Talking to: Gadi Gvaryahu, 61, from Rehovot, executive director of the NGO Tag Meir. Where: A Tel Aviv café. When: Wednesday morning
Not many people know about the Tag Meir organization. Can you tell me briefly what you do?
The most important thing we do is simply to arrive, as quickly as possible, at places where hate crimes have been perpetrated. It’s immaterial to us what the crime was, we don’t distinguish between Arabs and Jews, and it’s also immaterial to us on which side of the Green Line it occurred.
What do you mean, you don’t distinguish between Jews and Arabs?
Regrettably, there are also cases of Reform synagogues being desecrated as part of the campaign of incitement and hatred.
You’re referring to the Tag Mehir [Price Tag] people.
Yes. Our organization, which is today a forum of 51 organizations, was established because of the surge in acts of religious fanaticism that hide behind the newspeak term “price tag.”
Acts of religious fanaticism or acts of terrorism?
Acts of terror perpetrated by Jews. Jewish terrorism, in short. Uprooting of olive trees, torching of houses of worship, spraying graffiti on houses of worship. The latter is something that people tend to downplay, but in the eyes of believers, graffiti that curses the prophet Muhammad or Jesus is as bad as arson. There’s terrorism that also exacts a price in human life, such as the Dawabsheh family [three of whose members died in the firebombing of their home, in the West Bank village of Duma, in 2015] or the youngster Mohammed Abu Khdeir [the Palestinian teen who was kidnapped and murdered in Jerusalem in 2014], and many more victims. For example, the Palestinian family that was traveling in a taxi at which Molotov cocktails were thrown, near Beit Ayin [a West Bank settlement, in 2012] – a whole family that was simply set ablaze.
How does it work? What happens when you arrive?
We coordinate with the people at the site, be it a rabbi or the head of a monastery or an imam. We inform people about the incident on the social networks so that they will come to the site. For example, 400 people showed up after the monastery at Latrun was torched [in 2012]. It’s very important to be there. It not only prevents acts of revenge, it also demonstrates humanity and solidarity.
What do you say to the people there?
That they are not alone, that the people who harmed them do not represent us, or Judaism or Islam or Christianity, or the majority of Israel’s inhabitants. That we have come to embrace them and hold their hand. We sit with them, have coffee together. In 90 percent of the cases they join us. Muslims, Christians and Jews. We have members from Baka al-Garbiyeh, from Umm al-Fahm, from everywhere in the country. From Shoafat and Beit Hanina [in East Jerusalem]. The Abu Khdeir and Dawabsheh families are members, and so is the Rosenfeld family, from Kochav Hashahar [in the West Bank], whose son, Malachi, was murdered [in 2015].
Tell me about your first action.
It actually took place two years before we founded the organization. It was in 2009, in the wake of the torching of the mosque in Kafr Yasuf [a village south of Nablus]. I went there with Rabbi [Menachem] Froman and his wife. We tried to get an entry permit from the military but didn’t succeed, so we simply met with the village notables at a road junction. The rabbi purchased copies of the Koran, we sang and danced together, it was very moving. With his great insight, Rabbi Froman [1945-2013] understood then what we understand today: that you have to embrace and talk.
What about more complicated visits, such as your visit to the Abu Khdeir family?
We came to Shoafat after the murder. There was a very grim atmosphere, one of rage and violence. We arrived in five buses – 300 people. No one liked it, not the Border Police and not the residents of Shoafat themselves, but the family itself received us very kindly.
What did they say to you?
Using loudspeakers, they said very harsh things about the Israeli government, about the occupation, and they assailed everyone possible, but they also let us speak. Including Rabbi [David] Bigman, who came especially from Ma’aleh Gilboa yeshiva [in northern Israel]. They listened to us. The 300 Jews stood in line and shook hands with the father and the mother.
It’s a very difficult situation, which gives rise to complex emotions. You are pained by the wrong, but you belong to the perpetrating side.
Yes. As President [Reuven] Rivlin said, “These are my people.”
What exactly do you feel in such situations? Shame? Pain? Guilt?
Great shame. Grief. A desire to atone. By the way, we continue to visit the Abu Khdeir family. Last Hanukkah we went there with 20 students. We ate holiday doughnuts from Jerusalem together and oranges from Jericho in the memorial room for Mohammed. Our motto is that it makes no difference what the political solution ends up being, Jews and Arabs in the State of Israel are going to live here together, whether there will be one parliament or four parliaments. This is a reality we all need to internalize, Jews and Arabs, and the faster that happens, the fewer victims there will be.
Your son, Avner Gvaryahu, is a key activist in the organization Breaking the Silence. Do you feel that he is following in your path, in a certain way? Is he influenced by you? Or you by him?
He is not deviating from my path, and I don’t feel that he is an ideological rival of mine. I did not raise any child to follow in my footsteps. I myself do not belong to Breaking the Silence, there are definitely differences. I understand them and esteem them.
