By Ira Sharkansky
Letter from Israel 

Ugly Israelis


A video showing young and religious Israeli men—along with at least one enthusiastic old man—dancing at a wedding and celebrating the killing of an Arab family has gone viral.

It’s not “dancing” of the ballroom kind familiar in the better circles of the West, but men only jumping up and down to the beat of music, along with words that urge violence toward Israel’s enemies. Women may be doing something similar in another room, but outside the range of this video.

It’s the kind of dancing common at religious weddings, but here with the celebration of killing Arabs.

The reaction to the video has been a campaign, almost wall to wall from various elements of the Israeli establishment against Jewish extremists.

Also in the air are claims, most prominently by religious settlers, that the Shin Bet is violating the rights of young men implicated in the murder, by denying them access to attorneys and torturing them, including rape by sodomy. One rabbi has said that the wedding video was fabricated by Shin Bet.

Shin Bet personnel and leading officials up to the Prime Minister deny those charges, and say that the Shin Bet is operating within the provisions of law, which allow extraordinary measures, as approved by a judge, in extraordinary circumstances. Officials are explicit in denying the claims of extreme torture. 

The concept of “torture” is one of the vaguest in the language, whether English or Hebrew, and lends itself to assertions with a strong taste of politics. An Israeli Supreme Court decision permitted “moderate physical pressure” under special conditions. One can also argue at length about that designation.

We are also hearing of Shin Bet focusing on an underground movement that calls itself revolt, which seeks to replace existing Israeli institutions with a Judaic monarchy.

Observers compare the Jewish extremists to the Muslims of Islamic State. Both base their movements on religious doctrines, have Rabbis or Imams who interpret the doctrine to encourage actions against outsiders (Arabs and Christians in the case of Jewish extremists), and employ secretive, autonomous cells that operate according to common themes, but without a strong central leadership.

The Ashkenazi chief rabbi, David Lau, has said that what the extremists preach is not Judaism. Muslim religious authorities have said that the barbarism of the Islamic State is not Islam.

Jews and Muslims can argue about the Judaism or the Islam that they prefer, but both are stuck with doctrines authored over the centuries that advocate deadly violence.

Security personnel note the difficulties in getting evidence to bring forth indictments against those they are sure were involved in the burning of an Arab house and other crimes. Young people have been trained how to resist interrogation, and their level of religious intensity is high. Religious social scientists who have studied the movement note that it is not easy for them to penetrate. Among their findings is that it has recruited boys and young men who rebelled against their families, left home and school, and were vulnerable to something that offers comradeship and an attractive message with a high spiritual component, a clear notion of who are the enemies and what should be done.

Family members of those accused and others in the religious settler community claim that the young people are innocent, and have alibis. Some claim that the Shin Bet and other security services have no business going after Jews, who may be a bit extreme but are serving the sacred goal of doing what they think is necessary to protect the Jewish nation.

A primary worry of those concerned about extremism is that they will get their hands on a military missile--stolen from an IDF base by soldiers who have joined them--and use it against a Muslim site on the Temple Mount. That would escalate Israel’s problems beyond anything yet experienced.

The issue has opened a rift within Jewish Home. Party leader Naftali Bennett is calling the extremists terrorists who must be dealt with as terrorists. Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel, is demanding the closing of Shin Bet’s activities against Jews. Some are predicting a split in Jewish Home, with Bennett seeking his future in Likud, or joining with Likud dissidents trying their luck in creating a new party.

The issue is more fundamental than one or another politician’s future. Jewish Home derives from the National Religious Party, with its long history of joining Orthodox Judaism to a political movement with educational and economic underpinnings, under the heading of Religious Zionism. Bar Ilan University and Bank Mizrachi have both moved beyond their original places within the Orthodox community, but not completely. There is a state-supported educational network, from nursery schools through high schools, along with teachers’ colleges. 

Rabbis and religious activists are speaking and writing, often with great emotion, about this controversy, with subtle nuances or sharp differences between them. Others are quiet, perhaps waiting until they are sure of what to say.

It is not easy for one Orthodox rabbi to criticize another. In this case, however, there have been calls to identify and separate from the flock those who preach hate and violence against Arabs.

The ultra-Orthodox are outside this issue. They may be counting on some addition to their flocks from Orthodox moving to the right religiously, and despairing of the political conflict.

Since 1967, the principle efforts of Religious Zionists have been to promote Jewish settlement in areas of the Promised Land liberated by the IDF. They have, by and large, left other religious issues (e.g., Kashrut, Shabbat) to the ultra-Orthodox parties. A high incidence of young men volunteering for the elite units of the IDF and advancing to the officer corp are Religious Zionists, many of them settlers.

Among the difficult tasks of Orthodox Israelis--whether of not they are settlers or voters for Jewish Home--is preserving some kind of balance between Jewish norms that don’t sit comfortably with one another. One set is humane and pluralistic, and urges accommodation with outsiders. Another distinguishes between actions appropriate toward Jews and toward non-Jews, with various kinds of preferences with respect to Jews. Rabbis and activists are currently wrestling with the limits of what Jews should do in order to preserve the character of Israel, and what they should support or oppose as actions of the Israeli government directed against Orthodox activists said to be extremists.

The Arab who manages the kosher bakery and coffee shop where I buy the Friday newspaper, asks me to turn on the over if I get there before any other Jew. He thanks me and refers to me as Rav. I correct him. I am not a Rabbi, only an oven lighter.

Comments welcome. 

Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus), Department of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem,


Reader Comments(0)


Powered by ROAR Online Publication Software from Lions Light Corporation
© Copyright 2023