24 March 2019

Is Israel becoming a racist theocracy or an ethno-religious settler state?

From gender divided campuses to religious books justifying the murder of non-Jewish children - Meet Israel's vibrant democracy

In an important article How the rule of the rabbis is fuelling a holy war in Israel Jonathan Cook points to the slide of Israel into what might be termed a racist theocracy bent on a holy war with a section of its own citizens if not those outside its borders. The question is how far is this true? Is Israel in danger of becoming a Jewish version of Iran or Saudi Arabia?
Israel is defined, according to s.1(b) of the Jewish Nation State Law passed last year as the ‘nation state of the Jewish people.’ As Prime Minister Netanyahu explained, ‘ Israel is the state of the Jewish people — and belongs to them alone,”. This was in response to TV presenter Rotem Sela’s plea

“When will anyone in this government tell the public that this is a country of all its citizens, and all people are born equal. The Arabs are also human beings. And also the Druze, and the gays, and the lesbians and… gasp… leftists.”
File photo The ultra-Orthodox campus at Ono Academic College, January 17, 2019.Olivier Fitoussi
Sela’s rhetorical question was itself a response to Culture Minister, Miri Regev, a self-declared fascist, attacking Benny Gantz, the main election contender, on Israel’s Channel 12. She accused him of only being able to form a government with the support of the Arabs. Shock horror! In Israel it is a taboo to form a government relying on Arab support.
Of course there are still liberal Zionists who pretend that Israel can be both Jewish and democratic. Ha’aretz posed the question as to whether Israel was ‘A Jewish state or a state of all its citizens? Or maybe both?’ It’s like asking whether a woman can be half-pregnant.  Either you are or you aren’t!

However what is equally, if not more important, than s.1(b) of the Jewish Nation State Law is s.1(a) which states that ‘The Land of Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people, in which the State of Israel was established.’ Yet it has gone virtually unnoticed.

Superwoman Gal Gadot who supported Rotem Selah and Netanyahu
The Land of Israel is as the law states, the ‘historic homeland’ of a mythical Jewish people ‘in which the State of Israel was established.’ In other words the Land of Israel is a rather larger entity than the current Israeli state. The Land of Israel is a coded reference to the biblical borders which stretched from the Litani river in the north to the Euphrates in the east and to the Nile in the South. In other words Israel has got plenty of potential for further expansion in the years ahead.
File photo - An all-male classroom at the Orthodox Jerusalem College, 2013.Emil Salman
We should disabuse ourselves of any idea that Israel is headed in the same direction as Saudi Arabia or Iran. Both the latter, which are self-described Islamic states, rest on a particular version of Islam, as a state ideology, whose purpose is to coerce and  legitimise the oppression of Muslims. Being a Muslim in either country does not entitle you to privileges, quite the contrary.
In Israel to be Jewish is to be privileged.  That is the main difference between Israel as a Jewish state and Iran and Saudi Arabia as Islamic states. This is the context in which the religious sector is gaining more power in Israel. I would argue that this increased power is both a political and a religious phenomenon and is directly related to the growth of the settlements and religious messianism. It is a religious variant of settler colonialism and its expansionist cousin. Just as the Jewish religion has changed from its anti-Zionist days and the belief that you couldn't hasten the day when the Messiah would arrive , so the secular nature of Israeli settler-colonialism is disappearing. Even the most left-wing secular Zionists based their claims to Palestine on god having given them the land.

Netanyahu tweets to tell Israel's Arabs that Israel is a state of Jews only
Jonathan cites the growing phenomenon of gender segregation at universities. There is a certain irony in Israel, which portrays itself as a modern, westernised state, emulating other religious states. However it is clear that the purpose of this is to integrate male members of the Haredi, ultra-orthodox sector into the ruling class of Israel. Access to university, which provides both the skills and socialisation is important in this  respect.

Ono Academic College which is a private college, has a specific remit to cater for minorities. Its purpose is in ‘utilizing higher education to foster social integration’.  To this end it holds studies on separate days for men and women and set days on which only women or men were allowed to use the library. It also put up discriminating signs around the campus. Also, many students who attended the segregated classes weren’t ultra-Orthodox at all.

