Judaism’s Enemy No. 1: Moral Complacency Among Religious Zionists

Extreme Jewish nationalism is heresy – the Prophets of Israel never provided ‘the chosen people’ with an excuse for triumphalism or moral laxity.

Friday night dinner in Jerusalem. The young man sitting opposite me sports a huge kippah, sings religious songs with gusto, and regales us with stories from his yeshiva days. He's dating an old friend of mine, so I want to get to know him better. At a suitable lull in the conversation, I turn to him, "Have you seen the movie, ‘The Gatekeepers’?" I ask.

"Oh, that anti-Semitic film which was nominated for an Oscar," he replies. "Movie critics only like anti-Israel films; I won't watch even a moment of it."

There's an awkward silence around the table, until, after a moment, conversation resumes.

Perhaps I shouldn't have asked him about the movie, restricting myself to the safe boundaries of Divrei Torah and trivial chatter. He may even be right; anti-Semites relish every opportunity to attack our Jewish state and we should all be disturbed by the way that Israel is singled out and held to higher standards than other countries.

We have good reason to brush aside the hysterical accusations leveled by our enemies. We may find good excuses not to pay attention to ongoing criticism from our staunchest allies. But when six heroic leaders of Israel's own internal security forces declare on camera that we are making mistakes, acting with unnecessary cruelty and risking our future, surely every responsible Jew must take note.

Tragically, many do not. A dangerous new heresy has gained hold in the national-religious camp. It is expressed by rabbis in their sermons and by politicians in their speeches. Israel is superior to other nations; they tell us, so we should brush aside all criticism of our country. Apparently, God has granted us absolute absolution for any mistakes, improprieties and injustices carried out by our government.

Extreme Jewish nationalism is heresy because the Prophets of Israel never provided "the chosen people" with an excuse for triumphalism or moral laxity. On the contrary, "You alone have I known from all the families of the earth", preaches the prophet Amos in the name of God, "therefore I will punish you for your sins" (Amos 3: 1).

Religious Zionism is slipping into heresy because Judaism has no greater enemy than moral complacency. At the heart of the Torah lies personal responsibility. We are culpable for every slip in our personal conduct: in each of our daily prayers, we critique our own behavior, repenting for any sins; and a process culminates at Yom Kippur, when we dedicate a whole day to listing our failings, and pledging to improve so we can meet the highest moral and religious standards. If this is true for our individual lives, then we must shoulder even greater responsibility if harmful activities are carried out in the names of the State of Israel and the Jewish people. So where on earth does this attitude of moral indifference come from?

Xenophobic preaching reduces the value of other people's lives, and provides justification for vigilantes who carry out attacks on Palestinians, refugees and their property. It brings shame on the name of the Jewish people and turns decent people away from our religion. It is wicked.

If the rest of the world cares enough to take the 95 minutes required to hear our bravest Israeli heroes make damning accusations of torture and the killing of unarmed prisoners, shouldn't we? If they find our behavior morally unacceptable, can we be indifferent? And if we are not inclined to see this film, or read critical news reports in the media, or follow the rulings of our own courts, or listen to the rest of the world, then shouldn’t we be obliged to travel to Hebron, Bethlehem or East Jerusalem with a human rights organization to see the situation for ourselves? And, if we find even the tiniest fragment of truth in the criticisms made against Israel, shouldn't our religious and moral leaders, the rabbis, take the lead in fighting injustice?

I wish my friends every happiness, and hope that they can fulfill their dream of marrying and building "a faithful home in Israel." Establishing such a home based on the highest Jewish values is challenging. I suggest that they start by going out on a romantic date. How about seeing "The Gatekeepers?"

Rabbi Gideon Sylvester is the British United Synagogue's Rabbi in Israel and directs the education program for the Jerusalem branch of the Rene Cassin Fellowship Program in Judaism and Human Rights.

'The Gatekeepers' producer Philippa Kowarsky, left, and director Dror Moreh.Credit: Nir Kafri

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