In a follow-up of my reporting which broke the original story concerning settlers suspected of murdering Palestinian mother of eight, Aisha Rabi, Israeli media reports that four of the five suspects in custody have been remanded to house arrest. An Israeli security source tells me that the fifth suspect, Tzvi Lev (pictured here for the first time), remains in custody. The other four detainees have fingered him as the ringleader who threw the stone which killed Rabi.
The Shin Bet has also summoned twenty yeshiva students from the institution where the suspects studied, as potential accessories after the fact. They are reported to have colluded with them in order to obstruct the police investigation. Video cameras at the school were apparently tampered with in order to eliminate evidence that would implicate them. Also, one of Israel’s most prominent settler rabbis, Dov Lior, has issued a halachic ruling justifying the violation of the laws of Shabbat in order for rabbis to travel to the yeshiva in order to prepare the suspects for interrogation by the Shin Bet. This does not honor God. It is a debasement of Judaism and a desecration of God’s name, chillul ha’Shem.
The settler lobby and its powerful allies in the Israeli political system have raised a stink about the alleged abuse of Jewish terror suspects, including the boys involved in this case. Their advocates complain that such treatment is a violation of Israeli democracy and the rights of citizens. It’s a troubling irony that these apologists for Palestinian murder only care about Israeli democracy when it suits their interest. They have no interest in the subject in any other context; least of all extending it to Jewish leftists or Palestinians, whether citizens or those living under Israeli Occupation.
Even more troubling is their complaint about torture. They scream bloody murder when one of their own is abused. But their sense of outrage isn’t aroused in the least when Palestinian security suspects endure far worse treatment including, in some cases, rape and methods that cause severe, lasting emotional and physical damage.
I would have no problem advocating for equal treatment for all such prisoners. Then my views and values would have something in common with these settler Judeans. But their claims are hypocritical in the extreme because they only want rights for their own. Their view amounts to a national cult of Jewish racialism. These are not advocates for democracy. They’re advocates for Jewish supremacy.
Judaism ≠ Zionism
Let’s begin with a few words about the accompanying cartoon from Haaretz. Titled Pri Haaretz, the name of the yeshiva where the murder suspects studied. It means “Fruit of the Land,” a metaphor commenting on the murder as the “fruit” of settlerism and the current Israeli political environment. Two settlers sit on the shoulders of two Orthodox settler rabbis (Dov Lior and chief rabbi David Lau) with rocks dripping in Palestinian blood. One settler holds an Israeli flag on which a burning Nazi swastika is superimposed.
One of the most vexing issues for me in dealing with Israel and Zionism is how they relate to Judaism. Especially when settlers appeal to the Israeli people as fellow Jews, it grips my heart with gall.
This issue has come to a head recently regarding the controversy over Alice Walker’s endorsement of a book written by noted anti-Semite, David Icke. It grieves me that a number of pro-Palestine activists have mounted the barricades to defend Walker’s views, which are poorly informed at best. For a summary of the issues read Susan Abulhawa’s piece defending Walker and Yoav Litvin’s Al Jazeera piece critiquing her and other Walker defenders.
The notion that Zionism represents “Jewish supremacy,” as Abdulhawa argues, is at most only partially true. And to the extent that there is any truth in it, it requires a careful analysis of of how Judaism and Jewishness relate to Zionism.
First, of course it is true that Israeli Jews enjoy superior rights to non-Jewish citizens of Israel. But to associate this form of racial supremacy with Judaism as a religion, is far too reductive.
I’m also troubled by Abulhawa and Walker’s resorting to quoting offensive passages from the Talmud which derogate non-Jews. As a religious document, the Talmud has no more sway over determining Israeli policies than the King James Bible does over U.S. policy. While it is true that Israeli religious figures and political and military leaders do echo some of the supremacist attitudes embedded in certain passages in the Talmud, blaming modern Judaism for these statements is a mistake. Would it be acceptable to blame today’s Catholics for the mass murder of Jews during the Crusades and argue that modern Catholicism condones such genocide?
Israeli Jews are only a part of the Jewish world. And while the State of Israel may claim to speak on behalf of all Jews everywhere, it doesn’t. Such a claim echoes rather conveniently the anti-Semitic screeds of people like Icke and David Duke.
Not all Jews are Zionists. And there are non-Jews who are Zionists, like Christian evangelicals. Not all Jews support Israel’s apartheid system. And certainly most Diaspora Jews don’t need or want Israel to speak for them. In fact, here in the U.S. the vast majority of Jews disagree strongly both with Israeli government policies and Trump policies toward Israel. Those of us who are activists within this community are working intensively to amplify this opposition. To transform American Jews from rubber stamps for Israel to Jews who believe in denouncing Israeli Occupation and the racist nature of the current Israeli state.
While it is true that Israeli Orthodox Judaism, especially its settler sect, adopts religion as a crucial element in its identity. It’s important to understand that for the rest of us, this is not normative Judaism. In fact, I’ve often written that they are not Jews in any sense that most of the rest of us would recognize. I call them worshippers of “stones and bones” or Judeans. That is, idolaters who worship land and relics rather than living, breathing values of tolerance, justice, equality and peace.
As Litvin says in his op-ed and as the Nazi symbol in the cartoon illustrates, these settler killers and their powerful political patrons are as much white supremacists as they are religious zealots. They embrace all the racialist, eliminationist rhetoric of Nazism and white supremacy. So to link them solely to a religious tradition without linking them to their ultra-nationalist political roots, as Abulhawa does, is a mistake.
I refuse to permit such Israeli Jews to hijack my religion; to turn it into a sect devoted to what I consider pagan idolatry. Despite the fact that Jews may not yet grasp the nature of this threat to their religious identity, one of the main goals of this blog is to offer a different vision of Judaism than that offered by settlers and their Jewish fellow travelers. It is why I insist on approaching these issues both from a secular political perspective and through Jewish tradition. If certain Jews are part of the problem, then other Jews must offer the solution. And we must do so in the language of that tradition, from within it.
Unfortunately, most Diaspora Jews do not yet grasp that settler Judaism is a death trap for the rest of our religion. If we do not separate ourselves and do so aggressively, then we are in a sense guilty of their crimes.
Finally, it is an error to turn the conflict into one of religion against religion. Turning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a religious crusade plays into the worst elements of Islamophobia (among Jews) and anti-Semitism (among Muslims).
When religions clash they bring with them the worst and most intractable of human convictions. When you invoke your God in such an argument, you are willing to die on behalf of your sacred beliefs. So is your enemy for his.
In reality, this conflict is one between two peoples, two nations and it revolves around political power, rights and resources. Such conflicts can be resolved through a combination of compromise, suasion and pressure. While some nationalists are willing to die on behalf of their nation, they are much more willing and able to compromise with another nation in order to realize their interests.
When God is involved, red lines are drawn quickly and there is often no way to compromise.
That being said, clearly for the Jewish people, whether in the Diaspora or Israel, there is a Jewish element to their identification with this nation. But they key question is: can Judaism be part of the identity of the Israeli Jew without sanctioning the racism, hatred and murder that characterize what Israel is now? I would answer Yes to this question. However, my religion, especially as practiced in Israel has been hijacked by a horrible consensus that endorses all of the worst excesses of settler Judaism.
Somehow, sometime, there must be a radical divorce between normative Judaism and settler Judaism, as practiced by so many Israeli Jews. There must be no room for murder and hate in any religion I practice. I look forward to the time when the rest of my fellow Jews feel the same way and act on decisively to realize these values.
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.