Haifa Uni postpones conference with ‘Torat Hamelech’ author

Protesters: Don’t give platform to rabbi who preaches to kill gentiles; move comes after pressure from numerous organizations.

By JONAH MANDEL
September 1, 2011 05:29
4 minute read.
Rabbi Yizhak Shapira.

yitzhak shapira 190. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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The University of Haifa announced on Wednesday its decision to postpone a conference booked for next week on the book Torat Hamelech (“The King’s Torah”) and featuring one of its authors, following pressure from numerous organizations on the school’s president, Prof. Aaron Ben-Ze’ev.

“The university is firmly opposed to the stances expressed in the book Torat Hamelech, and it is just because of that [that we think] the way to expose the depth to which these stances are distorted is to hold conferences that air these opinions, and not to hide them and pretend they do not exist,” a statement read.

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“At the same time, after various organizations approached the university, the president of the University of Haifa has decided to postpone the conference, in order to examine the issue.”

Besides the usual array of academic researchers who would have been discussing the book, the conference – planned for Monday under the title “Torat Hamelech – Halacha, morality and the limits of the public discourse” – had one of the treatise’s authors, Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira, scheduled for a debate at the end of the day with Rabbi Ariel Finkelstein of Yeshivat Ahavat Yisrael in Netivot, who wrote a book, Derech Hamelech (“The Way of the King”), that countered Shapira’s thesis point-by-point. Shapira rarely speaks to the media, and never to the secular media.

Torat Hamelech, published in 2009, deals with the attitude of Jews toward gentiles in times of war, and states that under certain circumstances, noninvolved gentiles may be preemptively killed, including children. The authors of the book, as well as a group of rabbis who wrote rabbinic endorsements to it, were investigated by police on suspicion to incitement to racism and violence. No charges have been pressed so far.

One of the organizations that was instrumental in pressuring Ben-Ze’ev expressed satisfaction following the university’s decision.

“Brit Hoshech Legaresh is very pleased the event has been postponed, and we hope it will be canceled,” Dr. Gadi Gvariyahu said. Brit Hoshech Legaresh (Dispelling Darkness Alliance), representing 16 social and pluralistic groups and dedicated to fighting racism, was formed following Torat Hamelech’s publication in 2009.

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“In the same way an imam preaching to kill Jews wouldn’t receive a platform, here too there is no need to give a platform to a rabbi who preaches to kill gentiles. Brit Hoshech Legaresh will continue to act to cancel any event taking place in honor of the book Torat Hamelech,” Gvariyahu said.

Shapira and his co-author, Rabbi Yosef Elitzur, had invited the same Brit Hoshech Legaresh to meet with them and discuss the book nearly two years ago, an invitation the organization ignored.

But others saw the conference’s postponement, and potential cancellation, as running counter to academia’s duty to explore, understand and debate issues, even controversial ones such as those in the book.

“I agree with the first part of the university’s statement, which is why I can’t understand the second part of it,” said Tomer Persico, a researcher at the contemporary religions program at Tel Aviv University. Persico, who on his Facebook page called the book “a manifest of dark and ugly racism,” was scheduled to deliver a talk on religious language and the borders of discourse in the public realm at the conference.

“Whoever cares about freedom of expression and academic freedom should be in favor of such a conference,” he said, commending the fact that Shapira had agreed to leave the security of his natural political and religious surroundings to hold the debate in “the lion’s den” of academia.

And while remaining totally opposed to the book and its message, Ne’emanei Torah Ve’avoda, a liberal Orthodox Zionist organization, expressed disappointment over the university’s decision. “It is very problematic to provide a platform for people with extreme opinions, and we oppose to doing so,” the organization’s head Shmuel Shattach said. “At the same time, in a place where nearly every person is given an opportunity to speak his mind and air his extreme opinions of every kind, there is room to hear Shapira as well. I wouldn’t fight for Shapira’s right to express his opinions from the outset, but in the name of freedom of expression, where the limits of pluralism are stretched to let everyone voice their stances – he should have that right too.”

Shattach added that his organization’s upcoming publication for youth will be dedicated to countering Torat Hamelech.

Shapira didn’t seem too flustered by the university’s cold shoulder.

“Anyone who wants to come and debate and hear about the book Torah Hamelech is invited to come to us,” Shapira, head of the Yitzhar yeshiva, was quoted as saying by the Hakol Hayehudi website Wednesday.

“If the lecturers and students would like, I’d be happy to give them a lecture on the topic.”

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