By Eyal Clyne
On Monday 27 June, Rabbi Dov Lior was arrested by the Israeli police for refusing to report for questioning about his religious sponsorship of a book advocating racism and war crimes (i.e. “permitting” the killing of civilians in Gaza, according to Halacha). For decades many Israeli rabbis have often openly promoted violence and racist practices: some under the auspices of the army, the autonomous state-funded education system, local authorities and municipalities, and pre-military-religious schools; but this is the first time that a rabbi may be held accountable.
The real story, however, began only after his release later that day. As Lior was celebrating with his many supporters, religious right-wing activists expressed their rage: hundreds blocked main roads and attempted to break into the Supreme Court. Eighteen MPs signed a letter to the Minister of Justice, calling for the dismissal of the Attorney General. MK Ya’akov Katz threatened to “settle the account for this crime with those responsible.” Prominent leaders threatened to “shed blood” if Lior is ever “touched” again by Israeli law-enforcement agencies. An anonymous, widespread post called the Attorney General “The Enemy of Torah;” and dozens of rabbis “warned” that those “involved will pay the price” for the “crime of disgracing the Torah.” Even the two official state chief rabbis released an unusual statement, saying they “regret … the insult of an important rabbi and a religious jurist, one of the greatest amongst the rabbis of Israel”
So who is this great popular rabbi, you ask? By his rulings shall we know him. According to Lior’s interpretation of Halacha: sperm donations by non-Jewish men will result in a baby with “negative genetic traits,” since “gentile sperm leads to barbaric offspring”; employing Arabs or renting and selling them homes is prohibited; the Jewish terrorist Baruch Goldstein is “as holy as the Holocaust saints”; and it is permitted to kill “allegedly innocent” civilians in wartime. He also spiritually guided the Gush Emunim underground terrorists; and (according to testimonies of other key rabbis) Prime Minister Rabin’s assassin, like Goldstein before him, came often to see Lior in his settlement near Hebron, for guidance and instructions, and was told that Judaism orders the prime minister’s death.
While Jews around the world fight antisemitism and racism (which is sometimes hidden under the pretext of religious freedom), it is actually in Israel that such rabbis enjoy widespread support. You may expect that like other democracies that outlaw expressions of support for terrorism and racist movements to protect their democratic nature, Israelis would simply follow suit. Indeed, rabbis such as Lior proclaim their ambitions for, and practical work to create a theocratic non-democratic regime. But a poll commissioned by Gesher – an Israeli-Jewish NGO promoting the reconciliation of Jewish-Israelis – reveals that the Attorney General’s investigation apparently made many Jewish-Israelis quite angry. At least one quarter of Jewish-Israelis think that the arrest was simply wrong (94% among the ‘strictly orthodox’, and 80% among the ‘modern orthodox’); and on top of this number, many other Israelis who reportedly supported the arrest (as he did not present himself for questioning) nonetheless also supported his racist views.
It must be emphasized that Dov Lior is not at all an exception. He is yet another indication of the rapid deterioration in the support for universal human rights values, equality and tolerance in Israeli society, and of the rise of racism, ultranationalism and sacralisation (processes often supported by state-funded arrangements and institutions).
The confrontations also tell us something about the zeitgeist in Israel. Only four days prior to the arrest, Haaretz reported that the Begin Heritage Centre and the Prime Minister’s Office now intend to search for the remnants of the Altalena; a ship carrying arms for the right-wing Zionist militia, known as the Irgun, led by Menachem Begin, which was sunk by the Israeli army in June 1948. The Irgun was the armed wing of the revisionist movement (later called Herut, which evolved into the contemporary Likud party).
The Altalena Affair was the climax of a conflict between two Yishuv fractions. Back in the 1930s and 1940s, the mainstream Jewish Agency, Hagana, Histadrut and others regularly referred to the Irgun as terrorist. Indeed, Irgun veterans report in their memoirs that they carried out many intentional deadly actions against innocent Palestinian civilians, playing a significant role in initiating and escalating the violence even then. For instance, they were the first to introduce bombings of crowded city markets already in the 1930s, which Palestinian right-wing terrorists copied during the 1990s. Irgun veterans proudly claimed responsibility for at least three market bombings – in Jerusalem, Jaffa and Haifa – causing the death of dozens and the wounding of thousands of innocent Palestinians.
When the war started, Begin’s Irgun refused to fall under the command of David Ben Gurion. But with the establishment of the state and the formation of its army (based on Ben Gurion’s armed forces: Hagana and Palmach), the smaller Irgun could no longer refuse to merge with the mainstream. They only did so partially and unwillingly, keeping their independence in the Jerusalem area, and carrying out independent actions (some later became war crimes controversies). Thus, when the Irgun managed to obtain a large shipment of arms and refused Ben Gurion’s demand to deliver the cargo to the central command (i.e. his), then, despite the constant need for arms in time of war, Ben Gurion ordered the shelling and sinking of the ship together with its precious arms cargo, killing 13 Irgun combatants.
In this episode the Irgun was finally subdued and absorbed into the new establishment. For mainstream Zionists the Altalena Affair symbolizes the importance of state sovereignty, national unity and the rule of law. They believe that by including the Irgun in the national pantheon of heroism, an end was brought to the long dispute with the militant right, making the Altalena Affair a key chapter in Israel’s history. But for Irgun loyalists the trauma was never buried in the Tel Aviv seabed; rather it is merely resting there, and loyalists wait in hope for the opportunity to give the story a different ending. For decades the right-wing worked to promote their hard-line agenda, and now these processes have matured. As the Irgun’s views and actions are more popular than ever before (though sometimes with the addition of strong religious undertones), Begin’s successors feel that this is the right time to resurrect the ship’s story from its briny grave.
Following the protest against Lior’s arrest, some secular Israelis, supporters of the old Labor-like hegemony, said that Israel may need “a second Altalena” to remind “them” of their place. But they forget that Israeli society has changed dramatically since 1948, and that today’s power relations are significantly different. The right-wing is now the majority; religious settler activists hold key positions in the government and army; they have an independent education system, secure funds, and years of experience in getting away with crimes of violence and theft. The religious right doesn’t need a revolutionary confrontation, as it continues to gain power and influence, while the state continues to be hesitant and soft in dealing with the undemocratic threat it poses. However, if a serious confrontation were to erupt, it is not unlikely to produce a different result this time.
Eyal Clyne is an Israeli researcher of society in Israel-Palestine. He focuses on the conflict and other Israeli political issues. Some of the posts on his Hebrew blog appear also in English and elsewhere, and some of his pieces for JNews are also cross-posted with other sites.