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Facing the Future: The Need to Promote Free Speech and Confront Extremism in the Jewish Community

Allan C. Brownfeld
Spring 2005

American Jewish organizations are focusing a great deal of attention on what they call “Jewish continuity.” Of particular concern is the fact that American Jewish young people appear to be increasingly alienated from Judaism. According to the National Study of Youth and Religion, a four-year survey conducted by 133 researchers and consultants, American Jewish youth are significantly less engaged in their faith than their peers in other religious groups.  

Only 44 percent believe in a personal God who is involved in peoples’ lives today. Jewish respondents were less likely than all but Bahai teens to pray each day. Thirty-four percent said they never pray alone, and only 17 percent attend synagogue services on a weekly basis. Mormon youth led the way in almost all indicators of religious practice and identification, followed in order by Evangelical Protestants, black Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics. Jews lagged behind them all — and showed unflattering results in comparison to Hindus and Buddhists as well.  

Soul Searching  

The findings were released in March in the book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Rabbi Michael Friedman, director of high school programs for the Union of Reform Judaism’s youth movement, the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY), called the results “representative” of his own experience with Jewish teenagers.  

Noting that about half of adult Jews in the U.S. are not members of a congregation, Friedman said that teens dropping out of Jewish communal life were “simply mirroring their parents.” The less exposure they have to a Jewish environment as kids, the less likely they are to have a strong Jewish identity as adults. The issue “is larger than just Jewish youth,” he said. “It extends to the whole Jewish community.”  

Introspection has been sadly lacking within the organized Jewish community. The reason young people, and others, feel alienated may relate directly to the content of the Jewish programming which is presented to them. In a society of widespread openness, tolerance and acceptance, they are told that anti-Semitism is a growing reality and threat to their lives. When they seek spirituality and a religious content which is meaningful to their own lives, they often receive a one-sided discussion of Middle East politics, and declarations that “aliyah” — emigration to Israel — is a “Jewish” goal to which they should aspire. Is it any wonder that their response is less than enthusiastic?  

Free and Open Speech  

Also lacking in the organized Jewish community is a commitment to free and open speech. All too often, those who challenge the consensus of self-appointed spokesmen are labeled “anti-Semites” or at least assisting those who are. And extremists within the Jewish community are rarely confronted but, in the name of “consensus,” are unchallenged.  

Fortunately, many Jewish voices have been raised in recent days to reject this mindset which has for so long dominated American Jewish life.  

As the world commemorated the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, many commentators pointed out how little the world has learned since the Holocaust. Sadly, bigotry and religious violence have not been eradicated, and we have witnessed genocidal assaults in places as diverse as Cambodia, Rwanda and Sudan.  

Jews, who were the main targets of Nazi racism, “face a very different sort of problem today, one that is partly of their own making,” writes Ami Eden, the national editor of The Forward in The New York Times (January 29, 2005).  

In an article entitled “Playing the Holocaust Card,” she declares that, “Jewish organizations have pursued an effective campaign to combat bigotry through a combination of protest and education, hoping to shame wrongdoers and encourage the next generation to shed old prejudices. And yet, as they look around, they see a world increasingly hostile to them and to Israel. It is time Jews recognize that the old strategies no longer work. Jewish organizations and advocates of Israel fail to grasp that they are no longer viewed as the voice of the disenfranchised. Rather, they are seen as a global Goliath, close to the seats of power and capable of influencing policies and damaging reputations. As such, their efforts to raise the alarm increasingly appears as bullying.”  

Forced to Apologize  

According to Eden, “In recent decades, a long list of religious, political and cultural luminaries, from Jesse Jackson to Marlon Brando to Dolly Parton, have found themselves forced to apologize for thoughtless remarks that were taken to be anti-Semitic. No doubt, some calls for contrition are justified. But the eagerness of Jewish civil-rights groups to play watchdog, and their tendency to err on the side of zealousness, leads them all too frequently to blur distinctions between real bigotry and the verbal blunders by well-meaning individuals. Take the case of Mr. Brando, who in 1996 broke into tears in a news conference as he tried to quell the uproar over his on-air comments to Larry King that ‘Hollywood is run by Jews’ who ‘should have a greater sensitivity about the issue of people who are suffering.’ Lost in the brouhaha was the actor’s long commitment to opposing anti-Semitism and his support of Israel.”  

