The demonstration that erupted in Jerusalem over the “arrest” of Rabbi Dov Lior, a right-wing religious nationalist leader has the potential of developing into another major crisis. With regard to the challenges currently confronting the nation, this could not have happened at a worse time.
Let me say at the outset that in this case, law enforcement officers utterly mishandled this issue and stand accused of applying double standards. Israeli academics have called for the boycott of their country, identified with our enemies and even endorsed harming settlers under the bogus pretext of academic freedom. Radical Israeli Arabs undermine the state as a matter of routine. Yet such acts have not led to arrests. Surely if treasonable statements do not lead to prosecution – and I believe they should – distasteful, racist and extremist rabbinical proclamations do not warrant being treated with greater severity.
Most of the nation is disgusted by the extremist outbursts by rabbinical zealots. This certainly applies to most observant Israelis who are particularly appalled and shamed when a religious leader like Rabbi Lior endorses racism and bigotry.
Needless to say, the media have a penchant for sensationalizing these issues. In this case, the central issue was Rabbi Lior’s endorsement of the controversial tract Torat Hamelech, which suggested that killing innocent civilians in wartime to prevent Jewish casualties is a justified preventative measure. It was not, as implied by the media, a blanket incitement to kill non-Jews.
Nevertheless, most Israelis regard the manner in which these concepts were expressed to be inhuman and offensive and would expect them to be condemned by responsible rabbinical personalities – a number of whom did so. However regrettable Rabbi Lior’s endorsement of this extremism may be, it surely does not place him in the same category of those endorsing acts of terror against Israelis, but Rabbi Lior was detained while the police have never acted against the latter.
THAT SAID, if the president and the prime minister can be detained for investigation there is no reason why a rabbi cannot.
Nobody, least of all a person who is halachically bound to observe the laws of the state, can place himself above the law even under circumstances in which the police erred and deserve condemnation for applying double standards.
The subsequent riots that took place outside the Supreme Court and the physical threats directed against deputy state prosecutor Shai Nitzan, who required special police protection after bullying from right-wing extremists, were disgusting and reflect adversely on the entire national religious community.
There is a worrying trend emerging on the fringes of the national religious sector, spearheaded by a number of extremist rabbis and religious political leaders who have decided to follow in the footsteps of their haredi counterparts, resorting to street violence as a vehicle to promote their views.
This is the antithesis of the traditional religious Zionist approach, which prided itself on avoiding polarization and focused rather on building bridges between the secular and religious streams of society. In contrast, the extremists are dividing the country and creating an odious image that will impact on all religious Jews and has the potential of inflicting enormous damage on Israeli society.
Every religion has the potential for extremism and incorporates texts that can be misinterpreted. Today’s Islam is dominated by the most ruthless extremists of our time, who display utter contempt towards the sanctity of human life in the name of religion.
All forms of extremism must be resisted but religious fanaticism – the belief in the entitlement to suspend the laws of society and conventional morality because one is the instrument of the Almighty – can (and has in the past) resulted in the perpetration of terrible evil.
As Jews, dispersed and persecuted for nearly 2000 years, we have good reason to identify with the downtrodden, the weak and minorities. This also encouraged us to emphasize the moral aspects of the Torah that highlight our obligation to provide hospitality and kindness to the stranger in our midst.
Alas, in our homeland, we are now witness to noisy fringe groups emerging from within the religious national framework, brainwashed by rabbinical zealots, isolated from the reality of the world and often poisoned by the hatred radiating from the Arabs surrounding them. There are some who have convinced themselves that God granted them the authority to override the laws of the land in order to promote their messianic nationalist objectives.
The response must be the consistent application of the rule of law to all. But the real challenge rests not with the law enforcement officials, but with mainstream religious leaders who are principally responsible for the erosion and distortion of traditional religious values.
It is disgraceful that not a single rabbi or religious Zionist Knesset member had the courage to speak up and point out that rabbis are also subject to the law of the land. Their deafening silence alienates not only secular Israelis, but also inflicts enormous damage on the morale of the silent majority of religious Zionists who bitterly oppose such fanaticism and are totally committed to Israel as a Jewish democratic state. They are recognized as being amongst the most dedicated members of Israeli society as exemplified by their positive contribution to all areas of civic responsibility and the role they have assumed as one of the most constructive elements within the IDF.
The time has come for the moderate Zionist rabbis and laymen to stand up and be counted by condemning religious extremists and marginalizing them from the mainstream. This is not a question of harnessing rabbis to toe a political line. As a religious Zionist raised in the tradition of torah im derech eretz (bible and moral behavior), I would certainly not entrust the spiritual welfare and education of my children or grandchildren to the likes of Rabbi Lior, who describe the murderer Baruch Goldstein as a saint. It also saddens me that a rabbi with such outlandish views can be the spiritual leader of a major community and head a hesder yeshiva.
Israel has a responsibility to ensure that any rabbi funded by the state is committed to the central values of Judaism and pledges support for a democratic Jewish state. Rabbis promoting extremism should not be entrusted to act as spiritual leaders and must be denied the opportunity of poisoning the minds of future generations.
This column was originally published in the Jerusalem Post