How Did Religious Jews Become the Most Enthusiastic Supporters of the Occupation?
By Mikhael Manekin
Published September 3, 2021
Violence and plunder were always anathema in Judaism. What went wrong?
Palestinian workers cross illegally into Israel from the West Bank, in a 2020 photo. Every mention of Palestinian suffering is seen as harmful to the state.Credit: Oded Balilty / AP
There is a growing realization in recent years that the occupation is not temporary, but a military subjugation that has lasted for more than half a century and whose end is not visible on the horizon. The prolongation of the occupation affects the freedom of millions of people and is dismantling the collective identity of an entire nation. And the more entrenched it becomes, the more it is perceived as a substantive feature of Israel, hence resistance to it is perceived as resistance to the very existence of the state. Every mention of the Palestinians’ suffering is seen as harmful to the state.
Many religiously observant people are actively involved in promoting and justifying the occupation. Representatives of the religious-Zionist movement, a leading force today in the army, will validate morally and in terms of halakha (traditional religious law) every operation by the Israel Defense Forces and every settlement action. It sometimes seems that the natural religious stance is to support these actions. Today, too, when the religious-Zionist ethos of settlement on rocky hills has turned into a more bourgeois life, and when extended military campaigns have been replaced by day-to-day policing to control a population lacking in rights – it still seems that the kippa wearers are in the forefront of the ideology of ethnic superiority.
Many decades after the deaths of both Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and his son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, the conception that views the IDF as a holy army and Israel’s wars as a religious obligation has enthusiastic support among religious circles. In recent years, that obligation has also taken the form of permissive halakhic rulings on the “neighbor procedure” (the use of Palestinians as human shields), plunder of private land, Shabbat desecration for the benefit of the settlements, transgressions committed in order to accommodate the needs of the Shin Bet security service, civilian violence against Palestinians, and more.
However, the attitude of the Jewish tradition to the use of violence is totally at odds with the ethos being manifested by religious Zionism. The halakha permits one to engage in self-defense, in some cases even at the price of transgressing another commandment, but violence is perceived as a negative act and as non-Jewish behavior that is to be shunned. Why has the reluctant approach yielded to an unequivocally militant conception?
The attempt to strike a balance between the two principles – self-defense vs. a resistance to violence – shaped rabbinical writing in the past. An example from pre-state Israel of a work that addressed these principles is the book “Mahaneh Yisrael.” Few rabbis have succeeded in being accepted by almost all the religious streams already in their lifetime; one of them is the author of this book, Rabbi Israel Meir Hakohen Kagan, known as “Chofetz Chayim.” His works “Mishna Brura” and “Shmirat Halashon” are in the libraries of religious Jews from diverse streams – Ashkenazim and Mizrahim, Hasidim and Mitnagdim, Zionists and Haredim.
“Mahaneh Yisrael,” written in 1881, is the first Jewish book intended specifically for soldiers. It was written in Hebrew, for soldiers serving in the Russian czar’s army, and was translated into English for the use of Jewish-American soldiers in the world wars. The book’s first part includes halakhic questions and answers related to the everyday realm, the second part is devoted to morality and philosophy: how a soldier should behave with his comrades in the unit, and there’s also a prayer for peace and for the redemption of the Jewish people.
At the start of the book the author writes, “As we know, soldiers need God’s mercy more than anything, such as during war and the like, very frequently.” The soldier is not strong, but helpless. He needs God’s mercy. The life of a religious individual should take place outside the army, within a religious community. When a religious person is in the military system, he needs to surround himself with a Torah world that will protect him and function like an anchor that ties him to his religious world.
“To what is this comparable?” asks Chofetz Chaim, and replies, “To someone who because of a certain matter is forced to leave his vineyard and his cattle and to watch over other vineyards.” Turning to his vineyard whenever possible is not an escape from the army, but the way in which a Jewish soldier can protect himself during combat.
