WASHINGTON, October 12, 2017 – Most Americans, and most American Jews, believe that Israel is a Western-style democracy that embraces religious freedom. Unfortunately, it is not.
Instead, Israel is a theocracy, with government-appointed and paid chief rabbis who must adhere to the most rigid forms of Orthodox Judaism. The majority of American Jews are not Orthodox. Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and other denominations represent the overwhelming majority of Jews in this country.
In Israel, non-Orthodox Jews have fewer rights than in any other Western country. Their rabbis cannot perform weddings or funerals. Their conversions are not recognized. Men and women are also forbidden from praying together at the Western Wall because this holy site is controlled by the ultra-Orthodox chief rabbinate. Israel has no civil marriage. Jews who wish to marry non-Jews must leave the country to do so.
Sadly, religious intolerance is growing in Israel today, not only against non-Orthodox Jews but against Christians and Moslems as well. Since 2009, at least 53 churches and mosques have been vandalized in both Israel and in the occupied West Bank. The vast majority of them – 45 – have been closed without any charges being lodged against the perpetrators. There have, in fact, been only 9 indictments and 7 convictions in these incidents, according to Israeli government data reported in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Only 8 of these cases remain under investigation.
In an attack on September 20, vandals invaded St. Stephen’s Church, located in the Beit Jamal Salesian Monastery west of Jerusalem. The invaders shattered a statue of the Virgin Mary, broke the church’s stained glass and destroyed the cross in the building
“I was shocked,” the church’s caretaker Father Antonio Scuda told the Catholic News Service. “I didn’t expect to see something like this. The church is always open. If you see what happened, you feel they did it with hate. They smashed everything.”
Bishop Giacinto-Boules Marcuzzo, the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem’s senior cleric in Israel, said,
“This is not only an act of vandalism but an action against the sacredness of the holy places and the faith of the people.”
This was the third attack on Beit Jamal in the past four years. No arrests have ever been made. Wadie Ahunassar, an adviser to the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land, says,
“We are fed up with repeated attacks on holy places and with Israeli authorities who have failed to deal with the phenomenon.”
Abranasser argues that there is constant incitement by extremist rabbis that inspires such actions. He says these right-wing rabbis are not “sufficiently deterred by Israeli law enforcement authorities.”
He recalled a 2009 best-selling hook, “The King’s Torah,” written by Rabbis Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur. This book declares:
“The prohibition ‘Thou shalt not murder’ applies only to a Jew who kills a Jew.” The authors write that non-Jews are “uncompassionate by nature” and that attacks on them “curb their evil inclinations,” and that babies and children of Israel’s enemies may be killed since “it is clear that they will grow up to harm us.”
Mordechai Nisan, a lecturer at the Hebrew University, expressed this view in a publication of the World Zionist Organization. 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 further stated that non-Jews must not be appointed to any office or position of power over Jews.
Among other figures encouraging attacks on churches and mosques is Bentzi Gopstein, the head of Lehava, a vigilante group that opposes marriage between Jews and non-Jews. In 2015, Gopstein publicly called for the burning of churches and mosques.
The Vatican urged Israel to charge Gopstein with incitement to violence and terrorism. Months later, however, Gopstein wrote an article calling Christians “blood-sucking vampires” and urging their expulsion from the country. No action has been taken against him to date and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ignored calls from Christian religious leaders to discuss this growing problem.
Writing in The Jerusalem Report (October 2, 2017), Rabbi Reuven Hammer, a past president of the International Rabbinical Assembly, notes
“I have never been able to fathom how religious Jews … can justify actions, including rabbinic injunctions, that discriminate against non-Jews, be they Muslims or Christians. Do they not realize that such discrimination is forbidden by Jewish teachings?”
Rabbi Hammer recalls that after he moved to Israel where his children were enrolled in state religious schools,
“I was astounded when my son would recount that when their bus would go through Arab areas on school trips, many of his classmates would shout anti-Arab curses through the windows and the teachers would not reprove them. As time goes on, I have witnessed actions worse than those, yeshiva students spitting at non-Jews; attempts at burning churches; and the actions of revenge, including burning an Arab house, killing several inside, and the murder of an innocent Arab teenager.
“We have read about rulings by official rabbis forbidding Jews to rent rooms to Arab students and, worst of all, we have witnessed the publication of a book such as ‘Torat Hamelech,’ written by rabbis and endorsed by well known rabbinic figures, permitting the killing of Arabs, including children … If such a book had been written by a Christian or Muslim cleric we would have condemned it as nothing less than incitement to murder. Have we come to our own state in which Jews are a majority only to see Judaism used as an excuse to despise non-Jews and discriminate against them?”
In Jewish tradition, Rabbi Hammer says, there are indeed individual rulings and statements that argue that Jews are superior to non-Jews. But, he argues,
“These negative ideas were far outweighed by teachings of the Torah, the sages, and medieval authorities… Such prominent figures as Rabbi Akiva and Rabban Gamaliel ll actively opposed such laws and even nullified them… As for Jewish superiority, the sages constantly cite the Torah’s declaration that all humans are made in God’s image and that all humanity has only one set of parents. Judaism in Israel, all too often, has become the exclusive tool of fanatics, both religious and political. Judaism teaches that all human beings are made in the divine image and that other religions are to be respected. To condemn all Arabs is to do to them what was done to Jews throughout history. Let us not do unto others what was done unto us.”
Fortunately, more and more Jewish voices in Israel, in America and around the world are speaking out against the intolerance that is growing within Israel. Professor David Shulman of Hebrew University put it this way:
“No matter how we look at it, unless our minds have been poisoned by the ideologies of the religious right, the occupation is a crime. It is first of all based on the permanent disenfranchisement of a huge population… We are, so we claim, the children of the prophets. Once, they say, we were slaves in Egypt. We know all that can be known about slavery, suffering, prejudice, ghettos, hate, expulsion, exile. I find it astonishing that we, of all people, have reinvented apartheid on the West Bank.”
Hopefully, voices such as these will prevail. But at this time it is far from clear that they will.