Sunday, October 2, 2011

Rabbinic Racism in Israel Must be Confronted

Rabbi Dov Lior of Kiryat Arba possesses a long history of
making controversial remarks towards non-Jews in Israel
A shortened version of this article appeared in Ynetnews, found here.

By: Avi Yesawich

It’s difficult not to maintain a sense of warped admiration for some of the radical Orthodox rabbis here in Israel. The ignorance they display in social, political and military affairs is certainly disconcerting at times. It seems that their indissoluble faith in God, Judaism and the Torah grants them the profound audacity to make declarations that surpass any statement that a well-educated, secular individual would have the courage to say even in the privacy of their closest associates, much less to the international media. If anything, it would be unfair to call them disingenuous. Maintaining such unquestionable faith in an age of logic, reason and immense scientific achievement is an aptitude that I personally lack.

Last week, Dov Lior, the Yesha Council head and chief rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba, called for the IDF to impose “collective punishment” on rioters in response to the death a father and son whose car flipped over after a rock was hurled at them by rioters in the West Bank. Just recently, Lior also claimed that Israel’s growing isolation and hatred of the Jews worldwide is punishment for the demolition of three meager shacks in the Migron outpost a few weeks ago. He called the Arabs “evil camel riders” that should be expelled from the Land of Israel and given a right of return to countries like Saudi Arabia

Unfortunately, Rabbi Lior’s statements are common fare here in Israel, and the rabbinical religious establishment has never been shy about postulating bigotry and racism – based firmly in the framework of Jewish religious law - towards other Jews and non-Jews alike. Back in 2010, 50 of Israel’s most prominent rabbis issued a religious edict against Jews renting property to gentiles, especially Arab-Israelis. 39 of those rabbis are on the government’s payroll, although their opinions vary drastically from the official laws and ethos of the State of Israel. After this incident occurred, none of the rabbis were fired or brought to court for incitement. These rabbis and their yeshivas – or Jewish religious schools – are financed by government subsidies. They continue to receive Israeli taxpayer dollars and serve their communities without consequence.

Apartment ban is just the beginning
The aforementioned edict was the culmination of several similar instances of religious bigotry that went relatively unaddressed by the majority of public officials here in Israel. In the Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak, the municipality acted to ban migrant workers from living in the area and attempted to force those residing there to flee the area. Safed’s chief municipal rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu had previously urged Jewish residents not to rent property to the town’s Palestinian Arab minority. Unfortunately, the list of examples is by no means confined to these examples. The list is long and disheartening, and similar sentiments are expressed on a daily basis in many Orthodox yeshivas.

What we are witnessing is a deliberate attempt to use Judaism not only as a religious dogma, but a powerful and effective political tool utilized in order to maximize the agendas of the ultra-right wing here in the State of Israel. To many readers, this shouldn’t be a new or surprising phenomenon: politics and religion have been closely intertwined since the age of modern man, as prominent American author Robert Wright described in his 2009 NYT best-seller, The Evolution of God.

Regrettably – but not unexpectedly - the use of political Judaism has extended itself well beyond the realm of property ownership and real estate. Fresh in our memories is the public controversy over the publication and rabbinical support of “The King’s Torah,” a 230 page manuscript focusing on Jewish-Gentile relations, discussing matters such as ethics in warfare, human rights (or lack thereof), and issues such as when killing a non-Jew justified, including innocent civilians and children. The King’s Torah isn’t necessarily new material, instead drawing much of its inspiration from a millennia of archaic Jewish texts such as the Gemara, Shulchan Aruch and many other prominent Jewish-religious teachings.

The most hardcore adherents to Judaism will inevitably defend at least some, if not all, of the religious positions discussed above. In fact, the Rabbis vehemently defend their actions on the grounds of their statements being based in the Torah. It’s not racism, they claim; it’s Halacha, or Jewish Law. For readers who are less familiar with the concept, the Orthodox establishment maintains a strict interpretation of Jewish law as found in the Torah and Talmud, which they claim doesn’t evolve over time. Ultimately, some of these rabbis are simply promulgating an ultimate idea that they’ve never attempted to hide: the establishment of a Jewish theocracy governed according to the principles of Halacha. For a secular Jew such as myself, the thought is petrifying.

