In Israel, religious extremism has gone unchecked in the educational establishment, in top levels of government, and among prominent religious leaders – radicalizing a growing number of Israeli youth and endangering Palestinians.
by Kathryn Shihadah
When the story broke recently that radical Israeli rabbis were caught calling for the enslavement of non-Jews, it didn’t get much coverage outside the Israeli media and a few blogs, including Mondoweiss and Tikkun Olam.
A handful of articles containing disavowals (including from Middle East Envoy Greenblatt and the ADL) subsequently appeared in Israeli papers, but few American readers/taxpayers were informed that Israel (supposedly “our greatest ally,” the self-proclaimed “only democracy in the Middle East”) is rife with religious extremism.
The majority of Israeli Jews would not be considered “extremist” or “radical” (although 64% of those aged 18-34 and 47% of those 35 and older identify as right-wing). But a growing number of prominent Israeli religious figures, many with large followings and a degree of political clout, fit the bill.
The U.S. gives Israel over $10 million per day and additional perks. That’s money coming from the pockets of American taxpayers – money they might rather keep, or at least see spent elsewhere. And for the growing number among us who see humanity in Palestinians, we’d like to know whether US efforts are moving the region closer to justice – or farther away.
It is worth taking some time to learn just what we are subsidizing.
A starting place: Bnei David prep school
In the illegal Israeli settlement of Eli, the Bnei David yeshiva – which includes campuses for both pre- and post-military students – extremism has been cultivated for 25 years. The school website boasts of having “brought about a quiet revolution in Israel’s armed forces.”
Bnei David, one of over twenty religious military academies, spells out its ideology in glowing terms:
Studies in the preparatory yeshiva are based on the traditional yeshiva curriculum: Talmudic learning in breadth and depth; Jewish law and jurisprudence; and study of the classics of the Jewish ethical literature. In addition, we give our students rigorous training in issues of philosophy and religious faith.
Our staff focuses on instilling the unqualified love of Torah and deep-rooted fear of G-d in the hearts of our students…Our students breathe an atmosphere of idealism, self-sacrifice, and fighting spirit. They see service in the Israeli army as a supreme privilege and longed-for opportunity to serve their nation and contribute to society.
In reality, what the instructor-rabbis impart to these idealistic young men at times lines up startlingly close to the tenets of Nazi Germany.
“Hitler was right”
For example, during a lesson on “relating to the Holocaust,” Rabbi Giora Radler taught his students – the next batch of Israeli Defense Forces soldiers and officers – that the Shoah was visited upon the Jews by their God as a punishment:
The Holocaust for real is not about the killing of Jews – that’s not the Holocaust…Humanism, all the secular culture about us believing in the human, that’s the Holocaust…The Lord (blessed be his name) is already shouting for many years that the [Jewish] exile is over, but people don’t listen to him, and that is their disease, a disease which needs to be cured by the Holocaust.
And Radler’s extremist ideology goes even further:
[Hitler] is the most righteous person. Of course he is right in every word he utters. In his ideology he is right…The Nazi logic was right unto themselves. Hitler says that a certain group in society is the seed of all calamity for all humanity, that because of it all of mankind will go to oblivion, that they harm humanity, and therefore must be exterminated…[Hitler] is 100% correct, aside from the fact that he was on the wrong side…
Israeli Channel 13 reported that “these statements [about the Holocaust, Hitler] have been repeated again and again for years” at Bnei David.
The significance of such ideology is clear to Palestinians: some Israeli soldiers-to-be are learning that Palestinians must be the subject of extermination.
Another Bnei David rabbi proposes a slightly more lenient “solution.”
Slavery and genetic deficiencies
Rabbi Eliezer Kashtiel – head of the Bnei David Academy, no less – believes that non-Jews “must be slaves.” Palestinians’ rightful place is not in mass graves, but in slavery to the Jews:
Abolishing legal slavery has created deficiencies…With God’s help it [legal slavery] will return. The goyim (non-Jews) will want to be our slaves. Being a slave of the Jews is the best. [The goyim – non-Jews] must be slaves, they want to be slaves. Instead of just wandering the streets, being foolish and harming each other, now he’s a slave, now his life is beginning to come into order.
