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The Bible and Suicide

Jewish Extremism in Israel

Dateline: December 09, 1998

Yitzhak Rabin's murder was neither the conclusion nor even the beginning of a long and not always subtle process which is moving Israel away from a secular state towards a theocracy. Two very different groups are attempting to peacefully coexist in Israel, each with mutually exclusive identities and each contending to define the nature of Israeli society. Sometimes one is dominant, sometimes the other - but at all times it is impossible to understand Israel with recognizing both.

One group promotes a modern society functioning according to the accepted rules of developed western societies, based on the concepts of civil liberties and civil citizenship. A second group, the focus of this article, recognize as their sole authority a selective interpretation of the Jewish halacha, or religious law. Their aim is to create a "halachic Jewish state," a theocracy where the only law is religious in nature and all obligations and rights are defined in ancient religious terms. Their "Land of Israel" is not a strip of land with territorial boundaries, it is instead a spiritual and theological concept which must be realized.

Who are they? Where do they come from? What are their current political activities and immediate political goals? And, most importantly, what effect are they having on the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians? The answers are disturbing at best.


The history of Gush Emunim, or Bloc of the Faithful, can most simply be traced back to a cadre of young men hardened in the 1967 war and who, through the 1970s, came into leadership positions in far-right and ultra-religious communities across Israel. After becoming organized on a wider scale by the mid-1970s, they engaged in a considerable variety of direct-action political activities. Their efforts ranged from mass-protest rallies in which the morals of the nation were rebuked, to terrorist acts designed to sabotage peace efforts with Arab neighbors.

With assistance from various sympathetic government leaders, Gush Emunim have been especially involved with the effort to increase the numbers of settlers in the Occupied Territories. Those areas are considered by them to be a part of "Greater Israel" - part of the spiritual and theological state which Jews are destined to rule over. Settlers are often themselves members of Gush Emunim who then proceed to engage in deliberate conflict with Palestinian neighbors, provoking confrontation at every turn. As you will see, the interests of their immediate Palestinian neighbors are simply not considered relevant.


Violent activism in the name of religious politics found a logical, if desperate, conclusion in the attempted plot to blow up the sacred Islamic mosque and shrine on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. This is the purported site of Solomon's Temple, and it is the goal of Gush Emunim members to eliminate the blasphemous presence of Islam from their holy site and rebuild their own temple. This was to have been the crowning glory in activities of Jewish underground terrorism in the Territories. It is fortunate that covert efforts by the Israeli secret service foiled this plan in 1984, because simulations conducted by the Harvard Center for International Affairs indicated that World War III would have been a likely result had the plot succeeded.

In fact, activist-believers had taken just that possibility into account, expecting that the bombing would result in a massive Muslim jihad which would sweep the entire planet into confrontation. We, evidently, were to be sacrificed in their war. This was interpreted as the "War of Gog and Magog" from which a religious Israel would emerge victorious, paving the way for the appearance of the True Messiah. Such inhuman attitudes towards everyone outside the Gush Emunim must be kept in mind at all times - they don't care about what happens to the rest of us.

Through their "sacred vigilantism," not only are the rights of the native Arab population threatened, but the future of Israel as a free democracy as well. The rest of the world is none too safer, either.

Political Religion

To understand Gush Emunim, it is necessary to see how they manage to meld politics and religion. By self-definition, they are a group of devoted religious believers for whom the concept of compromise is practically foreign. They know Truth, and of course Truth cannot be compromised or abandoned in any manner. Leaders tend to be religious scholars and clerics - among the best and brightest of their generation (what does this say about religious scholars?). Motives and goals are defined solely along religious lines and experiences are expressed in religious, if not mythic, terms.

Gush Emunim must be recognized as exceptionally radical in at least three crucial aspects. The first is the settling of "The Greater Land of Israel" - more commonly known as the Occupied Territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. These are territories which were captured in war by Israel but populated almost entirely by Palestinians. For Gush Emunim, these territories rightfully belong to Israel since it was originally given to the ancient Hebrews by God.

It is thus the sacred duty of Jews to populate these areas - Arab rights and interests are disregarded as a matter of principle. If God wants them to have that land, then presumably the intransigent Palestinians deserve whatever happens to them should they stand in God's way. It would probably be a good idea to keep in mind the excessive violence and inhumanity displayed by the Hebrews in the Old Testament when first conquering the land they believed promised to them. Then, recognize that the Gush Emunim take all of that very, very seriously.

It should thus come as no surprise that the issue of Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories are a matter of such conflict in the current peace process. Foreign observers may imagine that it is a lot of unnecessary excitement on the part of Palestinians about a few new Jewish neighbors, but people in the region realize that Jewish settlements are part of a coordinated effort by radical religious Jews to fundamentally alter the character of the entire region. With the tacit if not explicit assistance of the Israeli government, they hope to transform the Occupied Territories into a part of a theocratic Israel.

The second radical aspect is their consistent attempts to impose their own religious vision on the rest of a secular Israel. They work diligently to manipulate state power and pubic opinion in an effort to control state and society, forcing both to adhere to the movement's religious norms. The Gush Emunim have little actual respect for Israel's civil and political institutions, except insofar as they can be used to attain certain practical goals. On the whole, secular institutions are viewed as a long-term impediment to the maturation of a truly religious Jewish state.

