Religion in the Holy Land:
Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel

By Israel Shahak and Norton Mezvinsky
London: Pluto Press, 1999, 176 pp. — Buy it!

Reviewed by Allan C. Brownfeld
Originally printed in the Washington Report on Middle East Affair
March 2000

In recent years there has been a dramatic growth of Jewish fundamentalism in Israel which has manifested itself in vigorous opposition to the peace process and has played a key role, as well, in the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the murder of 29 Muslims at prayer by the American-born fundamentalist, Baruch Goldstein.

Few outside of Israel have been properly informed about the extent of the fundamentalist movement or the theology upon which it is based. American Jews, in particular, seem unaware of the narrow ethnocentrism which is promoted by the movement’s leading rabbis, or of the traditional Jewish sources they are able to call upon in drawing clear distinctions between the moral obligations owed to Jews and non-Jews.

In an important new book, Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel, Israel Shahak and Norton Mezvinksy provide a thorough assessment of this phenomenon in modern Israel. The authors trace the history and development of Jewish fundamentalism, examining the various strains, and identify the messianic tendency which they believe to be the most dangerous.

Israel Shahak, an Israeli and a Holocaust survivor, is a retired professor at the Hebrew University and a leading human rights activist. Norton Mezvinsky is a professor of history at Central Connecticut State University who has written and lectured extensively on the modern Middle East.

The authors point out that “...the adherents of Jewish fundamentalism in Israel oppose equality for all citizens, especially non-Jews.” The respected Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling, citing evidence from a study conducted by other scholars, declared: “The value of the [Jewish] religion, at least in its Orthodox and nationalistic form that prevails in Israel, cannot be squared with democratic values. No other variable—neither nationality, nor attitudes about security, nor social or economic values, nor ethnic descent and education—so influences the attitudes of [Israeli] Jews against democratic values as does religiousity.”

What particularly concerns the authors is the total contempt which Jewish fundamentalists show toward non-Jews. Rabbi Kook the Elder, the revered father of the messianic tendency of Jewish fundamentalism, said, “The difference between a Jewish soul and souls of non-Jews—all of them in all different levels—is greater and deeper than the difference between a human soul and the souls of cattle.”

Rabbi Kook’s entire teaching, which is followed devoutly by, among others, those who have led the settler movement on the occupied West Bank, is based upon the Lurianic Cabbala, the school of Jewish mysticism that dominated Judaism from the late16th to the early 19th century. “One of the basic tenets of the Lurianic Cabbala,” the authors write, “is the absolute superiority of the Jewish soul and body over the non-Jewish soul and body. According to the Lurianic Cabbala, the world was created solely for the sake of Jews; the existence of non-Jews was subsidiary. If an influential Christian bishop or Islamic scholar argued that the difference between the superior souls of non-Jews and the inferior souls of Jews was greater than the difference between the human soul and souls of cattle, he would incur the wrath of all and be viewed as an anti-Semite by most Jewish scholars regardless of whatever less meaningful, positive statements he included.”

The scholarly authors of books about Jewish mysticism and the Lurianic Cabbala, such as Gershon Scholem, have, the authors charge, “willfully omitted reference to such ideas. These authors are supreme hypocrites. They are analogous to many authors of books on Stalin and Stalinism. Until recently, people who read only the books written by Stalinists could not know about Stalin’s crimes and would have false notions of the Stalinist regimes and their real ideologies.”

According to the ideologies which underlie Gush Emunim, the militant West Bank settlers group, and Hasidism, non-Jews have “satanic souls” Shahak and Mezvinsky note that “the role of Satan, whose earthly embodiment according to the Cabbala is every non-Jew, has been minimized or not mentioned by authors who have not written about the Cabbala in Hebrew. Such authors, therefore, have not conveyed to readers accurate accounts of general NRP (National Religious Party) or its hardcore Gush Emunim politics.”