Eden concludes: “For more than half a century, Auschwitz has rightly stood at the heart of virtually every moral argument put forth by spokesmen for the Jewish community, a powerful testament to the consequences of otherwise decent people remaining silent in the face of evil. Yet this legacy is in peril, threatened by an increasing reliance on raw political muscle over appeals to conscience. As the world recalls the horrors and liberation of Auschwitz, Jewish organizations and advocates for Israel should remember that ‘speaking truth to power’ does not work when you are seen as the powerful one.”  

Eden is hardly alone among Jewish observers in lamenting the abuse of the term ‘anti-Semitism’ as a means of silencing legitimate debate, particularly with regard to the Middle East.  

Genuine and Illusory  

“‘Anti-Semitism today is a genuine problem. It is also an illusory problem,” writes Professor Tony Judt of the Remarque Institute at New York University. “The overwhelming majority of Europeans abhors recent attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions and takes them very seriously. But it is generally realized in Europe that these attacks are the product of local circumstances and are closely tied to contemporary political developments in Europe and elsewhere. Thus, the increase in anti-Jewish incidents in France or Belgium is correctly attributed to young people, frequently of Muslim or Arab background, the children or grandchildren of immigrants ... It is not, as they say, ‘your grandfather’s anti-Semitism.’”  

In Judt’s view, many Americans have an “exaggerated anxiety” about the problem. He cites a statement in February, 2004 by Rockwell Schnabel, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, who spoke of anti-Semitism in Europe “getting to a point where it is as bad as it was in the 30s.”  

The problem of anti-Semitism in Europe, Judt believes, “is real, but it needs to be kept in proportion ... Polls confirm that young people all over Europe are much less tolerant of prejudice than their parents were. Among non-Muslim French youth, especially, anti-Semitic sentiment has steadily declined and is now negligible ... These figures are broadly comparable to results from similar surveys taken in the U.S.”  

Stifle Free Discussion  

In an effort to stifle free discussion, many Jewish leaders in the U.S. express the view that there is no longer any difference between being “against” Israel and “against” Jews. This formulation, Judt points out, “... is palpably false. Some of the highest levels of pro-Palestinian sympathy in Europe today are recorded in Denmark, a country that also registers as one of the least anti-Semitic ... Another country with a high level of support for the Arabs of Palestine is the Netherlands; yet ... the Dutch have the lowest anti-Semitic quotient in Europe ... In other words, some of the most widespread pro-Palestinian and even anti-Zionist views are to be found in countries that have long been — and still are — decidedly philo-Semitic.”  

If criticism of particular Israeli policies sometimes seems to drift into anti-Semitism, it may be because such critics have accepted the Zionist pronouncement that Judaism and the Jewish state are, in fact, a single entity. The policies of the Israeli government, especially in recent years, have, Judt writes, “provoked widespread anti-Jewish feelings in Europe and elsewhere. This may seem absurd, but there is a certain logic to it. Zionists have always insisted that there is no distinction between the Jewish people and the Jewish state. The latter offers a right of citizenship to Jews anywhere in the world. Israel is not the state of all its citizens, much less all its residents; it is the state of (all) Jews. Its leaders purport to speak for Jews everywhere. They can hardly be surprised when their own behavior provokes a backlash against Jews. Thus Israel itself has made a significant contribution to the resurgence of anti-Semitism ... This is an outcome with which many Israeli politicians are far from unhappy. It retroactively justifies their own bad behavior and contributes, as they proudly assert, to a rise in the number of European Jews leaving for Israel ...”  

The answer to this dilemma, Judt argues, is for Jews who take the problem of anti-Semitism seriously but reject the idea that criticism of Israel is itself a form of bigotry must “construct” and “defend” a “firewall between the two.” They must make it clear, he declares, that “Israel does not speak for Jews ... Jews and others must shed inhibitions and criticize Israel’s policies and actions just as they would those of any other established state ...”  

Sense of Consensus  

As Israel’s government prepares to pull out of Gaza and parts of the West Bank and resume talks with the Palestinians, American Jewish communal leaders are, according to The Forward (Jan. 28, 2005) “striving to protect their community from polarizing and to create a sense of consensus in support of Ariel Sharon’s government ... The death of Yasser Arafat, the decline of Palestinian violence and especially the prospect of Israeli withdrawal from Gaza have swept away the consensus that had united virtually all the organized Jewish community behind the Israeli government over the last four-and-a-half years, since the outbreak of the Intifada.”  

