Saturday, January 03, 2009

No Space for Apostates

I read this article by Jeffrey Goldberg, about the most extreme, fanatical wing of the Israeli settler population. Though published in 2004, I have no doubt many of these people are still alive today and have not moderated their views in the slightest. As I read it, I found myself disturbed, quite a bit more so than I expected, and I tried to put my finger on why that was.

Obviously, a big part (and the part that was quite "expected") was the simple fact that these people are, in the name of Judaism, advocating policies that are sick, brutal, inhumane, and -- flatly -- evil. Let's be blunt: by the time you get to this end of the settler movement, these people are just as bad as Hamas. I don't make that statement glibly. Why is Hamas bad? Because they see it as their religious obligation to murder all the Jews, whom they see as sub-human scum. And the settlers? They say the same thing about the Arabs -- calling them "Amalekites". That's a statement fraught with implication: Biblically, Jews are commanded to exterminate the Amalekites, wiping them clean from the face of the earth. The near-universal rabbinical rule for centuries has been that there are no more Amalekites, and thus the commandment is moot. But several settler leaders have tried to argue that the Palestinian people are Amalekites, and are explicitly urging Israel to commit genocide (the only thing they're pulling back from is outright extermination, but genocide, definitionally, includes efforts to eliminate a group "in part").

Beyond that particular statement, there is plenty else to detest about the settler movement: the harassment of Arab children, the violence and property damage put out against Palestinian homes and farms (in direct violation of Jewish law), the anti-democratic desire to impose a Biblical theocracy, the honoring and praising of Jewish terrorists like Baruch Goldstein, the cavalier way they are willing to martyr their children in pursuit of their agenda -- it'd be easy to go on. The point being this: Read the words of these settlers, and there is nothing distinguishing them from a group like Hamas. They are equally theocratic, equally colonial, and equally genocidal. As Jews, we need to be willing to say that forthrightly, or else we have no moral credibility to criticize Hamas or anyone else.

Now obviously, that should be distressing for anyone to read. But to note the existence of these people isn't to say they're mainstream. Goldberg's article focuses on the most radical fringe, but he also points out that just how much of a minority they are. 75% of Jewish settlers, Goldberg claims, have primarily economic motivations: they liked the open space and the tax breaks they got from the Israeli government (arguably the #1 all-time bone-headed Israeli government decision). Though generally solid conservative voters, they are not fanatics and their attachment to the West Bank and Gaza (this was prior to the pullout from the latter) is not ideological. By contrast, 25% of the settlers (about 50,000 people) are where they are for religious reasons. And of these, only a medium amount are "fanatics" in the sense that they subscribe to the above views. Given that the Israeli settler population is itself only a small fraction of Israel's Jewish population, which in turn is only a portion of the overall global Jewish population, and you get some perspective back. These groups do have outsized influence in Israeli politics, true, but that's more a function of them being very well organized and mobilized, and the coalition nature of Israel's parliamentary system which benefits small, cohesive interest groups.

So, if these folks are really just a tiny minority, what accounts for that extra dose of distress I felt upon reading the article? It's not that I'm under the delusion that their views are shared by the majority of Jews (inside or out of Israel) -- I know they're not. Rather, it's because I'm not convinced that these radical men and women would be wholly without a place in the American Jewry. They wouldn't be agreed with, most wouldn't even sympathize with them -- but they wouldn't be kicked out. They could still make it in the front door. And that alone is intolerable.

These radical settlers -- for all their Bible thumping and theological fury -- are insults to the Jewish religion. They spit upon holiness and make a mockery of Jewish tenets. They are heretics. And the Jewish community needs to treat them as such.

Obviously, there is very little I can do to affect this. I'm not even sure how the Jewish practice of excommunication works, and I'm reasonably confident that it's not a lay endeavor anyway. Plus, I'm a Conservative Jew -- a "Hellenizer" as they would say -- I don't carry any theological credibility. Indeed, I doubt that Jews -- excuse me, pseudo-Jews -- of this caliber would even pay much attention to the modern Orthodox movement in America.

Even still, the symbolism would matter. At this point, it's not about convincing these fanatics that they are "wrong". As I've been told so many times and in so many words, it's impossible to negotiate with terrorists such as these. The goal isn't even to make them question whether or not they are acting "Jewishly". They are sure they are, I am equally sure they're not, and neither of us are likely to budge.

