Who Taught the Jewish Radical Settler Youth to Celebrate Murder?

It's now clear from the shocking video of hilltop youth celebrating the Dawabsheh infant's murder that incitement to hatred is being taught in Israel's religious Jewish education system.

This still from the video of a wedding among right-wing activists shows dancers brandishing rifles, a twist on traditional wedding dances.
Courtesy of Channel 10 TV

The news in Israel this morning is filled with shocked reactions to a video broadcast on a national TV channel of celebrations at a wedding attended by the so-called 'hilltop youth'. We see yarmulke-clad young men dancing, their long earlocks flying, some with rifles in the air, and one with a knife with which he is skewering a photo of the infant from the Dawabsheh family who was burnt to death in an arson attack by suspected Jewish terrorists. A number of young people from this same group of 'revelers' are currently under arrest and undergoing interrogation for their part in the murder.

The claims made previously by right-wingers connected to the hilltop youth, to the effect that the Dawabshehs were killed by a fire caused by an electrical malfunction in their house, or that they were the victims of an intra-Arab feud rather than of Jewish terrorists, are undermined by this film.

The images suggest that, if nothing else, these dancers see the murder of the innocent Dawabsheh child as something to celebrate, and the use of the knife to hold the picture up as a way of symbolically suggesting that as an act of revenge for Palestinian knife attacks, it is a murder that can be justified. The sight of these dancers is eerily similar to scenes we have seen among Hamas youth celebrating the murder of Israelis. But all this raises more important questions for me, particularly as an Orthodox Jew.

I was raised to believe that a fidelity to Jewish observance and law would endow me with a kind of moral superiority over those who ignore the precepts of Jewish law and fail to observe Judaism with the same loyalty. I was taught that wearing a yarmulke was a practice that would remind me always of the higher authority, the One above me, who was always watching my behavior and whose Torah provided me with positive values, morals and behavior. The reason my parents sent me to get a Jewish education that taught me Torah, and instilled in me the values of Orthodoxy, and demanded I observe all the commandments, was to make me a better Jew, which meant unquestionably to make me a better human being.

But when I see these youngsters with the same or even a bigger yarmulke, whose appearance is meant to clearly identify them as sharing my Orthodoxy, perhaps even with a greater fervency, acting in ways that demonstrate that their moral values point them toward hatred and the celebration of the murder of innocents, it makes me wonder: what has the nature of their religious education been? What do they understand being an observant Orthodox Jew means?  Were my parents and teachers wrong? Or has something gone terribly wrong with religious education?

Much has been said and written – justifiably – about the 'education' of Palestinian children in the hatred of Jews, including and especially among those who are part of the Islamist community that claims to be its most religious sector.

But seeing these Jewish zealots of the hilltop youth and their supporters makes me think that education for incitement and hatred is going on no less in their schools and communities. The same calls that have been heard demanding the Palestinians change and reform their children’s education if they truly want peace must now be issued in the Jewish community. 

It is not sufficient for politicians and public figures to denounce the behavior at the wedding in the media. This is a time to examine our religious schools, the curriculum, teachers, and education that has allowed people to continue to see themselves as loyal to religion while spewing hatred and encouraging murder. It is time for the religious leaders, the rabbis, the Orthodox educators, the guardians of Torah, to take the lead in both condemning this behavior and reforming Jewish education so that no one who has gone through it can claim to be a good Jew and have murder in his heart.

Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York.