Wednesday, March 25, 2009

An Army of Extremists: Militant Rabbis & Religiously-justified War

The Israeli army's chief rabbinate gave soldiers preparing to enter the Gaza Strip a booklet implying that all Palestinians are their mortal enemies and advising them that cruelty is sometimes a "good attribute". The booklet, entitled Go Fight My Fight: A Daily Study Table for the Soldier and Commander in a Time of War, was published especially for Operation Cast Lead, the devastating three-week campaign launched with the stated aim of ending rocket fire against southern Israel. The publication draws on the teachings of Rabbi Shlomo Avner, head of the Jewish fundamentalist Ateret Cohanim seminary in Jerusalem.

An Army of Extremists
How some military rabbis are trying to radicalize Israeli soldiers.

By Christopher Hitchens [March 23, 2009]

Recent reports of atrocities committed by Israeli soldiers in the course of the intervention in Gaza have described the incitement of conscripts and reservists by military rabbis who characterized the battle as a holy war for the expulsion of non-Jews from Jewish land. The secular Israeli academic Dany Zamir, who first brought the testimony of shocked Israeli soldiers to light, has been quoted as if the influence of such extremist clerical teachings was something new. This is not the case.

I remember being in Israel in 1986 when the chief army "chaplain" in the occupied territories, Rabbi Shmuel Derlich, issued his troops a 1,000-word pastoral letter enjoining them to apply the biblical commandment to exterminate the Amalekites as "the enemies of Israel." Nobody has recently encountered any Amalekites, so the chief educational officer of the Israeli Defense Forces asked Rabbi Derlich whether he would care to define his terms and say whom he meant. Rather evasively—if rather alarmingly—the man of God replied, "Germans." There are no Germans in Judaea and Samaria or, indeed, in the Old Testament, so the rabbi's exhortation to slay all Germans as well as quite probably all Palestinians was referred to the Judge Advocate General's Office. Forty military rabbis publicly came to Derlich's support, and the rather spineless conclusion of the JAG was that he had committed no legal offense but should perhaps refrain in the future from making political statements on the army's behalf.

The problem here is precisely that the rabbi was not making a "political" statement. Rather, he was doing his religious duty in reminding his readers what the Torah actually says. It's not at all uncommon in Israel to read discussions, featuring military rabbis, of quite how to interpret the following holy order from Moses, in the Book of Numbers, Chapter 31, Verses 13-18, as quoted from my 1985 translation by the Jewish Publication Society. The Israelites have just done a fairly pitiless job on the Midianites, slaughtering all of the adult males. But, says their stern commander-in-chief, they have still failed him:

Moses, Eleazer the priest, and all the chieftains of the community came out to meet them outside the camp. Moses became angry with the commanders of the army, the officers of thousands and the officers of hundreds, who had come back from the military campaign. Moses said to them, "You have spared every female! Yet they are the very ones who, at the bidding of Balaam, induced the Israelites to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, so that the Lord's community was struck by the plague. Now, therefore, slay every male among the children, and slay also every young woman who has known a man carnally; but spare every young woman who has not had carnal relations with a man."

Moses and Eleazar the priest go on to issue some complex instructions about the ritual cleansings that must be practiced after this exhausting massacre has been completed.

Now, it's common to hear people say, when this infamous passage and others like it come up, that it's not intended to be "taken literally." One also often hears the excuse that some wicked things are done "in the name of" religion, as if the wicked things were somehow the result of a misinterpretation. But the nationalist rabbis who prepare Israeli soldiers for their mission seem to think that this book might be the word of God, in which case the only misinterpretation would be the failure to take it literally. (I hate to break it to you, but the people who think that God's will is revealed in scripture are known as "religious." Those who do not think so must try to find another name for themselves.)

Possibly you remember Dr. Baruch Goldstein, the man who in February 1994 unslung his weapon and killed more than two dozen worshippers at the mosque in Hebron. He had been a physician in the Israeli army and had first attracted attention by saying that he would refuse to treat non-Jews on the Sabbath.

Goldstein, who, like a very large percentage of Israeli settlers, was an American who moved to the small and militant Israeli Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba outside of the Palestinian city of Hebron, south of Jerusalem, is buried in the settlement, where his tomb has become a shrine to the militant Israeli Jewish right and extreme right, who will be amply represented in the next Israeli government headed by Likud Party chief Binyamin Netanyahu. The Old City of Hebron, where several dozen radical Israeli settlers live, is generally under constant curfew (for its longtime Palestinian residents), which leads to stark scenes such as streets devoid of life, save for groups of defiant-or-happily oblivious small children, in my personal experience in a visit to the city in July 2003, playing soccer. Militant millenarian settlers, Israeli soldiers, and Border Police roam the streets at will.