Quote of the week:

To sum up:

1. The cosmos is a gigantic flywheel making 10,000 revolutions a minute.

2. Man is a sick fly taking a dizzy ride on it.

3. Reigion is the theory that the wheel was designed and set spinning to give him the ride.

H.L. Mencken
The practical effects of this can be seen in a wide variety of ways: new norms of disrespect for the rule of civil law and the social contract of obedience to official authorities; the introduction of an extreme conservative and puritanical trend in the public debate on ethics and morality; increased brutalization in public relations; and reinforcement of hawkish tendencies in Israeli foreign policies. Many people in Israel still value their civil, democratic institutions, but they face many difficulties in opposing the Orthodox extremists.

The third radical aspect of Gush Emunim is perhaps the most subtle, and that is the symbolic/mythical system which underlies their world view. Their radical vision of Judaism incorporates religious Zionism as an integral and irreplaceable aspect of Judaism itself. There can be no religion for the Jews which does not incorporate religious Zionism, and Zionism itself can only be religious in nature. Moreover, it is argued that Zionism is not merely important to Judaism, but must be the core of any true Judaism - the central aspect around which all else revolves. Thus, extreme nationalism and expansionism are elevated for inclusion within traditional definitions of Judaism.

There is, then, no sort of politics which is separate from religion and no measure of personal autonomy in an authentic or secular society.


Consider, now, the issue of peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. For the Gush Emunim, it really doesn't matter if the partners are Egyptian, Syrian, Jordanian or Palestinian. Their interests are disregarded and their claims viewed as irrelevant as a matter of basic principle - their actual content is meaningless. God has already told the Jews what they must do, and if that annoys anyone else, tough.

Decisions about foreign policy need not take other sides into account, since the relations between Israel and Gentiles really do not matter - only the relation between Israel, the Torah and faith matter. Peace is not a complex web of relations between communities of equals but instead a spiritually correct orientation towards God. Once such principles are recognized, everything else is supposed to fall into place.

Yitzhak Rabin went to extraordinary lengths to shed himself of his more violent past and move Israel towards a peaceful future with its Arab neighbors - and for that, he was branded a traitor by religious leaders in the Gush Emunim. Thus, his death was religiously justified. Threatening the tribal and superstitious orientation of some radical religious groups, his policies were moving Israel away from an eventual theocracy.

And he wasn't the first to be killed. In 1994, New York-born Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 praying Palestinians at the Cave of the Patriarchs in the West Bank town of Hebron in an effort to eliminate the blasphemous presence of Muslims - today, this mass murderer is venerated as a martyr to the cause of Israeli religious fulfillment. His memory is such an inspiration to radical terrorists that the army has attempted to remove the words "holy" and "martyr" from his grave in the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba. Unfortunately, the army, which is responsible for administration in the West Bank, has been blocked in its efforts by the Israeli Supreme Court.

What is a Jew?

The obvious question which come up in all of this is: just what is a "Jew" anyway? Since Israel is supposed to be a Jewish state and exist as a Jewish homeland, who should be considered a Jew, and who not? Such questions are much too big to be answered here, but perhaps a few general principles should be mentioned.

Jewishness isn't racial, since it would be absurd to say that Jews all belong to any one, pure race. Ethnic variety within Judaism is quite wide. Jews aren't simply a "socio-religious" group, since that would quickly exclude people like Freud and Marx. Jewish identity cannot simply be cultural identity - there are more differences between an American Jew and a Yemenite Jew than between an American Jew and an American non-Jew.

Most Jews and probably many non-Jews will regard any person as a Jew if they have a Jewish mother - regardless of the beliefs of the father. The tricky point comes when we consider conversion to Judaism. All sects of Judaism - Reform, Conservative and Orthodox - perform conversion rituals by which a person can become officially a Jew. Unfortunately, the Orthodox Jews flatly refuse to recognize the validity of non-Orthodox conversions.

This might not be so bad, until we remember that the Orthodox radicals are attempting to impose their beliefs on the rest of society - and this has been one of their prime targets. They have spared little expense in attempting to have only their conversion ceremonies officially recognized by the state. The importance lies in the fact that Jews are granted citizenship in Israel, so by controlling the official state definition of who may become a Jew, the Orthodox radicals will control who becomes a citizen. Naturally, Reform and Conservative Jews haven't taken kindly to this threat, but only time will tell if their fight will be successful.

There is no question but that the current peace process is being severely hindered by radical religious groups in Israel. Matters are made worse by the fact that the current Netanyahu administration is politically beholden to the extreme religious political parties which give Netanyahu the majority he needs to form a government. This is why he proceeds with Jewish settlements at a breathtaking pace. This is why Jewish settlers are defended and justified, almost regardless of what actions they take. The Palestinians have certainly not been saints in this issue, and the peace process has obviously been hurt by the terrorist acts of Hammas. But we must all recognize the harm done by extremist orthodox Jews.

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