The religious right and genocide

Tony Greenstein looks at sections of Israel's orthodox rabbinate and makes a less than flattering comparison

Marxists differ from bourgeois ideologues in that we see that ideas in society are located in material circumstances. There is no mechanistic, one-to-one relationship, because ideology can have long-lasting consequences even when the social basis for them has disappeared or is disappearing. I would argue that Nazi anti-Semitism and the holocaust were a vivid example of this autonomy of ideology when allied to a modern political movement which artificially preserves it.

So too it is with Zionism. Like many of its founders, Theodore Herzl was a non-believer whose own son was uncircumcised. This was unsurprising since, as Herzl's deputy, Max Nor-dau (himself married to a Christian) explained in an interview with the anti-Semitic paper La Libre Parole in 1903, Zionism "is not a question of religion, but exclusively of race and there is no-one with whom I am in greater agreement on this position than M Drumont".[1] The early Zionists based their claim to Palestine on a god whose existence they denied. Their colonial project took as its starting point the then popular ideas of superior and inferior races and infused it with a religious legitimation.

This was the Gordian knot that Zionism's secular founders could not untie. Although the predominant trend in Zionism for the first 80 years was that of Labour Zionism, they deliberately sought alliances with the Mizrahi religious Zionist movement. In the very first Israeli elections in 1949, the Israeli Labour Party, together with its left-Zionist rivals, Mapam, secured an overall majority. But the ILP insisted on the participation of Miszrahi, who, when the 1967 war ended in victory, began their move to an open racism and expansionism, joining the coalition headed by the rightwing Likud in 1977.

Over the years there have been many attempts to prevent the orthodox religious from increasing their power. Even Yisrael Beiteinu, represented by fascist foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, and the Tsomet Party, led by former army chief of staff Raful Eitan, sought without success to prevent the religious Zionists from dominating every aspect of civil life.

At the same time we have seen the decline, almost to the point of non-existence, of Labour and left Zionism. From 65 out of 120 seats in 1949 to 16 at the last election, the ideological contradiction of reconciling even left rhetoric to colonialism has proved too difficult to surmount.

With the war in 1967 and the regaining of the symbols of the Jewish religion - the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron, the secular ideology of Zionism's founders, which was always an uneasy compromise, gave way to the open colonial racism of the Greater Israel movement, Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful). And, when the Israeli left protested about the settlements and occupation, they were reminded that the right to settle Kiryat Arba near Hebron was no less than the right to establish Tel Aviv. Both were established despite and against the wishes of the Arab population and on Arab land.

But, where secular ideologies have been unable to fully rationalise an enterprise founded on biblical myths (witness the contortions of the 'Marxist' Zionism of Ber Borochov[2]), the religious were more than capable of stepping into the breach.[3] It is not human, but god-given, law (as they interpret it) that they recognise. Ancient religious texts, in a colonial setting, can more than fill the void.

And so the Zionist left, for all the concessions it made, could not withstand the challenge of those who openly espoused naked chauvinism - all with god's blessing. The Israeli Labour Party has just seen its leader, Ehud Barak, his predecessor, Amir Peretz, and two others jump ship, leaving it with a rump of seven members of the knesset. The 'social democratic' wing of Zionism has now all but disappeared. But for Arabs there was never a great difference between Labour and Likud. It was the left-Zionist faction, Ahdut Ha'avodah, within the ILP, as represented by Yisrael Galili, Yigal Allon and Yitzhak Tabenkin, that was prominent in promoting the establishment of settlements from 1967 onwards.

Real similarities

It is fashionable to make comparisons between Zionism and Nazism. And real similarities exist between German fascism 1933-39 and Zionism. Worship of the state, militarism, definition of a nation by the concept of Volk or blood relations, the rendering of minorities as strangers in their own land, as well as the labelling of political opponents as 'traitors' and 'self-haters'.

But there was one clear difference between Nazism and Zionism. Whereas the former exterminated the Jewish people of Europe between 1941 and 1945 and would have gone on to do the same with the Slavic peoples, Zionism has never been exterminatory. Although there were massacres in 1947-48 of up to 10,000 Palestinians, what happened was not extermination primarily but expulsion (although, of course, the Nazi programme for the Jews up till 1941 was also for emigration, not extermination). But the memory of the holocaust, to say nothing of modern-day political realities, ensured that, whatever its attitude to the Palestinians, Zionism was unlikely to exterminate them.

