How the rule of the rabbis is fuelling a holy war in Israel
In which country did a senior, state-salaried cleric urge his followers last week to become “warriors”, emulating a group of young men who had murdered a woman of another faith?
The cleric did so with impunity. In fact, he was only echoing other highly placed colleagues who have endorsed a book – again without penalty – urging their disciples to murder babies belonging to other religions.
Where can the head of the clergy call black people “monkeys” and urge the expulsion of other religious communities?
Where are these holy men so feared that women are scrubbed from billboards... and women find themselves literally pushed to the back of the bus?
Where does a clerical elite wield so much power that they alone decide who can marry or get divorced – and are backed by a law that can jail someone who tries to wed without their approval? They can even shut down the national railway system without notice.
Where are these holy men so feared that women are scrubbed from billboards, college campuses introduce gender segregation to appease them, and women find themselves literally pushed to the back of the bus?
Is the country Saudi Arabia? Or Myanmar? Or perhaps, Iran?
No. It is Israel, the world’s only self-declared Jewish state.
Which ‘shared values’?
There is barely a politician in Washington seeking election who has not at some point declared an “unbreakable bond” between the United States and Israel, or claimed the two uphold “shared values”. Few, it seems, have any idea what values Israel really represents.
There are many grounds for criticising Israel, including its brutal oppression of Palestinians under occupation and its system of institutionalised segregation and discrimination against the fifth of its population who are not Jewish – its Palestinian minority.
But largely ignored by critics have been Israel’s increasing theocratic tendencies.
This hasn’t simply proved regressive for Israel’s Jewish population, as the rabbis exert ever greater control over the lives of religious and secular Jews alike, especially women.
It also has alarming implications for Palestinians, both under occupation and those living in Israel, as a national conflict with familiar colonial origins is gradually transformed into a holy war, fuelled by extremist rabbis with the state’s implicit blessing.
Control of personal status
Despite Israel’s founding fathers being avowedly secular, the separation between church and state in Israel has always been flimsy at best – and it is now breaking down at an ever-accelerating rate.
After Israel’s establishment, David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, decided to subordinate important areas of life for Israeli Jews to the jurisdiction of an Orthodox rabbinate, representing the strictest, most traditional and conservative stream of Judaism. Other, more liberal streams have no official standing in Israel to this day.
Ben Gurion’s decision in part reflected a desire to ensure his new state embraced two differing conceptions of Jewishness: both those who identified as Jews in a secular ethnic or cultural sense, and those who maintained the religious traditions of Judaism. He hoped to fuse the two into a new notion of a Jewish “nationality”.
For that reason, the Orthodox rabbis were given exclusive control over important parts of the public sphere – personal status matters, such as conversions, births, deaths and marriages.
Bolstering the rabbis’ power was the urgent need of Israel’s secular leaders to obscure the state’s settler-colonial origins. This could be achieved by using education to emphasise Biblical justifications for the usurpation by Jews of the lands of the native Palestinian population.
As the late peace activist Uri Avnery observed, the Zionist claim was “based on the Biblical history of the Exodus, the conquest of Canaan, the kingdoms of Saul, David and Solomon … Israeli schools teach the Bible as real history.”
Such indoctrination, combined with a much higher birth rate among religious Jews, has contributed to an explosion in the numbers identifying as religious. They now comprise half the population.
Today, about a quarter of Israeli Jews belong to the Orthodox stream, which reads the Torah literally, and one in seven belong to the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, the most fundamentalist of the Jewish religious streams. Forecasts suggest that in 40 years, the latter will comprise a third of the country’s Jewish population.
‘Conquer the government’
Both the growing power and extremism of the Orthodox in Israel was highlighted in the last week of January when one of their most influential rabbis, Shmuel Eliyahu, publicly came to the defence of five students accused of murdering Aisha Rabi, a Palestinian mother of eight. Back in October they stoned her car near Nablus, in the occupied West Bank, forcing her off the road.