Chofetz Chaim is against the view of military service as a joyful period and as an opportunity for a display of force: “Let him be very careful not to think in his heart when he goes to war, ‘Well, heroes are we and men of valor for war.’ He must see only God as his main bulwark and trust in him to help, for as it is written, ‘He delighteth not in the strength of the horse; He taketh no pleasure in the legs of a man. The Lord taketh pleasure in them that fear Him, in those that wait for His mercy.’”
Some view religious devotion as passivity and lack of a critical attitude. But Chofetz Chaim demands that the soldier make an active daily decision: He must live according to a different set of values from the normative system in which he finds himself. The author demands that the Jew serving in the army resist the norms, the customs and the violent order that the military environment dictates.
Is “Mahaneh Yisrael,” relevant to the IDF? The situation of a religious soldier serving in the IDF or of a civilian-soldier in the settlements is not that of a Jewish soldier in the army of the czar. For one thing, it is easier in Israel’s army to observe the commandments, both individually and as a group.
But alongside the greater ease in observance, the difficulty of maintaining a separate religious world within the world of the army has grown immeasurably. To borrow from the allegory of Chofetz Chaim, the Jewish soldier in the IDF, and in particular the religious soldier, no longer feels that he is keeping watch over two vineyards, but rather oversees only one. The army is not that of the Russian monarch, it is “our” army. The unification of the vineyards is the definitive basic assumption of the national-religious population in Israel.
‘Our right as a people’
The 1976 book “Laws of the Military and Warfare,” by Rabbi Shlomo Min-Hahar, Issachar Goelman and Yehuda Aizenberg, was one of the first works to be written for soldiers serving in the IDF – a kind of Israeli equivalent of “Mahaneh Yisrael.” The principal argument put forward by these rabbis of the religious Zionist movement is an institutional one. Chofetz Chaim dealt with the morality of the individual Jewish soldier, whereas these rabbis place the Jewish state above that. The soldier is required to forgo his understanding and his viewpoint, being part of an organization that makes ethical decisions for him on the institutional level:
“The soldier serving in the territories knows a new war and enemy: He shoots a terrorist and sees his mother and sister crying over his body; he arrests a terrorist and see his little children dragging after him as he leaves the house.
An Israeli soldier chases a cuffed and blindfolded 16-year-old Palestinian, Osama Hajahjeh, near the West Bank village of Tuqu, in April 2019. Credit: MOHAMMED HMEID / AFP
“A soldier who passes by refugee camps sees them living in horrible poverty, and he remembers that he or his friends live in a place where they may have been before him. The homes of some of the refugees.
“The hatred in their eyes becomes more concrete than the measure of justice in our deeds. The moral problem arises and becomes more acute, and he asks himself: Why are they hungry and homeless, and we are sated? Why do we rule them against their will? What right do we have to wield our force?
“The moral questions exist only when we judge our actions with a narrow gaze, which sees only a segment of the present.
“The justification for our deeds in the Land of Israel, for our right to impose our will on a hostile population, for our right to settle everywhere throughout the Land of Israel, for our right to shoot terrorists and blow up their homes even if they appear in a place where there are women and children – the justification for all this we will not find in everyday activity. Our right to this is found on a wholly different level: in our right to exist as a people, and in our right to the Land of Israel.”
The justification for our actions in the Land of Israel, the authors argued – and their successors argue likewise to this day – is a religious one, embodied in the “right to the Land of Israel.” That right surpasses in importance the conscience of the individual Jew, and obligates him to ignore his education actively. There is something ironic about the fact that the way “to see and examine things with eyes open” is by shutting one’s eyes to suffering. The “seeing” required of the traditional Jewish soldier lies in placing Israeli secular nationalism as the sovereign to which – exclusively – we must be faithful. That is the import of the justification of “our right to exist as a people.”
Israel is a secular state, but despite this, the rabbis of religious Zionism have decided that Israel’s wars, including the conquest of the territories, are wars of commandment. That is, wars in which participation stems not from a royal decree but from the fact that the initiative for the war is God’s. Thus, for example, Rabbi Yaakov Ariel, one of the most important arbiters of religious Zionism, wrote in 2017, “Faithful to its path, that the commandment to settle the land includes also conquest and defense of the land, religious Zionism sees military service in principle as a commandment from the Torah.”
