Jewish Terror and Jewish Ethics
In the past weeks, there have been three horrific incidents of Jewish terror (with two this week alone): the first was the Shfaram massacre in which an IDF soldier shot up a bus full of Israeli Arabs killing four; the second was a Jewish settler who turned a gun on Palestinian workers he drove regularly to and from their work in the Shiloh (West Bank) industrial zone killing four; and the third was yesterday’s incident in which Jewish extremist protesters atop the roof of the Neve Dekalim synagogue rained gun-cleaning fluid and other chemicals upon Israeli soldiers and police who were scaling the building to remove them.
For many Jews, it is especially difficult to see other Jews take up violence no matter how urgently you might view any issue. Jews have experienced so much violence directed against them over millenia that it is just plain hard to fathom a Jew who commits violence in the name of Jewish values (like maintaining the Greater Land of Israel).
It is true that Jews have engaged in terror at times in their history. A group of Jewish Zealot assassins in Palestine during the Roman Period, the Sicarii (“Dagger-men”), murdered anyone they considered to be a Roman sympathizer. During the British Mandate, Jewish terror groups like Irgun and Lehi (Stern gang) resorted to terror attacks such as the assassination of Count Bernadotte, a UN envoy, in order to undermine the chance for a negotiated settlement under UN auspices. In the 1990s, Emil Grunzweig was murdered by an exploding hand grenade at a Peace Now rally. And of course, the most profoundly damaging act of terror was the 1995 assassination of Yitzchak Rabin at the hands of a right wing zealot. So whether we like it or not, we must face the fact that Jews, like Palestinians and others feeling national or religious grievances, resort to terror.
But do they have a right to take up violence in terms of Jewish law and ethics? For today’s Israeli extremists justify their action by saying they represent a higher law than the State of Israel (which they view as having betrayed them anyway): God’s law. The Torah, in this view, promises the entire land of Israel to Abraham’s seed from the Nile to the Euphrates (in Biblical times) and from the Mediterranean to the Jordan in these more constrained times. For a Jewish believer to turn their back on such a prophecy is sacrilege.
But murder of Palestinians and violence against fellow Jews can never be justified as a political or religious expression even when you feel that the State is forcing you to betray your religious principles. The operative Jewish principle here is Dina de malchuta dina who (“the law of the state is the law”). In other words, a Jew must not see a contradiction between halacha and civil law. The latter is the prevailing legal system when there is a conflict. As a Jew, the settler’s rejection of this bedrock halachic principle is deeply troubling.
What is extraordinary about dina d’malchuta is that it recognizes (unlike those Muslims trying to make Sharia the prevailing legal system for civil society) that in the interest of a peaceful society halacha may have to concede its sway to the state. In other words, there can be limits to halacha. And halacha must be flexible in recognizing those limits. The settlers seem to have completely lost track of this concept in their messianic fantasies.
Another troubling phenomenon is the settler’s appropriation of religious symbols in an attempt to manipulate and bend public opinion to their point of view. I’m not just speaking of the tears, the wailing, the gnashing of teeth meant to remind their fellow Jews of other times in Jewish history when Jews have been tragically and forcibly expelled from their homes and homeland (notably 1492 Spain). We also hear much from the settlers about analogies between the forces of the state (the IDF and police) and Nazis. Sharon is likened to Hitler. And let’s not forget their choice of fighting “to the last man” from the rooftops of their synagogues. They wish to provoke outrage in their fellow Jews at seeing Jews torn asunder from their sacred houses of worship. The settlers have developed a full panoply of techniques to tug on Israel’s heartstrings.
Ira Sharkansky, a political scientist objected to the tactics at Neve Dekalim:”To pick a synagogue is to play on a religious theme. It’s hypocritical and it infuriates me. It insults my Judaism,”
But Shlomo Riskin, rabbi of the West Bank settlement of Efrat, said the synagogue “is the place that one naturally goes to in time of trouble.” I find it difficult to believe that such a respected rabbi as Shlomo Riskin could justify any of the histrionics we saw at the Neve Dekalim and Kfar Darom synagogues yesterday and today.
To me, the resisters are like the boy who cried wolf once too often. You cry and wail and moan long enough; you hurl abusive invective long enough at those who’ve come to remove you; you provoke Jewish guilt enough and you will finally lose the sympathy and interest of the people of Israel. And that’s what is happening in Israel right now. The settler movement is losing the support it once had within Israeli society. No matter how suspicious the average Israeli might be of Palestinian motives and intentions, he or she recoils with horror at the sight of innocent Arab blood being shed in Shfaram and Shiloh. And the idea of a Jew raining down dangerous chemicals on soldiers and police is absolutely repugnant. Such actions bespeak the movement’s desperation rather than their resolve.
I am not expecting settlers who moved to Gaza or the West Bank out of a religious conviction that they were fulfilling God’s plan for the Jewish people to suck it up and move on. That would be heartless and foolish at the same time. People are entitled to mourn when their dreams are crushed.
But perhaps the main reason why Judaism has survived for 2,000 years is its adaptability in the face of crisis. Take the example of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai. He was besieged with his fellow Jews in Jerusalem by a Roman army. He saw the handwriting on the wall–the city would be overwhelmed. He could choose to die with his people (as Jews chose to commit suicide on Masada) or live to serve them another day. To a settler, perhaps ben Zakkai’s choice to secretly slip out of Jerusalem in order to found a rabbinic academy at Yavneh might appear traitorous and cowardly. But ben Zakkai made a cold hard calculation. Where can I better serve my people? By martyring myself with them or by creating new institutions that will help ensure their survival in the coming era after they’re exiled from their homeland by the Romans? The rabbis trained at Yavneh went forth and ministered to Jewish communities in Rome and the new Diaspora. Without them and Ben Zakkai’s vision, the Jews might not have survived the Roman expulsion.
In Judaism, there are times when you compromise–when you choose the best option possible in the circumstances though not necessarily the one you’d prefer ideally. I am sad to say that the resisting settlers of Gaza and the Jewish terrorists have lost sight of this historical precedent.