Eliyahu is the son of a former chief rabbi of Israel, Mordechai Eliyahu, and himself sits on the Chief Rabbinical Council, which controls many areas of life for Israelis. He is also the municipal rabbi of Safed, a city that in Judaism has the equivalent status of Medina in Islam or Bethlehem in Christianity, so his words carry a great deal of weight with Orthodox Jews.
Eliyahu not only praised the five as 'warriors' but told fellow students that they needed to overthrow the 'rotten' secular court system
Earlier this month, a video came to light of a talk he gave at the seminary where the five accused studied, in the illegal settlement of Rehelim, south of Nablus.
Eliyahu not only praised the five as “warriors” but told fellow students that they needed to overthrow the “rotten” secular court system. He told them it was vital to “conquer the government” too, but without guns or tanks. “You have to take the state’s key positions,” he urged them.
In truth, that process is already well-advanced.
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who should have been the first to denounce Eliyahu’s comments, is closely aligned with religious settlers. Tellingly, she and other government ministers have maintained a studious silence.
That is because the political representatives of Israel’s religious Jewish communities, including the settlers, have now become the lynchpin of Israeli coalition governments. They are the kingmakers and can extract enormous concessions from other parties.
For some time, Shaked has been using her position to bring more openly nationalistic and religious judges into the legal system, including to the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court.
Two of its current 15 judges, Noam Sohlberg and David Mintz, are law-breakers, openly living in West Bank settlements in violation of international law. Several more judges appointed to the bench by Shaked are religious and conservative.
This is a significant victory for the Orthodox religious and the settlers. The court is the last line of defence for the secular against an assault on their religious freedoms and on gender equality.
And the court offers the only recourse for Palestinians seeking to mitigate the worst excesses of the violent and discriminatory policies of the Israeli government, army and settlers.
Shaked’s colleague, Naftali Bennett, another ideologue of the settlement movement, has been education minister in the Netanyahu government for four years. This post has long been a critical one for the Orthodox because it shapes Israel’s next generation.
After decades of concessions to the rabbis, Israel’s school system is already heavily skewed towards religion. A survey in 2016 showed 51 percent of Jewish pupils attended sex-segregated religious schools, which emphasise Biblical dogma – up from 33 percent only 15 years earlier.
This may explain why a recent poll found that 51 percent believe Jews have a divine right to the land of Israel, and slightly more – 56 percent – believe that Jews are a “chosen people”.
Those results are likely to get even worse in the coming years. Bennett has been placing much greater weight in the curriculum on Jewish tribal identity, Bible studies and religious claims to Greater Israel, including to the Palestinian territories – which he wants to annex.
Conversely, science and maths are increasingly downplayed in the education system, and entirely absent from schools for the ultra-Orthodox. Evolution, for example, has been mostly erased from the syllabus, even in secular schools.
‘No mercy’ to Palestinians
Another key sphere of state power being taken over by the religious, and especially the settlers, are the security services. Police Commissioner Roni Alsheikh lived for years in a settlement renowned for its violent attacks on Palestinians, and the force’s current chief rabbi, Rahamim Brachyahu, is also a settler.
Both have actively promoted a programme that recruits more religious Jews into the police force. Nahi Eyal, the programme’s founder, has said his aim is to help the settler community “find our way into the command ranks”.
The trend is even more entrenched in the Israeli military. Figures show that the national-religious community, to which settlers belong - though only 10 percent of the population - make up half of all new officer cadets. Half of Israel’s military academies are now religious.
That has translated into an increasing role for extremist Orthodox rabbis in motivating soldiers on the battlefield. In Israel’s 2008-09 ground invasion of Gaza, soldiers were issued with pamphlets by the army rabbinate using Biblical injunctions to persuade them to “show no mercy” to Palestinians.
Call to kill babies
Meanwhile, the rapidly growing ultra-Orthodox population has been encouraged by the government to move into West Bank settlements purpose-built for them, such as Modi'in Illit and Beitar Illit. That, in turn, is gradually fuelling the emergence of an aggressive nationalism among their youth.
Once the Haredim were openly hostile, or at best ambivalent, towards Israeli state institutions, believing that a Jewish state was sacrilegious until the Messiah arrived to rule over Jews.