The “Holocaust Card,” which we have seen used repeatedly against critics of Israel, is now being used against the Israeli government itself. The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) has sparked controversy with an ad in The Washington Jewish Week and The Forward which implies that those who support Israeli plans to withdraw from Gaza are akin to German Nazis. “Now, incredibly, it is Jews who would deport their own, imprison them in concentration camps and abandon the land to those who would destroy it,” the ad reads, calling such plans “an abomination.” The text lists historical foes of the Jewish people, from the Persians and Romans through the Nazis and Arabs — and now including the Israeli government.  

The ad was billed as “A message from the Brandeis district” of the ZOA and signed by its president, George Bernstein. ZOA President Morton Klein said the ad had not been approved by the national office and “we think it is inappropriate to make analogies to the Holocaust or other monstrous tragedies endured by Jews over the ages.” Mr. Bernstein said he stands by the ad. “Now Jews are afraid to talk against the planned deportations in Gaza,” he said. “I consider that akin to the silence of the Jews in America who failed to speak up and fight for Jews during the Holocaust. The ad is an effort to see that doesn’t happen again.”  

Nazi Analogy  

Reiterating the Nazi analogy, Bernstein added, “Judenrein is Judenrein (Jew-free), whether it’s in Germany, Poland or Israel.”  

Writing in The Forward, Ori Nir notes that, “Community leaders worry that vocal American Jewish opposition to Sharon’s disengagement plan may weaken the Israeli leader and harm peace efforts in the region. Opponents of the plan, though a minority, are highly mobilized, while supporters are not visibly mobilizing in force. Moreover, some leaders admit, they worry that the emergence of a vocal opposition to Sharon — even if it represents a minority — could weaken their own claim to represent the broader Jewish community when lobbying Washington on a variety of issues.”  

Of particular concern is that American Jews opposing the Gaza withdrawal plan might encourage threats of right-wing Israeli militants to resort to violence to obstruct the uprooting of Jewish settlements.  

In Israel, those leaders who advocate peace talks and disengagement have received death threats from extremists. Transportation Minister Meir Sheetrit received a letter warning that he would “witness your children’s funerals.” He said he had received dozens of letters threatening his own life. “Steps had better be taken before another political assassination takes place,” Sheetrit said. Brig. Gen. Ilan Paz, commander of the West Bank civil administration, received a death threat calling him “worse than Judenrat” — using the word for Nazi-established Jewish councils — and warning that he would be “punished by heaven.” Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz has received letters threatening him and his family, including a package containing a meat hook.  

Growing Concern  

Law enforcement officials in Israel have expressed growing concern about the threats. Officials in the Shin Bet security service have said extremists might try to assassinate Prime Minister Sharon or attack a key Jerusalem site sacred to Muslims and Jews in a last-ditch attempt to stop the withdrawal.  

In March, 1994, word leaked out that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin might order the forced evacuation of the 450 Jewish settlers living in Hebron. By then approximately 100,000 Palestinian residents of the city had been under curfew for a month, essentially to avert any attempt at retaliation against the settlers, and Rabin felt that he could not sustain such a policy and still keep the Oslo agreements alive.  

As the evacuation rumor spread and anger amongst settlers rose, a group of prominent Orthodox and nationalist rabbis calling themselves the Rabbinical Council for the Land of Israel — headed by former Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Avrsham Shapira — met in Hebron to deliberate. They issued a rabbinical ruling bluntly declaring that “it is a duty to reject an order to evacuate any settlement in the Land of Israel.”  

Now, Rabbi Shapira has issued the same edict again. In an interview in the weekly magazine Basheva, circulated in synagogues throughout Israel, he reiterated his ruling in even sharper terms, saying: “It is a (halakhic) offense, it is forbidden (to evacuate settlements), and (soldiers) must say so to their commanders.”  

To stress the gravity of prohibition, he added: “It is equal to desecrating the Sabbath and eating non-kosher food.” He encouraged religious soldiers to inform their commanders in advance that they would refuse to lend a hand in dismantling a settlement, with hopes of being assigned to other duty. But Shapira made it clear that, if they were commanded to take part, they must disobey any such order, “even at the price of going to jail.” Sixty Orthodox rabbis from around the country signed a statement backing Rabbi Shapira.  

