Why are Orthodox rabbis edging into Israel’s apartheid politics?

Hebrew graffiti on a fire-bombed house in Abu Falah village reads: “go and do revenge.”

Shadi Hatem APA images

Talk about blood libels. At the same time media outlets were reporting the demolition of yet another Palestinian home in occupied East Jerusalem last month — this one sending four families into the cold — a daily email I receive along with many other Orthodox Jews declared that, according to one Rabbi Gamliel Rabanovitch, “the Arabs seek nothing else but Jewish blood.”

It got worse. The Jerusalem-based rabbi had advice, too, in a Yiddish-language recording to which the email directed me: “The way to prevent the Arabs from any future success in this area is by making our blood holy … so that they can have … no power over it.” He concluded that Jews should protect themselves against Palestinians by consuming only kosher food.

Some readers may find this merely funny. I wish I could.

This succinct amalgam of racism and superstition was distributed barely 24 hours after the murders of three rabbis (and another worshiper) during morning prayers in Har Nof — a stone’s throw from where my eighteen-year-old daughter is now studying in a Jerusalem religious school.

My son, a few years older, also studies in a yeshiva in Jerusalem. Deadly violence in that ancient city, and the official racism that has been fueling it, cannot help but touch me intimately.

Nor can I dismiss this latest statement as the raving of a marginal fanatic.

I am quite sure it doesn’t represent the opinion of all, or even of most, Orthodox Jews. But I’m afraid it does fit all too well into a pattern in which traditional Jewish authorities react to Israel’s intensifying terror against Palestinians not on the basis of the deep-seated ethical standards of Jewish tradition but with fear, magic and religious bigotry. And a more dangerous response could hardly be imagined.

Showing their true colors

The problem isn’t new. Dozens of prominent Orthodox rabbis in Israel had already shown their true colors four years ago, when in a written statement they publicly declared it a sin to sell — or even to rent — houses to non-Jews because “their way of life is different.”

That drew a protest even from Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister. But it’s nothing compared to the recent claim by Yisrael Hagar, a head rabbi of the Vizhnitz Hasidic movement, that Palestinians (or “Ishmaelites,” as he called them) are not human beings at all.

Even more stunning, the Orthodox online journal Yeshiva World News, which reported that slur on 23 November, expressed no opinion on it.

Can you imagine a Jewish periodical going tongue-tied if a Catholic bishop denied the humanity of all Jews?

Yet so far, I’m hearing very little from the Orthodox rabbinate that attempts to summon the moral resources of Judaism to condemn the occupation of Palestinian land, to say nothing of the increasingly brutal repression of the Palestinian population.

Orthodox rabbis expressed sorrow and anger — fully justified, of course — after the massacre in Har Nof. But I have yet to hear a eulogy for the 2,200 slaughtered in Gaza during the summer, including more than 500 children, nor for any of the Palestinians killed by Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank — not even when video evidence revealed the shooting of two children to be cold-blooded murder.

Producing propaganda

Worse, at least some Orthodox institutions are edging steadily into the orbit of Israel’s apartheid politics.

Ohr Somayach, a leading yeshiva for newly Orthodox Jews, stayed aloof from Zionism when I studied at its Monsey, New York, branch decades ago. Today, it is building a new facility in Sheikh Jarrah, a neighborhood in occupied East Jerusalem.

Aish HaTorah, a particularly prominent Orthodox “outreach” organization, has close ties to the Israeli government and has been heavily involved in producing anti-Palestinian, anti-Muslim propaganda that has drawn protests from some American Jews, including non-Orthodox rabbis.

But the Orthodox rabbinate remains oblivious to this, behaving exactly as it did fourteen years ago when the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, one of Israel’s most prominent Orthodox clergymen, called Palestinians “snakes despised by God.” Nor has the Orthodox rabbinate taken a principled stand on the most recent wave of violence against Palestinians throughout Jerusalem and elsewhere, which has included beatings (in one case with iron rods and bats) and an arson attack on a joint school for Jewish Israelis and Palestinians.

It’s true that the Orthodox Union, one of the largest Orthodox rabbinic organizations in the United States, recently issued a statement in which it condemned “rhetoric” that “resorts to wholesale demonization, advocates for the collective punishment of Israeli Arabs [Palestinian citizens of Israel], or calls for the destruction or dismantling of Muslim holy places.”

These are sound words — but they would have been more credible had they not been accompanied, in the very same public statement, by the claim that Palestinians are waging “an ongoing terror campaign to oust the Jewish people from the land of Israel” and an assurance that “a forceful response by Israeli security officials” is “morally justified and necessary to stop the brutality that threatens … the civilized world.”