Now read Ethan Bronner's report in the March 22 New York Times about the preachments of the Israeli army's latest chief rabbi, a West Bank settler named Avichai Rontzski who also holds the rank of brigadier general. He has "said that the main reason for a Jewish doctor to treat a non-Jew on the Sabbath … is to avoid exposing Diaspora Jews to hatred." Those of us who follow these things recognize that statement as one of the leading indicators of a truly determined racist and fundamentalist. Yet it comes not this time in the garb of a homicidal lone-wolf nut bag but in the full uniform and accoutrement of a general and a high priest: Moses and Eleazar combined. The latest news, according to Bronner, is that the Israeli Defense Ministry has felt compelled to reprimand Rontzski for "a rabbinal edict against showing the enemy mercy" that was distributed in booklet form to men and women in uniform (see Numbers 31:13-18, above).

Israeli Jewish settlers

Peering over the horrible pile of Palestinian civilian casualties that has immediately resulted, it's fairly easy to see where this is going in the medium-to-longer term. The zealot settlers and their clerical accomplices are establishing an army within the army so that one day, if it is ever decided to disband or evacuate the colonial settlements, there will be enough officers and soldiers, stiffened by enough rabbis and enough extremist sermons, to refuse to obey the order.

Israeli settlers

Torah verses will also be found that make it permissible to murder secular Jews as well as Arabs. The dress rehearsals for this have already taken place, with the religious excuses given for Baruch Goldstein's rampage and the Talmudic evasions concerning the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin. Once considered highly extreme, such biblical exegeses are moving ever closer to the mainstream.

It's high time the United States cut off any financial support for Israel that can be used even indirectly for settler activity, not just because such colonization constitutes a theft of another people's land but also because our Constitution absolutely forbids us to spend public money on the establishment of any religion.

Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the Roger S. Mertz media fellow at the Hoover Institution in Stanford, Calif.

The Israeli government frequently claims, generally with little to no proof, that Palestinian groups use "human shields." It probably is true in some cases. However, the saying about the pot calling the kettle black seems
to apply too.

Israeli Army Rabbis Criticized for Stance on Gaza assault

Some Israeli soldiers say military rabbis cast the offensive against Hamas rockets as a fight to expel non-Jews.

By Richard Boudreaux
Los Angeles Times [March 25, 2009]

The winter assault on the Gaza Strip was officially portrayed in Israel as an attempt to quell rocket fire by militants of Hamas. But some soldiers say they also were lectured about a more ambitious aim: to banish non-Jews from the biblical land of Israel.

"This rabbi comes to us and says the fight is between the children of light and the children of darkness," a reserve sergeant said, recalling a training camp encounter. "His message was clear: 'This is a war against an entire people, not against specific terrorists.' The whole thing was turned into something very religious and messianic."

[This statement is nearly the same as those found in the "War Scroll," one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, produced by the millenarian Jewish splinter group the Essenes during the lifetime of St. John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth, who lived at Qumran in the Judaean Desert. Sections of this scroll speak of a final, apocalyptic battle between the "Sons of Light" and the "Sons of Darkness," in which the Essenes (the "Sons of Light") would be victorious. For more information click HERE.]

As armies elsewhere use chaplains, the Israeli military inducts rabbis to serve religious soldiers. Their traditional tasks include ensuring that kitchens are kosher and religious services are available.

But soldiers now going public with allegations of misconduct in Gaza portray the military rabbinate as a corps of self-appointed holy warriors whose sermons and writings demonized Palestinians.

"The army itself is a battleground of conflicting ideals in Israeli Jewish society," said Avi Sagi, a Bar-Ilan University philosophy professor who in the 1990s was a co-author of the military's code of ethics, which obliges soldiers to avoid killing innocents.

On one side, he said, are universal values that call for respecting all human life equally and are largely shared by Jews who seek accommodation with the Palestinians. On the other side are more nationalistic passages of the Torah, cited by religious thinkers who liken the Palestinians to Old Testament invaders and place a premium on Jewish life.

In the Gaza conflict, the argument has focused on how to fight Islamic militants who for years have fired rockets indiscriminately at Israeli communities, causing scores of civilian casualties.

Maj. Avital Leibovich, a military spokeswoman, denied that the military rabbinate takes sides. Army rabbis violated a directive to "stay away from politics" in Gaza, she said, but they were few in number and acted on their own.

'Well organized'

In testimony reported by Israeli news media and in interviews with The Times, Gaza veterans said rabbis advised army units to show the enemy no mercy and called for resettlement of the Palestinian enclave by Jews.

