Kingdom of Israel: Extremist Rabbis Dream of Jewish Monarchy, With a Special Role for non-Jews

After explaining when it is allowed to kill non-Jews in widely vilified 'Torat Hamelech,' rabbis Shapira and Elitzur are downplaying their second volume. They call it a theoretical work, but liberal rabbis fear it may serve as a call to arms.

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The two volumes of "The King's Torah."
The two volumes of "The King's Torah."Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Having a king seems like such a simple concept. Instead of the tiresome processes of democracy, a king can be anointed – a single sovereign with extraordinary rights who can enslave prisoners of war and do as he pleases. No elections and no High Court of Justice.

The second part of “Torat Hamelech” (“The King’s Torah”) – written by rabbis from the Od Yosef Hai yeshiva in the West Bank settlement of Yitzhar – is written in the language of halakha (Jewish religious law) and quotes Jewish sources, while revealing the secret aspirations of the most extremist settlers.

The compendium is devoted entirely to laws pertaining to “the public and the kingdom.” In other words, to the establishment of a religious-Jewish monarchy that will replace secular democracy in Israel. It describes a world in which the king is omnipotent, owning slaves and handmaidens. A world in which Jews have extra rights and non-Jews cannot hold public office; a world in which there is no private property (everything belongs to the king) and rebels are put to death.

Od Yosef Hai has justifiably become the emblem of extremist yeshivot in the West Bank. Much of its notoriety comes from the first part of “The King’s Torah,” published by its rabbis Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur in 2009. That book permits the shedding of non-Jewish blood under certain circumstances, and the shedding of Jewish blood under others. The book’s publication led to a police investigation of its authors on suspicion of incitement to racism, but no one was prosecuted.

This affair greatly raised yeshiva members’ distrust of the Israeli media (albeit not the religious outlets). Mainstream journalists presented the book as a racist document, a halakhic abomination – and rightly so. Its title became synonymous with extremism and racism, partly because the yeshiva’s members are perceived as extremists even within the religious-Zionist camp.

As a result, it was not surprising the yeshiva was reluctant to give journalists a copy of the recently published “sequel.” Haaretz obtained a copy, though, and studying it sheds light on the fantasies of Yitzhar residents with regard to the future of the Jewish state.

Theoretical document

The first volume of “The King’s Torah” concerned laws relating to life and death between Jews and non-Jews. It detailed the laws that permit the killing of non-Jews under different circumstances – such as during wartime, or when a non-Jew threatens a Jew.

The new volume gives a set of – totally dystopian – laws that will prevail in the kingdom of Israel. It discusses how the king will be chosen; what his rights will be; and what rights (if any) his subjects will have.

The authors’ associates and students strongly reiterate that their book does not pretend to offer an operative plan. They describe it as a theoretical document, a literary one, almost artistic – not a plan of action.

Upon its publication, the weekly newsletter Shvi’i (handed out in synagogues belonging to the religious-Zionist camp), conducted an interview with the book’s co-author, Rabbi Elitzur. In it, he laid out his vision for the state and its institutions. Among other things, he said his book was “boring,” and that the principles in the book and in reality are on parallel lines. “Taking a sentence from the book and applying it to what’s happening today, without thought or analysis, is a very bad idea,” he noted.

Rabbis Chaim Navon and Amichai Gordin from Har Etzion yeshiva (which is part of the moderate stream of religious Zionism), published a strong response in the following week’s newsletter. They stated that “claims that this is purely an academic or halakhic debate are simply untrue. It is not a theoretical book but one calling for action, with practical conclusions at its end.”

They also referred to the first part of “The King’s Torah,” noting: “The halakhic discussions in the book seem to be geared to serving one purpose – to find as many rulings as possible permitting the killing of as many non-Jews as possible. To this end, they use unreasonable assumptions and manipulate the old sources of our sages. Beyond the halakhic conclusions, there is an evil wind blowing from this book. It makes it seem that the life of a non-Jew is worthless, like that of a fly. Even when killing a non-Jew is forbidden, it seems that this is like a prohibition on killing a fly on Shabbat. This is a destructive and distorted way of thinking, which could drive confused youth into criminal and repulsive acts. Such youngsters have indeed been found and criminal acts were committed. Can the authors claim to be innocent?”

