Rabbi Lior with supporters in Jerusalem.
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The demonstration that erupted in Jerusalem over the “arrest” of Rabbi Dov Lior,
a right-wing religious nationalist leader has the potential of developing into
another major crisis. With regard to the challenges currently confronting the
nation, this could not have happened at a worse time.
Let me say at the
outset that in this case, law enforcement officers utterly mishandled this issue
and stand accused of applying double standards. Israeli academics have called
for the boycott of their country, identified with our enemies and even endorsed
harming settlers under the bogus pretext of academic freedom. Radical Israeli
Arabs undermine the state as a matter of routine. Yet such acts have not led to
arrests. Surely if treasonable statements do not lead to prosecution – and I
believe they should – distasteful, racist and extremist rabbinical proclamations
do not warrant being treated with greater severity.
Most of the nation is
disgusted by the extremist outbursts by rabbinical zealots. This certainly
applies to most observant Israelis who are particularly appalled and shamed when
a religious leader like Rabbi Lior endorses racism and bigotry.
to say, the media have a penchant for sensationalizing these issues. In this
case, the central issue was Rabbi Lior’s endorsement of the controversial tract
Torat Hamelech, which suggested that killing innocent civilians in wartime to
prevent Jewish casualties is a justified preventative measure. It was not, as
implied by the media, a blanket incitement to kill
Nevertheless, most Israelis regard the manner in which these
concepts were expressed to be inhuman and offensive and would expect them to be
condemned by responsible rabbinical personalities – a number of whom did so.
However regrettable Rabbi Lior’s endorsement of this extremism may be, it surely
does not place him in the same category of those endorsing acts of terror
against Israelis, but Rabbi Lior was detained while the police have never acted
against the latter.
THAT SAID, if the president and the prime minister
can be detained for investigation there is no reason why a rabbi
Nobody, least of all a person who is halachically bound to
observe the laws of the state, can place himself above the law even under
circumstances in which the police erred and deserve condemnation for applying
The subsequent riots that took place outside the
Supreme Court and the physical threats directed against deputy state prosecutor
Shai Nitzan, who required special police protection after bullying from
right-wing extremists, were disgusting and reflect adversely on the entire
national religious community.
There is a worrying trend emerging on the
fringes of the national religious sector, spearheaded by a number of extremist
rabbis and religious political leaders who have decided to follow in the
footsteps of their haredi counterparts, resorting to street violence as a
vehicle to promote their views.
This is the antithesis of the traditional
religious Zionist approach, which prided itself on avoiding polarization and
focused rather on building bridges between the secular and religious streams of
society. In contrast, the extremists are dividing the country and creating an
odious image that will impact on all religious Jews and has the potential of
inflicting enormous damage on Israeli society.
Every religion has the
potential for extremism and incorporates texts that can be misinterpreted.
Today’s Islam is dominated by the most ruthless extremists of our time, who
display utter contempt towards the sanctity of human life in the name of
All forms of extremism must be resisted but religious
fanaticism – the belief in the entitlement to suspend the laws of society and
conventional morality because one is the instrument of the Almighty – can (and
has in the past) resulted in the perpetration of terrible evil.
dispersed and persecuted for nearly 2000 years, we have good reason to identify
with the downtrodden, the weak and minorities. This also encouraged us to
emphasize the moral aspects of the Torah that highlight our obligation to
provide hospitality and kindness to the stranger in our midst.
our homeland, we are now witness to noisy fringe groups emerging from within the
religious national framework, brainwashed by rabbinical zealots, isolated from
the reality of the world and often poisoned by the hatred radiating from the
Arabs surrounding them. There are some who have convinced themselves that God
granted them the authority to override the laws of the land in order to promote
their messianic nationalist objectives.
The response must be the
consistent application of the rule of law to all. But the real challenge rests
not with the law enforcement officials, but with mainstream religious leaders
who are principally responsible for the erosion and distortion of traditional
It is disgraceful that not a single rabbi or religious
Zionist Knesset member had the courage to speak up and point out that rabbis are
also subject to the law of the land. Their deafening silence alienates not only
secular Israelis, but also inflicts enormous damage on the morale of the silent
majority of religious Zionists who bitterly oppose such fanaticism and are
totally committed to Israel as a Jewish democratic state. They are recognized as
being amongst the most dedicated members of Israeli society as exemplified by
their positive contribution to all areas of civic responsibility and the role
they have assumed as one of the most constructive elements within the
The time has come for the moderate Zionist rabbis and laymen to
stand up and be counted by condemning religious extremists and marginalizing
them from the mainstream. This is not a question of harnessing rabbis to toe a
political line. As a religious Zionist raised in the tradition of torah im
derech eretz (bible and moral behavior), I would certainly not entrust the
spiritual welfare and education of my children or grandchildren to the likes of
Rabbi Lior, who describe the murderer Baruch Goldstein as a saint. It also
saddens me that a rabbi with such outlandish views can be the spiritual leader
of a major community and head a hesder yeshiva.
Israel has a
responsibility to ensure that any rabbi funded by the state is committed to the
central values of Judaism and pledges support for a democratic Jewish state.
Rabbis promoting extremism should not be entrusted to act as spiritual leaders
and must be denied the opportunity of poisoning the minds of future