I grew up in the Bnei Akiva movement. As a student and young man in the UK in the 1960s and 1970s, there was probably no other single organization which had a greater formative influence on my early life than this particular Zionist youth movement.
Following high school, I spent a year on the Bnei Akiva hachshara on Kibbutz Lavi, and subsequently a period of time studying at a Bnei Akiva-affiliated yeshiva before returning to the UK to complete my university studies. While at university my social life centered around the activities of the movement much more so than on the social life of my fellow students. I was very close to making aliya with a group of my contemporaries who came to Israel from their middle class UK backgrounds and established a new kibbutz, Bet Rimon, in the Lower Galilee.
At the time this was considered a major act of pioneering on their part as they sought to establish a new community on the top of an isolated mountain in the Lower Galilee – an act which was far removed from their upbringing and the aspirations and desires of their parents for their futures. But it was the movement that had the most powerful influence on their life choices, as it has had for countless other young men and women throughout the past 60 years – both in Israel and the Diaspora.
At the last moment, I chose to remain behind for an extra few years in the UK and to pursue an independent academic career. But this never once affected or challenged the desire to live in Israel, a desire which had been inculcated in me by the youth movement affiliations, aspirations which I fulfilled the moment my studies were completed.
I have therefore always been slightly reticent about being overtly critical of the movement and its right-wing political beliefs, although my own positions have diverged so significantly from those of the Bnei Akiva movement during the past 30 years that in many respects they are almost diametrically opposed. But beyond its territorial and settlement politics, the Bnei Akiva movement has remained at the center of social volunteerism in Israel, has contributed to the dialogue between secular and religious Israel, and continues to play a major role in the creation of links between Israel and the Diaspora, values with which I have no problem identifying.
But for everyone there is a red line. A transgression of accepted norms about which it is impossible to remain silent.
This point of no return was reached last week with the disgusting and inflammatory comments of the secretary- general of World Bnei Akiva, Rabbi Noam Perel, in his call for Israel to actively avenge the brutal murder of the three Jewish teenagers by terrorists. He called for the Israeli government to take revenge “through blood instead of tears” and left no one in doubt, in the messages which he posted on Facebook in his official capacity, that he believed in the concept of collective guilt on the part of all Palestinians and that this should be translated into actions, not just words.
No amount of half-hearted backtracking from these statements is sufficient. The lame excuse that he was using biblical language and metaphor, which secular Israel does not understand, is unacceptable. This is a similar argument to that used by the late Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef on more than one occasion when his remarks about politics, government and secular Israel were inflammatory and critical of society.
No religious leader, and Perel is an ordained rabbi and former principal of a religious high school, can hide behind claims that their language can only be properly understood by the few, when in effect it impacts thousands of impressionable teenagers and young adults who look up to these leaders for advice and seek ways in which to negotiate a complex and threatening world.
No one is accusing Perl of being directly responsible for the unspeakable act of revenge which was carried out on an Arab teenager last week by extremist right-wing elements in the wake of the brutal murder of three Jewish teenagers (all of them probably members of the Bnei Akiva movement), but the two are related. There are enough right-wing followers of the movement who will see Perel’s words as legitimizing the sort of actions which took place, actions which have no place in a Jewish or a democratic state and definitely not in a state which seeks to combine the best of the two concepts.
Anyone who occupies a position of leadership and trust among the right-wing youth has an added responsibility to choose his words and his messages with the utmost care – and if, as in this case, he fails in his public utterances, there is no alternative but for him to step down and resign his position of influence.
The silence of the other leaders is equally worrying. Where is Rabbi Haim Druckman, the revered spiritual head of the Bnei Akiva movement for the past three decades? Where is Avraham Duvdevani, the current head of the World Zionist Organization, who was himself head of the World Bnei Akiva movement for many years ? If they wish Bnei Akiva to retain its legitimacy, they must act quickly to make it clear that Perel went too far and must resign immediately.
The message sent out by the lay leader of the world movement, Mr. Daniel Goldman, calling for moderation and tolerance, was a step in the right direction, but was far too vague and limited given the enormity of what was written on Perel’s Facebook page.
Despite my own changing political positions over the years, I have never been embarrassed to identify the impact of Bnei Akiva on my own personal life. But today I am ashamed of my affiliation with a movement whose leader has made utterances which are in direct contrast to the basic values of humanity and tolerance, and which are neither Jewish nor democratic.
The fact that the other side does not act according to the same ground rules does not legitimize me, or the society to which I belong, acting in the same way. My utterances do not have to match those of the leaders of the Hamas or the jihad movement in their hate of Israel. By using the language of violence and revenge as a teaching for those who look up to us for guidance we are admitting defeat. It is only by maintaining other principles and morals that we demonstrate our strength.
Perel must understand that his remarks have brought the values of the Jewish state, and the movement that he heads, into disgrace and he must accept the personal consequences of these ill-thought remarks and step down immediately.
The writer is dean of the faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. The views expressed are his alone.