Antisemitism Threatens Jews, And Occupation Threatens Judaism – Analysis


Israeli historian Yuval Noah Hariri is seeing his worst nightmare unfold before his eyes.

“Imagine a world where Judaism discards the spiritual and moral legacy it has accumulated over generations, burns down ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ and sets fire to ‘you shall not covet your neighbor’s house.’ Imagine a world in which ‘Judaism’ becomes a synonym for religious fanaticism, racism, and brutal oppression. Could Judaism survive such a spiritual destruction?” Mr. Hariri asked three months before Hamas’s game-changing October 7 attack on Israel.

Mr. Hariri’s nightmare began to unfold when Binyamin Netanyahu partnered in 2022 with militant religious Zionists, ultra-conservatives, and ultra-nationalists to form the most far-right government in Israel’s history.

The nightmare became reality with Israel’s response to the Hamas attack; the devastation of Gaza; the killing of tens of thousands of innocent Palestinians and the wounding of tens of thousands more; and the mindless effort to subject Palestinians, destroy traces of their existence as a distinct group, and quash their hope of achieving their national aspirations.

However, the seeds of the nightmare were planted decades earlier with the Israeli capture of the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war and its occupation of Palestinian land since.

Mr Hariri’s nightmare and scholars’ research into problematic precepts of the Halakha, Jewish law, take on added significance with religious Zionism increasingly driving Israeli claims to all of Palestine.

As a result, Israel’s claims, West Bank policies, and Gaza war conduct shine a spotlight on Jewish  religious legal precepts, much like the 9/11 Al Qaeda attacks did with Islam.

Religious Zionism struggled for decades to identify a project that would match secular Zionism’s success in creating a Jewish state. The settlement of occupied lands historically claimed by religious Zionists as Jewish was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

Settlements became religious Zionists’ flagship project, facilitated by the ruling Labour Party’s propagation of settlements south of Jerusalem and in the Jordan Valley for security purposes. Settlements have led religious Zionists down a path of belief in Jewish supremacism that has turned them into an existential threat to Judaism as we know it.

It is a path that surrendered religious Zionism, despite the silent majority’s rejection of religious extremism to men like Meir Kahane, an America-born ultranationalist and racist rabbi, who was convicted on terrorism charges and is National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir’s idol; Baruch Goldstein, an American-Israeli settler who in 1994 killed 29 Muslim worshippers and wounded 125 others in Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs that served as a mosque; and Yigal Amir, a right-wing extremist, who a year later assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Mr. Hariri likens the threat posed by the rise of extremist religious Zionists to the Babylonians’ destruction of the First Jewish Temple in 586 BC when they conquered Jerusalem and the Romans’ razing of the Second Jewish Temple in 70 AD.

It is a threat far more existential than the renewed rise of anti-Semitism accelerated by Israel’s Gaza war conduct.

“Can Judaism survive a Third Destruction?… What if the Third Destruction is different? What if, this time, the Zealots succeeded in creating a messianic state that would destroy Israeli democracy and would persecute Arabs, secular people, women, and LGBTQ people? What if that state were to embrace a racist ideology of Jewish supremacy – but thanks to its nuclear weapons and cyber industries, it managed to avoid for some time economic and political destruction? If this were to happen, then Judaism would have to deal with an unprecedented kind of destruction – a spiritual destruction… Every day that religious Zionist rabbis and politicians are leading Israel toward spiritual destruction, without encountering serious in-house resistance, will just make their future spiritual crisis more intractable,” Mr. Hariri warned.

Resistance by what likely is the silent majority of religious Jews opposed to ultra-conservative, extremist religious Zionism is one path towards evading what Mr. Hariri dubs the Third Destruction.

Resistance needs to be coupled with religious reform that tackles problematic precepts of Jewish law.

“The Jewish people were always ethnocentric. It believes in the supremacy of its ethnic collective over other nations. This is a blatantly hierarchical conception, according to which the Jew is superior to the non-Jew. But throughout history, this was a supremacy that lacked the force of a state and an apparatus for wielding control over non-Jews,” said political scientist Menahem Klein.

Like Mr. Hariri, Mr. Klein is one of several scholars who have charted the emergence of contemporary expressions of militant Judaism. Mr. Klein labels it Jewish messianism and categorises it as “a new Judaism.”

Mr. Klein argued that “this new Judaism was not shaped in the beit midrash (study hall of the Torah) as classical Judaism was, but within the framework of a dominant Israeli regime in general and rule over the Palestinians in particular. The ethnocentrism evolved from a form of self-awareness into a modus operandi, from a universal mission into oppression and occupation.”

Mr. Klein suggested that “Jewish messianism has undergone a transformation. Classic Jewish literature depicted the advent of a messianic age following a catastrophe or great crisis, the birth pangs of the Messiah, a war of Gog and Magog. All those elements are part of the messianic transition from the realm of history into one that transcends history.”

He went on to say that “in contrast, the new Jewish messianism is a product of historical success, the achievement of Jewish sovereignty, and the wielding of power over non-Jewish surroundings.”

Sociologist Gershon Shafir has charted what he describes as an evolution from a perceived secular Jewish privilege that justified a claim to Palestine based on religion, ethnicity, and/or race to notions of Jewish supremacy rooted in Jewish religious law as articulated by members of Israel’s current government and proponents of militant religious Zionism.

