Hellenists wearing kippot

What is Hellenization? How does the abuse of power, even though power is not itself a bad thing, lead to human rights violations?

settler kid clash with IDF 248 ap (photo credit: AP)
settler kid clash with IDF 248 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Last Wednesday I documented “Hilltop Youth” throwing stones at police vehicles, and afterward at Palestinians, while attempting to take over lands not theirs. Their actions and the clear difference between how the security forces treated them and how they treat Palestinians raise significant questions in the context of Hanukkah and International Human Rights Day. What is Hellenization? How does the abuse of power, even though power is not itself a bad thing, lead to human rights violations?
I received a call from the Palestinian village of Turmos Aya because Israelis were clearing land the villagers said belonged to them. Palestinians arrived with ownership documents in hand. They said Israelis tried taking over this land several times, and that the army’s Civil Administration had already determined this was private Palestinian land. From subsequent research, it seems this is true.
The army arrived quickly. However, as often happens, they acted like they didn’t know that the army’s Legal Advisor has clarified that soldiers have policing authority regarding Israelis. Most soldiers believe or pretend that they only have such authority regarding Palestinians. They let the work continue.
The police arrived a few minutes before me. If Palestinians were allegedly working lands not theirs, security forces would stop the work until they resolved matters. I requested they do just that. However, the officer told me he would only take action after clarifying the situation. Finally, he went over to talk to the youth. When he returned, they continued working. Afterward, he finally spoke with the Palestinians claiming ownership.
Suddenly, the hilltop youth started walking towards us. The forces were very strict about where we could stand, but seemed incapable of preventing the Israelis from coming right up to us. Some started shouting and pushing security forces. One sat and blocked a police vehicle. The forces had done everything possible not to act against the Israelis, but were left with no choice. They arrested one, but others began throwing stones at police vehicles. They then threw rocks at departing Palestinians, breaking two windows. The security forces kept their distance and watched. They sprang into action when several Palestinians responded, shooting smoke bombs and running after them.
Despite the double standard in how each side was treated, here I have hope the land will not be stolen. In many cases, state might works to dispossess Palestinians, using the army and laws that Israel unilaterally creates and imposes on a population having no say in the process.
In the heat of the moment, I told the youth they were “Hellenists wearing kippot.” I am not particularly proud of this. I feel better when succeeding in engaging those acting unjustly. Furthermore, I don’t believe that anything “Hellenist” is bad. One secret of Jewish survival has been learning from others. Our Talmudic sages said Rabbi Meir continued to learn from Rabbi Ben Abuya, who allegedly became a Hellenist apostate, by eating the pomegranate fruit, but throwing away the rind (Hagiga 15b).
Given the opposite and contradictory ideas within our tradition, I am also very cautious about defining “Jewish values” and “foreign values.” Some say human rights are a foreign value. However, the God I believe in demands we honor God’s image in every human being.
We suffered for 2,000 years because of powerlessness. I don’t see powerlessness as a Jewish value, nor “Might makes right,” as exemplified by the behavior of the hilltop youth and many others in our society, often including the security services. Using power wisely and justly is. This is what caused me to blurt out, “Hellenists wearing kippot.” When I more successfully engage soldiers, police or settlers, I often quote Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. Writing decades before Herzl, he teaches that the Torah predicts we will one day have a state, and warns us that the “abomination of Egypt” was their belief that their absolute power over us gave them the right to do with us as they wished.
We must also protect the human rights of Israelis. The rights to housing, to a dignified life, and other socioeconomic rights are included in the Jewish value of responsibility for the weak in our society. Unwillingness to help the unfortunate is foreign to Judaism.
Despite the difficulty in defining “Jewish values,” and my refusal to decry everything “foreign,” the sanctity of the human being, our responsibility toward the disempowered and the understanding that we don’t have the right carry out everything our power enables us to do, are in fact Jewish values. They are also at the heart of the ideals the nations of the world sanctified 70 years ago in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Happy Hanukkah, and Happy International Human Rights Day
The writer, a rabbi, has led Israeli human rights organizations for 23 years. Today he is the executive director of “Torat Tzedek – Torah of Justice.”