Rabin Assassination  

The atmosphere at the present time is reminiscent of that preceding the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin. According to The Jerusalem Report (March 21, 2005), “Rhetoric about the ‘Nazi’ government is rife ... Settler extremist Hagi Ben-Artzi compared the day the government passed the disengagement plan to the day Hitler came to power. ... In a late February rally in Jerusalem, messianic Chabad rabbis, wearing sackcloth as a sign of mourning, accused Sharon of leading the people of Israel to ‘another Holocaust’ ... One of the organizers, Rabbi Shalom Dov Wolpe, of the Committee for the Salvation of the People and the Land of Israel, warned that the prime minister would be brought to trial and punished. Again a strong whiff of political violence is in the air. And this time, right-wingers warn that the situation could deteriorate into something approaching civil war.”  

For many years, the organized American Jewish community has been largely silent about the extremists who have used the Holocaust to malign those with whom they disagree — both Jews and non-Jews — and who, in some cases, have become mirror images of the very racism they decry.  

Consider the case of Meir Kahane. The founder of the Jewish Defense League (JDL) moved from the U.S. to Israel in 1971 and by 1984 was popular enough to win a seat in the Knesset under the banner of his Kach Party. He developed legislation for “The Prevention of Assimilation between Jews and Non-Jews and for the Security of the Jewish People.” Among the provisions it demanded were separate beaches for Jews and non-Jews and an end to mixed summer camps and community centers. Kahane’s legislation declared that “Jews are forbidden to marry non-Jews ... mixed marriages will not be recognized even if recognized in the countries in which they were held ... Jews are forbidden to have sexual relations of any kind with non-Jews ... Transgressors will be punished with two years’ imprisonment.”  

Nuremburg Laws  

A member of the Knesset from the Likud Party, Michael Eitan, likened Kahane’s proposed legislation to the anti-Semitic Nuremburg Laws enacted in Nazi Germany on September 15, 1935, the “Reich Citizenship Law” and the “Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor.”  

One of the heroes of extremists in today’s settler movement is Baruch Goldstein, who killed 29 Palestinians at morning prayer in the Cave of the Patriarchs on February 25, 1994. Goldstein was a personal student of Kahane and in 1983 was placed by him as a third candidate on Kach’s Knesset list. After the Oslo Accords, which he perceived as a disaster for Israel, Goldstein came to believe that only an extreme act of “Kiddush Hashem” (sanctification of the name of God) would return Israel to its messianic destiny. The result was the Hebron massacre.  

In what is perhaps the landmark example of Jewish terrorism in Israel, the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, all of the various ultra-nationalist elements and philosophies came into play. When Rabin held office, the ultra-Orthodox weekly Hashavna (The Week) was used by its publisher Asher Zuckerman to wage a vicious crusade against the prime minister. The magazine regularly called Rabin “a kapo,” referring to Jews who worked with the Nazis. Comparing Rabin with those who had brought about the Holocaust, Hashavna said that Rabin and his foreign minister Shimon Peres were “leading the state and its citizens to annihilation and must be placed before a firing squad.”  

Religious Sanction  

A group of Orthodox rabbis gave religious sanction to Rabin’s murder. These rabbis, both in Israel, the U.S. and other countries, revived two obsolete concepts — din rodef (the duty to kill a Jew who imperils the life and property of another Jew) and din moser (the duty to eliminate a Jew who intends to turn in another Jew to non-Jewish authorities). By relinquishing rule over parts of the biblical Land of Israel to the Palestinian authorities, these rabbis argued, the head of New York City’s large Sharei Zion synagogue, did not hesitate to say in public what many of his colleagues had been saying privately. In an October 9, 1995 interview with New York magazine, he maintained, “Rabin is not a Jew any longer ... According to Jewish law, any one person who wilfully, consciously, intentionally hands over human bodies or human property or the human wealth of the Jewish people to an alien people is guilty of the sin for which the penalty is death. And according to Maimonides ... it says very clearly, if a man kills him, he has done a good deed.”  