Segregated graduation ceremony at Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox College, April 6, 2011
The most authoritative survey of the religious divisions in Israeli society and the political consequences  is Israel’s Religiously Divided Society, conducted by the Pew Research Centre 3 years ago. It found that Israel’s Jewish population was divided almost equally into secular and religious.  The latter category in turn was divided into Haredi 8% (Hasidic/Ultra Orthodox), Dati 10% (religious orthodox, right-wing and nationalist) and Masorti 23%, who can be best classified as moderate or modern religious.
There is little doubt that secular Israeli Jews are declining and the Orthodox, with their high birth rates, are increasing. In order to create a Jewish state, the secular founders of the Israeli state and successive governments made a pact with the devil in the form of the religious parties.
Ben Gurion and Mapai, the Israeli Labour Party, went into government with the National Religious Party for the first 30 years. The NRP at first was a moderate religious party.  However after the conquest of the West Bank and Gaza during the 1967 war the NRP moved to the religious messianic right helping form first the far-Right National Union and then the Jewish Home parties.
Modern Israel was born out of a pact between secular and religious Zionism. The support of religious Zionism was the price that the former paid for god blessing their settler enterprise. The labour Zionist parties, in particular Ben Gurion and Mapai, surrendered control of all personal matters – birth, marriage and divorce and death to the Orthodox Rabbis. The very definition of who is a Jew, a problem that has bedevilled the Jewish state throughout its history, was handed over to the Rabbis.
Why did this occur?  The answer to the question is very simple. In any state based on racial supremacy, be it White or Jewish racial supremacy, it is crucially important to be able to define who is and who is not part of the herrenvolk or master race. Who is it who is entitled to the privileges entailed in being part of the ruling section of society and who is confined to the margins?
In South Africa who was Black, White or Coloured under the 1950 Population Registration Act was determined on the basis of appearance and public perception. In Nazi Germany who was Jewish was defined from the arbitrary date of 1870, when German Jews became emancipated. Despite the pretence of being based on race, the definition of who was a Jew was in fact based on who was a practising Jew. Under the Nuremburg Laws 1935 which stripped German Jews of citizenship, having just one or two Jewish grandparents was enough to classify you as mischlinge (mixed race).
In Israel instead of civil service bureaucrats or racial scientists it is rabbis who determined who belongs to the nation and who is outside the national polity. This is because the definition of the Jewish nation/race is based on religion. Not of course any rabbis. Those who are Reform and Liberal/ Masorti rabbis are not recognised as Jewish.
The definition of who is a Jew for the purpose of immigration under the 1950 Law of Return, as amended in 1970, is effectively that of the Nuremburg Laws. Having one Jewish grandparent is sufficient to be classified as Jewish for the purpose of immigration. Non-Jewish spouses of Jews also qualify as do the non-Jewish spouses of their children. In the case of divorce then the non-Jewish spouse can be and is deported, which again is similar to the situation of Privileged Jews in Nazi Germany. The death of an Aryan spouse could mean deportation for the Jewish partner.
There is thus a few hundred thousand Jews in Israel who are in essence mischlinge. They can only marry their own. Because there is no civil marriage in Israel if they fall in love with a ‘pure’ Jew then they must marry outside the country.  In Cyprus for example.
Nothing illustrates more clearly the role of Rabbis as the guardians of Israel’s racial purity than the refusal of the Conversion Authority to accept Palestinians who wish to convert to Judaism. No such inhibition can be found in the Talmud as to which non-Jews are eligible or not eligible for conversion. This is purely a marriage of racism and religion.

Rabbi Yitzhak Peretz, the head of the government’s Conversion Authority was quite open about this.  “The threshold requirements” to be considered by the special cases panel, he said, “are that applicants be sincere and that they are not foreign workers; infiltrators; Palestinian or illegally in the country.” In other words  foreigners, ‘infiltrators’ (refugees), Palestinians or over-stayers are not, by definition sincere or honest.

More recently this was taken one step further.  The rabbis began to demand that couples from the former Soviet Union prove their Jewishness by taking a DNA test to prove who they said they were. The Jerusalem Post reports that the former and current Chief Rabbis Yitzhak Yosef and David Lau are promoting legislation that would allow the rabbinical courts to challenge the Jewishness of a person - even if he was not even registered for marriage, and did not apply for religious services, the report added. In 2017 there was a rabbinical ruling that permitted a genetic test of Jewishness despite there being, of course, no Jewish gene. This is pure, undistilled, racism.