Maybe I’ve missed something, but isn’t denouncing all Palestinians who oppose Israel’s occupation as a mortal threat to civilization exactly the sort of “demonization” the Orthodox Union says it deplores? And since, as everyone knows, Israel’s “forceful response” to attacks by individual Palestinians has included demolishing their families’ homes and expelling more residents from East Jerusalem, how can the Orthodox Union endorse the response as “morally justified” and still claim to oppose “collective punishment?”

Not to mention that the same Orthodox Union that now worries about calls for destroying Muslim holy places had no objection to Israel’s leveling of more than seventy mosques during Operation Protective Edge, as Israel’s summertime offensive against Gaza was called.

Silence is complicity

So I’m still waiting for something fundamental from the Orthodox rabbinate: a denunciation of the occupation of Palestinian land as the fundamental evil it truly is. And I’m waiting with increasing anxiety — not only for Palestinians but for my Jewish friends in Israel, and now for my own children as well.

The wrongs systematically inflicted on Palestinians — by a state that insists on its Jewish character and maintains an official Orthodox Jewish rabbinate — ought to be enough to attract the moral concern of Orthodox Jews.

But there is also a more selfish reason. Violence breeds violence, and it is hard to imagine that Israel’s increasingly brutal occupation will not spur further acts of desperate retaliation.

Of course, I do not know whether vigorous protest from Orthodox rabbis could sway Israel’s policy toward Palestinians. And it’s quite possible that many Orthodox rabbis, immersed in Talmudic subjects, simply don’t know the details of Israel’s crimes.

But the silence of those who do know makes them complicit in what they ignore. And Israel’s government thrives on silence exactly as a thief thrives on darkness.

So in the name of the rabbis killed at prayer in Har Nof, in the name of the children shot and bombed and shelled in the West Bank and Gaza, and on behalf of the living who mourn them, in the name of all these and more, I ask the Orthodox rabbinate: Where is your voice in this time of crisis?

As state-sponsored terror flows through Jerusalem, are you going to speak out on behalf of all victims, or will we continue to hear little but party-line fanaticism and bigotry against Palestinians? The time could hardly be more critical: as the ancient sage Hillel put it, “If not now, when?”

Michael Lesher, an author and lawyer, has published numerous articles dealing with child sexual abuse and other topics. He is the author of the recent book Sexual Abuse, Shonda and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities (McFarland & Co., Inc.), which focuses on cover-ups of abuse cases among Orthodox Jews. He lives in Passaic, New Jersey. More information about his work can be found on his web site www.MichaelLesher.com.




All to often religion is used to define tribal exclusivity. I can' help but think this institution has lost it's way. It's high priests have become drunk with worldly power and prestige and ultimately, they have been seduced by the dark side.

Worse is that are leading their fearful and trusting followers to the abyss, where angles fear to tread.


I cover in a no. of articles on my blog the neo-Nazi attitude and behaviour of the Orthodox. Let me say from the outset that I am my father was an Orthodox rabbi, who considered Arabs as inferior beings.

You could ask why did the Christian church, which today preaches tolerance, preside over the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Muslims and J ews? Or indeed why does ISL engage in the massacre of fellow Muslims (& others)?

Part of the answer is that if you give religion state power or a share therein then the infallibility that all religions claim for their claim to divine representation seems proven. Clearly their claims are correct and the clerics become part and maybe the most important part of the new ruling class, as was the case in Iran.

In the case of the Orthodox rabbis, the Talmud and holy books always had chauvinist and what today would be considered racist formulae. This was a product of the Jewish situation as a privileged caste in Europe, traders and bankers etc. They guarded their positions jealously against those who would encroach on thos privileges. Hence why it was such a great sin to 'marry out'.

Many of the foremost rabbis compare assimilation to the losses in the holocaust. That hasn't stemmed the flow and today over 50% of American Jews marry non-Jews and a large proportion in European countries. The Rabbis and the Zionists were at one in hating Emancipation and the French Revolution. Herzl worked with anti-Semites like Edoard Drumont (the leading anti-Dreyfussard) despite the myths attaching to his conversion to Zionism being caused by the injustice done to Dreyfuss.

But as the Jews' situation changed economically and politically in Europe so the chauvinist sections of the Talmud fell from sight. The anti-Semtiic Catholic priests used to quote them, Jews denied them.


If you are interested in this then the late Prof. Israel Shahak's book on Jewish Fundamentalism - Jewish Religion is particularly interesting but what I'm saying is that fundamentalism, i.e. interpreting the literal word, is not unique to the Jewish religion.