But now there are signs amongst the religious orthodox wing of Zionism of the advocacy of genocide. On Christmas day 2010 an Israeli Jewish orthodox magazine Ma'ayanei Hayeshua (Fountains of Salvation), which is distributed freely in hundreds of synagogues across the country, called in its editorial for the concentration of Arabs in extermination camps. In the article, the editors accuse rabbis who refuse to support the call not to rent apartments to Palestinians (see below) of cowardice for refusing to follow the biblical command to wipe out the people of "Amalek" - which in the case of the article clearly meant Palestinians. The editors concluded: "It will be interesting to see whether they [the moderate rabbis] leave the concentration of the Amalekites in extermination camps to others, or whether they will declare that wiping out Amalek is no longer relevant."[4]

As Yossi Bartal of the Alternative Information Centre wrote, "This blunt call for genocide against Palestinians is not new in publications of the Israeli extreme right, but this is the first time it appears in a 'family' magazine with prominent advertisers."[5]

Previously calls for the extermination of the Palestinians have come from marginal figures such as rabbi Yousef Falay, who in an article entitled 'Ways of war', called for the killing of all Palestinian males refusing to flee their country: "We have to make sure that no Palestinian individual remains under our occupation. If they escape then it is good; but if any one of them remains then he should be exterminated."[6]

Companies advertising on the website of Ma'ayanei Hayeshua include three major banks in Israel: Bank Hapoalim, the Workers' Bank formerly owned by the trade union federation, Histadrut (!), Bank Leumi and Bank Discount, along with the Isracard Group that works with Visa, Europay and Mastercard. The national phone company, Bezeq, also advertises on the website, as does the Jerusalem College of Technology, has an advertisement inside the print version of the magazine too.[7]

Ma'ayanei Hayeshua may be a rightwing orthodox religious magazine, closely associated with the messianic Jewish Chabad-Lubavitch movement,[8] but in its attitude to the Palestinians it is neither unique nor exceptional amongst the Zionist religious orthodox. On the contrary, the belief that the Palestinians are the representation of the Amalekites, whom it is a mitzvah (commandment) to wipe out, is widely accepted.

According to Richard Silverstein, Ma'ayanei Hayeshua represents "the cream of the crop of the radical rightwing Israeli orthodox rabbinate". Founded by the former Sephardic chief rabbi, Mordechai Eliyahu, whose son currently holds that position, it is run by a triumvirate - rabbis Shmuel Eliyahu of Safed, Shlomo Aviner of Beit El and Yaakov Ariel of Ramat Gan. Aviner is strongly suspected of sexually abusing a troubled woman who approached him for spiritual advice.[9] Aviner heads the Ateret Cohanim yeshiva (religious school) in the Muslim quarter of Jerusalem, a rabid settler group which wants to establish a third temple over the ruins of the Mosque of Omar, Islam's third most important religious site.

Military rabbinate

The belief that the Palestinians represent Amalek and are therefore deserving of extermination has been spearheaded by the Israeli military rabbinate and the settlers' Yesha Rabbinical Council. Former military chief rabbi brigadier general Avichai Rontzki has been particularly active in this regard, telling students that soldiers who "show mercy" toward the enemy in wartime would be "damned".[10] He cited Moses Maimonides's discourse on the laws of war and the Book of Jeremiah: "Cursed be he that doeth the work of the lord with a slack hand, and cursed be he that keepeth back his sword from blood."

When Israel attacked Gaza in December 2008-January 2009, the Israeli military rabbinate, led by their chief rabbi, issued a pamphlet and other material urging the soldiers to put to one side any thought of sparing civilian lives. As Amos Harel noted, "During the fighting in the Gaza Strip, the religious media - and on two occasions, the Israel Defence Force's weekly journal Bamahane - were full of praise for the army rabbinate", whose members did not merely issue their injunctions from on high, but came into the field. As they explained, their role was not "to distribute wine and challah [bread] for Shabbat to the troops", but "to fill them with Yiddishkeit and a fighting spirit".[11]

And what was their role? It was to discourage the idea that Palestinian civilians were not the enemy. Breaking the Silence, a group of former soldiers who are under attack by the Israeli government, collated some of this material including "Daily Torah studies for the soldier and the commander in Operation Cast Lead", which, citing rabbi Aviner, forbids handing over even a millimetre of 'holy land'.

In one publication the following question is posed: "Is it possible to compare today's Palestinians to the Philistines of the past? And if so, is it possible to apply lessons today from the military tactics of Samson and David?" Rabbi Aviner is quoted by way of response: "A comparison is possible because the Philistines of the past were not natives and had invaded from a foreign land ... They invaded the Land of Israel, a land that did not belong to them and claimed political ownership over our country ... Today the problem is the same." The IDF rabbinate, still quoting Aviner, explained the appropriate code of conduct in the field: "When you show mercy to a cruel enemy, you are being cruel to pure and honest soldiers. This is terribly immoral."

