From metaphysics to murder?

Jewish hatred of gentiles has deep roots in medieval Jewish thinking.

Amiram Ben-Oliel, charged with racially-motivated murder for the arson attack on the Dawabsha family home in Duma‏ (photo credit: Courtesy)
Amiram Ben-Oliel, charged with racially-motivated murder for the arson attack on the Dawabsha family home in Duma‏
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On January 3 Amiram Ben-Uliel was arrested for burning to death an 18-month-old Palestinian child and his parents in Duma last July. He is not alone. Two weeks ago the Israeli press revealed an internal police document identifying 60 young Jewish radicals suspected of violence against gentiles. The problem is so severe that the Shin Bet (Israeli Security Agency) has established a special “Jewish unit” to track Jewish extremists.
Jewish hatred of gentiles has deep roots in medieval Jewish thinking. In that era disdain for gentiles provided emotional compensation for Jews who were persecuted, expelled and murdered by their Christian neighbors. Today a sector of our society clings to that old theory and it has exploded into a national problem. Here where Jews are sovereign and armed, they can act out their hatred through humiliation, violence and murder.
How different are Jews from gentiles? Medieval Jews debated this question, with Maimonides insisting that every human being is endowed with the identical image of God, namely reason. He believed that all people are formed in the same “divine womb.” To Maimonides any differences between Jews and gentiles are due exclusively to the influence of Torah. For him and other Jewish rationalists, Jews are different in their “software,” not their “hardware.”
Other medieval thinkers, like Yehuda Halevi, developed the idea that Jews and gentiles have different essences. For these particularists Jews possess unique religious and intellectual powers and are so different that the Jewish-gentile divide is permanent and unbridgeable. And make no mistake: when they speak of difference, they mean superiority: if Jews have a spiritual soul (nefesh elokit), gentiles are limited to an animal soul (nefesh behamit) as the Zohar teaches.
Though popular today, belief in essentialist Jewish difference is irrational, irreligious and dangerous.
Irrational, because facts prove otherwise.
There is no scientific evidence that Jews are unique genetically, intellectually or spiritually, but there is a mountain of counter-evidence. The greatest problem facing American Jews today is rampant assimilation – Jews completely losing their identity in gentile society. Yet this is impossible if Jews have unique traits so deeply embedded in their essence that the gap between them and gentiles is unbridgeable.
Irreligious, because it dispenses with the importance of the Torah for Jewish life and survival. If Jews are indelibly distinct, they do not need God, religion or Torah to keep them Jewish.
Most important, this idea is toxic. Throughout history Jews suffered from theories of gentile superiority that stoked anti-Semitism and persecution.
Medieval Christian theories of superiority morphed into heinous Nazi racial theories that were the basis for the genocide of European Jewry. Now some Jews have become believers in racial separation.
The bedrock conviction of today’s Jewish mystics, ethnocentrics and hypernationalists is that Jews and gentiles share little, if any, common humanity.
This belief fuels Jewish extremism that all too often ends in violence and murder. In 2009 Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur published Torat Hamelech.
The authors are students of Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh who espouses essentialist Jewish superiority, so it is not surprising that the book claims that Jews and gentiles belong to different orders of reality and that “gentiles have no legitimacy.” From there it is a small step to the book’s justification of killing gentiles, whether innocent or guilty, young or old, Muslim or Christian.
A year before Ben-Uliel committed his cold-blooded triple murder in Duma, young Jewish extremists kidnapped a Palestinian teenager and burned him alive. Soon after Duma, frenzied young Israelis danced with knives and guns, singing for revenge and symbolically reenacting the Duma murders.
For them even a Palestinian infant has no humanity.
The violence against gentiles is not limited to Palestinians. Last year Jewish nationalists set fire to the Church of Loaves and Fishes in the Galilee, proclaiming it a house of idolatry – rabbinic code for hatred and hostility. And in Jerusalem ugly harassment of gentiles is an ongoing phenomenon, as religious and nationalist extremists regularly deface church property and assault Christian clergy in the Old City. By definition, goyim have become the intolerable Other.
These ideas are not the monopoly of Israeli zealots.
Many American yeshivot teach that Jews are different in essence than gentiles. In 2003 a rabbi associated with the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Lakewood yeshiva published a book asserting the superiority of Jews over gentiles. Also in that year a rabbi from Yeshiva University published an article asserting that killing a gentile is not forbidden by the written Torah. Even today one of yeshiva’s rabbinical authorities insists that Jewish superiority is a fundamental of Jewish belief – an “ikar emunah.”
Of course, there is a significant difference between racial rhetoric in the bet midrash and the violent acts of Israeli extremists. Yet we should be aware that because Jews now have power, today’s hateful words can lead directly to tomorrow’s heinous acts.
There are a number of ironies here: religious authorities who swear fidelity to Maimonides’ halachic authority think nothing of contradicting his universalist teaching about humanity. Hyper-Zionists who preach Jewish essentialism are destroying Herzl’s dream of Jews achieving normalcy. And Jews who proclaim essential Jewish distinctiveness commit the very violence that gentiles perpetrated against us throughout history.
Yet the most tragic irony is that when Jews void gentiles of their humanity, we lose our own.
The author is academic director of the Center for Jewish- Christian Understanding and Cooperation in Efrat.