Common to both the Talmud and Halacha, Orthodox religious law, is a differentiation between Jews and non-Jews. The late, highly revered Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the “Lubovitcher Rebbe” who headed the Chabad movement and wielded great influence in Israel as well as in the U.S., explained that, “The difference between a Jewish and a non-Jewish person stems from the common expression: ‘Let us differentiate.’ Thus, we do not have a case of profound change in which a person is merely on a superior level. Rather, we have a case of ‘let us differentiate’ between totally different species. This is what needs to be said about the body: the body of a Jewish person is of a totally different quality from the body of [members] of all nations of the world...A non-Jew’s entire reality is only vanity. It is written, ‘And the strangers shall guard and feed your flocks’ (Isaiah 61:5). The entire creation [of a non-Jew] exists only for the sake of the Jews...”

Rabbi Schneerson always supported Israeli wars and opposed any retreat. In 1974 he strongly opposed the Israeli withdrawal from the Suez area. He promised Israel divine favors if it persisted in occupying the land. After his death, thousands of his Israeli followers played an important role in the election victory of Binyamin Netanyahu. Among the religious settlers in the occupied territories, the Chabad Hassids constitute one of the most extreme groups. Baruch Goldstein, the mass murderer of Palestinians, was one of them.

Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh, who wrote a chapter of a book in praise of Goldstein and what he did, is another member of this group. An immigrant to Israel from the U.S., Rabbi Ginsburgh speaks freely of Jews’ genetic-based, spiritual superiority over non-Jews. “If you saw two people drowning, a Jew and a non-Jew, the Torah says you save the Jewish life first,” Ginsburgh states. “If every simple cell in a Jewish body entails divinity, is a part of God, then every strand of DNA is part of God. Therefore, something is special about Jewish DNA...If a Jew needs a liver, can you take the liver of an innocent non-Jew passing by to save him? The Torah would probably permit that. Jewish life has an infinite value.”

Shahak and Mezvinsky point out that, “Changing the words ‘Jewish’ to ‘German’ or ‘Aryan’ and ‘non-Jewish’ to ‘Jewish’ turns the Ginsburgh position into the doctrine that made Auschwitz possible in the past. To a considerable extent the German Nazi success depended upon that ideology and upon its implications of being widely known early. Disregarding even on a limited scale the potential effects of messianic, Lubavitch and other ideologies could prove to be calamitous...The similarities between the Jewish political messianic trend and German Nazism are glaring. The Gentiles are for the messianists what the Jews were for the Nazis. The hatred of Western culture with its rational and democratic elements is common to both movements...

“The both eschatological and messianic. It resembles in this respect prior Jewish religious doctrines as well as similar trends in Christianity and Islam. This ideology assumes the imminent coming of the Messiah and asserts that the Jews, aided by God, will thereafter triumph over the non-Jews and rule over them forever.”

Members of Gush Emunim argue that “what appears to be confiscation of Arab-owned land for subsequent settlement by Jews is in reality not an act of stealing but one of sanctification. From their perspective the land is redeemed by being transferred from the satanic to the divine sphere...the Gush Emunim rabbis assert that this one messianic sect has to handle and lead the ass-like Jews, who have been corrupted by satanic Western culture, with its rationality and democracy and who refuse to renounce their beastly habits and embrace the true faith. To further the process, the use of force is permitted wherever necessary.”

The Jewish fundamentalists believe that God gave all of the Land of Israel (including present-day Lebanon and other areas) to the Jews and that Arabs living in Israel are viewed as thieves. Rabbi Israel Ariel, a fundamentalist leader, published an atlas that designated all lands that were Jewish and needed to be liberated. This included all areas west and south of the Euphrates River extending through most of Syria, much of Iraq, and present-day Kuwait.

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, another spokesman, said, “We must live in this land even at the price of war. Moreover, even if there is peace, we must instigate wars of liberation in order to conquer it [the land].”

Mordechai Nisan, a lecturer at the Hebrew University, expressed this view in an official publication of the World Zionist Organization. Relying on Maimonides, he said that a non-Jew permitted to reside in the land of Israel “must accept paying a tax and suffering the humiliation of servitude.” He said that non-Jews must not be appointed to any office or position of power over Jews.

When it comes to Baruch Goldstein’s murder of 29 Palestinians at prayer, fundamentalists refuse to acknowledge that such an act constitutes “murder” because, according to the Halacha, “the killing by a Jew of a non-Jew under any circumstances is not regarded as murder. It may be prohibited for other reasons, especially when it causes danger for Jews.” When asked if he was sorry about the murdered Arabs, militant Rabbi Moshe Levenger declared: “I am sorry not only about dead Arabs but about dead flies.”