There are around us people with genetic problems. Ask any average Arab where he wants to be. He wants to be under occupation. Why? Because they have genetic problems, they don’t know how to run a country, they don’t know how to do anything – look at the state of them.
Describing the yeshiva as “a darling of the national religious camp for funneling of thousands of religious officers into senior combat positions in the IDF,” the Times of Israel asserts that its teacher-rabbis “have a history of making controversial and illiberal remarks, not just on the subject of Palestinians, but also on sexual orientation, women, and marriage.
Over-representing religious nationalism
According to the Times of Israel, when Bnei David was established in 1988, only 2% of IDF combat officers identified as religious. Now, the number is over 30% – three times the percentage of the Israeli population at large.
At least 40% of the yeshiva’s 3,500 graduates have gone on to hold leadership positions in the military, many in combat brigades or elite units.
Some students graduate with a senior teacher’s certificate in Talmud and Jewish Thought. They go on to work in educational settings, including the state school system, passing along what they have learned to the next generation of young Israeli Jews.
Extremism in school curriculum
Extremist ideology, which is becoming more and more mainstream in Israeli schools, is not a new or unforeseen development. Although Israel’s founders were secular, the Israeli education system has always been heavily influenced by orthodoxy. According to Jonathan Cook,
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.
Hence, even secular state schools include Jewish Israeli Culture classes that are openly religious. One family described their child’s fifth-grade textbook:
[Q]uite a few sections…portrayed traditional religious life as something one should aspire to. The secular option is virtually nonexistent…Almost every page referred to God – not as an idea but as a fact…
[The book teaches] the connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel, from the nation’s formation in the days of the patriarchs and matriarchs to our day. The only justification given for this connection was the “divine promise…the message that the connection between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel is an ancient connection based on God’s a priori choice of a people and land that are dear to Him.”’
Ha’aretz reports that in “Israel’s state-religious education system, generally associated with the religious Zionist movement,” students spend 25-35% of the school day in religious studies.
A subset of the state-religious schools is the “Talmud Torah” (Orthodox) schools which, in the words of the Jewish Agency for Israel, “place almost all their emphasis on religious studies and observance, with a paucity of math, language skills, history and science.” In some schools, science and math are “entirely absent.” 10,000 students attend these state-sponsored Talmud Torah schools.
The other options for Israeli children are private or “Arab” schools.
The heavy emphasis on religious training may explain why 64% of young Israeli Jews (ages 18-24), vs. only 22% of older (age 65+) believe in God, and more than half of all Israeli Jews believe in their divine right to the land of Israel and their status as “chosen people.” The corollary doctrine, that Palestinians have no right to the land and are non-chosen, puts Palestinians in danger.
Extremist education ministers
Israel’s Education Minister from 2015 to mid-2019, Orthodox Jew Naftali Bennett, made important changes in the school system, contributing to the extremist trend.
He led in the passage of a bill which gives the Education Minister power to decide which organizations are permitted to speak in Israel’s schools. The “Breaking the Silence Law” is aimed at groups that criticize Israel’s military actions in the West Bank, especially Breaking the Silence and B’Tselem.
While giving lip service to the importance of math education, under Bennett the Education Ministry actually reduced the minimum number of hours allocated for math – as well as English, science, and technology – and increased the number of hours for “Jewish culture.” The number of hours allotted for Bible studies stayed the same. This is the case for both secular and religious state schools.
On Bennett’s watch, as Ynet reported in April, ultra-Orthodox children of Ethiopian descent in Jerusalem were turned away from Talmud Torah schools. School officials fear that dark-skinned children will “cause trauma” for their classmates and “other children are experiencing difficulties in dealing with a black child.” Talmud Torah school leaders revealed that
over the past three years, [Bennett] has certified a number of Talmud Torah schools that directly and indirectly screen students of low socioeconomic status and of Ethiopian descent…Instead of strengthening the public education, Bennett surrendered to pressure, approving the opening of private institutions, or those that act as such.
Rabbi Rafi Peretz, the current interim Minister of Education, was chief rabbi of the IDF from 2010 to 2016, and is now head of the Union of Right Wing Parties. This notorious election-linked alliance was forged between the radical right Jewish Home and Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) parties by Benjamin Netanyahu. Jewish Power is an iteration of Kahanism, banned in Israel since 1985 and considered a terrorist ideology in the US.
