By Christopher Hitchens
March 25, 2009 "Slate"
Recent reports of atrocities committed by Israeli soldiers in the course of the intervention in Gaza have described the incitement of conscripts and reservists by military rabbis who characterized the battle as a holy war for the expulsion of non-Jews from Jewish land. The secular Israeli academic Dany Zamir, who first brought the testimony of shocked Israeli soldiers to light, has been quoted as if the influence of such extremist clerical teachings was something new. This is not the case.
I remember being in Israel in 1986 when the chief army "chaplain" in the occupied territories, Rabbi Shmuel Derlich, issued his troops a 1,000-word pastoral letter enjoining them to apply the biblical commandment to exterminate the Amalekites as "the enemies of Israel." Nobody has recently encountered any Amalekites, so the chief educational officer of the Israeli Defense Forces asked Rabbi Derlich whether he would care to define his terms and say whom he meant. Rather evasively ~ if rather alarmingly ~ The man of God replied, "Germans."
There are no Germans in Judaea and Samaria or, indeed, in the Old Testament, so the rabbi's exhortation to slay all Germans as well as quite probably all Palestinians was referred to the Judge Advocate General's Office. Forty military rabbis publicly came to Derlich's support, and the rather spineless conclusion of the JAG was that he had committed no legal offense but should perhaps refrain in the future from making political statements on the army's behalf.
The problem here is precisely that the rabbi was not making a "political" statement. Rather, he was doing his religious duty in reminding his readers what the Torah actually says. It's not at all uncommon in Israel to read discussions, featuring military rabbis, of quite how to interpret the following holy order from Moses, in the Book of Numbers, Chapter 31, Verses 13-18, as quoted from my 1985 translation by the Jewish Publication Society. The Israelites have just done a fairly pitiless job on the Midianites, slaughtering all of the adult males. But, says their stern commander-in-chief, they have still failed him:
Moses, Eleazer the priest, and all the chieftains of the community came out to meet them outside the camp. Moses became angry with the commanders of the army, the officers of thousands and the officers of hundreds, who had come back from the military campaign. Moses said to them, "You have spared every female! Yet they are the very ones who, at the bidding of Balaam, induced the Israelites to trespass against the Lord in the matter of Peor, so that the Lord's community was struck by the plague. Now, therefore, slay every male among the children, and slay also every young woman who has known a man carnally; but spare every young woman who has not had carnal relations with a man."
Moses and Eleazar the priest go on to issue some complex instructions about the ritual cleansing that must be practiced after this exhausting massacre has been completed.
Dr. Baruch Goldstein in action at the Cave Of Machpelat
Now, it's common to hear people say, when this infamous passage and others like it come up, that it's not intended to be "taken literally." One also often hears the excuse that some wicked things are done "in the name of" religion, as if the wicked things were somehow the result of a misinterpretation. But the nationalist rabbis who prepare Israeli soldiers for their mission seem to think that this book might be the word of God, in which case the only misinterpretation would be the failure to take it literally. (I hate to break it to you, but the people who think that God's will is revealed in scripture are known as "religious." Those who do not think so must try to find another name for themselves.)
Possibly you remember Dr. Baruch Goldstein, the man who in February 1994 unslung his weapon and killed more than two dozen worshipers at the mosque in Hebron. He had been a physician in the Israeli army and had first attracted attention by saying that he would refuse to treat non-Jews on the Sabbath. Now read Ethan Bronner's report in the March 22 New York Times about the preachment of the Israeli army's latest chief rabbi, a West Bank settler named Avichai Rontzski who also holds the rank of brigadier general. He has "said that the main reason for a Jewish doctor to treat a non-Jew on the Sabbath … is to avoid exposing Diaspora Jews to hatred."
Those of us who follow these things recognize that statement as one of the leading indicators of a truly determined racist and fundamentalist. Yet it comes not this time in the garb of a homicidal lone-wolf nut bag but in the full uniform and accoutrement of a general and a high priest: Moses and Eleazar combined. The latest news, according to Bronner, is that the Israeli Defense Ministry has felt compelled to reprimand Rontzski for "a rabbinical edict against showing the enemy mercy" that was distributed in booklet form to men and women in uniform (see Numbers 31:13-18, above).
Peering over the horrible pile of Palestinian civilian casualties that has immediately resulted, it's fairly easy to see where this is going in the medium-to-longer term. The zealot settlers and their clerical accomplices are establishing an army within the army so that one day, if it is ever decided to disband or evacuate the colonial settlements, there will be enough officers and soldiers, stiffened by enough rabbis and enough extremist sermons, to refuse to obey the order.
Torah verses will also be found that make it permissible to murder secular Jews as well as Arabs. The dress rehearsals for this have already taken place, with the religious excuses given for Baruch Goldstein's rampage and the Talmudic evasions concerning the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.
Once considered highly extreme, such biblical exegeses are moving ever closer to the mainstream.
It's high time the United States cut off any financial support for Israel that can be used even indirectly for settler activity, not just because such colonization constitutes a theft of another people's land but also because our Constitution absolutely forbids us to spend public money on the establishment of any religion.
This poster, full of Jewish religious symbolism,
was sold "framed and ready for hanging."
The praying soldier as a work of art.
From the start it was a mistake to appoint Rontzki, an extremist hozer b'tshuva (newly religious person), who often made harsh comments about secular people, particularly those in the IDF. Like every newly religious person, who has to prove that he is more devout than the Pope, he constantly flatters his mentors, the most extremist rabbis in the settlement community.
The result is an uncontrollable escalation. Rontzki has preached cliched nonsense, permeated with disgust and disdain for anyone who is not religious and does not believe in Greater Israel for the most racist Hardal (ultra-Orthodox religious Zionist) reasons. He has interfered in education officers' work and ordered them to disseminate extremist views. Now he has breached what remained of his position's boundaries and has really begun to go wild.
Rontzki distributes sermons written by Rabbi Shlomo Aviner that preach, in the name of ostensibly religious values, the killing of civilians. He distributes sermons written by his students, who propose a belligerent interpretation of Operation Cast Lead that opposes all the combat values formulated in the IDF throughout the generations.
In such an atmosphere, it is no wonder that extreme right-wing organizations are also smuggling into IDF bases sermons by Yitzhak Ginsburg, the rabbi of the yeshiva at Joseph's Tomb. Ginsburg wrote the book "Baruch Hagever," which praises the massacre by Baruch Goldstein against Arabs in the Cave of the Patriarchs in 1994, and he is considered the spiritual mentor of the most violent and extremist settlers.
Thus, under the aegis of the army's chief rabbi, IDF soldiers are being exposed to chauvinist and racist incitement, which is illegal. Rabbi Shlomo Aviner stated Tuesday that Goldstein was a righteous man and a saint who knew that what he was doing was dangerous, even though what he did was wrong, Israeli Ynet News reported.
Rontzki told his people that their job is not "to distribute wine and challah for Shabbat" but to "fill [the soldiers] with yiddishkeit and a fighting spirit." That is a misunderstanding at best and a deliberate and dangerous distortion at worst. The time has come for the chief of staff and defense minister, who have maintained silence on his unbridled behavior, to finally get rid of him.
They would then do well to investigate how the IDF rabbinate, whose job is to provide proper conditions for religious soldiers, has turned into an instrument of divine punishment. The IDF should make do with kashrut supervisors and manage without a rabbi from now on.