RALPH GENENDE: Religious voices cannot stay silent about settler violence

RALPH GENENDE: Religious voices cannot stay silent about settler violence

As a modern Orthodox Jew, RABBI RALPH GENENDE is bewildered and pained by the vitriol and violence of settlers who claim to share his beliefs.

As a proud Modern, or centrist, Orthodox dati Jew and religious Zionist, my pride has yet again been replaced by acute alarm and displaced by deep shame. I am referring to the recent disgraceful vigilante attacks by settlers on Palestinian villages and towns, the burning of property and copies of the Koran and the threatening, and sometimes harming, of ordinary citizens.

Events stumble over each other in Israel and in the past week we have been preoccupied by the IDF intrusion into Jenin and the cowardly revenge attack on the street of Tel Aviv. But we should not allow this to overshadow the darkness in the heart of the West Bank and the black heart of too many in the settler movement.

Of course, I identify with the anger and horror at the murder of innocent citizens of Israel as in the recent terror attacks on the West Bank. I am enraged by the hapless and inept Palestinian Authority and their egregious antisemitic educational curriculum.

But I am deeply distressed by my fellow religious Jews and am bewildered and pained by their vitriolic rhetoric and violent actions.

In the past weeks MK Tzvika Foghel called for an all-out military onslaught, saying, “I prefer one thousand Arab mothers in mourning to one Jewish mother”. Moshe Heger, a reservist colonel and rabbi who heads a pre-military yeshiva in the Yatir settlement, called for the “destruction of a village or city” in order, he said, to teach the Palestinians a lesson. The Srugim website that is highly popular among the religious right promoted a video of Heger’s call without any criticism or comment.

I still struggle to understand what drives religious Israelis to support the shameless hatred of the other and the jingoism and assumed superiority of so many of the settlers, now ministers of the Knesset.

Over the years I have struggled with the chauvinistic attitudes of much of the settler movement and their distortion of so many Torah values in the name of religious Zionism. I have agonised over my own love of the land, our ancestral land on which Abraham wondered and Jacob dreamed, and the connection I feel to so many places on the West Bank.

I have written before about the brilliant, controversial and deeply religious Hebrew University professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who was an arresting moral influence on the State of Israel, challenging it with his superb intellectual (and Biblical) force.

He was prescient when, in 1967, he predicted the inevitable moral consequences of the Israeli occupation of the territories. He championed the role and right of Israel to restore independence to the Jewish nation in its own land.

Nevertheless, he was a severe critic of much of Israeli policy and pained by the injustices committed by Israel against the Palestinians. Unsurprisingly, late in 1967, Amos Oz and some 250 intellectuals signed a public statement opposing the annexation of the newly occupied territories with the warning that “no government anywhere has lasted long without free cooperation of its resident” and that they often find themselves “sitting on thorns and scorpions in most places”.

Oz warned against the “moral devastation of occupation”. I am perturbed that, notwithstanding Leibovitz, there has been a dearth of religious Zionist voices against the moral cost of the occupation over the years.

I still struggle to understand what drives religious Israelis to support the shameless hatred of the other and the jingoism and assumed superiority of so many of the settlers, now ministers of the Knesset.

Perhaps it is the deep fear we Jews have of living in a post-Shoah world, our precarious sense of self, our fear of existential extinction and yes, our recognition that we have to look after our own selves, and not rely on the beneficence of often hostile nations.

I am perturbed that there has been a dearth of religious Zionist voices against the moral cost of the occupation over the years.

I am always strengthened by my proxy teacher, Rabbi JB Soloveichik and his bold leadership of a rational and moderate religious Zionism despite his illustrious ultra-Orthodox pedigree. I am heartened by the recent powerful condemnations from rabbis Meidan Lichtenstein (grandson of Soloveitchik) and Rav Stav of Tzohar, although surprised it has taken so long. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks was another prophetic religious Zionist voice, although it seems he often held back from expressing what he really thought about the West Bank. His 2015 classic Not In God’s Name remains an incisive analysis of the costs of the religious extremism and intolerance we are witnessing in Israel today.

Lichtenstein issued a condemnation of recent settler attacks on Palestinian villages, calling their actions “a moral stain that taints us all”. Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein, the co-head of the prestigious Har Etzion Yeshiva in the West Bank, spoke of “a double pain”, both for the deaths of innocent Israelis “who were murdered in cold blood” in recent terror attacks in the West Bank, as well as “pain for the acts of revenge by lost and misbegotten souls’’.

He said he was disappointed that clear and sharp condemnations had not so far been issued by key leaders in the communities from which Jewish assailants had come. The entire public “is responsible for creating the atmosphere that allowed these acts to take place” and thus must conduct serious soul-searching, he added.

Perhaps his most vociferous comment was that one could not “ignore the historic associative connection to pogroms in Jewish villages across the generations, and our responsibility in light of [this past] toward villages we control.” Earlier, Rabbi Yaakov Medan, a leading figure in the religious-Zionist community and a dean at Har Etzion Yeshiva, also condemned the riots, saying that they were “not our language or values” and he singled out the destruction of books.

We need to be as energetic in our strengthening of religious freedom and values of respect, human dignity, democracy and justice as we are in countering religious extremism. Lichtenstein has warned that “the understanding and lack of decisiveness shown by educators, rabbis, the public and our leaders toward previous acts of violence against Palestinians has led to the expansion of the phenomenon”.

This is not restricted to the Israeli landscape but incumbent on all of us. Let’s act in the spirit of the poet WB Yeats and ensure that the best of us is filled with a passionate conviction and intensity for religious moderation and for God’s ways of pleasantness and peace. There are times to be silent and times to speak out. Now is the time to speak out.

MORE ANALYSIS

Israel’s assault in Jenin will only further erode the Palestinian Authority’s legitimacy (Dov Waxman, The Conversation)
As Israeli soldiers withdrew from the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank after two days of fighting, Israel’s generals and politicians were quick to hail the major military operation there a success.

Israeli security chiefs helpless as government ignores settler violence (Ben Caspit, Al-Monitor)
Heads of the security agencies fear that without a clear backing of the government to fight Jewish nationalist attacks, settler violence against Palestinian villages will only increase.

Israel Can (But Won’t) Stop West Bank Settlers’ Attacks on Palestinians
The recent violence was so ruinous that even IDF officials called it a “pogrom.” If it only wanted to, Israel’s government could give the order to stop this.

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Photo: Hawara settlers fire, March 2023