“They don’t understand,” said a young man outside an Orthodox New Jersey synagogue where I often pray, spreading his hands helplessly to emphasize the great gulf between the consciousness of religious and non-religious Jews. “We put God first.”
He was explaining why Haredi Jews in Israel have managed, by vociferous protest and government-busting threats, to force the government to cancel 17 out of 20 “infrastructure projects” that Israel Railways had planned to build on the Jewish Sabbath.
And, of course, he was right: Orthodox Jews do put God’s law ahead of every other consideration. That is, sometimes we do.
Inconveniencing the rest of the country in deference to Orthodox Sabbath prohibitions was evidently one of those times.
In fact, despite the uproar precipitated by its partial victory over the government, Israel’s Orthodox leadership isn’t satisfied: it is still demanding the cancelation of the remaining three construction jobs scheduled for Saturdays, even though police claim that canceling the three projects could endanger lives. The rabbis are also insisting on reduced Friday afternoon and Saturday night rail service, which will pose a hardship to many Israelis, including thousands of soldiers.
But what can you do, as the young Orthodox Jew asked outside the synagogue, when Jewish law is at stake?
I only wish it were that simple.
What about laws prohibiting theft?
Yes, Haredi leaders are sure to protest vigorously about a train or bus or movie theater running on the Sabbath. But when was the last time anyone heard a complaint from any of the major Orthodox rabbis in Israel — or anywhere else, for that matter — about the Israeli government’s systematic theft of other people’s property? That is, about the occupation of the West Bank?
This isn’t an idle question. Tolerating the expropriation of Palestinian land cuts to the heart of traditional Jewish doctrine. Halakhah, or Jewish law, includes ethical imperatives as well as ritual decrees: bloodshed, violence, theft and deceit are all expressly forbidden by the same Torah that prohibits specified labors on the Sabbath.
Jewish tradition even merges such ethical norms into considerations we would describe today as questions of “national security.”
Commenting on Deuteronomy 25:17, Rashi, the great medieval glossator (quoting a rabbinic text), warns that an entire Jewish community can be placed in fear of an enemy attack if its inhabitants keep dishonest weights and measures — that is, if they permit themselves to steal even trifling amounts. For those who take such texts seriously, how much greater must be the danger to Israelis who participate in the forcible robbery of land and resources from an entire people?
This, of course, is exactly what is happening in the region, which all 15 judges of the International Court of Justice agreed to designate as “Occupied Palestinian Territory.”
“Israel’s ideological and political goals have proven more exploitative than those of other settler regimes,” wrote Sara Roy, senior research scholar at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, in an authoritative 1995 study quoted here from Norman Finkelstein’s Beyond Chutzpah, “because they rob the native population of its most important economic resources — land, water and labor — as well as the internal capacity and potential for developing those resources.”
The Israeli scholar Neve Gordon has documented how, besides the outright seizure of land and water, Israel’s occupation has cost Palestinians billions of dollars through oppressive taxes and regulations. Theft doesn’t get much clearer than that.
Yet Israel’s Orthodox Jewish leadership remains silent about the evils of Israel’s occupation, even as tens of thousands of Haredim settle in illegal West Bank colonies.
That silence can’t be explained away as ignorance, either; it’s a bad case of lopsided priorities. Only last month, Orthodox publications were agog over the “Freedom March” planned by human rights activists for 2 September, a Friday afternoon, near a checkpoint at the Gush Etzion settlement, “to protest Israeli administrative detentions without trial and in solidarity with [Palestinian] hunger strikers” who languish in Israeli prisons despite never having been charged with a crime.
Was it the arbitrary incarceration of Palestinians that bothered the editors of the Orthodox Jewish press, which “broke” the story? Or the fact that the site of the protest was a highway built for Jews only and on Palestinian land? No. They were upset because the demonstration might make it harder for Orthodox Jewish settlers to get home in time for Shabbat.
Never mind that Israel’s checkpoints impose a living hell on Palestinians all over the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, every day of the week.
Never mind that the rabbinate’s vaunted willingness to bend Sabbath laws when lives are in danger — though not in the case of the additional construction projects they want to cancel, where the rabbis claim “alternatives” are available — evidently applies only to Jewish lives.
The endless death toll of Palestinians that is the grimmest regular feature of the occupation doesn’t appear even to figure in their calculations. For the Orthodox editors, as for the rabbinate, technical Sabbath observance (voluntary or not) matters; Palestinian human rights do not.
Fortunately, there is another approach to the Sabbath, and it’s one we Jews urgently need to recapture. This approach recognizes the Sabbath as a celebration of human freedom and dignity, in contrast to the specter of Egyptian slavery out of which the Jewish nation emerges in the Hebrew Bible. It embraces the peace of the Sabbath as a precious alternative to the thinly disguised violence that underlies the competition and stress of the working week.
Viewed from that perspective, the Sabbath could never serve as a cover for Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land. On the contrary, Orthodox Jews who cling to its strict observance would insist, at the same time, that Jews should never be the cause of another people’s oppression.
If we in the Orthodox community embrace that view of the Sabbath, we can turn religious energies toward deeper compassion for the victims of occupation and a deeper resolve to fight it along with other human evils.
If we don’t, we’ll be left with the monstrous caricature defined by the Orthodox rabbinate’s skewed priorities, as reflected in Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in 2008-09. That military assault on Gaza commenced on a Sabbath with an offensive by fighter jets, attack helicopters and drones that killed more than 200 Palestinians on the first day alone. Yet throughout the bloody 22-day carnage that ensued, and in honor of the holy day, the Israeli army refused to allow desperately needed aid shipments into Gaza on any Sabbath.
In those dark weeks, the Orthodox leadership didn’t protest the Israeli government’s abuse of the Sabbath. No wonder other people “don’t understand” us now.
Michael Lesher, a writer and lawyer, is the author of Sexual Abuse, Shonda and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities (McFarland). He is a member of Jewish Voice for Peace. Website: www.michaellesher.com