Opinion: Israel's 'Pious' Jewish Ministers Are Acting Like the non-Jews Who Tormented Us for Centuries

mb haaretz

Israel's self-proclaimed 'religious' government ministers are now mirroring the cruel, hateful way Jews were long treated by the non-Jewish world. Their eagerness for unrestrained majoritarian rule has historically always led to disaster for minorities

For most of Jewish history, Jews lived as a minority in a majority culture.

Wherever and whenever we lived as a minority, we judged the majority government, the majority culture, and the majority religion by how well it treated its minority.

It was an axiom of Jewish history: A majority culture had to restrain the full exercise of its prerogatives for the Jews to live with dignity. If the majority was not restrained by law, religion, culture, self-interest, or constitutional protections, Jews suffered, often alongside other minorities. Wherever Jews were tolerated – whether because they were needed or their rights were respected – the more they flourished, the more society benefited.

And the opposite was also true: When the majority exercised its rights without self-restraint, Jewish existence became ever more precarious. More often than not, the more a society loses its way, the worse it becomes for Jews and minorities.

Exclusionary societies were dangerous for Jews, but inclusionary societies are more beneficial.

So, it is painful to see the son of a Jewish historian who wrote about the Spanish Inquisition and the Expulsion – as in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – leading the effort to impose unconstrained majoritarian rule in the Jewish Homeland. He and his allies may/will personally benefit from that rule at the expense of democracy.

Yes, the Israeli government won a democratic election, so the majority rules, and that’s fair play, their supporters say. But since Israel has no constitution (that is another matter) there is nothing to constrain the majority once it decides the Knesset can overrule court rulings simply because it disagrees with them. The courts were the check on executive power. But now that central tenant of democracy is under threat by the coalition, the most right-wing and religious in Israel’s history.

Such a majority can trample on minorities because there is nothing to restrain the majority from exercising its will. It can decide to eliminate civil rights, any and all rights. One minister even spoke of revoking the rights of citizenship for Arab citizens of Israel if they carry out a terror attack. In the United States, certain rights are considered inalienable. Some are protected by the Constitution, which can be amended, but only with significant difficulty. Laws can be changed by Congress, but it is far more difficult to abrogate rights. It is, therefore, no wonder many of Israel’s most prominent defenders and supporters in the diaspora recoil with horror at the changes proposed by this government.

Similarly, many Israelis who made aliyah from the West and native-born Israelis who absorbed Western values – where rights are protected, and the majoritarian rule is restrained – are even more vehemently aghast at the situation.

The current Israeli government is acting contrary to the norms of what helped Jews thrive throughout history. Flushed with its narrow victory, the Israeli government is unfettered in the exercise of its power – and the unrestrained exercise of such power is a prescription for disaster.

Despite the self-proclaimed piety of so many within it, the government now mirrors the way Jews were treated by the non-Jewish world.

Vehicles set on fire last night by settlers in Hawara, last week.

Vehicles set on fire last night by settlers in Hawara, last week.Credit: JAAFAR ASHTIYEH - AFP

Dare I say that those Jews in power seem as if they want to act like the Goyim who tormented us for centuries? These “deeply religious leaders” of the Jewish State are desecrating Jewish history and Jewish memory. Jews are behaving toward others the way we were treated by those who hated us. The case of the revenge attack on Palestinian residents of a village called Hawara near Nablus last week is the most brutal of recent examples. The report that the pogromists paused to pray Maariv is the ultimate hillul Hashem, [desecration of the Divine Name].

Forty years ago, after the massacres at Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Lebanon, the Kahan Commission, an Israeli government commission, wrestled with the question of how to establish a norm of judgment when a pogrom was committed – by non-Jews – in territory under Jewish control.

The commission took a verse of the Torah, the beheaded heifer of Deuteronomy 21, as interpreted by rabbinic tradition. Rashi and the Midrash were invoked as the basis of its decision, and then again the teachings of tradition were tested by Jewish history. When a Jewish government in power does not prevent a pogrom under its rule, it has failed and its leadership must be held responsible.

A Jewish State must operate according to the historic values and traditions of the Jewish people and the lessons of Jewish history.

If Jewish history has taught us anything, it is to beware of unrestrained majoritarian rule. It tramples the rights of minorities and is an injustice to the whole of society. Although the government heralds itself as a Jewish State, Israel is a country where one in five citizens are non-Jews, and the Jewish majority is exceedingly diverse and divided – religious and secular; Mizrahi and Ashkenazi; Jews come from virtually every country of the diaspora. They are straight and LGBTQ. Not to mention all the non-Orthodox Jewish denominations.

Even the Orthodox religious community is diverse: Haredim, Hassidim with competing sects and Rebbes, Litvish yeshivas and their Roshei Yeshivot, Haredi nationalists, Religious Zionists, Modern Orthodox and every shade in between. Citizenship counts; the Torah admonishes us to treat the stranger among us well. Not once or twice. Thirty-six times, more than any other commandment. Only restraint on the part of the majority can make it work.

When I was a teenager in the Soviet Jewry movement, I had a conversation with Meir Kahane, the founder Kach, a group that promotes notions of Jewish supremacy Even as a kid, I told Kahane he could agitate as hard as he wanted in the United States. But there would come a time, after he would pull some outrageous act, that the majority and the law would restrain him and limit his power. I told him he would be truly dangerous in Israel, because advocating for Jewish power would not necessarily be restrained by the majority culture; only self-restraint or the limits imposed by law, by rights, by custom and by culture could keep Israel safe.

If Jewish history and experience have anything to teach us it is this: Beware unrestrained majoritarian rule. Historically it has led to disaster. It is definitively not “good for the Jews.”

Michael Berenbaum is a Distinguished Professor of Jewish Studies and Director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles. Formerly he was Executive Editor of the Second Edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica and Project Director overseeing the creation of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.


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