Trump vs. Clinton; anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in France; the “Jewish State” Law in Israel. What do these three conflicts have in common? All three cases mark a centuries-old conflict over divergent views of nationhood. [Read more…]
— by Richard Lederman
If you haven’t heard by now, there’s a new plan for Jewish worship at the Western Wall — the Kotel — in old Jerusalem. Since Jewish access was restored to the Old City in June 1967 after 19 years of Jordanian control, Orthodox rabbinic authorities have held sole sway over the Kotel, enforcing their understanding of Halakha — Jewish law — pertaining to the forms of worship that could take place there. Most explicit is the strict separation of men and women and the prohibition against certain forms of worship in the women’s section. For instance, women may not wear traditional religious garb — Tallit and Tefillin — and may not read from a Torah scroll. For years, these restrictions have been challenged by The Women of the Wall who have bravely endured humiliation, threats, physical abuse and arrest as they overtly defy these restrictions in acts of civil disobedience.
In the meantime, a new section of the wall has gradually become a venue for egalitarian worship. Underneath a feature of the wall known as Robinson’s Arch, located south of the main plaza, men and women worship and lead the services as equals. In recent months, Jewish Agency Chair Natan Sharansky has concluded a nearly three-year negotiated compromise with the rabbinic authorities and the government affording official status to this section of the Kotel. The execution of this compromise is in the offing, whereby the area in front Robinson’s Arch will be transformed into a plaza not unlike the original plaza created in 1967, with equal 24/7 access for all worshipers. In other words, now you will have two mostly equal choices when you visit the Kotel: the original plaza and this new egalitarian section.
Naturally, as with all compromises, no one is particularly happy, and the announcement of the new arrangement has been met with a slew of articles and opinion pieces in the Jewish press. Even some of the supporters of egalitarian prayer at the Kotel feel let down. Writing in The Forward, Gabriela Geselowitz, a young “Birthrighter,” bemoans the fact that she still can’t wear her Tallit and Tefillin at the part of the Kotel that is from “the postcards, the documentaries, the images of Jewish Jerusalem that the world knows.” To Geselowitz, Robinson’s Arch is not the “real” Kotel, the “authentic” Kotel. “I can’t help thinking,” she concludes, “that we’ve agreed to the idea that being shunted out of the way, to something ‘technically’ part of a holy experience, is enough. It’s not.” [Read more…]
Like many Jews I cannot believe that a leading contender for the office of President of the United States is demonizing Mexicans, suggesting a religious test for entry into the United States and proposing a database targeting American Muslims. We have seen this picture before, and it never turns out very well for us.
While this extremist movement — the New Republic uses the term “fascist” — is unfolding in the U.S., we are witnessing a similar and even more radical phenomenon in Israel. In the aftermath of this past July’s brutal firebomb murder of three members of a Palestinian family, including an 18-month-old baby, in the West Bank village of Duma, Israeli security services have arrested nearly 100 young men, described in The Times of Israel as “far-right Orthodox extremists.” The label seems paradoxical, especially when accompanied by photos of smiling young men, each in a full-cover, knitted kippah and other traditional religious garb. The sense of shock and disbelief generated by this violent crime was compounded by the video above, released by Israeli Channel 10, of a Jewish wedding reception that included military weapons, knives and Molotov cocktails being waved in celebration of the Duma massacre.
Of course, not all West Bank settlers are terrorists, nor are all Republicans “Trumpers.” In fact, it may be tempting to dismiss these examples of American and Israeli xenophobia as mere anomalies — but they are not. Both Trump in America and Jewish terrorists in Israel are simply the logical, albeit radical, extension of long-brewing ideological developments. In the case of Trump, it is developments in the Republican Party; in the case of Israel, it is the West Bank settler movement. In both cases, it is time to recognize the insidious antecedents of these two related extremes.
The election of Barack Obama galvanized the right wing of the Republican Party. It shocked the white establishment of the Party and its white working-class supporters, who have been alienated by the many social changes that have taken place in America over the last 50 years. This animus has driven Republicans to stymie everything President Obama has stood for, from health care to gun control to immigration.
The attempt to discredit Obama’s presidency also includes the conspiracy theorists’ “Birther” movement, which is based on the claim that Obama was not born in America and, therefore, is ineligible to be president. Early in the Obama presidency, an article published on the online media website Salon documented the level of support for the Birther movement among Republicans in Congress.
Donald Trump has become the poster child of this movement. He also represents extreme right-wing positions on immigration. For example, he is simply one-upping Representative Steve King (Rep., IA), who, in a 2013 interview with Newsmax, claimed that Mexican immigrants were overwhelmingly drug runners. All told, it would appear that “Trumpism” has deep roots in the extreme positions that have become mainstream in the Republican Party. Trump is, in effect, simply the “über-Republican.”
What then of the Jewish terrorist network emerging among Israeli West Bank settlers? The spiritual headquarters of religious Zionism in Israel and of the West Bank settler movement, in particular, is Yeshivat Mercaz HaRav Kook. This religious seminary was founded in 1924 by the first chief rabbi of what was then Palestine, HaRav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook. The yeshivah’s website pays homage to the founder, noting that HaRav Kook “was the great soul of religious Zionism. He saw in it the process of redemption and the anticipation of the Mashiach (Messiah).”
This form of Zionism is not the political Zionism envisioned by Theodore Herzl and David Ben Gurion. This is a movement that understands the establishment of the State of Israel as a harbinger of the arrival of the Messiah. For some, this eventual messianic kingdom includes Jewish control of the West Bank and Gaza. Therefore, it is no anomaly that, as The Times of Israel reports, the perpetrators of the Duma massacre spray painted the walls of their victims’ home in the West Bank with the words “Yehi ha-melekh ha-mashiach,” “Long live the king messiah.” The truth is that the seeds of the Duma attack were sown many decades ago.
For a powerless people, as the Jewish people were for 2,000 years, a messianic vision offers profound hope in the midst of despair. The problem arises when powerlessness is substituted with the world’s fifth most powerful military. In that case, the march toward the messianic era becomes inexorable. Nothing may impede its progress; any action is acceptable that leads to that goal. Indeed, one West Bank settler, Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira of the settlement of Yitzhar, authored a book published in 2009 known as “Torat HaMelech,” “The King’s Torah.” According to the Israeli online media outlet YNet, the book explains that “[h]urting small children makes sense if it’s clear that they’ll grow up to harm us, and in such a situation – the injury will be directed at them of all people.” The perpetrators of the Duma massacre were simply fulfilling Rabbi Shapira’s Torah.
So what is to be done? One thing history has taught us is that extremist, fascist movements always emerge insidiously. There is rarely some spontaneous mass movement. In this gradual process, we are often caught unawares. We think that these tendencies are anomalies advanced by some fringe group. These groups start by pushing boundaries, and when they receive little or no resistance, they push harder. The only way to stop them is to push back — and to push back aggressively, although non-violently. But we must be prepared to do that against any extremist, not only one with flaming orange hair, but also one wearing a kippah.