In the late sixties or early seventies, when I served as the executive head of the Synagogue Council of America, the coordinating body for certain social action and interreligious activities of the Orthodox, Conservative and Reform national rabbinical and congregational organizations in the United States, I had a private conversation—one of many—with Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who was considered the leader of modern Orthodoxy in the United States, if not the world.
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Rabbi Soloveitchik had just completed a high-level seminar attended by a select group of rabbis and Christian ministers. I asked him if he would agree to lead another such a seminar on the Jewish attachment to the Land of Israel and the concept of “kedushat haaretz” (the holiness of the land), and how these are to be differentiated from concepts such as “blut und boden” (blood and land) at the heart of German fascism and other totalitarian regimes.
Soloveitchik’s answer surprised me, for I was then not only a practicing Orthodox Jew but an ardent Zionist who identified with the religious nationalist branch of the Zionist movement. He told me he could not lead such a seminar because “I would have difficulty explaining that difference even to my own children.”
I never lost my love for the idea of a Jewish state, although I long ago lost my innocence about Palestine being “a land without a people for a people without a land”—a founding Zionist motto—not to speak of my loss of innocence about the theological premises of Orthodoxy. But I did not fully understand Soloveitchik’s refusal to tackle the subject of implications of the concept of the land’s holiness until I saw the video of settlers —young Orthodox Jews with the longest payot (side curls), the tzitzit (ritual fringes) and largest skull caps—asserting their Jewish and Zionist authenticity by reenacting and celebrating the incineration of a Palestinian baby.
Of course, Netanyahu and his ministers condemned this revolting display, and I do not question the sincerity of their denunciations. But they do not begin to understand what Soloveitchik apparently feared—that an unbridled nationalism that sanctifies the nation and its land may lead to the dehumanization of the Other and the desecration of human life.
Netanyahu and his far-right government have not only been indifferent to this danger, they have actively encouraged it.
As I wrote these lines, Netanyahu’s government decided to support legislation introduced in Israel’s Knesset that would punish Israeli NGO’s devoted to the protection of the rights of Israel’s non-Jewish minorities and to the prevention of abuses of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories by Israel’s military and security forces. Since these NGO’s are dependent on support from the U.S. and the European Union, the legislation seeks to deprive them of that support in the expectation that this will shut them down.
The reason for these NGO’s dependence on foreign support is that Netanyahu and Israel’s right-wingers, who have come to dominate Israel’s political culture, have so brutally demonized Israeli human rights organizations that most Israelis see them as collaborators with Israel’s enemies. It is not at all uncommon for the diminishing “leftists” in Israel—a term that in the past signified no more than supporters of a peace accord with the Palestinians—to be told: “Why don’t you move to Gaza.”
Yet Netanyahu’s government’s support for this despicable legislation is not the worst of it. The worst of it is Netanyahu’s appointment of Ayelet Shaked as his Minister of Justice. On July 1st 2014, Shaked posted on her Facebook page an article whose author, Uri Elitzur, a settler leader she admired, wrote that “Israel should target not only the militants but the mothers of the martyrs who send them to hell with flowers and kisses. They should follow their sons, nothing would be more just. They should go, as should the physical homes in which they raised the snakes. Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there.”
An Israeli prime minister who appoints as his minister of justice an advocate of the murder of mothers of Palestinian terrorists and considers Palestinian babies little snakes that should be exterminated cannot disclaim his paternity of settlers who celebrate the incineration of Palestinian babies.
Nor can Naftali Bennett, the Minister of Education who heads the Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home) Party and aspires to inherit Netanyahu’s prime ministerial post, disclaim his paternity. In 2013, he famously said during a cabinet debate that, “if you catch terrorists, you simply have to kill them.” When reproached by the National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror that “this is not legal,” he replied, “I have killed lots of Arabs in my life, and there is no problem with that.”
And neither Bennett nor Netanyahu can claim that the Jewish terrorists they are now denouncing are distinguishable from ISIS decapitators. They have their hands full just distinguishing their own past pronouncements from the behavior of these settlers.
The only unanswered question is how much longer will President Obama insist there can be no daylight between the U.S. and Israel because of the values they share.
Henry Siegman is the president of the U.S./Middle East Project. He served as a Senior Fellow on the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations and as a non-resident research professor at the Sir Joseph Hotung Middle East Program, SOAS, University of London. He formerly headed the American Jewish Congress and the Synagogue Council of America.