Israel Pulse

Israeli nationalists' messiah complex

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Article Summary
The political leaders of Israel's settler sector are abusing Judaism, a dangerous weapon in irresponsible hands.

A senior member of the Israeli government complained last week that despite repeated bombings of targets in the Gaza Strip, from which several rockets were fired at Israel, there had been no reports of wounded or dead Palestinians. “What is this special weapon we have that we fire and see pillars of smoke and fire, but nobody gets hurt? It is time for there to be injuries and deaths as well,” Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel demanded in a radio interview on Jan. 10. On the same day, while eulogizing Rabbi Raziel Shevach, who was murdered in a drive-by shooting near the unsanctioned West Bank outpost of Havat Gilad, Ariel appealed to a higher power to get the job done. “We want divine retribution,” he cried.

The minister, whose far-right Tkuma (Hebrew for "resurrection") party joined HaBayit HaYehudi in the ruling coalition, vowed not to back down. “We swear to build the Land of Israel, and there is no one to stop the redemption of the people of Israel. … You cannot stop this melody. It is a divine melody and we are its messengers,” added Ariel, himself from the West Bank settlement of Beit El.

When an elected official in a state that presumes to be the only democracy in the region views himself as the messenger of a higher power, he obviously has no use for the Knesset and its laws nor for the government and its decisions. An Israeli soldier who stops Jewish settlers from uprooting the olive trees of Palestinians is preventing the redemption of holy land, and when an Israeli police officer detains a West Bank settler for spitting in the face of a Palestinian woman, he is clearly disrupting the “divine melody.”

If a minister in the Palestinian Authority had complained about the negligible number of Israelis killed and wounded in terror attacks, an almighty storm would have ensued. Imagine the headlines reporting the Palestinian ministerial declaration, “We are the messengers of God. No one can stop the redemption of Palestine in its entirety.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would have demanded that President Mahmoud Abbas immediately fire the “wayward” minister and condemn his remarks. Pundits would have pointed with concern to Abbas’ inability to stem the spread of Islamist ideology to the Palestinian leadership’s top echelons.

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Fundamentalist, messianic ideologies are nothing new in Israeli society. Rabbis Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur from the “Od Yosef Chai” yeshiva in the settlement of Yitzhar justified the execution of the enemy’s babies in their 2009 book “Torat Hamelech,” the “King’s Torah.” The babies and children of Israel's enemies may be killed since "it is clear that they will grow to harm us" and will have to be killed anyway, the two opined. The police interrogated the two rabbis on suspicion of incitement, but they were not indicted.

Back in the 1970s, the head of the prestigious Merkaz Harav yeshiva and leader of religious Zionism, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, ruled that the government’s order to vacate Sebastia, one of the first attempts to settle in the West Bank, was illegal. Hanan Porat, one of the leaders of the Gush Emunim settlement movement, pledged that the entire world, Arabs included, would “enjoy the realization of [our] redemption.”

Porat, who passed away in 2011, was one of the members of the National Religious Party (NRP) who walked out to protest his party’s support for the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt. Yehuda Ben-Meir, then a member of the party’s young leadership, told Al-Monitor this week that HaBayit HaYehudi, the party established on the ruins of the NRP, would likely have unanimously rejected that peace agreement had it been asked to vote on it today. He noted that the decision by the Mizrachi movement, one of the precursors of the NRP, to support the 1947 UN Partition Plan that divided Palestine between Jews and Arabs, had also been preceded by a stormy party leadership fight.

Ben-Meir, who served as deputy foreign minister in the 1980s government of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, remarked that sadly, the reincarnation of the NRP, HaBayit HaYehudi, serves only the settlers and the right-wing Israelis who support them. “There’s no room for pluralism on issues of diplomacy, particularly regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he said. The old NRP, which had its roots in the Mizrachi party established in 1903, included such moderate figures as Joseph Burg, Haim Moshe Shapira and Zerah Verhaftig, but it cannot be resurrected, he said. “Many of the sons and grandsons of NRP voters draw a line between religion and sectoral ideology,” Ben-Meir said. “Many Israelis adhere to a religious way of life but do not identify with the [settlement] sector. They observe the Jewish Sabbath and lay tefillin, but vote for [centrist, anti-clerical] Yair Lapid, [center-right] Moshe Kahlon and even the Zionist Camp and Likud parties. They integrate into society, industry, science and political life. They do not relate to a sectoral party like HaBayit HaYehudi.”

Attorney Batia Kahane-Dror, who ran in the last HaBayit HaYehudi primaries, left the party in anger in 2015 when she realized that her championing of pragmatic attitudes had left her persona non grata. Kahane-Dror, who heads Mavoi Satum, a support organization for women who are denied divorce under Jewish law, said after her departure that HaBayit HaYehudi leaders were competing for the title of “most messianic” and striving to turn Israel into a Jewish-law state. “I espouse national, right-wing views,” she noted, “but I asked myself how I can stay in a place where ‘peace’ is a dirty word.” Party leader Naftali Bennett “gives the impression of a nice right-winger, a champion of a strong defense policy, but his views are radical and especially messianic.” 

Her diagnosis of Bennett might be somewhat flawed. Ahead of the 2013 elections, Bennett forged an alliance with Lapid, who had entered politics riding a wave of secular and pragmatic political messages. This alliance was clearly indicative of Bennett’s willingness to don an everyman persona in his bid to become prime minister. Today, the high-tech millionaire from central Israel appeals to religious youth with light messianic slogans. Tomorrow he might realize that anyone who rides on the back of a tiger could end up becoming the animal’s lunch.

On the day following the November 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Rabbi Yehuda Amital, the head of the Har Etzion Yeshiva in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc, warned that Jewish law, known in Hebrew as “halacha,” “can turn into dangerous explosives when in the hands of young people. … The term ‘halacha’ is too broad and sacred to be placed in the hands of every Jewish boy and girl.” One might add that this also applies to every politician lacking a backbone and maturity.

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Akiva Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. He was formerly a senior columnist and editorial writer for Haaretz and also served as the Hebrew daily’s US bureau chief and diplomatic correspondent. His most recent book (with Idith Zertal), Lords of the Land, on the Jewish settlements, was on the best-seller list in Israel and has been translated into English, French, German and Arabic.

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