Religious Fuel for the Bonfire

The rabbis and their political followers claim to represent independent Israel, purified, tall, confident and God-graced. In practice, they educate their flock to behave like Jews from the Ghetto.

Zvia Sariel, a teen from Elon Moreh charged with attacking a Palestinian near her settlement, was released five days ago after three and a half months in detention. During that time, she refused to accept the authority of the Israeli court to deliberate her case and demanded to be tried by a court that follows the laws of the Torah. The judge, Navah Bechor, of the Kfar Sava Magistrate's Court, ruled that Sariel should be released because the accusations against her could not be proved, but gave a scathing condemnation of the young woman's behavior in court and her refusal to acknowledge its authority.

While in custody, Sariel was granted a strange arrangement under which she was tried by a private rabbinical court (a body that calls itself Sanhedrin, headed by Rabbi Yisrael Ariel). This court also exonerated her of all guilt, and lauded her refusal to allow her fate to be decided by the state judges.

On the face of it, this case deserved to be ignored as bizarre. But Nadav Shragai reminded us in Haaretz last Thursday that Sariel is not unique: The youth from several central Samaria settlements consider her worthy of emulation. Other teens arrested on suspicion of disturbing the peace are refusing to identify themselves, reject the authority of the law enforcement bodies and are prepared to remain in custody for a long time.

This was the approach of some of those arrested in connection with the riots in Jabal Mukkabar in Jerusalem. This phenomenon is connected to the "halakhic rulings" of the "New Sanhedrin," published after the murder of the Mercaz Harav Yeshiva students: "So long as the security forces do not deal with our enemies, leaving the duty of vengeance to others... likewise the government of the Jewish State is not conducting itself as a Jewish government but as an alien government, assuming its responsibility for safeguarding Jews in precisely the same [negligent] way."

The latest expressions of this mood are evident in the halakhic rulings of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, who forbid the employment of Arabs, especially not in yeshivas, arguing that it poses a mortal threat. Rabbi Dov Lior, head of the Council of Judea and Samaria Rabbis, has forbidden employing Arabs or renting them housing.

Yitzhak Rabin's murder showed we should not belittle rabbis' instructions or dismiss them as the views of an extremist minority. Experience proved that there are rabbis on the extreme right with loyal audiences, and that the halakhic rulings of ultra-Orthodox rabbis more often than not become guideposts for their "moderate" peers. The fact that halakhic concepts are being included in state discussions (security, territories, the status of Arabs, etc.) threatens Israeli society's ability to function in ways that developed countries do. Including the religious codex in public discourse and day-to-day civil considerations is bound to distort the ability of the state to determine its fate in democratically acceptable ways. Jonathan Swift already said: "We have enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another."

The rabbis and their political followers claim to represent independent Israel, purified, tall, confident and God-graced. In practice, they educate their flock to behave like Jews from the Ghetto: to see Israeli rule as hostile, to try and trick it, to rebel against its laws, and to care for their small communities and not society as a whole. The juvenile rebellion of Zvia Sariel and her friends aims to alienate them (and their families) from the state, to undermine its unity, to challenge its stability, and thus destroy the basis on which it was established and which the settlers allegedly seek to bolster. Spreading the halakhic tunic over their behavior makes them immune to the state's arguments: They follow a different call - allegedly a divine one.

During its first years, the state defined the specific areas in which it allowed halakhic interference into the lives of its citizens. Since 1967, religion has spread over the entire spectrum of relations between Israelis and Palestinians. This fateful diversion is now coming back to haunt us and is playing into the hands of Islamic extremism, which aspires to cast the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a religious war.