Blaming Religious Zionism for Elor Azaria Is Pure Demagoguery

The case that has polarized Israeli society demands us to respond with nuance, precision and caution, not irresponsible and vitriolic declarations like those made by Rabbi Daniel Landes.

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Elor Azaria in court, Tel Aviv, January 4, 2017.
Elor Azaria in court, Tel Aviv, January 4, 2017.Credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90
Jeffrey R. Woolf
Jeffrey R. Woolf

The trial of Elor Azaria has expanded well beyond its original contours. From the case of a single soldier, who was convicted of manslaughter in the death of a neutralized terrorist, it has ballooned into a deeply polarizing event, which expresses and exacerbates many of the fissures within Israeli society.

The latter development is deeply regrettable, inter alia, because it encourages imprecise and irresponsible declarations, when what is required is nuance, precision and caution.

A particularly egregious example of the latter appeared in Haaretz recently (‘Elor Azaria’s Act of Murder, and the Rabbis Who Justify It, Defile Judaism’) authored by Rabbi Daniel Landes. In his intemperate, if sincere, exposition Landes makes several assertions that are deeply troubling and factually problematic.

To begin with, he declares that “shooting a terrorist is an obligation that is necessary if it can prevent bodily injury or during the act before more damage is committed. That is without question.

"But after the terrorist act has finished and the perpetrator contained, to harm him is itself murder.” The first portion of Landes’ statement is undoubtedly correct. However, it is simply not the case that “after the terrorist act has finished and the perpetrator contained” – itself a judgment call – to harm him is itself “murder.”

Azaria was convicted of manslaughter, not murder. His actions were the result of the explosive, adrenaline-laced situation on the ground. That, of course, does not excuse him. However, that is apparently why the army chose to charge him with manslaughter instead of murder, which they initially considered.

The circumstances, intent and state of mind of an individual are critical elements to the evaluation of a crime. Calling his acts murder is, therefore, deeply irresponsible, a wanton distortion of both Israeli law and Halakhah (Cf. Yam shel ShlomoBaba Qamma 8:42). In addition, according to Jewish law, it is by no means clear whether the case of Azaria would be deemed a violation of civilian or military law (i.e. Hilkhot Rotzeach vs. Hilkhot Melakhim).

Rabbi Landes devotes most of his attention to a vitriolic condemnation of rabbis who deny that “the court’s decision is absolutely just, and in full accordance with Halakhah.

"Those rabbis who say otherwise or who remain silent are accomplices in this tragedy/travestyThose rabbis are part of a not so hidden, indeed blatant, racism that pervades our yeshivot’s batei midrash (study halls) and common conversation.Fueled by messianic imagery of this being an apocalyptic moment in Jewish history, restraint is shoved aside. And with it, Jewish notions of the horror of murder are dumped into the sewer of messianic madness”

Let us put aside the fact that Elor Azaria is not the product of a religious Zionist home or education. To whom is the author referring in this sweeping condemnation? All rabbis? Some rabbis? A few rabbis?

In the absence of names and citations, Rabbi Landes proves himself as guilty of the kind of conspiratorial mind-set as the chimerical religious Zionist (I assume it is to them he is referring) eminence noire that he invokes in his article. Honestly.

Are there religious and political extremists within the religious Zionist Camp? Absolutely. They are as real, and nefarious, as radical leftists who demonize not only the political right (and center-right), but every aspect of Judaism. Are these extremists representative of their entire communities and its institutions? Absolutely not.

The same is true of the author’s invocation of “messianic imagery of this being an apocalyptic moment in Jewish history.” As with his legal analysis, Rabbi Landes is only partially correct and his conclusions, accordingly, distorted.

It is true that messianic aspirations are an integral, and abiding part of traditional Judaism. It is extremely odd to find an ostensibly Orthodox rabbi decrying them.

However, and more to the present point, it is also true that messianic aspirations, based on the teachings of Rabbis Kook (père et fils) motivated and energized the settlement movement from the seventies until the nineties.

What Rabbi Landes seems to have missed is that the signing of the Oslo Accords started a period of messianic disappointment and crisis within the religious Zionist world, a process which came to a head with the disengagement from Gaza (as Ari Shavit once noted).

The religious Zionist community no longer bases its political positions on messianic or apocalyptic conceptions (if, indeed, it ever did). All one needs to do is compare the many and varied responses in the religious Zionist leadership to the Amona issue, compared to the anti-Oslo demonstrations, to see the tectonic shift that has occurred.

Reading Landes’ words, I was tempted to paraphrase Barack Obama’s retort to Mitt Romney: ‘Peace Now wants its 1980’s Antichrist back.’

At the end of his remarks, sadly, Rabbi Landes descends into out-and-out demagogy. “To those who admire Azaria and seek to emulate or defend him, we can only say: This is not the Torah’s path.”

As I already wrote, there are obviously those in Israeli society who admire Azaria. There might be those who think, like Lt. Gen. Rafael Eitan, that no terrorist should be allowed to emerge from his actions alive.

However, I challenge Rabbi Landes to adduce proof that Israeli children (much less religious children) are being taught or encouraged by their parents and teachers and rabbis to emulate him, with malice aforethought!

As to defending him, I would like to call his attention to the fact that the Hebrew social media are full of nuanced assertions that both admit Azaria’s guilt, while noting the impossibly complex, highly charged nature of anti-terrorist, urban warfare.

These type of statements, from both right and left, provide the type of critical nuance and precision that the tragedy of Elor Azaria requires and that Rabbi Landes’ article so lacks.

Here, at least, I can agree with our author. Heated rhetoric, flawed legal analysis, historical myopia and hyperbolic rhetoric are absolute “not the Torah’s path.”  

Jeffrey R. Woolf is an Associate Professor in the Talmud Department at Bar Ilan University, specializing in the History of Jewish Law.

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