Radical Right Ceremony  

In 1995, the Purim holiday was an occasion for a special radical right ceremony, the anniversary of the Hebron massacre and the death of Baruch Goldstein. A Goldstein cult had emerged and his memory became the rallying point of the disbanded Kahane movement. A 550-page edited memorial was published in March 1995, the Hebrew title of which translates as Baruch, the Man: A Memorial Volume for Dr. Baruch Goldstein: the Saint, May God Avenge His Blood. Edited by Michael Ben Horin, a Golan settler, the major theme of the book was conceived by Rabbi Yitzhak Ginzburg, head of the radical Tomb of Yoseph yeshiva in Balus. Ginzburg made headlines in 1988 by providing Halakhic support for several of his students who had unilaterally shot Palestinian civilians. It was fully legitimate, he declared, to kill non-combatant Palestinians. Goldstein, he believed, was not a criminal and mass murderer but a man of piety and deep religious conviction. Ginzburg wrote: “About the value of Israel’s life, it simply seems that the life of Israel is worth more than the life of the Gentile and even if the Gentile does not intend to hurt Israel it is permissible to hurt him in order to save Israel.” he called the Hebron massacre “a shining moment.”  

Yigal Amir, Rabin’s assassin, avidly read Baruch The Man. He explained the assassination to his interrogators by saying that, “If not for a Halakhic ruling of din rodef, made against Rabin by a few rabbis I knew about, it would have been very difficult for me to murder. Such a murder must be backed up. If I did not get the backing and I had not been representing many more people, I would not have acted.”  

Fight for Its life  

The same sentiments that led to the Rabin assassination are very much alive at the present time. Yossi Alpher, a former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies and former senior adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak, states that, “Israel’s most ideologically committed and skilled minority knows it is in a fight for its life. If Sharon succeeds in removing even a single settlement, a fateful precedent will have been set, one that puts Israel on the road to a Jewish and democratic state in part of Eretz Yisrael, rather than a Jewish but undemocratic state — a mini-South Africa really — in all of Eretz Yisrael.”  

If Ariel Sharon were murdered by right-wing extremists, Alpher argues, “the assassination of a second Israeli leader seemingly bent on rolling back the settlement movement probably would mark the end of attempts to remove settlements or otherwise restrict Israel’s territorial agenda and its ethno-political nature ... Why aren‘t the rabbis and settlers who threaten violence and murder against their fellow Jews — or for that matter, against anybody — in jail? ... Because not only do their inciters’ fellow ideological settlers condone their remarks ... but the pragmatic secular mainstream seemingly fears to touch the extremists, ostensibly lest it trigger the very escalation of violence that is already being visited upon its leaders ... Virtually everyone on the political, legal and security scene seems to back off when it is a rabbi who is invoking religious law to justify political murder.”  

In a report from the occupied territories in The New Yorker (May 31, 2004), Jeffrey Goldberg notes that, “A brigade of soldiers, coils of razor wire, and hundreds of concrete barriers stand between Hebron’s fewer than 800 Jewish settlers and its 150,000 Arab residents. Across from Hadassah House is a school for Arab girls, called Cordoba, after the once-Muslim Spanish city. On one of its doors someone had drawn a blue Star of David. On another door a yellowing bumper sticker read ‘Dr. Goldstein Cures the Ills of Israel.’ The reference is to Baruch Goldstein ... who, in 1994, killed 29 Muslims when they praying in the Tomb of the Patriarchs just down the road. Across the closed door of a Palestinian shop someone had written, in English, ‘Arabs are Sand Niggers.’”  

Hebron Settler  

Goldberg interviewed many West Bank residents, including Rabbi Moshe Levinger, Hebron’s first Jewish settler, who in 1988 killed a Palestinian store owner. He served 13 weeks in jail for the killing. He said: “I’m not happy when any living creature dies — an Arab, a fly, a donkey.”  

Levinger told Goldberg: “All my ideas are formed from the Torah. It’s not complex. This land is ours. God gave it to us. We’re the owners of the land.”  

Many of the settler leaders have contempt for democracy and would like to create in Israel the kind of theocracy which exists in a country such as Iran. As Goldberg reports, “Some of the leading ideologues of the settlements, far from supporting the idea of Jewish democracy, hope to establish a Jewish theocracy in Israel, ruled by a Sanhedrin and governed by Jewish law. Moshe Feiglin, a Likud activist who lives in a West Bank settlement and heads the Jewish leadership bloc within the Party ... believes that the Bible, interpreted literally, should form the basis of Israel’s legal system. ‘Why should non-Jews have a say in the policy of a Jewish state?’ Feiglin said to me. ‘For two thousand years, Jews dreamed of a Jewish state, not a democratic state. Democracy should serve the values of the state, not destroy them.’ In any case, Feiglin said, ‘You can’t teach a monkey to speak and you can’t teach an Arab to be democratic. You’re dealing with a culture of thieves and robbers. Muhammed, their prophet, was a robber and a killer and a liar. The Arab destroys everything he touches.’”  