One can just imagine what Hitler would have said if he had been able to lay his hands on a ‘scientific’ test to prove once and for all who was and was not Jewish.
In a society based on race and in particular a race based on a religious definition it is inevitable that those who make the ultimate decision as to who is and is not Jewish will be the religious authorities. This is the price of their participation in the Zionist project.  It does of course gives them an immense power which they are determined to protect.
This is the context for the gradual encroachment of forced religious observance into other areas of civil society such as bus seats, education and housing.
It also explains why, when the Israeli Defence Forces, attack Gaza they do it with the active support of the Military Rabbinate which sees themselves as providing the moral and religious backup to the flower of Israeli youth. A religious stamp of approval is given to the most murderous, cruel and callous acts. Nothing is too barbaric for these military rabbis.
Israel is unlikely to develop into a theocratic state.  Rather it will become an increasingly repressive ethno religious state.
Tony Greenstein 

13 February 2019
Palestinians, the secular and women all face a harsher environment as theocratic tendencies are entrenched
Middle East Eye – 13 February 2019
In which country did a senior, state-salaried cleric urge his followers last month to become “warriors”, emulating a group of young men who had murdered a woman of another faith?
The cleric did so with impunity. In fact, he was only echoing other highly placed colleagues who have endorsed a book – again without penalty – urging their disciples to murder babies belonging to other religions.
Where can the head of the clergy call black people “monkeys” and urge the expulsion of other religious communities?
Where does a clerical elite wield so much power that they alone decide who can marry or get divorced – and are backed by a law that can jail someone who tries to wed without their approval? They can even shut down the national railway system without notice.
Where are these holy men so feared that women are scrubbed from billboards, college campuses introduce gender segregation to appease them, and women find themselves literally pushed to the back of the bus?
Is the country Saudi Arabia? Or Myanmar? Or perhaps, Iran?
No. It is Israel, the world’s only self-declared Jewish state.
Which ‘shared values’?
There is barely a politician in Washington seeking election who has not at some point declared an “unbreakable bond” between the United States and Israel, or claimed the two uphold “shared values”. Few, it seems, have any idea what values Israel really represents.
There are many grounds for criticising Israel, including its brutal oppression of Palestinians under occupation and its system of institutionalised segregation and discrimination against the fifth of its population who are not Jewish – its Palestinian minority.
But largely ignored by critics have been Israel’s increasing theocratic tendencies.
This hasn’t simply proved regressive for Israel’s Jewish population, especially women, as the rabbis exert ever greater control over the lives of religious and secular Jews alike.
It also has alarming implications for Palestinians, both under occupation and those living in Israel, as a national conflict with familiar colonial origins is gradually transformed into a holy war, fuelled by extremist rabbis with the state’s implicit blessing.
Control of personal status
Despite Israel’s founding fathers being avowedly secular, the separation between church and state in Israel has always been flimsy at best – and it is now breaking down at an ever-accelerating rate.
After Israel’s establishment, David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, decided to subordinate important areas of life for Israeli Jews to the jurisdiction of an Orthodox rabbinate, representing the strictest, most traditional and conservative stream of Judaism. Other, more liberal streams have no official standing in Israel to this day.
Ben Gurion’s decision in part reflected a desire to ensure his new state embraced two differing conceptions of Jewishness: both those who identified as Jews in a secular ethnic or cultural sense, and those who maintained the religious traditions of Judaism. He hoped to fuse the two into a new notion of a Jewish “nationality”.
For that reason, the Orthodox rabbis were given exclusive control over important parts of the public sphere – personal status matters, such as conversions, births, deaths and marriages.
Biblical justifications
Bolstering the rabbis’ power was the urgent need of Israel’s secular leaders to obscure the state’s settler-colonial origins. This could be achieved by using education to emphasise Biblical justifications for the usurpation by Jews of the lands of the native Palestinian population.
As the late peace activist Uri Avnery observed, the Zionist claim was “based on the Biblical history of the Exodus, the conquest of Canaan, the kingdoms of Saul, David and Solomon … Israeli schools teach the Bible as real history.”
Such indoctrination, combined with a much higher birth rate among religious Jews, has contributed to an explosion in the numbers identifying as religious. They now comprise half the population.
