In blood and fire Judea fell; in blood and fire shall Judea rise.
–early Zionist anthem
The enemies of the Jews had hoped to overpower the Jews that day, but the plot was overturned, and the Jews overpowered their enemies…The Jews struck at all their opponents with the sword, killing and destroying them, and they defeated all their enemies. In Shushan Capital the Jews killed and destroyed five hundred men.
Haman…persecutor of the Jews, had planned to destroy the Jews…But when Esther came to the king, the king ordered decrees that the evil plans he had plotted against the Jews be visited upon him instead, and he and his sons were hanged on the gallows.
–Book of Esther
Last week marked the Jewish festival of Purim commemorating the salvation of the Jews of Persia from extermination at the hands of the evil Haman. Like many religious holidays, this one has taken on political meaning in the present day. Haman has become the Jewish equivalent of the anti-Christ, the quintessential Jew hater. In the midrash, Haman is equated with Amalek, the tribe which ambushed the Children of Israel in their desert wanderings and was repaid with extermination.
Religious Jewish extremists today note the gallows on which Haman and his sons hung and reserve a similar fate for latter day enemies of the Jewish people. Among those they liken to Haman is the Palestinian who attacked Jerusalem’s Merkaz HaRav yeshiva, his family and his entire village. Shockingly, some extremist religious Jews even include the prime minister and cabinet members among those who should be taken to the gallows for betraying the Jewish people through the Gaza withdrawal.
Jerusalem resident Gershom Gorenberg notes that before Purim, posters dripping with blood red lettering showed up all over the city announcing a rally at the East Jerusalem village where the Palestinian terrorist had lived. Demonstrators planned to destroy the family’s home since the government had delayed doing so in order to follow legal protocol. Gorenberg notes that the language used in the poster made clear that a Jewish pogrom was planned. On the day of the demonstration 200 extremists showed up. They were faced by Israeli police attempting to keep the peace and prevent them from entering the village. But the police were easily outflanked and a howling mob descended on the outskirts of the Arab neighborhood. Luckily residents decided to stay indoors or there might have been serious bloodshed. But the demonstrators, bent on avenging Jewish blood rampaged through the village smashing windows, destroying property and attempting to terrorize the local residents.
A Haaretz editorial called it a pogrom and said the police betrayed amazing incompetence. So much so that it made one wonder whether their heart was in it. Maybe they wanted the demonstrators to teach the Arabs a lesson and deliberately allowed themselves to be outmanned.
I bring up this incident because Israel’s supporters are only too quick to note Arab incitement against Israel: the Palestinian textbooks which allegedly bray for Jewish blood; the Hamas charter calling for liquidation of the Jewish entity; the Hamas TV mouse supposedly calling for children to dedicate themselves to martyrdom in the struggle to liberate Jerusalem.
All of which is supposed to proof Arab perfidy; that Palestinians nurse a hatred that can never be overcome by reason or compromise; that Hamas is a movement of Islamic extremists dedicated to throwing Israelis into the sea; that peace is a hopeless proposition; that the only thing an Arab understands is raw power; that compromise betrays weakness.
This is an enduringly popular theme both in political and media discourse. Hillary Clinton has built her presidential campaign at least partly on the claim that Palestinian school textbooks scream hatred against Jews and Israel. Prominent American Jewish leaders parrot the questionable charges in order to portray Israel as a victim of Arab incitement. A series of anti-Arab groups like MEMRI, CAMERA, Palestine Media Watch Debka Files, Campus Watch, the Israel Project, and the David Project have made a cottage industry out of cataloguing so-called anti-Israel incitement.
Those who adhere to such views rarely look in the mirror to examine whether Jews hold similar views: whether Jews incite hatred against Arabs that is as vehement as any incited by Arabs against Jews. If they did look in the mirror they might not like what they saw. They might see a Yigal Amir, stirred to a frenzy of hatred against Yitzhak Rabin by rabbinic sermons calling the latter an enemy of the Jewish people. They might see Baruch Goldstein, ardent follower of racist Rabbi Meir Kahane, firing an automatic weapon and killing 29 Palestinians at the Cave of the Patriarchs. In fact, Goldstein chose Purim as the day on which to mount his attack and each year on Purim, his devoted followers dance in a park built around his grave. They might see Eden Natan-Zada, a young IDF deserter who found refuge in the extremist settlement of Tapuah and was there inspired to take his army weapon, board a bus filled with israeli Arabs, and spray them with fire, killing indiscriminately before he himself was murdered by the enraged mob.
More recently, the dean of the Yeshiva University rabbinical school told students in Jerusalem that if Ehud Olmert “gave away” Jerusalem in a future negotiation that they should “shoot” him and desert the IDF. Subsequently, the rabbi and University president released statements feebly claiming the former didn’t believe what he said. Since the audience laughed at his remark, it must mean that the speaker was really in jest and not in earnest. No one has satisfactorily explained how imagining the assassination of a prime minister can be said to be a jest. Instead of being investigated and cautioned by the Israeli police for his behavior, the rabbi cancelled his stay and returned hastily to New York.
A Portland Chabad rabbi recently wrote in a blog that Israeli government ministers should be sent to the gallows for betraying the nation. The problem is that when Jews incite they are excused (in fact my blog was the only media source which denounced the rabbi’s remarks). But when Arabs incite it’s plastered all over the media. I don’t excuse incitement on either side. But if Jews expect Arabs to restrain their side then they will have to do a better job of restraining their own. Incitement is a two-way street. As Gorenberg so cogently writes about recent events:
The terrorist and the would-be lynch mob exist in a strange symbiosis. Hate feeds on hate and conjures up more hate.
Another problem with the extreme Israeli religious right is that it rejects Israeli democracy in favor of a political theocracy. That is why it could take matters into its own hands at Jabel Mukaber in a frenzy of vigilante justice. In effect, the extreme settler movement is a cancer within the body politic. It is a movement that has spawned past assassins and may spawn future ones.
Many may have thought that Ariel Sharon excised the cancer when he evacuated Gaza settlements with minimal bloodshed thereby proving that the settlers were a distinct and weakened minority. But they retreated to fight another day. And whenever Ehud Olmert or a future prime minister decides to enter into final status negotiations they will have to face the angry lynch mob that attacked Jabel Mukaber. Will Israel have the strength to do so? Events last week in East Jerusalem were deeply discouraging if they are a sign of what is to come.
Some may argue that these extremists are a small minority within Israeli society; that they do not command the respect of the majority. To this, I would respond that the extreme views of this minority are echoed in many of the attitudes held by mainstream Israelis. If you look at any number of opinion surveys you’ll find that many Israelis hold starkly racist views of not just Palestinians, but their fellow Arab citizens. While it is possible that such views are held out of ignorance rather than out of malice, the truth is that Israeli Jews know next to nothing about their Arab fellow citizens. And in such a vacuum, the hateful views of a determined minority can take root and flourish.
This is why I applaud the efforts of liberal Orthodox Israelis like Gorenberg and those who founded 12th of Heshvan, a group dedicated to commemorating both the assassination and legacy of tolerance represented by Yitzhak Rabin. When right-wing rabbis call for Yigal Amir to be allowed to marry, father a child and hold its bar mitzvah in prison, the 12th of Heshvan stands as moral witness against such coddling of enemies of the State. They represent a version of Judaism that rejects hatred and incitement and embraces instead tolerance and mutual respect.