Impatient Messianists  

The most hard-core settlers, in Goldberg’s view, “are impatient messianists, who profess indifference, even scorn for the state; a faith in vigilantism; and loathing for the Arabs ... The settlers, if they have their way, would build an apartheid state ruled by councils of revanchist rabbis.”  

Among such extremists, an apocalyptic worldview is common. Yochay Roy, a Jewish activist in Hebron, says that the war with the Arabs did not begin with the intifada in the 1980s or even with the establishment of the state of Israel. It goes back to “biblical times,” indicating that the present-day Arabs are simply the modern descendants of the enemies of Israel described in the Bible for whom God has unleashed wars of revenge. Another Hebron activist, Sarah Nachshon, says: “It’s written in the Bible, that until the Messiah comes there will be a big war, and the war will be in Jerusalem.”  

“There is no such thing as coexistence,” Jewish activist Yoel Lerner states, explaining that there is a biblical requirement for Jews to possess and live on biblical land.  

Such a view is, of course, to be found among similar Palestinian extremists. Dr. Abdul Rantisi, a Hamas leader, argues that it is necessary for Arab Muslims to occupy what he regards as their homeland. Sheik Yassin describes the conflict in virtually eschatological terms as “the combat between good and evil.” A communique issued by Hamas when the U.S. sent troops to the Saudi Arabian desert following Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 declared it to be “another episode in the fight between good and evil” and “a hateful Christian plot against our religion, our civilization, our land.”  

Negotiated Settlement  

There is every indication that the overwheming majority of both Israelis and Palestinians — and American Jews — seek a negotiated peace settlement and the establishment of a Palestinian state on the bulk of the West Bank. How well these majorities are able to control and isolate the militant advocates of terror, who believe that God is on their side, may well determine the future of the region and the future of American Judaism as well. Thus far, terrorism and its advocates have managed to prevent a settlement, with leaders on both sides hesitant to take the steps necessary to bring extremism under control.  

Now, as the Israeli government proceeds with its Gaza disengagement plan, the enemies of such movement toward a final peace agreement are increasingly vocal, not only in Israel but among certain Jewish groups in the U.S. as well.  

New York State Assemblyman Dov Hikind, an outspoken Orthodox lawmaker who represents the ultra-Orthodox sections of Brooklyn, led a mission to Gaza in March in support of the Jewish settlers there. Hikind told The Forward (March 11, 2005) that the 13-person mission, including several New York Supreme Court judges and government employees, represents the beginning of a major mobilization effort by Orthodox Jews in the U.S. who oppose the disengagement plan.  

Massive Move  

“I believe it’s going to be the start of a massive move to get thousands of people to go to Gaza to show solidarity,” Hikind said, adding that he expected one thousand rabbis to go on a solidarity mission to Gaza in late April.  

The mission came as two former Israeli chief rabbis, Avraham Shapira and Mordechai Eliyahu, declared March 17 a religious fast day to protest Sharon’s plan to evacuate 8,000 Jewish settlers from 21 Jewish settlements in Gaza, and four in the West Bank. “For the first time in the country’s history, great rabbis of religious Zionism have called for a day of fast and prayers, by the authority of Jewish law,” West Bank settler leader Emily Amrusy told Reuters, adding that the goal of the fast is to “destroy the expulsion order.”  

The National Council of Young Israel, a New York-based group representing more than 150 Orthodox congregations in North America and Israel, encouraged members to the join the fast, according to the group’s executive vice-president, Rabbi Pesach Lerner. He declared: “I personally will be joining the fast. I believe there’s a crisis going on in Israel, and part of our response has to be prayer and fasting.”  

The Israeli government itself is concerned about extremists in America using their influence to prevent a genuine peace plan from moving forward. Indeed, Israeli diplomats in the U.S. are now reaching out to liberal American Jewish organizations that have historically aligned themselves with the peace camp in Israel. Israel’s ambassador in Washington, Danny Ayalon, took part in a March forum on Capitol Hill hosted by Americans for Peace Now, a group that supports Israel’s dovish Peace Now movement and regularly criticizes Israeli settlement policies. The group historically has had little contact with representatives of Israel’s Likud-led governments.  