Extremism within the education establishment
Yisrael Ariel, the founder of the Temple Institute and Chief Rabbi of the Temple Movement, seeks – with Education Ministry funding – to inspire a “longing for the Temple” in children starting in kindergarten, and to “liberate” the Temple Mount from “Arab (Islamic) occupation” and build the third Temple.
“If you saw two people drowning, a Jew and a non-Jew, the Torah says you save the Jewish life first,” he says. “If a Jew needs a liver, can you take the liver of an innocent non-Jew passing by to save him? The Torah would probably permit that. Jewish life has an infinite value.”
Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburg studied in the US but now lives in Israel, where he has a faithful following. His teachings include the eventual transformation of Israel into a monarchy; some of his disciples hope at that time to make Ginsburg king.
According to the Forward,
Ginsburg is best known for his teachings that seem to give license to Jewish vengeance attacks against Palestinians. [Some claim that his influence was behind] the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin [and] the massacre in Hebron of 29 Palestinians by Baruch Goldstein…
Ginsburg’s students include the so-called Hilltop Youth — gaggles of Jewish teens who roam the West Bank hilltops and intimidate Palestinians through acts of vandalism, arson and even murder.
In a 2014 public letter to 100 rabbis, he declared that the only way to stop Jewish terror actions, which he referred to as “uncontrolled reactions of youngsters who care about Israel,” is for the government and army to internalize that “the entirety of the State of Israel (including what is called ‘occupied territories’) belongs solely to the Nation of Israel, that it’s every Jew’s right to settle anywhere he pleases, and that the role of the army is only to protect Jews.”
Alison Weir cites author Motti Inbari, researcher on Jewish fundamentalism:
[Ginsburg] claims that while the Jews are the Chosen People and were created in God’s image, the Gentiles do not have this status and are effectively considered subhuman…[T]he commandment ‘You shall not murder’ does not apply to the killing of a Gentile, since ‘you shall not murder’ relates to the murder of a human, while for him the Gentiles do not constitute humans…Similarly, Ginzburg stated that, on the theoretical level, if a Jew requires a liver transplant to survive, it would be permissible to seize a Gentile and take their liver forcefully.
A rabbi associated with Ginsburg coauthored a notorious Israeli book, The King’s Torah, which claims that Jewish law at times permits the killing of non-Jewish infants…Ginsburg, who endorses the book, teaches classes throughout Israel, the U.S. and France.
It is not hard to discern the risk of “driving [or walking, or shopping] while Palestinian,” in an environment in which many Israelis believe Palestinians should be absent or enslaved, and racism and collective punishment are encouraged.
Extremism among leading Israeli rabbis
The Chief Rabbinate of Israel, consisting of two Chief Rabbis, is the supreme authority over Judaism in Israel. The pair – one Ashkenazi and one Sephardic – are elected in “direct, secret and personal elections by an assembly of rabbis and representatives of the public” for ten-year terms.
The current Sephardic Chief Rabbi is Yitzhak Yosef; the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi is David Lau. Both have made well-publicized, controversial or offensive remarks about gentiles and even non-Orthodox Jews.
For example, The Times of Israel reports that in 2016, Israel’s Chief Sephardic Rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, preached,
According to Jewish law, gentiles should not live in the Land of Israel. If a gentile does not agree to take on the seven Noahide Laws, we should send him to Saudi Arabia. When the true and complete redemption arrives, that is what we will do.
Exceptions, he explained, could be made for non-Jews who agree to abide by the Noahide Laws: they would serve as slaves to the Jews.
Newsweek reported that in a 2018 sermon, Yosef “call[ed] black people monkeys as he appeared to specifically attack African Americans.” (Coincidentally, Jared and Ivanka Kushner were blessed by Yosef during their visit to Jerusalem ahead of the opening of the American embassy.)
Israel’s Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi, David Lau, was widely criticized when, during the first week of his tenure, he asked yeshiva students,
Why do you care about whether these kushim [a derogatory term for black people] who get paid in Tel Aviv beat the kushim who get paid in Greece?