For the first time, young Haredim are serving in the Israeli army, adding to the pressure on the military command to accommodate their fundamentalist ideology
Now, for the first time, young Haredim are serving in the Israeli army, adding to the pressure on the military command to accommodate their religious fundamentalist ideology. A new term for these hawkish Haredi soldiers has been coined: They are called the “Hardal”.
Brachyahu and rabbis for the Hardal are among the senior rabbis who have endorsed a terrifying book, the King’s Torah, written by two settler rabbis, that urges Jews to treat non-Jews, and specifically Palestinians, mercilessly.
It offers God’s blessing for Jewish terror – not only against Palestinians who try to resist their displacement by settlers, but against all Palestinians, even babies, on the principle that “it is clear that they will grow [up] to harm us.”
Gender segregation expands
The dramatic rise in religiosity is creating internal problems for Israeli society too, especially for the shrinking secular population and for women.
Posters for the forthcoming election – as with adverts more generally – are being “cleaned” of women’s faces in parts of the country to avoid causing offence.
Last month, the Supreme Court criticised Israel’s Council for Higher Education for allowing segregation between men and women in college classrooms to spread to the rest of the campus, including libraries and communal areas. Female students and lecturers are facing “modesty” dress codes.
The council has even announced that it intends to expand segregation because it is proving difficult to persuade religious Jews to attend higher education.
Violence of the mob
Israel has always been a society deeply structured to keep Israeli Jews and Palestinians apart, both physically and in terms of rights. That is equally true for Israel’s large Palestinian minority, a fifth of the population, who live almost entirely apart from Jews in segregated communities. Their children are kept away from Jewish children in separate schools.
But the greater emphasis in Israel on a religious definition of Jewishness means that Palestinians now face not only the cold structural violence designed by Israel’s secular founders, but additionally a hot-tempered, Biblically sanctioned hostility from religious extremists.
That is most keenly evident in the rapid rise of physical assaults on Palestinians and their property, as well as their holy places, in Israel and the occupied territories. Among Israelis, this violence is legitimised as “price tag” attacks, as though Palestinians have brought such harm on themselves.
YouTube is now full of videos of gun- or baton-wielding settlers attacking Palestinians, typically as they try to access their olive groves or springs, while Israeli soldiers stand passively by or assist.
Arson attacks have spread from olive groves to Palestinian homes, sometimes with horrifying results, as families are burned alive.
Rabbis such as Eliyahu have stoked this new wave of attacks with their Biblical justifications. State terrorism and mob violence have merged.
The biggest potential flashpoint is in occupied East Jerusalem, where the growing symbolic and political power of these Messianic rabbis risks exploding at the al-Aqsa Mosque compound.
Secular politicians have long played with fire at this Islamic holy site, using archaeological claims to try to convert it into a symbol of historic Jewish entitlement to the land, including the occupied territories.
But their claim that the mosque is built over two Jewish temples, the last of which was destroyed two millennia ago, has been rapidly reconfigured for incendiary, modern political purposes.
The growing influence of religious Jews in parliament, the government, the courts and the security services means that officials grow ever bolder in staking a physical claim to sovereignty over al-Aqsa.
It also entails an ever greater indulgence towards religious extremists who demand more than physical control over the mosque site. They want al-Aqsa destroyed and replaced with a Third Temple.
The gathering holy war
Slowly, Israel is transforming a settler-colonial project against the Palestinians into a battle with the wider Islamic world. It is turning a territorial conflict into a holy war.
The question now is at what point will Israel’s allies, in the US and Europe, finally wake up to the catastrophic direction Israel is heading in
The demographic growth of Israel’s religious population, the cultivation by the school system of an ever-more extreme ideology based on the Bible, the takeover of the state’s key power centres by the religious, and the emergence of a class of influential rabbis who preach genocide against Israel’s neighbours has set the stage for a perfect storm in the region.
The question now is at what point will Israel’s allies, in the US and Europe, finally wake up to the catastrophic direction Israel is heading in – and find the will to take the necessary action to stop it.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.