Al-Aqsa To Religious Jews: Which Side Are You On?

When Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, recently told the U.N. General Assembly that his army’s massacre in Gaza was really an act of self-defense against the militia calling itself Islamic State, the crusading implications of his rhetoric were hard to ignore – especially since an Israeli commander leading the Gaza invasion had already described his victims as people who “dare to curse, blaspheme and scorn the God of Israel.” But if the Jewish State is gearing up for holy war, where are Jewish voices denouncing this ugly strategy for what it is?

The urgency of the situation is beyond doubt, as Israel’s latest terror campaign targets the point most likely to ignite Palestinian religious sensibilities: the Al-Aqsa compound in occupied East Jerusalem. On November 5, Israeli police stormed the mosque, injuring some 30 worshipers and setting off a number of protests; the attack capped weeks of increased Israeli violence in which several Palestinians, including children, were killed. (Israelis have died as well, in apparent retaliatory attacks in the Occupied Territories; a soldier was also recently stabbed to death in Tel Aviv by a Palestinian from occupied Nablus.) The government’s evident goal is to incite violent resistance, which will then serve as a pretext for accelerating the pace of Israel’s ethnic cleansing of what, under international law, should be the Palestinian portion of Jerusalem in any two-state settlement.

I have no doubt that there are many religious Jews who, like me, deplore Israel’s stoking of religious conflict as a tool of occupation. In fact, I suspect that many are disgusted by the Israeli right’s attempts to cloak this form of terror in the language of Judaism, as in a recent op-ed in the pro-settler Jewish Press that declared “the Temple Mount [as Jews refer to Al-Aqsa]…belongs to the Jewish people and it is there that the Third Temple will be built in honor of the L-rd of Israel.” The fine Israeli columnist Gideon Levy, days after the Al-Aqsa attack, rightly decried that sort of blather as a “cynical and superficial” ploy of right-wing politicians “who are instigating a war over this crazy hill…where religion and state are bound in a mixture of folklore and hatred of others.”

That’s clear enough – but the question is: Why isn’t the rabbinate, and why aren’t other religious Jews, saying such things at this critical moment? For the timing is indeed critical. Many lives probably depend on what the Israeli government does next, and it’s quite possible that a strong statement from prominent rabbis could sway the government’s Al-Aqsa policy, for better or for worse. If Jewish clergy blinks at Israeli provocations ostensibly based on Judaism – with so much at stake – doesn’t it deserve the condemnation so freely aimed at Muslim clerics, throughout the West, if they fail to object to violent appeals grounded in Islam?

Of course it does. Tragically, however, Jewish leadership so far seems not even to recognize the challenge, showing far more interest in the Temple Mount as a symbol of ethnic dominance than as a test of ethical integrity. Rabbi Eliyahu Kitov, in a popular religious book, gloated that the capture of the site by Israeli forces in 1967 meant that “the Eternal City of Jerusalem, whose most holy precincts had been occupied by Arabs…was restored as one city to her natural inheritors.” It is painful testimony to the moral state of the rabbinate that it cannot find equally ardent prose to denounce the deliberate shedding of civilian blood at the place from which, as Rabbi Kitov put it, “the Divine Presence has never departed.”

True, to his credit, Israel’s Chief Sephardic Rabbi recently reiterated the traditional Jewish position that observant Jews are forbidden to enter the Al-Aqsa compound, lest they inadvertently defile the site of sacrifices offered when the Jewish Temple stood on the same ground before 70 C.E. But nowhere has the rabbi denounced Israel’s violence against Muslim worshipers or acknowledged that, whatever the site’s ancient history, Al-Aqsa stands in occupied Palestinian territory. (In fact, another prominent Israeli Orthodox rabbi, David Yosef, stressed this week that the ban on worshiping there “does not imply that we [Jews] forfeit our rights to this holy place.”) And other Orthodox rabbis of the “national religious” camp have swung dangerously to the right, actually encouraging religious Jews to ascend Al-Aqsa – Palestinians be damned. “Chamberlain-like appeasement,” another column in the Jewish Press called the traditional rabbinic refusal to invade the site, drawing vigorous applause from its large on-line Orthodox readership.

