One Man's Prayer, Another Man's Incitement

Once religious Judaism and fundamentalist nationalism are deliberately yoked together, differentiating between ritual and incitement is becoming far more complex.

"And I will drive out the Canaanite, the Amorite and the Hittite, and the Perrizite, the Hivite and the Jebusite… Take heed to thyself lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land whither thou goest, lest it be for a snare in the midst of thee. But ye shall destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves." (Exodus 34, 12-13.)

We can assume that several Israeli government ministers and many members of the coalition will be listening to this Torah passage when they go to synagogue next Shabbat. Is this incitement? If it is not the job of the proto-Israelis themselves to create more proto-Palestinian refugees (a mission that God says He'll do), then we are at least urged to chop down their olive trees.

It’s a commonplace to say that one man's terrorist is another's freedom fighter. But that truism can never justify or excuse acts of violence against innocent non-combatants. Incitement is more complex. Identifying incitement requires a familiarity with and an understanding of the other side's culture. One man's incitement can be the other's ancient religious text.

Judaism's religious texts spent 2,000 years in the Diaspora being sublimated, in other words interpreted in a non-fundamentalist way. Now, in an age when religious Judaism and fundamentalist nationalism are deliberately blurred and yoked together, "the [Palestinian] other" might be forgiven for taking the Torah reading verses cited above as incitement.

Last year, when it was revealed that Egypt's then-President Morsi had offended Israelis in 2010 by calling us “descendants of apes and pigs”, an Egyptian apologist could argue we had provoked him by reading in our synagogues over several weeks the story in Exodus of Israel in Egypt. This, after all, makes a sorry monkey of the then-Pharaoh, usually identified as the respected Egyptian ruler Ramses II. Who was inciting in that episode? Is any insult by a national leader incitement, because it implies an exhortation to their citizens to follow-up actively? How would Israel react if the Egyptians concocted and read publicly a similarly insulting text about King David?

So, Israelis reading the weekly Torah portion can be explained to anyone seriously interested as a long-standing and purely religious custom among the Jews. The content of the portion is unrelated to modern-day political affairs, even though it could readily be interpreted otherwise.

After 35 years of peace, Israel and Egypt are still far from familiarity and mutual comprehension.

But Israelis hide behind the antiquity of their Bible so as to dismiss any citation as non-incitement. A couple of weeks before the Gaza disengagement in 2005, speaking at a confrontation in the Negev between phalanxes of police and hundreds of West Bank settlers determined to break through the phalanxes and 'reinforce' the Gush Katif hold-outs, a leading settler rabbi, using Biblical quotations, made the unmistakable assertion that the Palestinians behind the Gaza fence were Amalek "and we know what the Torah instructs about Amalek." They indeed knew. It instructs, in its literal reading, that all of Amalek’s people are to be killed throughout the generations (Deuteronomy 26, 19.)

Nor can the Palestinians or the Egyptians, or the Israelis, hide behind the lamentable ignorance of both sides of the other's culture. Straightforward incitement – go and kill or go and smash – in government publications or textbooks or media, or a rabbi's speech, is incitement, superseding differences of culture.

Prime Minister Netanyahu hopes the Kerry negotiations will provide an Israel-Palestine anti-incitement accord. But he must be wary of broadening his definition of incitement to include legitimate exchanges of polemics between states or individual statesmen. That merely devalues the dangers of incitement.