King's Torah splits Israel's religious and secular Jews
- 20 July 2011
- From the section Middle East
Recent protests in Israel highlight the differences between the country's religious and secular Jewish communities.
Hundreds of right-wing Jews have taken part in demonstrations outside Israel's Supreme Court over the brief detention of two prominent rabbis in the last few weeks.
There were clashes with police on horseback on the nearby Jerusalem streets and several arrests were made.
Rabbis Dov Lior and Yacob Yousef had endorsed a highly controversial book, the King's Torah - written by two lesser-known settler rabbis. It attempts to justify killing non-Jews, including those not involved in violence, under certain circumstances.
The fifth chapter, entitled "Murder of non-Jews in a time of war" has been widely quoted in the Israeli media. The summary states that "you can kill those who are not supporting or encouraging murder in order to save the lives of Jews".
At one point it suggests that babies can justifiably be killed if it is clear they will grow up to pose a threat.
Israeli police investigating allegations of incitement had asked the rabbis to be voluntarily questioned, but took them into custody when they refused.
Both men have strong support among ideological Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank, but the wider religious community also took up their cause.
The heated reaction to their arrests has highlighted tensions between religious and civil authority in Israel and sparked a debate over freedom of expression.
Some students who joined a rally on 4 July are now back in the quiet of the library of the Raanana Yeshiva, a seminary of higher Jewish studies, north of Tel Aviv.
Eliyahu Gross, 21, travelled with friends to Jerusalem but tells me he had not read the King's Torah.
"I was just demonstrating against the idea of the restriction of the Torah," he says, stressing the need for uninhibited discussions of Judaism's founding legal and ethical religious texts.
"In my point of view, anything that's against the freedom of the Torah is basically against my freedom as a Jew."
Rabbi Yehuda Amar, who helped organise the gathering, strongly rejects the way the text has been presented.
"Jewish law is very, very careful about anything that poses a threat to life," he says. He maintains that the book invites only theoretical analysis of scripture.
"We need freedom to study the Torah on both a spiritual level and on a democratic level," Rabbi Amar adds. "We try to show there is a contrast: Spiritual ideas are pulled away from practical life."
As the discussion goes on, the religious community's sense of marginalisation comes to the fore.
The head of the yeshiva, Rabbi Haim Rehig, sees the King's Torah as "a problematic book" and has written against it.
He believes the recent protests were mainly about religious Jews' demand for "equality before the law".
"Every time they investigate the 'right-side of the map', if you can call it that, you see there are culture clashes between us and the secular part of the country," he says.
He suggests some left-wing academics have incited hatred of settlers and religious Jews "and nobody arrested them because we are some kind of a minority here".
An unscientific sample of public opinion in the Mahane Yehuda Market on Jaffa Road in West Jerusalem, illustrates the gap between Israel's religious Jewish minority and its secular majority.
Here, there is a lot of support for the police action against the rabbis who backed the controversial text. Many see it as proof that laws apply to all.
"A rabbi is a very, very important role, but he is not above the law," says Avi Ben Yousef.
"As citizens we all follow the same laws and regulations. We live in a democracy and this is how it should be."
"If someone supports racism, it's not allowed in the law, so he should be arrested," says local business-owner, Eli.
"I think more than that, the people who wrote the book should be on trial.
"I'm worried not just because of this book, but because of religious people," he continues.
"A lot of people are worried but they don't talk. This is a problem because the people whose voices are heard all the time are the extremists who support this book."
Times of stress
There have been several moments in recent Israeli history that have amplified tensions between religious and secular Jews.
In 2005, Israel's unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip led to its security forces forcibly evicting Jewish settlers - who were mostly religious - following bitter protests.
Many in the religious community saw this as a betrayal by the state - and its institutions, particularly the Supreme Court, which ruled that the government's disengagement plan was constitutional.
Ten years earlier the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jew Yigal Amir also caused a deep rift. Amir opposed Mr Rabin's signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords with the Palestinians.
A research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, Yair Sheleg, has long studied religious trends in the country and warns that misunderstanding between different groups is dangerous. He stresses that secular Jews should not view all religious Jews in the same way.
"I found an inner struggle between the liberals and extremists within the religious Zionist sector," he says. "The extremists gain power if they feel that [Israel's] secular majority describes the whole sector as extremists."
"When young people feel they are hated, it makes them more extreme. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy."
More ultra-Orthodox Jews are joining the workforce in greater numbers, instead of devoting their lives solely to study of the Torah. Some also do national service in the military.
Those in the orthodox community increasingly serve in army combat units.
Although the armed forces publish relatively little information about the background of enlistees, last August Israel Defense Forces magazine Maarachot reported that in recent years about 30% of graduates from an infantry officers' course defined themselves as "Zionist religious", up from 2.5% in 1980.
This may help change perceptions.
However, the King's Torah episode is a reminder of the potential for antagonism and clashes of ideology.
As a large number of religious Jews live in settlements in the West Bank or have relatives there, many analysts see it as the potential location for future flare-ups.
While international law deems the settlements illegal, Israel disputes this. The Palestinians want the land for a future state.
Israeli military chiefs responsible for the West Bank are reported to be worried about possible clashes with settlers when they move to clear a settlement outpost in the coming months in accordance with a Supreme Court decision.
Already an increase in violence involving right-wing Jewish extremists and local Palestinians has been recorded.
An article in Israel's Maariv newspaper quotes the country's regional army commander as saying that action by Jewish extremists "is building up into a critical mass… for this group, a book like the King's Torah is not a theoretical discussion."