The objective is to make a clean break. These people are not part of my community. They can't be, if we're to make any claims of being a community worth associating with. Part of belonging to any community group is defining who you're not. There's a reason Jews are so vigorous in asserting that "Jews for Jesus" are not Jewish. As far as we're concerned, definitionally you can't be Jewish and believe that Christ is the Messiah. It doesn't matter that only a few people believe that, and they won't be convinced by our protestation. The symbolism matters.

I think that, likewise, we need to assert that definitionally, you can't be Jewish and believe that it is justified to slaughter the Palestinians wholesale, or keep them in a perpetual state of colonial subjugation where they can't vote or even move freely. It doesn't matter that only a few people believe that. The symbolism matters.
I suggested that he try to imagine himself in the place of a Palestinian. “You’re a Palestinian, you’re here, you have your farm, your grandparents are from here, and-“

But Moshe interrupted me. “Stop being Jewish!” he yelled. “Stop being Jewish! Only a Jew would say, ‘Imagine yourself as a Palestinian.’ Could you imagine a Palestinian imagining himself as a Jew?”

With due pardon, I have no intention to stop being Jewish. He, on the other hand, is free to leave any time he desires.


Some selected excerpts from the article:

Two Arab girls, their heads covered by scarves, books clutched to their chests, left the Cordoba School, and were walking toward the yeshiva boys.

“Cunts!” one of the boys yelled, in Arabic.

“Do you let your brothers fuck you?” another one yelled. I stopped one of the students and asked why he was cursing the girls. He was red-faced, and his black hair was covered with a blue knit skullcap.

“What are you, a goy?” he asked.


I asked her how she could let her son play amid the barbed wire and soldiers and barricades, and with snipers in the hills above.

“Hebron is ours,” she said. “Why shouldn’t he play?”

“Because he could get killed,” I said.

“There’s a bullet out there for each one of us,” she said. “But you can always die. At least his death here would sanctify God’s name.”


Cohen brought up the story, from the Second Book of the Maccabees, of a God-loving mother of seven boys, partisans in the Jewish revolt against Hellenistic rule twenty-two hundred years ago. The boys were called before King Antiochus, who ordered them to eat swine, as a loyalty test. The sons refused.

“Do you know what the Greeks did to these boys?” Cohen asked. “They ripped out their tongues and boiled them alive.”

Just before the last son was martyred, the mother gave him a message to deliver in Heaven: “Go and say to your father Abraham, ‘Thou didst bind one son to the altar, but I have bound seven altars.’ “

After the seventh son was killed, the mother threw herself off a roof. The Talmud says that, on her death, a voice was heard from Heaven, singing, “A happy mother of children.”


In 1988, Levinger killed a Palestinian shoe-store owner in Hebron. Levinger told the police that he was defending himself from a group of stone throwers. He served thirteen weeks in an Israeli jail for the killing. He told me once, “I’m not happy when any living creature dies-an Arab, a fly, a donkey.”

In the Israel he envisaged, Levinger said, Arabs would be allowed to stay only so long as they “behave themselves. Foreign residents”-Levinger’s designation for Arabs-“will be allowed to stay in Israel if they follow our laws and don’t demand privileges.” He added that they might vote “for mayors and such” but not for Prime Minister. He did not believe that the Arabs would acquiesce to such an arrangement, and that is why he advocated “transfer”-a euphemism for mass expulsion. “Whoever hurts Jews will be expelled,” he said.


Moshe Feiglin, a Likud activist who lives in a West Bank settlement and heads the Jewish Leadership bloc within the Party-he controls nearly a hundred and fifty of the Likud central committee’s three thousand members-believes that the Bible, interpreted literally, should form the basis of Israel’s legal system. “Why should non-Jews have a say in the policy of a Jewish state?” Feiglin said to me. “For two thousand years, Jews dreamed of a Jewish state, not a democratic state. Democracy should serve the values of the state, not destroy them.” In any case, Feiglin said, “You can’t teach a monkey to speak and you can’t teach an Arab to be democratic. You’re dealing with a culture of thieves and robbers. Muhammad, their prophet, was a robber and a killer and a liar. The Arab destroys everything he touches.”


I asked who was destroying the olive trees. The destruction of fruit-giving trees, even those belonging to an enemy, is considered a grave sin in Judaism. But the only subject that concerned Liebman was Joseph’s Tomb.

“What is an olive tree compared to the burial place of Joseph, the son of Jacob?” he said.