Today, about a quarter of Israeli Jews belong to the Orthodox stream, which reads the Torah literally, and one in seven belong to the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, the most fundamentalist of the Jewish religious streams. Forecasts suggest that in 40 years the latter will comprise a third of the country’s Jewish population.
‘Conquer the government’
Both the growing power and extremism of the Orthodox in Israel was highlighted in the last week of January when one of their most influential rabbis, Shmuel Eliyahu, publicly came to the defence of five students accused of murdering Aisha Rabi, a Palestinian mother of eight. Back in October they stoned her car near Nablus, in the occupied West Bank, forcing her off the road.
Eliyahu is the son of a former chief rabbi of Israel, Mordechai Eliyahu, and himself sits on the Chief Rabbinical Council, which controls many areas of life for Israelis. He is also the municipal rabbi of Safed, a city that in Judaism has the equivalent status of Medina in Islam or Bethlehem in Christianity, so his words carry a great deal of weight with Orthodox Jews.
Last month, a video came to light of a talk he gave at the seminary where the five accused studied, in the illegal settlement of Rehelim, south of Nablus.
Eliyahu not only praised the five as “warriors” but told fellow students that they needed to overthrow the “rotten” secular court system. He told them it was vital to “conquer the government” too, but without guns or tanks. “You have to take the state’s key positions,” he urged them.
Law-breaking judges
In truth, that process is already well-advanced.
Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who should have been the first to denounce Eliyahu’s comments, is closely aligned with religious settlers. Tellingly, she and other government ministers have maintained a studious silence.
That is because the political representatives of Israel’s religious Jewish communities, including the settlers, have now become the lynchpin of Israeli coalition governments. They are the kingmakers and can extract enormous concessions from other parties.
For some time, Shaked has been using her position to bring more openly nationalistic and religious judges into the legal system, including to the highest court in the land, the Supreme Court.
Two of its current 15 judges, Noam Sohlberg and David Mintz, are law-breakers, openly living in West Bank settlements in violation of international law. Several more judges appointed to the bench by Shaked are religious and conservative.
This is a significant victory for the Orthodox religious and the settlers. The court is the last line of defence for the secular against an assault on their religious freedoms and on gender equality.
And the court offers the only recourse for Palestinians seeking to mitigate the worst excesses of the violent and discriminatory policies of the Israeli government, army and settlers.
Chosen people
Shaked’s colleague, Naftali Bennett, another ideologue of the settlement movement, has been education minister in the Netanyahu government for four years. This post has long been a critical one for the Orthodox because it shapes Israel’s next generation.
After decades of concessions to the rabbis, Israel’s school system is already heavily skewed towards religion. A survey in 2016 showed 51 percent of Jewish pupils attended sex-segregated religious schools, which emphasise Biblical dogma – up from 33 percent only 15 years earlier.
This may explain why a recent poll found that 51 percent believe Jews have a divine right to the land of Israel, and slightly more – 56 percent – believe that Jews are a “chosen people”.
Those results are likely to get even worse in the coming years. Bennett has been placing much greater weight in the curriculum on Jewish tribal identity, Bible studies and religious claims to Greater Israel, including to the Palestinian territories – which he wants to annex.
Conversely, science and maths are increasingly downplayed in the education system, and entirely absent from schools for the ultra-Orthodox. Evolution, for example, has been mostly erased from the syllabus, even in secular schools.
‘No mercy’ to Palestinians
Another key sphere of state power being taken over by the religious, and especially the settlers, are the security services. Police Commissioner Roni Alsheikh lived for years in a settlement renowned for its violent attacks on Palestinians, and the force’s current chief rabbi, Rahamim Brachyahu, is also a settler.
Both have actively promoted a programme, Believers in the Police, that recruits more religious Jews into the police force. Nahi Eyal, the programme’s founder, has said his aim is to help the settler community “find our way into the command ranks”.
The trend is even more entrenched in the Israeli military. Figures show that the national-religious community, to which settlers belong – though only 10 percent of the population – make up half of all new officer cadets. Half of Israel’s military academies are now religious.
That has translated into an increasing role for extremist Orthodox rabbis in motivating soldiers on the battlefield. In Israel’s 2008-09 ground invasion of Gaza, soldiers were issued with pamphlets by the army rabbinate using Biblical injunctions to persuade them to “show no mercy” to Palestinians.