Keynote Address  

Israeli Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, a loading Likud defender of the disengagement plan, has agreed to deliver in June the keynote address at the annual dinner of the Israel Policy Forum, a group which was founded in the 1990s to support the Labor Party’s peace initiatives. Olmert will be the first top Likud leader to deliver the keynote address at the organization’s annual dinner.  

According to The Forward, “The scheduled appearances of Ayalon and Olmert are said to be part of an intense campaign recently launched by Israeli diplomats in the U.S. to rally American and Jewish public support for the disengagement plan and the resumption of Israeli contacts with the Palestinian Authority. The main goal, Israeli diplomats said, is to counteract the efforts of politically conservative Jews and evangelical Christians who oppose Israel’s plan to withdraw from Gaza, and dismantle four West Bank settlements in July.”  

The time has finally come for the organized Jewish community to isolate the extremists who have been tolerated for far too long.  

Reuven Firestone, professor of medieval Judaism and Islam at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles and author of, among other works, Children of Abraham: An Introduction to Judaism for Muslims, states: “Before dismissing the appalling behaviors of our Muslim cousins engaged in holy war, let us put our own house in order. Holy war has been revived among Israel the people and within Israel the state ... After the Mishnah, Jewish holy war ideas lay virtually dormant ... though they were discussed briefly by certain medieval thinkers and appear in some of our apocalyptic and messianic writings. But holy war has been revived in contemporary Israel, especially among ultranationalist Orthodox settlers in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and their many supporters.”  

Divine Obligation  

The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Firestone notes, “is defined by many religiously observant settlers and their supporters as a divine obligation to reclaim the whole of the Land of Israel as either a prelude to or actually part of the messianic awakening.”  

Dr. Firestone writes: “Many in this camp cite ad nauseam the now famous statement of Nahmanides in his gloss on Maimonides’ Book of Commandments (Positive Commandment 4), who teaches that the conquest and settlement of the land of Israel lies in the category of obligatory war (milhemet mitzvah). ‘It is a positive commandment for all generations obligating every individual even during the period of exile.’ As Jewish holy war has entered religious and political discourse in relation to the Israel-Palestine conflict, so has the increase of Jewish atrocities in the name of a higher cause. It reached its peak in the mid-1980s to mid-1990s with the maiming and murdering of Muslim noncombatants by the Jewish Underground, the massacre of Muslims in prayer by Baruch Goldstein, and Yigal Amir’s assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Holy war ideas continue to inform the behavior of many religious settlers to this day ...”  

While there has been much attention paid to the advocates of “holy war” within the Islamic community, as well there should be, insufficient attention has been paid to similar movements within Judaism.  

Dangerous Reality  

Reuven Firestone concludes: “Holy war is a dangerous reality. We have now felt its sting. Let us, therefore, before we try vainly and patronizingly to intervene in the internal debates of another religious community, put our own house in order. We must neutralize if not eradicate the ugly and gravely dangerous revival of holy war within Judaism. The first step is to acknowledge its existence. The next is to engage in public discussions within our own community, especially among the spectrum of religious leaders, to mitigate the inherently self-destructive and ultimately immoral efforts to define our fighting with Palestinians as holy war.”  

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, asks: “Why can’t American Jews call extremism by its name?”  

Rabbi Yoffie declares that, “Over the last year, I have looked on in dismay as Israeli settlers who openly oppose our most cherished values as Americans and Jews have been treated by Jewish organizational leadership and the Jewish press with attitudes ranging from polite silence to sympathetic understanding. Even worse has been the failure of much of our community to offer its clear support for an Israeli government that has confronted these fanatics with a firm hand, clearly articulating the dangers that they pose to the Zionist enterprise.”  

While polling data show that American Jews overwhelmingly support Israel‘s disengagement plan and reject the extremist rhetoric of the settlers, Yoffie asks: “Why, then, have the settlers been given a free pass by the organized Jewish community here in the United States?”  

Failure to Confront Extremism  

Among the reasons for the Jewish community’s failure to confront such extremism, Yoffie cites the following: “...right-wing organizations and supporters of the extremist settler groups are well organized and politically active, and conduct their own independent lobbying operations in Washington ... unlike others in the community, they do not hesitate to actively oppose positions of the government of Israel. Thus, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), despite its small size, has developed impressive political clout ... Centrist and left-leaning groups, on the other hand, are often less active politically, and are far more likely to function as part of broader communal coalitions that ultimately constrain what they can say and do.”  