The same is true of the Southern Christian bigots of the USA, the Pastor John Hagees. Al Quaeda and ISIS represent another version, in this case the West has frozen the social and political development of Arab countries and there has been no space for an Arab reform or emancipation movement.

But in Israel, the ideological underpinnings of the State are the claims to live in the Holy Land. It gives the Or t hodox a lot of power and it is beginning to use that. They used to be hidden away like the awkward aunt, for fear of upsetting those in the USA who were secular and large donors. Today they don't bother as the US itself moves further and further to the right.


"The same is true of the Southern Christian bigots of the USA, the Pastor John Hagees"
You certainly have got that right.
I would like to think,but is questionable in many circles of thought,that we have advanced in our interpretations of what used to be considered the holy word of God.
Today ,too many ,are choosing to interpret the word in a literate sense , and thereby we continue to kill each other , as the other is wrong and we are right.
There is only one race,the human race. Our survival as a species depends on our elevation of our consciousness transcending the rivalry .Let us all hope this happens before we destroy ourselves.


I used to care about Israel's existence but after watching the viral video's of crowds of bloodthirsty Israelis chanting gleefully " No school tomorrow" No children left" as they celebrated the massacre of over 500 Palestinian children in Gaza. I can only wonder if a people so devoid of basic values of humanity, morality. compassion and empathy deserve to exist. They are truly the New Nazis as comments on the videos showed. American Jews were appalled by the video's and are concerned Israelis are giving Jews and Judaism a bad name.


How can anyone do that? Isn't this as bad as The Holocaust? Are we forgetting our past? How much are we brainwashing our children? We're supposed to be intelligent, democratic, western ideological individuals who are better than this, "You become happy when you kill a child? or laugh at the slaughter of civilians?? What have we become? and of course GOD is smiling over our actions? NOT


I think we should be careful not to make glib comparisons with the Holocaust (which also exterminated up to 1/2 million Gypsies and an equivalent no. of the disabled.

There is no evidence that Israel's leaders are contemplating going down this path. Let us deal with what they do do, not what they don't do.

If you were to say the mentality of many Israelis, those who were gleeful about 'no children left' are Nazi like you'd be correct but that is a different thing.


It doesn't matter whether someone's Holocaust is equivalent to someone elses massacre or ethnic cleansing. Although everyone is told to remember the lessons of the Holocaust, almost everyone wouldn't have a clue what those lessons are, Israel is no exception. Which is why we see Rwanda recently added to a list which includes the extinction of races during the great European colonial expansions across the planet and further back into antiquity.

The critical lesson we draw from the Holocaust is the process by which people came to be regarded as subhuman, "them" as opposed to "us", the practice of deeply racist policies which lead to a state of mind where others are scapegoated as a problem and therefore it is OK to deal with this "problem" using state sponsored discrimination and violence.

Israel's leaders are deeply entrenched in this racist path. Whether it leads to something exactly the same color as the Holocaust, doesn't matter. The lessons have not been learned.


I appreciate Tony Greenstein's comments, and I know and admire the work of Israel Shahak, particularly his important book Jewish History, Jewish Religion -- The Weight of Three Thousand Years. (My own new book cites Shahak on several points.)

At the same time, I think we should be wary of stereotyping religions. As Karen Armstrong copiously documents in A History of God, each of the "Western" religions contains many different strands of thought, including teachings that encourage liberation and human solidarity. Just think of the Catholic priests, inspired by "liberation theology," who courageously worked against oppressive governments in Latin America.

That the Talmud contains chauvinist formulae is beyond question -- but hardly surprising, given its historical origins. I find much more interesting rabbinic Judaism's passionate appeals for justice and its insistence on human equality. If these things weren't genuine elements of Orthodox Judaism it would be a waste of time criticizing the rabbinate. But the moral and revolutionary themes in Orthodoxy haven't disappeared, even if they've been marginalized. Some Orthodox rabbis had already condemned Zionism in the early 20th century on the grounds that it would lead to militarism and the worship of power. Even today, in the rabbinic comments I quoted -- which did NOT issue from the settler movement, a recent fabrication that's as Jewish as ISIS is Muslim -- the apologetics for Israeli power politics have nothing to do with Jewish law or theology, topics scarcely mentioned in the relevant statements. As I said, they resort instead to fear, magic and bigotry -- three corruptions of religion that religious people, in particular, have to fight.

The posture of today's Orthodox rabbinate toward Palestine, judging at least from public statements, is an outrage. But we should not accept that posture as inevitable; if it were, it wouldn't be an outrage.