But you don’t agree with their way.
I am not against their way, but I myself do not belong to them.
You yourself are religiously observant. In many ways, you are turning against the public of which you are a part.
As a religiously observant Jew who was raised in the religious-Zionist movement, whose family has lived in Jerusalem for eight generations, I am not willing to accept these people who have gone out in the dark of night, wearing kippot, and who in the name of Judaism decided to enter a mosque or assassinate a prime minister. They are turning Judaism, of which I am an integral part, into something different and frightening. Judaism is not a murderous religion, and I am anxious for my country, which is at risk of being taken over by zealous, benighted people. I am talking about the extreme right, not the entire right wing. I am talking about the people who settle in Judea and Samaria, who believe that they are truly fulfilling a holy mission, that we are in a process of redemption in the Land of Israel, the Promised Land.
Do you subscribe to those beliefs?
You don’t believe in the Whole Land of Israel and in the re-establishment of the new Temple and in the messianic vision?
The biblical Land of Israel also exists in southern Lebanon and in Jordan and in a few other places, so I feel a better connection to the pragmatic people of Mapai [the forerunner of the Labor Party] who knew where to draw the line.
What about the messianic thrust?
Messianism is very dangerous, especially false messiahs.
Do you believe in the coming of the Messiah?
I believe in the coming of the Messiah, and everyone sees him differently.
How do you see him?
I see the Messiah in the vision of the Prophets, as Isaiah saw him, a vision in which all the nations shall be ingathered under a single common truth – not by coercion, certainly not by bloodshed. A Temple that will be built with bloodshed is not a Temple. We have to be wary of playing games with the Messiah. It’s a dangerous story.
Is it possible to try and trace the development of the phenomenon. Can we, for example, connect these acts to the Jewish underground [of the 1980s]?
Yes. Without a doubt. No one wants to see the connection, but it’s clearly there. What the Jewish underground wanted was to impose a “price tag.”
Where did that name even come from? What does it mean?
In my view, those right-wing extremists are exacting a “price” from innocent Palestinians, or from the army, for actions which they consider unjust, such as a decision to evacuate a settlement. The Jewish underground also wanted to exact a price from Israeli society, a price for the peace agreement with Egypt, and the only reason that the mosques on the Temple Mount are still standing is that their commander, Menachem Livni, was sick. According to the account of Haggai Segal [who was a member of the underground] in his book “Dear Brothers,” they had rabbinic authorization, a pilot who knew how to read aerial photographs and explosives. The Temple Mount was poorly guarded. It definitely could have happened. It doesn’t take much imagination to grasp the consequences of the mosques on the Temple Mount being blown up. Heads of the Shin Bet [security service] have already talked about it.
Do you think the state isn’t doing enough?
I wonder about the complacency with which Jewish terrorism is viewed. We know about very serious cases that are still open – from incitement bordering on insurrection by Jewish public leaders, to acts of terror. Five houses populated by [Palestinian] families have been set on fire, and only the case of the Dawabsheh family was solved. Since December 2009, 44 houses of worship in Israel have been torched or desecrated. That’s a huge number. Those who had no fear of entering a house of worship will also have no fear about entering the Temple Mount.
Let’s consider the rabbinic backing – that’s a very important point.
Haggai Segal quotes Menachem Livni as saying that they had support from the most important rabbis in Kiryat Arba [a settlement adjacent to Hebron] and he also named them. Those rabbis were not interrogated, and no files were opened on them. Rabbi Dov Lior took part in the planning of the actions themselves. The rabbis of the extreme right enjoy immunity that not even the president and prime minister of Israel have.
We saw the same thing after the Rabin assassination.
The famous din moser [Jewish law prohibiting “informing”] letter was circulated among at least 40 rabbis and yeshiva heads and also in the Shin Bet. Rabbi Lior is a signatory to it as well.
Lior wields great influence among the religious public.
He’s considered one of the most important rabbis in the religious-Zionist movement. When he enters a synagogue of that movement, no matter where, the congregants will stand up in respect. Moderate liberal rabbis of religious Zionism are awestruck by his greatness in Torah and make an absolute distinction between the man and what he says. He claimed that Baruch Goldstein [who massacred 29 Muslim worshippers in Hebron in 1994] is as holy as the holy people who were killed in the Nazi Holocaust.
Where is holiness, in his view? Is it in the mission to kill Arabs?
He of course will say that it wasn’t murder, but that he had reports that they were going to do such-and-such, and this holy person arose and saved the Jewish community.
Still, he gave the seal of approval to the book “The King’s Torah” [by Rabbis Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur], which explicitly sanctions the killing of [non-Jewish] children and infants.