The Modern Orthodox movement in the U.S., declares Yoffie, “which is closer ideologically to the settlers than any other part of the community, has remained resolutely silent on settler extremism.”  

In the case of the centrist, moderate, non-Orthodox segments of the American Jewish community, which constitute the overwhelming majority, writes Yoffie, they “have been silenced by long-standing and increasingly bizarre adherence to communal organizational norms. Most of these groups operate as part of communal coalitions because of their commitment to the desirability of ‘unity’ and ‘consensus’ among Jewish groups. But in fact, ‘unity’ and ‘consensus’ are defined in such a way that small, outspoken minorities are given a veto over positions that are shared by a substantial majority of American Jews.”  

The worst offender, in Yoffie’s view, is the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations — which waited more than a year to express support for the disengagement plan from Gaza.  

Disgrace to Jewish Community  

Yoffie concludes: “Settler extremism is a disgrace to the Jewish community and to the principles of Torah that we hold dear. Courageous leaders in Israel’s government have spoken out against the dangers of the extremists, and American Jews expect their leaders to do the same. Failure to do so undermines both our authority and the credibility of the religious tradition in whose name we speak. What we would like to see, of course, is real reform of our communal bodies. But lacking this, Jewish organizations need to set aside those self-imposed organizational constraints which were intended to strengthen our community’s voice but instead have served to stifle debate and silence the voice of the majority ... We need to reject extremism in all forms, and champion the cause of realism and moderation that alone can inspire our community and ensure the future of Israel.”  

This is a time of profound change for the American Jewish community. New challenges seem to be appear on a regular basis, In March, embarrassed leaders of American Jewish organizations were absorbing the news that an international body under their control was at the center of a scheme, detailed in an Israeli government report, to build illegal settlement outposts in violation of Israeli law, policy and international commitments.  

The international body, the World Zionist Organization (WZO) is described in the report as a pivotal player in the scheme, in which midlevel officials in various government ministries secretly channeled funds and resources to the illegal West Bank outposts. The report, approved by the Israeli cabinet March 13, was written by Talia Sasson, formerly Israel’s chief criminal prosecutor. It paints a scathing picture of government and WZO officials who diverted funds, confiscated land — including privately owned Palestinian land — or turned a blind eye to “blatantly illegal” activity.  

Confederation of Groups  

The WZO is a confederation of groups in dozens of countries, including B’nai B’rith, Hadassah and offshoots of the Reform and Conservative movements. American groups control 30 percent of the organization’s main governing bodies. As evidence of illegal activity mounted, the constituent groups looked away. Moshe Kagan, of Meretz USA, a former member of the WZO’s 24-person executive committee, says that American and world Jewish leaders simply failed to respond to the evidence. “This was hardly discussed, and everyone could have done a lot more,” he declared.  

The Forward (March 18, 2005) asks: “How was the venerable Zionist organization reduced to the status of suspected criminal conspirator in the very state it created? ... Officials here say they did not know. Some of them might be telling the truth. But they could have known if they wanted to. The information was available ... in newspaper reports if not in formal documents. Those who did not know, did not want to know ... If American Jews are to remain engaged with the Jewish state — institutionally, emotionally, politically — the engagement must be based on honest dialogue, not blind loyalty.  

Corruption of Jewish Life  

The corruption of organized American Jewish life brought about by its substitution of Middle East politics for the promotion of Judaism and its universal moral values, and efforts to stifle free and open discussion in the interest of that political pursuit, is what is turning American Jews, particularly young people, away. A new survey conducted between December, 2004 and January, 2005 finds that the attachment of American Jews to Israel has weakened measurably in the last two years. Professor Steven Cohen of the Malton Center for Jewish Education of Hebrew University, notes that this demonstrates a “continuing long-term trend visible during the past decade and a half.” Only 26 percent of respondents said they were “very” emotionally attached to Israel. Israel has dramatically declined as a component in the respondents’ personal Jewish identity.  

If American Judaism is to thrive in the 21st century, it must be free and open, it must confront the extremists in its midst, and it must make religion, not politics, its central focus. Surely, the time to meet this challenge is now.  

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© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.