The language of religious Zionism by which the state is a Jewish state, generated a head-on religious contradiction, a full-fledged denial of the Jewish principles of warfare. Those principles place God’s decision at the center, whereas the IDF fights according to orders of generals and the decision of politicians. The halakhic question is not a simple one: How is it possible to rule that Israel’s wars are wars of commandment in the absence of a mechanism that will decide that these are indeed God’s commandments – namely, the order of a king appointed by a prophet and a Sanhedrin?
Then as now, this is made possible by a unification of the secular state and the “Jewish people” in the religious sense. The government becomes king, the soldier (religious or secular) embodies the kohen (priest). Two dangerous processes unfold: The individual disappears (and with him the Jewish tradition, and often also the halakha itself, which is addressed to the believer), and the secular commonweal acquires a religious value (and with it the mobilization of endless support for military force). It’s not a “religionizing” of the state, it’s the “nationalizing” of the religious.
Rabbi Yaakov Ariel.Credit: Nir Keidar
Even if it is not possible to use the term “commanded war” in the Israeli context, there remains the justification of Israel’s wars as wars of defense. This justification enables religious individuals to fight even if it is not a commanded war, since the Jewish tradition permits self-defense. The self-defense argument is also the prevailing secular one in favor of the occupation.
The Israeli concept of freedom can be formulated in the following way: Freedom in the State of Israel, the personal and communal security of all of us, cannot exist without some sort of dimension of rule over the Palestinians. The majority of Israelis think their freedom depends on the subjugation of others, and that without the occupation, they cannot be free. The Palestinians’ desire for their own state obligates us to subjugate them. Over time, that argument turns out to be timeless. The freedom of the Palestinians itself endangers us, and thus, we will be compelled to subjugate them for all time.
This notion should be reconsidered. Jewish tradition in fact has something to say about the ability of secular sovereignty to persuade us of imaginary needs. We are not occupiers because we must occupy; we are occupiers because we can occupy. The occupation is not the prevention of a specific action against us, but a violent phenomenon that is accompanying our lives and is ostensibly sustaining us. But depriving people of freedom for fear that they will use it against us is a moral distortion that is far from our tradition. Unending subjugation because of a fear of being attacked does not meet any ethical or traditional standard, which sees self-defense as legitimate only against concrete action.
The result of this moral sin, in addition to the intense suffering we are causing to millions of other people, is the creation of an internal contradiction in the language of religious morality. Our freedom is bound up with the subjugation of others. How can freedom be a positive concept if our state exists only by dint of the prevention of freedom?
If we understood the price that is being paid, that must be paid, by millions of people for our freedom, if we understood the meaning of subjugation, we would not be able to live our regular lives. If we were to internalize our responsibility for the hunger in the Gaza Strip, for the shortage of water in the South Hebron Hills, the condition of the workers in the date groves of the Jordan Valley, for the fact that Arab mothers and fathers do not feel safe in their homes in Hebron, if we understood the pain of the tens of thousands of families split apart because their parents and their children spend years in administrative detention, if we understood the familial meaning of breaking into a home in the middle of the night because of a patrol, an arrest, a Shin Bet mapping of the site or just a plain exercise, the lack of basic security – if we were to see and internalize that all this is happening because of us in a direct way, not as a necessity but as a result of our power – we would not be able to function.
As religiously observant people, we are obligated to see the reality around us. The only way to do that is to observe reality not through the prism of the state, but through the prisms of both the individual and the religious community. The obligation of the religious individual is first and foremost to internalize the fact that the subjugation of Palestinian does not stem from necessity, but from capability and desire: the capability to deny freedom for security purposes, and the desire to enjoy the pleasures of rule, both in real estate and in the symbolic-national realm of the religious-Zionist sector. If we aspire to be good Jews, we cannot ground our lives in blindness and brute force.
Mikhael Manekin is the director of the Alliance for Israel’s Future. He is also author of the book “The Dawn of Redemption: Ethics, Tradition and Jewish Power” (Hebrew).
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