Shaun said...

Your pain and frustration is easy to see, but I wish to bring up two points that you skimmed over.
The first is that Jews are no different from anyone else. This is a fundamental issue, yet somehow we tend to think of Jews as better or above acts of malicious violence of vengeance. Surely this idea of Jews as better than others is in itself prejudice?
The second is your point about Jews being naturally “peace-loving” While that may be the case, I would argue that we as Jews turned to being more “peace-loving” as a result of the lack of sovereignty resulting in us having no physical power and being at the mercy of foreign hosts.
The “peace-Loving” Jew is the result of living under foreign rule, benevolent or otherwise for the past 2000 years.
Going back to the first point. Jews are just like everyone else.
Today, Jews in Israel are in the position of power and the peace loving façade is no longer applicable. Hence the idea that Jews don’t do these things was only relevant when we did not have military or political sovereignty.
Basically, “Homo homini lupus est” and Jews are no different.
My comments are not meant to be a justification or endorsements of any actions or remarks, I’m trying to observe and explore events in a more detached analytical manner.

Jerry Haber said...

shunra, please give me a example from an internet text where the phrase עצר בקו means "draw the line". That is an Anglicism if I ever met one. I never heard that in Hebrew.

And why 300?

I took it as a clear reference to the case on Bus 300, where the Shin Bet took Arab prisoners and beat them to death, and then there was a big stink about it, which clearly made Perel unhappy.

It is also a clear Biblical reference to I Samuel 18, where the number of Philistine foreskins is either 100 or 200 but not 300 together.

I read the English translations on the web. I think they missed the allusion. But I have provided yours as an alternate, and I will ask my native Israelis.

Shunra said...

Thanks for the query - here are a couple of cases where לעצור בקו is used as I suggest:
- a Chabad PDF (front page: )

- a foodie road trip (with the geographic/tactical ambiguity - not drawing the line at a geographic line)

- stopping pressure at a "red line" (comment 18 here )

The allusion to the Kav 300 killing seems a bit oblique, although it is not impossible, whereas a misremembering of 100 foreskins asked for, plus 200 provided, as "that chapter with the 300 foreskins" seems possible.

Jerry Haber said...

Shunra, I spoke with some Israelis and, like the rabbi in the joke, they said that were were both right.

Here are two links to those who thought there was a word play with the 300 bus line

I don't know Perel, so I can't ask him. But maybe this works:

"A soldier who is not stopped at the line of 300 foreskins"

where the double entendre refers to the fact that the courts stopped soldiers from killing terrorists on the 300 bus line.

יעצר is passive

Shunra said...

When I'm working on such material for court cases (and Hebrew<>English legal translation is actually what I do for a living) I'd tend to put an extensive footnote in the text rather than trying to make it encompass the double entendre. I think this conversation covers that ground rather well - and indeed, both citations are entirely valid.

Thanks for the interesting discussion!

Unknown said...

I support the state of Israel. We all want peace in our lives. Peace is the supreme prize. Regarding the Middle East; truth can set a person, culture, or a people free from their current predicaments. Israel is the preeminent power between it and the Palestinians. Israel has the power and the authority to set the agenda for most issues between it and the Palestinians, and this most definitely includes future peace initiatives. There is one single thing that Israel can do for itself before any peace initiatives can be fruitfully presented from either side in future. Israel needs to have a day of soul, or a significant moment with itself. The day of soul is similar to when a person looks in the mirror not to admire how handsome or beautiful they are, but to truthfully recognise every aspect of themselves. The day of soul is similar to the acceptance of the unvarnished truth about oneself. If there are intermittent wars between people over a significant period of time, intelligent people will always ask why this is happening. There is no escaping from this point. An intelligent and truthful answer to this question is probably the most effective defence that any nation can give itself; the most sublime self-defence without a peer. Israel needs to admit to itself that all is not right in the relationship between itself and the Palestinians. Israel will never have peace until it has its day of soul and admit to itself that it is guilty of discrimination, oppression, occupation and apartheid against the Palestinians. If there is no day of soul; no peace will come. The very second after this day of soul for Israel; peace becomes a realistic possibility. There is an ancient proverb that educates us all that only a fool will stumble over the same stone twice. Is Israel a fool?