Max Blumenthal describes Lau’s reaction to the massacre of praying Jews in Pittsburgh last November:
Israel’s state-funded [Ashkenazi] Chief Rabbi, David Lau refused to recognize Pittsburgh’s Tree Of Life as a synagogue. Rejecting the terror-stricken congregation on the basis of its alignment with Conservative Judaism, which the Orthodox Jewish establishment regards as illegitimate, Lau referred to the synagogue as “a place with a prominent Jewish mark.”
In 2007, The Jerusalem Post reported on statements by Israel’s former chief Sephardic rabbi, Mordechai Elyahu and his son, Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu,
According to Jewish war ethics, wrote [Mordechai] Eliyahu, an entire city holds collective responsibility for the immoral behavior of individuals. In Gaza, the entire populace is responsible because they do nothing to stop the firing of [Qassam] rockets…
Eliyahu could not be reached for an interview. However, Eliyahu’s son, Shmuel Eliyahu, who is chief rabbi of Safed, said his father opposed a ground troop incursion into Gaza that would endanger IDF soldiers. Rather, he advocated carpet bombing the general area from which the Qassams were launched, regardless of the price in Palestinian life.
“If they don’t stop after we kill 100, then we must kill a thousand,” said Shmuel Eliyahu. “And if they do not stop after 1,000 then we must kill 10,000. If they still don’t stop we must kill 100,000, even a million. Whatever it takes to make them stop.” In the letter, Eliyahu quoted from Psalms. “I will pursue my enemies and apprehend them and I will not desist until I have eradicated them.”
Shmuel Elyahu also wrote in 2002 in Ask the Rabbi that it is permissible to rape Palestinian women during war, explaining that if such acts are forbidden, Israeli soldiers may become distracted by their beauty and ultimately lose the war. He continues, “What will you gain? That thousands of Jewish women will be raped by damned wicked.”
This year, Eliyahu defended five students (“warriors”) from a West Bank yeshiva who had allegedly killed a Palestinian woman. His defense included an endorsement of government takeover by the religiously devout students:
How is government conquered?…Ultimately you have to take the state’s key positions, and key positions are taken with cleverness and by influencing people.
In his run for Sephardi Chief Rabbi in 2013, Shmuel Eliyahu found himself in the middle of a scandal: Knesset member Issawi Frej filed an emergency petition with Israel’s High Court asking for Eliyahu’s disqualification, stating, “election of a racist like Eliyahu to the position would be the start of the destruction of values in the State of Israel.” Eliyahu lost the election, but remains highly influential in Israel
One religious leader who never set foot in Israel, but nevertheless has been “a major political force in Israel, both in the Knesset and among the electorate,” is Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Among his teachings, we find:
The difference in the inner quality between Jews and non-Jews is so great that the bodies should be considered as completely different species. An even greater difference exists in regard to the soul. Two contrary types of soul exist, a non-Jewish soul comes from three satanic spheres, while the Jewish soul stems from holiness.
[I]n Israel, a very small but significant group of extremist religious leaders and settlers hold these beliefs, which are used to support violence against Palestinians…Among the religious settlers in the occupied territories, Schneerson’s followers constitute one of the most extreme groups. Baruch Goldstein, the mass murderer of Palestinians, was one of them.
Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburg (see above) studied under Schneerson in the US.
A prominent Israeli rabbi, David Batzri, and his son Yitzhak Batzri, also a rabbi, were investigated for incitement to racism in 2006 after they agitated for protest against a bilingual mixed Palestinian/Jewish school. They reportedly said,
The establishment of a school like this one is a despicable and impure act…
The people of Israel are pure and Arabs are a nation of asses. The question must be asked, why didn’t God give them four legs, because they are asses…Arabs are a misfortune, a problem, Satan.
The Arabs are beasts and asses. They are inferior, they want to take our daughters. People say we are racist, but – they are the evil ones, the cruel ones, the scum of snakes. This is war.
In a plea bargain, the younger Batzri was sentenced to community service, while the older agreed to issue a declaration opposing racism and calling for brotherhood.
Israel Shahak, author of Jewish History, Jewish Religion, and coauthor of Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel, explains that Westerners are unaware of such racist teachings by these rabbis because they are recorded only in Hebrew. Shahak goes on:
Almost every moderately sophisticated Israeli Jew knows the facts about Israeli Jewish society that are described in [Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel]..The great majority of the books on Judaism and Israel, published in English especially, falsify their subject matter.
