While his public statements of compassion for marginalized groups have earned Pope Francis the respect of many, the Holy See’s diplomatic recognition of the Palestinian Authority as the “state of Palestine” in June ignited the fury of rabbis with links to the Israeli government, army and academia.
On 9 September, a group calling itself the “Nascent Sanhedrin” (a reconstituted council of Jewish sages) held court in Jerusalem and accused the pontiff and other world leaders of crimes against the Jewish people.
Speaking to a crowd of about 40 men and a handful of women at the Diaspora Yeshiva seminary in the Old City of Jerusalem, the leaders of the Sanhedrin gave a series of speeches excoriating Pope Francis, US President Barack Obama, the European Union, the United Nations and other international bodies for not supporting Israel’s claims to “exclusive patrimony” over all of historic Palestine.
For three hours, the rabbis oscillated between accusing world leaders of plotting genocide against the Jewish people, and themselves calling for Jews to commit genocide against Muslims, Christians and other non-Jews.
The most extreme statements of the afternoon came from the head of this Sanhedrin, Rabbi Yisrael Ariel, who claimed that according to the 12th century Jewish sage Maimonides, the Jewish people are commanded to kill non-Jewish people who do not agree to abandon Christianity and Islam and be governed by Jewish law.
This writer was present and recorded the Sanhedrin’s proceedings, including a call by Ariel for genocide against non-Jews (listen by playing the video at the top of this page).
“This is what the Torah commanded us,” he explained, “‘When thou drawest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it’ [Deuteronomy 20:10]. What is meant by ‘peace’? Maimonides says that they must agree to follow the seven Noahide laws … Meaning, you ask them, ‘Do you follow the seven laws? If so, we will allow you to live.’ If not, you kill all of their males, by sword. You only leave the women.
“How do you leave them? They must all agree to follow the seven laws. And that is how you impose the Seven Laws on that city. We will conquer Iraq, Turkey. We will get to Iran, too. We will impose the seven Noahide laws on all of these places.
“You say, ‘I call upon you in peace.’ If they raise the flag [of surrender] and say, ‘From now on there is no more Christianity, no more Islam,’ the mosques and the Christian spires and their crosses come down, ‘from now on we follow the seven Noahide laws.’”
Ariel went on to suggest that Jewish people should also kill US President Barack Obama.
“Therefore Maimonides says that if you see a person in the street who does not follow the Seven Laws — this is what he says — if we have the might, you have to kill him. If you catch Obama on the street, and you know that he does not follow the Seven Laws, etc.”
A man in the audience interjected: “You are commanded to kill him.”
Ariel responds: “Sorry?”
The man repeats: “You are commanded to kill him, and the sooner the better.”
Ariel responds in the affirmative: “This is why we have Maimonides. If someone threatens you, to ruin you, to kill you, you kill him first.”
Ariel’s comments on Obama followed the reading of a long list of charges against Obama, the Pope and other world leaders, including “theft and conspiracy to conduct theft of the Land of Israel from the People of Israel” and “bloodshed, murder and standing idly by the blood of others” which “threatens the very existence of Israel, if not the total genocide of the People of Israel.”
The Sanhedrin claims the “Land of Israel” as “from the Euphrates to the Nile.” This would mean Israeli occupation of parts of Syria, Iraq, Egypt and the whole of the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip and Jordan, and probably parts of Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Kuwait.
Ariel is the former rabbi of the Jewish seminary in Yamit, an illegal settlement that Israel established in the Sinai during its occupation of Egyptian territories from 1967. The settlement was evacuated in 1982 after a peace treaty was agreed with Egypt.
In the 1981 elections, Ariel was number two on the electoral list for Kach, the extremist group led by the late Rabbi Meir Kahane. Kahane was a fanatic who called for the expulsion by force of all Palestinians from the West Bank, Gaza and current-day Israel. A small group of Kahane’s supporters were the last hold-outs to be removed from Yamit when it was evacuated. Kahane himself was flown in from New York to negotiate with them.