Navon and Gordin may be referring to the murder of East Jerusalem teen Mohammed Abu Khdeir in July 2014 and the torching of the Dawabsheh family home in Duma the following year.

It’s not certain the second volume will also be read only as an imaginary fantasy. It opens with a letter of “consent” and a blessing by Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, the spiritual leader of the royalists on the extreme right. He devotes his letter to his “beloved students” Shapira and Elitzur, noting that “the issues discussed in the book are very relevant to our current situation, in which we are blessed to be settled in Israel, together with a large part of the Jewish people, in a situation where we hold the power.”

A chapter on occupation in the second volume of "The King's Torah."Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

L’etat, c’est moi

The first chapters in the second volume of “The King’s Torah” dwell on the importance of anointing an Israeli king, and how he is to be chosen. “Everybody needs a king,” the text explains, quoting Pirkei Avot: “If not for awe of the king, people would eat each other alive.” The king is, naturally, an authoritative leader. The power of the kingdom is based on the people’s need for it to exist. The king is “given power to take care of himself, not just the public partnership,” they explain – and this is for the greater good, because “the king encompasses the entire nation, and the good of the nation depends upon him.”

In short, the king of Israel is like Louis XIV: “L’etat c’est moi” (“I am the state”).

The choice of the king is widely covered. The Abarbanel, they say, wrote that elected officials may have the same validity as kingship, but Elitzur and Shapira take exception to that, saying: “The first and last commentators disagree with [the 15th-century philosopher] Isaac Abarbanel, saying that under halakha, a king – a single one – must be appointed, rather than settling for rule by elected officials.

Accordingly, an entire chapter is devoted to relations between the king and elected officials. According to Elitzur and Shapira, it is a mitzvah to appoint a king, even though the people can be governed by majority rule.

The form of government they propose is that the king rules and can do as he pleases, even if he has elected officials below him to handle the nitty-gritty, subject to the king’s pleasure.

The two rabbis believe the first king should be chosen by a prophet, after which a dynasty will arise. The question is, where does the prophet come from? Elitzur and Shapira explain that since God made his covenant with King David that his descendants would retain the kingship, his descendants have no further need of confirmation by a prophet.

Basically, the rabbis write, a king may not discriminate against any of his subjects. But anyway, a Jewish regime should take care to distance and distinguish Israel from the other nations – not out of desire to offend non-Jews, but to preserve our destiny. Non-Jews who observe the seven Noahide laws cannot, of course, be appointed either as kings or elected officials.

Maimonides (also known as the Rambam), the authors note, writes that gentiles who respond to the call to peace and immediately agree to convert need to understand that they will remain inferior and unfit for any office in Israel. The Rambam’s intention, they clarify, was that gentiles should be treated with compassion, but should not participate in government.

Regarding non-Jews who do not observe the Seven Laws of Noah, they add that the Rambam says gentiles we conquer become like slaves to us; it is permissible not to return a loan to a gentile, since the failure to involve them in decisions amounts to less than expropriating a loan as it does not involve financial loss.

A king may enslave anybody conquered in war, and may allow others to enslave others as he sees fit. But the chapter dealing with occupation also lays forth the boundaries of the king’s power: The king may not unlawfully expropriate or do forbidden things – kings are also subject to the courts of law that are part of the kingdom. The king may not do unworthy things and, if he takes things that are not his, may be taken to court.

In the first chapters, the authors write that the king derives the legitimacy of his rule from the people and if he loses the people’s support, the legitimacy of his rule will also be lost. However, they note that if a handful of people rise up against the king, they’re simply rebels; to oust a king takes a popular movement by the entire public.

A whole chapter is devoted to the law regarding rebellion against the king: a rebel against the kingdom may be killed, the rabbis state, based on a ruling by the Rambam. This means that subjects of the kingdom may be killed for the sake of the kingdom’s survival, just as women may be recruited during war – and for that reason, the king may harm the rebels in order to preserve the kingdom.

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