The transition raised tricky legal questions for religious Zionist rabbis and scholars. While the harsh commandments of conquest codified in Maimonides’s 12th-century Mishne Torah barred a return to Arab sovereignty of occupied land, Mr. Shafir said the status of the territories’ inhabitants needed to be defined.

“In the wake of the 1967 occupation, prominent religious Zionist rabbis forged what I call an ‘originalist’ interpretation around the commandments of conquest…particularly of its harsh codification in Maimonides’s 12th-century Mishne Torah. The vast majority agrees that the land conquered cannot be returned to Arab hands, but they are also engaged in a protracted debate of the archaic conditions under which Arabs in the Occupied Palestinian Territories are to be viewed as meeting the multiple conditions for being considered ‘ger toshav’ (resident alien) in ‘Judea and Samaria and Gaza?” Mr. Shafir said.

On what conditions did Palestinians qualify as ger toshav? Were they idolaters, or did they observe the seven commandments of the Sons of Noah that constitute principles imposed on non-Jews? Did residents need to recognise Jewish supremacy? If so, was it still necessary to make them ‘wretched and humiliated’ following Maimondes’ commandments, and how does one do that? What would the fate of the residents be if they did not qualify as ger toshav and, therefore, had no right to remain on the territory?

Israelis evaded answering these questions before the capture of the West Bank, Gaza, and Jerusalem. They were effectively fudged as Israel tried to figure out how to deal with a non-Jewish minority within its legal borders. The willingness and ability to continue to do so post-1967 was fundamentally altered by the demographics of the conquest of land that held great significance for religious nationalists.

Post-1967, fudging issues was no longer an option. Israelis could no longer evade coming to grips with the commandment to inherit and settle the land of Israel.

The conquest set off a process in Judaism not unlike the impact of Muslim religious forces’ political and social involvement in the search for a social order in Muslim-majority lands that accommodated both Islam and modernity with similar outcomes.

Militant religious Zionism’s Halakhic state is not that different from concepts of an Islamic state’s notions of the caliphate and political Islamic and jihadist thinking regarding what it means for the majority of the population as well as minorities.

The process of building support for notions of a Jewish or an Islamic theocracy involved ensuring that a politicized religion played an ever more important role in identity.

Much like in the Islamic State, politicization involved territorial ambition. In militant religious Zionist views of a Jewish state grounded in the Halakha, this meant an Israel controlling the land of ancient Israel in which there would be no place, no equitable place, for non-Jews.

The transition from privilege to supremacy involved emphasising different religious texts. Initially dominating Israel, the secular Labour movement and the left sought religious grounding in the Talmud, the primary rabbinical source of religious law and theology.

In contrast to the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible, the Talmud focuses less on the history of Jewish life in the Land of Israel in Antiquity. The Bible’s focus makes it more of a guiding text for religious Zionists and ultra-nationalists like Messrs. Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich.

“A sovereign state with a large Jewish majority could not have existed without the ethnic cleansing carried out in the 1948 war and its aftermath. Back then, a new form of Judaism had already started to take on form and substance. That process was accelerated after 1967 with the establishment of the settlements. In school textbooks, the Books of Joshua, Judges, and Kings supplanted those of the prophets who had preached social justice and a moral regime – Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Amos,” Mr. Klein noted.

Unlike discussions in Islam about the nature of an Islamic state, the Jewish battle over the primacy of texts was fought in an environment in which legal debate about the rules that govern statecraft, warfare, and policies towards minorities had stagnated for more than a millennium because they were of no relevance to a community that did not control a state and land of its own and was a minority in its own right.

“There is no precedent in Jewish history for the existence of a Jewish state that constitutes a regional power and rules another people. Never before has the Jewish people possessed a combination like this of sovereignty, power, and control, which are being exploited to oppress another people,” Mr. Klein said.

Religious Zionists had little, if anything, to help them come to grips with the immense changes in the structure and legitimacy of the state since Maimonides codified Jewish law in the 12th century.

The codification represented a worldview that did not bode well for Jews or non-Jews, certainly not in a 21st-century world. Yet, Maimonides’ 14-volume magnus opus constitutes legal ground zero for religious Zionists.

Maimonides codified Jewish concepts that influenced Muslim legal thinking and have been retained in Judaism and Islam even though they were no longer appropriate or fit for purpose.

The Halakhic notion of the ger toshav or resident alien was not all that different from the notion of the dhimmi, the protected but unequal status in Islam of People of the Book, Jews and Christians, but suddenly had taken on a relevance it had not had for a thousand years.

Like the dhimmi, the ger toshav was expected to pay tribute. Also, like the dhimmi, the ger toshav did not enjoy equal rights.

Maimonides argued in favor of the subjugation of the ger toshav that needed to be “demeaning and humiliating.” Residents were not allowed to lift their heads against Israel or be offered preferential treatment.

The modern-day religious Zionist interpretation of these principles means that the Israeli government must demand that ger toshav or residents recognise Jewish sovereignty and Israel as a Jewish state. Refusal to do so would deprive them of the right to reside on the land, a principle that has crept into Israeli policies.

“As long as Jewish nationalism is bound up with Judaism as a historic religion and people, equality and partnership of non-Jews in sovereignty cannot be seen as just a secular phenomenon involving a division of power and government.” Mr. Klein said.

He suggested that the solution may be “to find a Jewish theological and historic basis for sharing sovereignty with non-Jews. That challenge now awaits the opponents of Jewish supremacy.”

James M. Dorsey

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an award-winning journalist and scholar, a Senior Fellow at the National University of Singapore's Middle East Institute and Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and blog.

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