Not only that, but they write in a footnote that we’re doing them a favor by murdering them when they’re little, by preventing them from being as evil as their parents when they grow up. The final footnote in the book says that one doesn’t need the decision of a nation in order to shed the blood of enemies, that individuals, too, may take revenge. Many yeshivas have the book in their library. An article written by Rabbi Elitzur contains precise operational instructions: The women will block the roads and the men will enter the villages and strike at property and people. Israel Defense Forces bases can also be attacked.
How is it possible to justify the murder of infants by way of halakha?
I don’t think there is a Jewish law that permits the murder of infants. The fact that people are writing that horror in the name of Judaism should disturb not only Jewish or religious people, but every human being as such. There is no permission to kill innocent people, it’s a completely insane notion, and as long as these people continue to be major figures among the religious public, we are in great danger. Until that clear distinction is made, youths and adults will continue to carry out acts of revenge, because there are those they can rely on for authorization.
Can you name the rabbis you’re referring to?
Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburg, Rabbi Yosef Elitzur, Rabbi Yitzhak Shapira, and the rabbi who performed the “hate wedding” [of December 2015], Daniel Stavsky. In that wedding, Rabbi Stavsky blessed the suspects in the Dawabsheh murder. He said, “May Hashem [the Lord] release them soon May Hashem grant them divine help and safeguard them in spirituality and in corporeality and replace them with those who jailed them.”
And those who are being incited, are the present incarnation of Jewish terrorism – are the hilltop youth?
That phenomenon actually began after the “disengagement” [from the Gaza Strip in 2005].
As a reaction?
Yes. A public that’s angry, that feels betrayed, that feels it has lost faith in the State of Israel.
Maybe the idea was: My parents gave in and left their home, but I will not give in.
What you have here is an encounter between religious Zionists who have despaired of the state, and ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, groups that do not consider the state to be the advent of redemption but, on the contrary, a revolt against God. They encounter a figure such as Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburg, who has written dozens of books, who is an expert in many fields, such as physics and mathematics and languages and music. The man makes public appearances and gives lectures and publishes articles, and his pupils write down what he says and disseminate it, and there is also a large and active internet site that collects his writings. About a year ago he spoke to a full hall in Jerusalem. This is not a marginal phenomenon.
What does he teach his followers?
After the [Gaza] pullout, he wrote a book that calls for the crushing of the government and the courts, for the regime to be toppled and a religious government to be established. He is against the army, the government, the Knesset, the courts. He thinks the solution is to collect 300 army-age young people who take orders directly from God and who will carry out Pinhas-like actions. That’s the code.
‘One-time act of zealotry’
What does the “Pinhas code” refer to?
In the Torah [Numbers 25], Pinhas ben Elazar ben Hakohen took the law into his hands and murdered two people on his own initiative. The Torah praises the act, but the sages were uneasy about it, and it’s clear that this was an exceptional, one-time act of zealotry.
And he uses this as a precedent?
As an ethical code. In the codes of zealous schools, what Pinhas did means that one can take revenge on the evil kingdom of blood without the state’s authorization. When a rabbi in 2017 tells youths to carry out an “act of Pinhas,” what more do you need?
What is that rabbi for them?
An authority. And so, too, is Rabbi Daniel Stavsky, who despises the State of Israel with every fiber of his being, who is riding the coattails of these young people, because they’re good “soldiers” who might perhaps be able to do what he can’t do.
Harm the state. So there won’t be a secular Jewish state here, only the State of Judah. I ask myself how many people in the Shin Bet are familiar with this preaching. We met a former Shin Bet man who published a book about Rabbi Ginsburg, and we asked him if anyone in the Shin Bet had contacted him after the book was published. No one. They don’t know the man, they don’t know the language, the special codes he uses.
Numerology. Biblical verses. Kabbala. Look, if there were an Arab underground in Judea and Samaria that spoke Chinese, wouldn’t the Shin Bet make sure it learned the dialect they spoke in? In the case of these people, they don’t bother doing that. A few days ago, Rabbi Ginsburg, who wrote in his article “Messiah’s Feast” that when the Messiah reveals himself he will kill all the goyim, and a billion Arabs will be nullified, taught a lesson in Kfar Chabad and invited Meir Ettinger. It’s a kind of partnership: the author of the books and the militant young man who’s responsible for translating the supposed halakhic/kabbalist language for the masses. That ideology is written and mediated and drunk up thirstily by the believers.
And that’s enough, you think, to be capable of murdering an infant? The murder of the Dawabsheh family absolutely unhinged my world. They knew there were children there, there’s no way they didn’t know.
I was in the burnt home of the Dawabsheh family. I saw the babies’ games on the floor. It was very grim. To get to a house like that and throw a Molotov cocktail, you have to pass through a great many barriers. But when you get an initial push, when influential figures pump it into you that it’s alright, you can pass through all the barriers. Hilltop youth number in the hundreds, but the sympathizers, those who applaud them, those who encourage them on Facebook, who tell them that they are just people and saints – of them there are masses. You don’t need a lot of people in order to overturn the state. Yigal Amir was one.