To the farmer who supports his family with the tree, I said, the tree is important.

“But the farmer is an Arab,” Liebman replied. “He shouldn’t be here at all. All this land is Jewish land. It is meant for the Jews by God Himself.”


In “War and Peace,” a book about the senior Rabbi Kook’s beliefs, Rabbi Samson wrote:
When the day comes for Israel to radiate its full power, there will be no room for usurpers who try to push the Jewish people aside… . All of the masqueraders who claimed to possess a monopoly on truth, whether Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, communism, capitalism, and all of the rest, will be exposed as empty flasks. When Judaism reaches its historical maturity with the return of the Kingdom of Israel, its holy culture will dominate the entire world psyche.


We sat for a while on the rocks. Orange-winged starlings flew above us. “God won’t allow a Palestinian state to come into creation. And, if it does, He’ll destroy it. God has placed the Arabs in the way of the Jews to test our resolve.”

Israel’s problem today, Rabbi Samson said, is that its Army refuses to fight in the manner of the ancient Jewish generals. “The Torah doesn’t see a difference between civilians and the military. Until the Jewish people realize that we are fighting a nation that has vowed to destroy us, our mission won’t be completed. If we were willing to kill their civilians, this war would be over in a week.

“I don’t think mercy is playing its correct role here,” he went on. “If the military operated without consideration for civilian deaths, think about how many lives would have been saved! In any case, their children are born with Molotov cocktails in their hands. These are a people as unfeeling as jackals.”


Some settler leaders see in the Palestinians the modern-day incarnation of the Amalekites, a mysterious Canaanite tribe that the Bible calls Israel’s eternal enemy. In the Book of Exodus, the Amalekites attacked the Children of Israel on their journey to the land of Israel. For this sin, God damned the Amalekites, commanding the Jews to wage a holy war to exterminate them. This is perhaps the most widely ignored command in the Bible. The rabbis who shaped Judaism could barely bring themselves to endorse the death penalty for murder, much less endorse genocide, and they ruled that the Amalekites no longer existed. But Moshe Feiglin, the Likud activist, told me, “The Arabs engage in typical Amalek behavior. I can’t prove this genetically, but this is the behavior of Amalek.” When I asked Benzi Lieberman, the chairman of the council of settlements-the umbrella group of all settlements in the West Bank and Gaza-if he thought the Amalekites existed today, he said, “The Palestinians are Amalek!” Lieberman went on, “We will destroy them. We won’t kill them all. But we will destroy their ability to think as a nation. We will destroy Palestinian nationalism.”

I heard similar talk from Effie Eitam, a hard-edged former general who leads the National Religious Party, a coalition partner in Sharon’s government. Eitam, who is Sharon’s housing minister, said, “I don’t call these people animals. These are creatures who came out of the depths of darkness. It is not by chance that the State of Israel got the mission to pave the way for the rest of the world, to militarily get rid of these dark forces.” Eitam told me that he believes there are innocent men among the Palestinians, but that they are collectively guilty. “We will have to kill them all,” he said. “I know it’s not very diplomatic. I don’t mean all the Palestinians, but the ones with evil in their heads. Not only blood on their hands but evil in their heads. They are contaminating the hearts and minds of the next generation of Palestinians.”


“The situation of Hanukkah is with us,” Haetzni said. Hanukkah, it should be remembered, commemorates not only the Jewish defeat of Israel’s Greek overlords but the defeat of Hellenized Jews by the Maccabees. “Now the clash is very, very near,” Haetzni said. “The battle is about Jewish identity. The battle is about Judaism.”


PG said...


The fact that you as an American Jew have no time for the fanatics is irrelevant -- their views overlap significantly with those of American non-Jews, specifically conservative/ Republican views. Is there anything said here about Muslims and Arabs that you wouldn't hear from Rush Limbaugh? I've heard Republicans say, not necessarily jokingly, that it really would be best for Israel simply to kill all of the Palestinians as a way of dealing with the problem.

David Schraub said...

And you know how much it pisses me off when those non-Jewish folks try and tell Jews what is and isn't good for them. It's a big problem that the positions of the conservative right -- which are not all that mainstream amongst Jews -- get imputed to us because they have a bigger megaphone than we do.

Presumably if the Jewish community does something drastic like excommunicate the settler fanatic leaders, then at the very least it might put a dent in the efforts of Limbaugh et al to say they're speaking on our behalf.