And the trouble isn’t only with the Orthodox. Last week, after learning of Wednesday’s attack, I emailed the Israel Movement for Reform and Progressive Judaism (IMPJ) via its website, which advertises the organization as “the umbrella organization of all the Reform communities and institutions in Israel” and claims commitment to, among other things, “the commandments concerning relations between humans, religious tolerance, and full equality between women and men in the synagogue and in all walks of life.” I asked its administrators, given such commitments, whether they would join in protesting Israel’s violent discrimination against Muslims at Al-Aqsa. I got no reply. Yes, this fall IMPJ urged Israeli Jews to include Muslims in food donations because “we just couldn’t ignore the rising tide of racism in the country in recent months.” But as far as I know, its leaders haven’t said a word as the “tide of racism” washes over Jerusalem’s holiest ground.

I also wrote to Women of the Wall, an “egalitarian” Jewish organization that brings groups of Jewish women to perform what once were male-only religious rituals at the Western Wall, just below Al-Aqsa (the nearest point to the Temple Mount where Jews may traditionally pray). I thought it would be logical for an organization that struggles for the right of all Jews to pray near the ancient Temple – often in the face of official harassment – to extend the same principle to all Muslims worshiping at virtually the same spot. Again, no answer. (It may be relevant to the organization’s notion of equality that Phyllis Chesler, one of its most prominent American boosters, has also distinguished herself recently as a ranting Islamophobe.)

So where are the usually talkative Jewish leaders, across the religious spectrum, while Israel appropriates a Jewish holy site as the locus for holy war? It’s possible that some clergymen and lay figures who object to Netanyahu’s policy are too timid to speak their minds. And there are doubtless some, albeit (I believe) a minority, who actually agree with him and consciously long to see the Israeli army seize control of all ancient Jewish sites.

But I think the biggest problem, and the one most tragic to acknowledge, is the inability of most Jewish “leaders” even to see the crisis behind the walls of parochialism that enclose their moral horizons. Gideon Eshet wrote the following (in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth) about right-wing Israeli politicians, but he could just as well have been describing the rabbinate:

Freedom to worship? Human rights? It changes from person to person, depends on where…. Let’s leave the Muslims and the Christians out of this and focus on the Jews. What about the rights of Jews who want to get married without an (Orthodox ) rabbi?… There is a group of people for whom their human rights are just for Jewish Orthodox rituals, and they are willing to draw us all into a blood bath in the name of those human rights…

That, I’m afraid, about sums up what Orthodox rabbis perceive as “rights” – and, mutatis mutandis, the rest of the Jewish clergy is scarcely different. Religious symbols clearly matter to them. But religious morality doesn’t; or if it does, only when it harmonizes with religious party politics. Which is why, during weeks of tumultuous protests earlier this year against military service for religious students, not one spokesman for the affected ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel suggested that religious Jews don’t want to serve in an army dedicated to the very un-Talmudic goals of making off with other people’s property and oppressing those who stand in the way of the theft. It’s also why not one of their more “modern” critics, so far as I know, chided them for not making that argument. You could believe that military service for the State of Israel is the paramount religious duty. Or you could believe that Talmud study trumps it. But the idea that the human rights of occupied Palestinians might have a moral bearing on the question didn’t even enter into the debate.

Let me be clear: I’m not expecting Jewish clergymen, or for that matter religious Jews, to be completely neutral about a holy site like the Temple Mount (a.k.a. Al-Aqsa). It’s natural that the Jewish significance of the ancient site, and the religious laws associated with it, will have a special resonance for people who build their lives around Judaism. It’s just as natural that same is true, in reverse, for devout Muslims when they identify with Al-Aqsa’s Exalted Shrine.

But precisely because those religious feelings are so natural and so obvious, it should be just as obvious that when warmongers try to milk them for a casus belli, it’s high time for religious leaders to protest the exploitation of a sacred space for the most evil of purposes.

So I repeat: where is the rabbinate? Where are the voices for the rest of us – that is, all the people who identify themselves as religious Jews? Ultimately we’re faced with a very simple question: What’s uppermost in our religious consciousness – religious dominance or basic human rights? The Jewish State’s control over the Temple Mount, or the right of Palestinian Muslims to their land and their way of life? Religious morality, like any other sort of morality, ought to provide an unequivocal answer. If Jewish leaders can’t make the right choice, or at any rate can’t publicly articulate it, then what are they? And in this time of crisis – to quote the ancient Jewish sage Hillel – “If not now, when?”

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