Ariel has a long history of such genocidal statements. In 2010, he threatened to destroy any Palestinian state established. In 1994, after the Israeli-American settler Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Palestinians in a Hebron mosque, Ariel praised the attacker as “a martyr. And martyrs are above saints and righteous men.”
Ariel’s mention during his remarks at Diaspora Yeshiva of seven Noahide laws refers to a set of rules that Orthodox Jews believe are binding upon not only Jewish people, but all human beings. Some of these laws are common sense, like the prohibitions on murder and theft; others criminalize the worship of other gods and same-sex relations.
Although Christianity and Islam, like Judaism, are considered monotheistic Abrahamic religions, Ariel insisted that they run afoul of the Noahide laws: “all of the Christians are classified as idol worshippers. Muslims are too. None of them showed up here, for example, and said, ‘I agree to follow the seven laws.’”
Ayoub Kara, the only Palestinian lawmaker in Israel’s ruling Likud party, actively proselytizes in Palestinian communities in present-day Israel, trying to convince residents to formally adopt the seven Noahide laws. According to rabbis who work in tandem with Kara, these efforts are supported by Israel’s Interior Ministry.
In June, the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes in the Galilee was torched and defaced with Hebrew-language graffiti denouncing idol worship. Soon after, Bentzi Gopstein, another Jewish extremist leader, publicly called for the burning of churches, designating Christians as idol worshippers and citing Maimonides.
At a forum for Jewish seminary students in August, in answer to the question, “Are you in favor of burning churches in the Land of Israel, yes or no?” Gopstein responded: “You have to burn, are you for Maimonides or against Maimonides? … Yes, of course … Didn’t Maimonides rule that we must burn? Idol worship must be burned … Yes, of course. Of course, that’s Maimonides. Simply yes, why are you even asking? … You have any doubt?”
Israeli police have not charged Gopstein over the incident. Although Israeli law prohibits incitement to racism, a legal loopholes permit the offensive statements if they are couched in religious terminology.
Named after a council of Jewish sages that existed more than 2,000 years ago, the self-declared “Sanhedrin” was established in 2004 and its founders aspire for it to subsume the secular structures of the Israeli government and turn the country from a Jewish ethnocracy into a Jewish theocracy.
At present the Sanhedrin does not have an official mandate from the Israeli government, and its pronouncements are not treated with deference by all Orthodox rabbis. Nevertheless, the fact that one of the most respected Talmud scholars in the world, Adin Steinsaltz, has served as the group’s president since 2004 grants it some legitimacy (Steinsaltz also received the President’s Prize from former President Shimon Peres for his Talmud scholarship). The Sanhedrin’s website, at time of publication, listed Steinsaltz as the group’s president.
Among the Sanhedrin’s current leaders are Rabbi Hillel Weiss, a professor emeritus of Bar Ilan University and ideologue of Israel’s ruling Likud party, and Rabbi Yoel Schwartz, a lecturer at the Jerusalem seminary Dvar Yerushalayim as well as cofounder and chairman of the Israeli army’s first battalion of ultra-Orthodox combat troops.
Jewish control of holy site
The movement to wrest control of the compound from Islamic authorities and augment Jewish religious activities on the site has received support from numerous Israeli government lawmakers, including ruling Likud party ministers Yisrael Katz and Miri Regev, as well as secretary-general of the opposition Labor party Yehiel “Hilik” Bar.
After the home of a Palestinian family in the West Bank village of Duma was firebombed in July, burning to death the family’s father and mother and their 18-month-old baby, the Sanhedrin rabbis issued a statement of support for the Jewish extremists that Israel put under administrative detention in the wake of the attack (they were not charged with any crime).
The statement reads: “You are blessed for being caught while engaged in your relentless and uncompromising struggle for the sake of the conquest and inheritance of Israel.”
The 9 September session of the Sanhedrin adjourned without any definitive decision on the charges against the Pope, Obama and other world leaders for alleged crimes against the Jewish people. The group announced that the court would reconvene and the trial would resume in Jerusalem on 7 October.
Meanwhile, its head rabbi almost certainly continues to receive financial support from Netanyahu’s government to help fulfill his dominionist aspirations.