In addition to the official publications, other religious tracts were distributed in Israeli army bases. One such praised Baruch Goldstein, who massacred 29 unarmed Palestinians in Hebron, and called on "soldiers of Israel to spare your lives and the lives of your friends and not to show concern for a population that surrounds us and harms us. We call on you ... to function according to the law, 'Kill the one who comes to kill you'. As for the population, it is not innocent ... We call on you to ignore any strange doctrines and orders that confuse the logical way of fighting the enemy."

It is important to emphasise that such calls are not exceptional, or the product of a few religious cranks, but now represent mainstream orthodoxy in Israel. Chabad-Lubavitch is a prominent messianic Hasidic sect, not dissimilar to Christian evangelism. It has prominent rabbis amongst British Jewish orthodox rabbis, such as rabbi Yitzhak Shochet of Mill Hill Synagogue and principal of the Rosh Pinah Jewish Primary School in Edgware, who has chosen to remain silent.

In Israel last year a book, Torat HaMelech (the king's Torah), was published by rabbi Yitzchak Shapira and Yossi Elitzur.[12] According to Norman Cohn, Shapira claims that "There is justification for killing babies if it is clear that they will grow up to harm us, and in such a situation they may be harmed deliberately - and not only during combat with adults."[13] Shapira has also written: "There is a reason to kill babies even if they have not transgressed the seven Noahide Laws [to believe in god, not to commit idolatry, murder, theft or adultery, to set up a legal system, and not to tear a limb from a live animal] because of the future danger they may present, since it is assumed that they will grow up to be evil like their parents ..."[14]

Which was exactly how the Nazis justified the murder of Jewish children. This is the fruit of Zionism.

Another prominent member of the rabbinate in Israel is Dov Lior, chief rabbi of Hebron and Kiryat Arba. Lior is chairman of the Yesha rabbinical council and reportedly the favourite student of the late rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, who is revered by the whole religious camp in Israel and acknowledged as the founder of religious Zionism. In the late 1980s the attorney general barred Lior's election to the Supreme Rabbinical Council following statements he made suggesting that medical experiments could be conducted on captured Arab "terrorists".[15] This Jewish Mengele, along with other rabbis, issued a halakhic (oral religious) ruling that Israel must shoot civilian populations in areas from whence attacks on Jewish communities originate.[16]


1. D Steward Herzl p322. Drumont was the most prominent French anti-Semite of the Dreyfus era. He admired the early Zionists and wrote a flattering review of Herzl's Der Judenstaat, the bible of the fledgling Zionist movement.

2. www.marxists.org/archive/borochov/index.htm. Borochov ended his life as a supporter of Britain and America in World War I. He was expelled from the RSDLP in 1903.

3. See S Sand Myth of a Jewish nation London 2009.

4. 'Editorial calling for death camps for "Amalekites" raises storm among religious' Ha'aretz January 23.

5. 'Israeli banks finance newspaper calling for genocide': www.alternativenews.org/english/index.php/topics/israeli-society/3194-israeli-banks-finance-newspaper-calling-for-genocide.

6. International Middle East Media Center, 'Jewish rabbi calls for extermination of all Palestinian males', September 18 2006: www.imemc.org/content/view/21527/1; and http://cgi.stanford.edu/group/wais/cgi-bin/?p=5578.

7. www.alternativenews.org/english/index.php/topics/israeli-society/3194-israeli-banks-finance-newspaper-calling-for-genocide.

8. www.enotes.com/topic/Chabad_messianism.

9. 'Israel's orthodox rabbis: "Palestinians to the ovens!"': www.israeli-occupation.org/2011-01-12/israels-orthodox-rabbis-palestinians-to-the-ovens.

10. 'IDF chief rabbi: troops who show mercy to enemy will be "damned"' Ha'aretz November 15 2009.

11. 'IDF rabbinate publication during Gaza war: we will show no mercy on the cruel' Ha'aretz January 26 2009.

12. http://azvsas.blogspot.com/2011/01/highlights-of-2010-in-word-and-pictures.html.

13. N Cohn Warrant for genocide London 2005. Cohn was talking about the anti-semitic Protocols of the elders of Zion, but he could equally have been referring to this and similar works.

14. 'Shapira's distinction between Jewish, gentile blood' The Jerusalem Post January 2 2010.

15. http://azvsas.blogspot.com/2011/01/arabs-to-ovens.html.

16. www.worldlingo.com/ma/enwiki/en/Dov_Lior.