Settlers at the start of a three-day march from Ulpana to Jerusalem, June 4, 2012.
Settlers at the start of a three-day march from Ulpana to Jerusalem, June 4, 2012. Photo by Emil Salman
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Every month I drive to Bar-Ilan University to tape four or five discussions with national-Religious Rabbi Uri Sherki  that are posted under the title “The Rabbi and the Professor” (unfortunately there are no English subtitles so far). I do this because I believe that there is desperate need for dialogue between Israel’s liberals and the national-religious. We have come to the point where we live in universes so different that it is becoming questionable how these groups can ever cooperate fruitfully for a common future.

Sherki is adamant that the West Bank is part of Israel on theological grounds, and he does not believe that the Palestinians living there should have political rights. He always insists that Jewish law has a solution for this: the category of Ger Toshav, a resident alien, makes sure, he says, that they will have full human rights, but no political rights.

These discussions have been going on for a year now; I have, time and again, told him that his long-term vision for the greater land of Israel is an elegant way of describing an apartheid system. His general reaction is that I am stereotyping him. If I tell him that the idea of an ethnic group that does not have political rights is pretty much the definition of apartheid, I generally receive no answer. This is particularly frightening because Rabbi Sherki is mild-mannered and cultivated; in addition to his Rabbinical training, he has a wide secular knowledge, so there is no way of attributing his position to ignorance or lack of culture.

Rabbi Sherki also has an utterly unrealistic view on Israel’s relation to the West: he argues that the West criticizes Israel because it does not take its role of being humanity’s moral beacon seriously. When I ask him what this means, he answers that Zionism has only fully come into its own after what he calls the liberation of Judea and Samaria; and that we need to stop apologizing for this, because the Jewish people will be able to fulfill its historic function: From Zion the teaching shall spread!

When I tell Rabbi Sherki that I happen to speak quite a bit to European politicians, diplomats, journalists and academics; that they in no way feel that Israel should have some special role in the world, but have a much more modest demand: that it adhere to international law, respect Palestinian rights and end the occupation, he tells me that I simply don’t understand the Christian unconscious. No facts will confuse his mind.

Sherki is by no means among the more extreme rabbis of the national-religious camp. And yet there are moments in which he expresses visceral hatred for Arabs, and a degree of disdain for secular Israelis that is breathtaking: a few months ago he said that women working in offices in secular Israel are required to dress like whores.

These are moments when I lose my temper: I told him that he must immediately apologize; that I find it unbelievable that he can offend the majority of Israel’s society with such impunity – and that this also betrays his total isolation from the outside world. I asked him when the last time he visited anything like a hospital or a law firm was, and told him that he obviously lives in a universe parallel to mine.

Beyond the outrage and the disbelief, Sherki’s views profoundly worry me. He has a large followership; many attend his courses throughout the country, and he plays a leading role in one of Jerusalem’s major Yeshivas. Men like him raise a generation of students to believe that the Jewish people indeed has the right to trample the rights of others; who think that the rest of the world should simply bow to the precepts of the Torah as they see it. They are also deeply convinced that their interpretation of Judaism has a monopoly: Sherki forcefully argued against the recent ruling that conservative and reform Rabbis should be paid by the state of Israel.

People like Rabbi Sherki must be taken deeply seriously: The national religious vision has decisively shaped Israel’s history. Their project of settling in the West Bank with the goal of annexing it to Israel has decisively shaped Israel’s history for more than forty years. Their unrelenting ideological and religious conviction that the Jewish people has an eternal right to the West Bank has made them utterly blind to the moral and political disaster that the occupation has become.

In my view the greatest tragedy of national-religious Zionism is its profound misunderstanding of its own nature: it believes that it is profoundly Jewish. But as I have argued together with Professor of Jewish Philosophy Menachem Lorberbaum national-religious Zionism has adopted the language of 19th century political romanticism with its idealization of peoplehood and its connection to the land. This political view has, as we know all too well, led to disastrous consequences in European history, particularly when it was combined with a messianic conception of redeeming a specific nation or humankind as a whole.

I often try to show Rabbi Sherki to what extent the national-religious vision is a rehash of the disaster of romantic political philosophy. But, like all those who believe that they have seen the one, great truth, he refuses to see that politics must never be romanticized, and that all messianic conceptions of politics end in catastrophe.

That Israel has succeeded in remaining a liberal democracy despite having lived under threat for most of its existence is one of this country’s most remarkable achievements. But since 1974 almost no Israeli politician has risked open conflict with the national religious movement that is doing everything to undermine this democracy. Yitzhak Rabin did so by initiating the Oslo process; he paid with his life for it – and polls have shown that more than sixty percent of national-religious Jews in Israel are in favor of pardoning Rabin’s murderer, Yigal Amir, whose brother was released from prison a month ago.

Now Israel’s democracy is facing possibly the greatest threat in its history: many leaders of the national-religious movement say explicitly that Israeli democracy is no longer necessary and that the country must become a theocracy. It is time for the majority of Israelis, secular or religious, who think otherwise to take action before it is too late.