January 21, 2019

A Settler on Settler Violence

On February 25, 1994, the 8:00 news reported that dozens of Palestinians had been murdered at the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron. Even before verifying any of the details, I knew instinctively that the man who had opened fire on Muslims attending Salat al-Fajr, the early-morning prayer service for the second Friday of Ramadan, was an Orthodox Jew like myself, a man whose knitted kipa would have closely resembled mine.

On November 5, 1995, I received a call from my in-laws, who had heard before I did that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin had been murdered, following a massive rally in support of the Oslo process in Tel Aviv. Again, I did not have to be told that Yigal Amir was a member in good standing of the religious Zionist world, the same community I had come to as an adult and joined voluntarily when I made Aliya two years prior.

On July 2, 2014, when news hit that Mohammed Abu Khdeir had been kidnapped and burned alive in a revenge attack for the murder of Eyal Yifrah, Gil-Ad Sha'ar and Naftali Fraenkel, I understood immediately that the killers were ostensibly Orthodox Jews, individuals who supposedly valued the same Torah I did. Two days earlier, when I heard that packs of Israelis were roaming the streets of Jerusalem during the funeral of Yifrah, Sha’ar and Fraenkel, I did not need to wait for confirmation to know that the attackers came from religious communities

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I came to Orthodoxy late in life, as a teenager and young adult, to the consternation of much of my family, for whom the word “orthodox” was a synonym for “sub-par” and “repressive restrictions.” As second-generation American Jews, my father, uncles, grandparents and extended family saw little value in kosher food or sabbath observance, but I could not understand how they could fail to see the beauty that I did in Jewish tradition and law.

Whereas they saw only oppressive religious restrictions over what I could eat and how I spent my Saturdays, I celebrated my connection to Jewish law and history, and especially the deep humanity and compassion of the halachic system. I was inspired by halachot like the requirement to leave the corner of a field unharvested, for the benefit of the poor.

Similarly, the law of pikuach nefesh  – the insistence that human life takes precedence over virtually all Torah laws – was evidence to me that God was indeed to be found inside this exalted system of ritual and law. Shabbat served as a weekly opportunity to stop and appreciate God’s creation; Pesach and Sukkot were occasion to re-live the exodus from Egypt and to celebrate eternal ideas of freedom.

All of which makes the current reality of Orthodoxy today that much more painful. Even before the murder of 18-month-old Ali Dawabshe and the stabbing of six participants in the Jerusalem gay pride parade the previous day, the family of one Druze IDF soldier told me that their son wanted to leave his position in an elite combat unit because of the poor treatment he receives from Jewish soldiers. “Especially the Orthodox ones,” they said. “He says that many of the yeshiva students treat him like he’s not even human.”

I’ve heard that message far too many times, in far too many settings, around Israel. Non-Jewish clergy in the Old City of Jerusalem say they are routinely spat on by Orthodox Jews. Palestinians of Hebron say they have learned to identify when “trouble” is on the way from new IDF units that come to serve in the troubled city: “When we see soldiers with kipot and ‘those strings hanging down’, we know they are going to harass us, and that the settlers will attack us with even more impunity than usual,” one man told me.

And so I look at this creature called Orthodoxy, and especially at religious Zionism, an ideal to which I have dedicated my entire life – and I find myself a stranger. I lose sleep over the notion that the Judaism I have always celebrated has become an angry caricature of itself – otherwise good people, in Efrat and elsewhere, are unbothered not only by evil individuals, but by the fact that the criminals justify their actions from the Torah system that I have always associated with justice and compassion and respect and humility. Nearly every commentator this week compared the Judea and Samaria community to ISIS and to radical Islam, and for the first time, I could not argue that this is not the case. There are no words to describe the pain I feel at having written those words.

Defenders of our Orthodox community will note, correctly, that Orthodox communities around the world are noteworthy for their deep commitment to exalted values such as charity and volunteering, and they warn not to throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater. OF course, this is accurate.

But this does not alleviate the fact that our community is ill, and that increasingly, I do not recognise the monster we have created.  As for me, I continue to believe in the divine nature of the halachic system and in the historic mission of the Jewish people returning to our historic land after 2000 years. And I ask myself what my place is here, or even whether I truly have a place here at all.