Extremism in the Knesset
Radicalism has found a welcome at the top of the Israeli regime: shortly before the April elections in Israel, Prime Minister Netanyahu allied himself with an openly racist political party, “Jewish Power” (Otzma Yehudit), to get a boost at the polls.
The Jewish Power party carries with it a stunning history of bigotry and violence: its leaders are followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was labelled a terrorist by the FBI. When Kahane moved to Israel, it wasn’t long before his racist politics got him and his party banned from the Knesset.
One leader of the Jewish Power party, Bentzi Gopstein, advocates for the outright removal of Christians from Israel:
“Missionary work must not be given a foothold. Let’s throw the vampires out of our land before they drink our blood again.”
Gopstein also runs Lehava, an Israeli organization that opposes any mixing between Jews and Christians and Muslims. He reportedly told a Lahava meeting that Palestinians were a “dangerous cancer” that “has metastasized everywhere.”
Another legislator in the extremist camp is Yehuda Glick (Likud party), who has stated that
Radical Muslims who desecrate with blood the holiness of the Temple Mount, the holiest place to the Jewish people, have no right to be there.”
Bezalel Smotrich (Jewish Home party) declared that if he were Prime Minister,
“I would close the Temple Mount to Arab prayer and establish a Synagogue for Jews.”
The Nation-State Law, passed last summer, stands as the strongest evidence of Israel’s radical legislative bent.
Extremism among settlers
International law requires Israel to protect Palestinians from attacks, but in practice the exact opposite is true. Israeli human rights organizations have documented thousands of incidents in which Israeli security forces have escorted, protected, and even joined illegal Jewish settlers in attacking Palestinians and their property. In some cases, the military manage to prevent settler violence by imposing restrictions on Palestinian movement, rather than controlling the settlers.
With protection from the Israeli military, settlers and extremists regularly visit the Muslim Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, reportedly trying to stir up violent reactions from Palestinians. Such reactions would provide Israel a pretext to restrict Palestinian presence in the area, eventually “cleansing” it of non-Jews and the mosque, and making room for a new Jewish temple.
Israeli settler attacks against Palestinians increased sharply in 2018, with over 460 reported incidents. Ha’aretz explains that the rise can be explained in part by the lack of “statesmanlike” leaders among settlers:
More extreme individuals who won seats on some of the local councils in the municipal elections in November have sometimes responded to violence against Palestinians ambiguously and leniently.
Extremism in law enforcement and military practice
The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) enjoys a reputation among its population for courage and integrity, while the Israeli Police is infamous for corruption and abuse. A program called “Believers in the Police” has been working to raise the profile of the police department through religious observance.
Beginning with recruitment of religious Zionists and orthodox former IDF soldiers, the instruction includes a combination of regular basic training and Torah study. In spite of the reduced officer instruction time, “Believers” complete the program in just two years, rather than the typical five.
Police stations consequently have synagogues, revival rallies, specially designed computer keyboards, telephones, and pens approved for Shabbat use, and a rabbi to answer pressing questions—can a cat be extricated from a tree on Shabbat? Is it permitted on Shabbat to guard a non-Jew whose life is in danger?
Rabbi Rami Brachyahu, who runs the Believers program and serves as “a spiritual mentor and moral compass for policemen everywhere,” is known for both his misogynistic remarks, and his knowledge of halacha (Talmudic law).
The Israeli Defense Forces have also felt the growing influence of rabbis who have brought matters of doctrine to the battlefield.
The chief Israeli military rabbi Brigadier General Avichai Rontzki distributed a pamphlet during Israel’s 2008 invasion of Gaza that contained a “rabbinical edict” cautioning Israeli troops not to “be enticed by the folly of the Gentiles who have mercy” and stating that cruelty is sometimes a ‘good attribute.'”
A Ha’aretz editorial in the summer of 2014 stated that “what Israel calls ‘religious extremism’ has become ubiquitous in the halls of government, schools, synagogues, and even centers of police and military activity. It is no longer extremist to practice extremism – it is commonplace.”
This can not by any stretch of the imagination bode well for Palestinians.
Kathryn Shihadah is staff writer for If Americans Knew. She blogs at Palestine Home.