"The rabbis were all over, in every unit," said Yehuda Shaul, a retired army officer whose human rights group, Breaking the Silence, has taken testimony from dozens of Gaza veterans. "It was quite well organized."

The army, which conscripts almost every Israeli Jew at 18, has been dominated for most of its history by secular officers. But over the last 15 years, as secular Israelis have soured on the occupation of Palestinian territory, religious nationalists have taken over senior positions in elite combat brigades.

With them have come hundreds of volunteer rabbis, who teach at pre-military academies for religious youths and serve side by side with the troops.

The rabbis' role in Gaza came into focus last week along with testimony from soldiers who said that loose rules of war led to unwarranted civilian deaths and property destruction.

The testimony reported by two Israeli newspapers was the first such criticism to surface from within the army since the assault ended Jan. 18, leaving an estimated 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead. Most Palestinian casualties were listed as civilians.

The army chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, said Monday that he did not believe soldiers shot Gaza civilians "in cold blood." He added that "isolated cases" of misconduct, if proved, "will be dealt with individually."

Responding to newspaper photos, the army also condemned soldiers who wore T-shirts depicting a pregnant woman in a rifle's cross hairs with the slogan "1 Shot 2 Kills."

Celebrating the Assault on Gaza

During the Gaza offensive, critics contend, rabbinical propaganda was part of a broader effort to legitimize Israel's decision to use overwhelming force.

Legal opinion

Before the assault, the army's legal office issued an opinion saying that Israel was entitled to use artillery against civilian neighborhoods from which Hamas was launching rockets.

And after the 22-day operation, a Tel Aviv University philosophy professor with close ties to the military, Asa Kasher, said the decision to shell Gaza's cities stemmed from an anti-terrorism doctrine he had helped draft a few years ago. It stated that in Gaza, as in other areas the army does not control, there is no justification for endangering soldiers' lives in order to avoid killing civilians in the proximity of targeted militants.

That doctrine appears to be at odds with the military code, which obliges the army to avoid civilian casualties, and it was never formally adopted. However, it was echoed in religious terms in literature distributed in Gaza by military rabbis.

"Our ancestors did not always fight with a sword and at times preferred to use a bow and arrow from a distance," one text read.

"Actions must be taken from a distance in order to spare our soldiers' lives."

The reserve sergeant, an observant Jew who spoke to The Times on condition of anonymity, said that he and a fellow soldier in his 15-man unit were troubled by the "children of darkness" sermon, but that other troops seemed receptive.

In one of several postwar testimonies given at a left-leaning military institute, a squad commander identified only as Ram complained that army rabbis tried to press what he called a "religious mission" on his men.

"The military rabbinate brought in a lot of booklets and articles and their message was very clear: We are the Jewish people, we came to this land by a miracle, God brought us back to this land and now we need to fight to expel the non-Jews who are interfering with our conquest of this holy land," Ram said.

As a commander, he said, he tried to explain to his men that "not everyone in Gaza is Hamas [and] wants to vanquish us [and] that this war is not a war for the sanctification of the holy name, but rather one to stop the Kassams" -- a type of rocket fired from Gaza.

Danny Zamir, director of the institute that elicited the testimonies and leaked them to Israeli papers, was quoted in a transcript as voicing dismay that Israeli nationalists, like their Hamas enemies, are using faith to justify violence.

"If clerics are anointing us with oil and sticking holy books in our hands, and if the soldiers in these units aren't representative of the whole spectrum of the Jewish people, but rather of certain segments of the population, what can we expect?" he said.

Ofer Shelah, military correspondent for the newspaper Maariv, said the rising profile of religious nationalists in the army has helped them in two showdowns with the high command.

After Israel withdrew its settlers and soldiers from Gaza in 2005, graduates of two pre-military academies associated with the settler movement said they would refuse to obey future orders to disband West Bank settlements. The army threatened to cancel its certification of the schools, then backed down.

During the Gaza assault, the chief military rabbi, Brig. Gen. Avichai Rontzki, was called in to answer criticism that his department was distributing war propaganda. He denied knowledge of it, and a subordinate was given "a slap on the wrist" by the Defense Ministry, Shelah said.

Rabbi David Hartman, a leading Jewish philosopher who has lectured thousands of officers at his Shalom Hartman Institute, said the religious nationalist belief in holy war is still a minority view in the army.

"But it has to be fought with a rational religious ideology that takes into account the living reality of two peoples," he said. Otherwise, he added, "you have these rabbis volunteering in the army, and it's not necessarily the people the army wants. There's a vacuum, and it gets filled by crackpots."
Militant Israeli settlers roam the streets of the Palestinian city of Hebron

The "JDL" is the Jewish Defense League, a militant Jewish group


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