For the fundamentalists, Goldstein became a hero. Military guards transported his coffin to Kiryat Arba through Palestinian villages. Rabbi Dov Lior in a eulogy stated that, “Goldstein was full of love for fellow human beings. He dedicated himself to helping others.” Authors Shahak and Mezvinsky write that, “The terms ‘human beings’ and ‘others’ in the Halacha refer solely to Jews.”

Although messianic fundamentalists constitute a relatively small portion of the Israeli population, their political influence has been growing. If they have contempt for non-Jews, their hatred for Jews who oppose their views is even greater.

The murder of Yitzhak Rabin, the authors show, is one in a long line of murders of Jews who followed a path different from that ordained by rabbinic authorities. They cite case after case, from the Middle Ages until the 19th century.

One typical example was the assassination by poison of Rabbi Avraham Cohen in Lemberg, Austria on Sept. 6, 1848.

Assuming his rabbinical position in 1844, Cohen initiated changes in Jewish life. His most important initiative was his attempt to abolish taxes on kosher meat and sabbath candles which Lemberg’s Jews paid to Austrian authorities. These taxes were burdensome for poor Jews but were a source of income for many Orthodox Jewish notables.

The Austrian authorities accepted Cohen’s request and abolished the taxes in March 1848. The five Jewish notables of the town began a total struggle against Rabbi Cohen. Critics argued that the “law of the pursuer” applied to the rabbi. One placard said: “He is one of those Jewish sinners for which the Talmud says their blood is permitted” (that is, every Jew can and should kill them). On Sept. 6, a Jewish assassin successfully entered the rabbi’s home unseen, went to the kitchen and put arsenic poison in a pot of soup that was cooking. Both Rabbi Cohen and his small daughter died. The Hassids and their leaders did not attend the funeral, but celebrated.

It was precisely the same Talmudic laws that caused Rabbi Cohen’s death which were used to murder Yitzhak Rabin. Yigal Amir, Rabin’s assassin, cited the “law of the pursuer” (din rodef) and the “Law of the informer” (din moser). The first law commands every Jew to kill or to wound severely any Jew who is perceived as intending to kill another Jew. According to halachic commentaries, it is not necessary to see such a person pursuing a Jewish victim. It is enough if rabbinic authorities, or even competent scholars, announce that the law of the pursuer applies. The second law commands every Jew to kill or wound severely any Jew who, without a decision of a competent rabbinic authority, has informed non-Jews about Jewish affairs or has given them information about Jewish property or who has delivered Jewish persons or property to their rule or authority.

The authors write: “The land of Israel has been and still is considered by all religious Jews as being the exclusive property of the Jews. Granting Palestinians authority over any part of this land could be interpreted as informing. Some religious Jews interpreted the relations that developed between Rabin and the Palestinian Authority as causing harm to the Jewish settlers. In this sense, Rabin had informed.”

For the future, the authors fear the growth of such fundamentalism just as the prospects for peace have dramatically improved. They note that, “It should not be forgotten that democracy and the rule of law were brought into Judaism from the outside. Before the advent of the modern state, Jewish communities were mostly ruled by rabbis who employed arbitrary and cruel methods as bad as those employed by totalitarian regimes. The dearest wish of the current Jewish fundamentalists is to restore this state of affairs.”

This book should be a wake-up call to many Americans, particularly Jewish supporters of Israel who are not aware of the nature of the fundamentalism which is growing strong in that country. This fundamentalism is increasing in influence as a result of Israel’s electoral system, which bestows power to minority parties far beyond their representation in the population. The authors declare: “We believe that awareness is the necessary first step in opposition.” Professors Shahak and Mezvinsky have done a notable service for men and women of goodwill of all religious traditions by pointing to the ideological roadblocks to genuine peace which must be overcome.

Israel Shahak, an Israeli and a Holocaust survivor, was a professor at the Hebrew University and a leading human rights activist.

Norton Mezvinsky is a professor of history at Central Connecticut State University who has written and lectured extensively on the modern Middle East.

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