Call to kill babies
Meanwhile, the rapidly growing ultra-Orthodox population has been encouraged by the government to move into West Bank settlements purpose-built for them, such as Modi’in Illit and Beitar Illit. That, in turn, is gradually fuelling the emergence of an aggressive nationalism among their youth.
Once the Haredim were openly hostile, or at best ambivalent, towards Israeli state institutions, believing that a Jewish state was sacrilegious until the Messiah arrived to rule over Jews.
Now, for the first time, young Haredim are serving in the Israeli army, adding to the pressure on the military command to accommodate their religious fundamentalist ideology. A new term for these hawkish Haredi soldiers has been coined: they are known as the “Hardal”.
Brachyahu and rabbis for the Hardal are among the senior rabbis who have endorsed a terrifying book, the King’s Torah, written by two settler rabbis, that urges Jews to treat non-Jews, and specifically Palestinians, mercilessly.
It offers God’s blessing for Jewish terror – not only against Palestinians who try to resist their displacement by settlers, but against all Palestinians, even babies, on the principle that “it is clear that they will grow [up] to harm us.”
Gender segregation expands
The dramatic rise in religiosity is creating internal problems for Israeli society too, especially for the shrinking secular population and for women.
Posters for the forthcoming election – as with adverts more generally – are being “cleaned” of women’s faces in parts of the country to avoid causing offence.
Last month, the Supreme Court criticised Israel’s Council for Higher Education for allowing segregation between men and women in college classrooms to spread to the rest of the campus, including libraries and communal areas. Female students and lecturers are facing “modesty” dress codes.
The council has even announced that it intends to expand segregation because it is proving difficult to persuade religious Jews to attend higher education.
Violence of the mob
Israel has always been a society deeply structured to keep Israeli Jews and Palestinians apart, both physically and in terms of rights. That is equally true for Israel’s large Palestinian minority, a fifth of the population, who live almost entirely apart from Jews in segregated communities. Their children are kept away from Jewish children in separate schools.
But the greater emphasis in Israel on a religious definition of Jewishness means that Palestinians now face not only the cold structural violence designed by Israel’s secular founders, but additionally a hot-tempered, Biblically sanctioned hostility from religious extremists.
That is most keenly evident in the rapid rise of physical assaults on Palestinians and their property, as well as their holy places, in Israel and the occupied territories. Among Israelis, this violence is legitimised as “price tag” attacks, as though Palestinians have brought such harm on themselves.
YouTube is now full of videos of gun- or baton-wielding settlers attacking Palestinians, typically as they try to access their olive groves or springs, while Israeli soldiers stand passively by or assist.
Arson attacks have spread from olive groves to Palestinian homes, sometimes with horrifying results, as families are burned alive.
Rabbis such as Eliyahu have stoked this new wave of attacks with their Biblical justifications. State terrorism and mob violence have merged.
Destroying al-Aqsa
The biggest potential flashpoint is in occupied East Jerusalem, where the growing symbolic and political power of these Messianic rabbis risks exploding at the al-Aqsa Mosque compound.
Secular politicians have long played with fire at this Islamic holy site, using archaeological claims to try to convert it into a symbol of historic Jewish entitlement to the land, including the occupied territories.
But their claim that the mosque is built over two Jewish temples, the last of which was destroyed two millennia ago, has been rapidly reconfigured for incendiary, modern political purposes.
The growing influence of religious Jews in parliament, the government, the courts and the security services means that officials grow ever bolder in staking a physical claim to sovereignty over al-Aqsa.
It also entails an ever greater indulgence towards religious extremists who demand more than physical control over the mosque site. They want al-Aqsa destroyed and replaced with a Third Temple.
The gathering holy war
Slowly, Israel is transforming a settler-colonial project against the Palestinians into a battle with the wider Islamic world. It is turning a territorial conflict into a holy war.
The demographic growth of Israel’s religious population, the cultivation by the school system of an ever-more extreme ideology based on the Bible, the takeover of the state’s key power centres by the religious, and the emergence of a class of influential rabbis who preach genocide against Israel’s neighbours has set the stage for a perfect storm in the region.
The question now is at what point will Israel’s allies, in the US and Europe, finally wake up to the catastrophic direction Israel is heading in – and find the will to take the necessary action to stop it.

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