Torah will always trump Israeli law
In any case, many in the orthodox establishment have made it clear that Torah law will always supersede the laws of the State of Israel, Such sentiment not only complicates the widening religious-secular divide, but is problematic from an Israeli legal perspective, since Israel has explicit laws against the incitement to racism. However, the police and judicial branches are often hesitant to enforce these laws; in many instances, the rabbis’ statements border on the fine line between freedom of expression and blatant incitement. Furthermore, many of these rabbis command a significant following amongst the religious in their communities. Attempts to question, arrest or indict rabbis regularly lead to riots and violent outbursts between police and the rabbis’ religious followers.

Of course, we see the same exactly type of vicious racism emitting from the Muslim world with the growing influence of political and radical Islam, perhaps larger and more prevalent on the international stage for no other reasons than that Islam possesses the sheer numbers as the world’s second largest religion, and the overwhelming amount of terrorist acts that are committed today are followers of Islam. However, political-religious racism in Israel is on the rise, and, sadly, not just in the religious sector. In the 2011 Israeli Democracy Index, conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute back in March, Dr. Mina Zemach found that nearly 1/3 of the Israeli population didn’t consider Arab citizens of Israel to be “Israelis.” The number was significantly higher amongst the religious sector.

As the only true democracy in the Middle East, we should be wary to point fingers at our neighbors and wage a war of comparison between our own actions and their own. The logic behind this is argument is simple: Israel constantly strives to distinguish herself from our neighbors in the region in social, economic, cultural, military and religious terms, and for valid reason. The simple fact is that, Israel is far more advanced in these areas than most of the nations around us. We can’t claim the social or moral high ground on one hand then resort to our enemies’ actions and behavior on the other. Such a position is blatantly contradictory.

There are many Jewish organizations and factions of Judaism, including Orthodox sects, that have protested strongly against the racist statements emerging from these camps. These elements need to be encouraged and reinforced by state and social institutions in their struggle to prevent Judaism from being hijacked to support a radically racist agenda that some of the rabbis profess here in Israel. The majority of Israeli society doesn’t support them in their quest, but their influence remains a dangerous impediment to ensuring that Israel adheres to the social and cultural values expected from a strong democracy situated in a region of dictatorship and uncertainty.


Post Article Comments: I received many angry - and equally ludicrous - accusations in the talkbacks on Ynetnews referring to me as a crazy leftist and a self-hating Jew, simply because I expressed my distaste with religious extremism, which in this particular instance happens to be of Jewish origin. Apparently, even though I moved to Israel in order to defend this country at the age of 24 and constantly work to strengthen Israel and the IDF's image at home and abroad through various PR and outreach projects, I must secretly hate my Jewish identity and work for Peace Now.

I clearly single out extreme instances of religious racism in my article, not the religious population or Judaism in general - the distinction is vast and extremely important. If you despise the vicious political and religious forms of racism inspired by many Muslim religious leaders, then, by simple logic, you shouldn't support the Rabbis' hateful remarks. Such a stance is hypocritical, racist, and riddled with logical fallacies, as I point out in my article. I hope that our readers on the site will be able to clearly identify my true positions, as the differences are important.


  1. Fundamental Judaism is no different than any other fundamentalist monotheistic religion in its racism and bigotry, which is why we hear comments coming from these radical rabbis frequently. It isn't unique to judaism, it happens quite frequently in christian, muslim, and other religious worlds as well

  2. Judaism is the basis for the Jewish people and the land of Israel, plain and simple. In the Torah, we are commanded to expel the natives. Why argue with God?

  3. israeli society shouldn't allow the rabbis to transcend the laws of democracy. no matter religious outcry, in the israeli state no one should be allowed to be above the law

  4. Rabbinic racism is truly an important topic that needs to be addressed, and I'm happy to see a well written article bringing attention to the topic. I'm also happy that the author saw fit to mention those Jews, including Orthodox Jews, who denounced the racism.

    In the interest of supporting and amplifying the voices of the moderates, here are a few more examples of prominent Israeli Rabbis who spoke out against these incidents:

    R' Yehuda Gilad, Rosh Yeshiva of Maale Gilboa:

    R' Aharon Lichtenstein, Rosh Yeshiva of Har Etzion:

    R' Yaakov Ariel, Rabbi of Ramat Gan:

  5. Judaism has been warped...but not by the Rabbis. Secular's like yourself should think twice and read Torah before making such strong accusations

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