A Threat to the Rule of Law

Published on Haaretz

The ecstatic followers who hoisted Rabbis Dov Lior and Yaakov Yosef on their shoulders upon their release from police questioning over possible incitement were not anarchists denying the rule of law, but a passionate group of citizens rejecting the legal culture of the state in favor of a different legal culture.

They may have been acting out their rage because their leaders, in their eyes, had been publicly humiliated, but their decision to march on the High Court – rather than, say, the Knesset, which passes the laws the police were attempting to enforce – expressed a more ominous message: that the supreme arbiters of state authority have no right to challenge the rabbis or their worldview. That Israel’s judicial system is not mistaken, but evil. It is humiliating to be arrested by the police, but most citizens, unlike Rabbis Lior and Yosef, would not ignore a police summons for months, or claim that they do not have to answer to civil authorities. Unfortunately, other leading rabbis took offense at the detention and questioning of one of their own, and claimed that it “trampled” the Torah itself.

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The notion that rabbis are the embodiment of Torah is difficult for those of us outside the Orthodox bubble to grasp. But we can get an idea of the cultural chasm symbolized by this perceived insult by recalling the trigger for the fracas: Rabbis Lior and Yosef’s endorsements of an abhorrent tract, “The King’s Torah.”

Many of the same rabbinic colleagues who rallied to their side had already repudiated the book, and one might have expected at least the ones employed by the state to use the opportunity to renounce the offensive text again (which some did ), but also to publicly support the state’s courts and its officers (which they did not ).

Brit Hoshech Legaresh – a coalition including Israeli Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and secular organizations – took a different tack, publishing ads in leading Israeli newspapers this week, exposing “The King’s Torah”‘s most objectionable passages. They wanted a broad readership, including the religious Zionist community, to understand the gravity of what some citizens might be contemplating.

These quotations describe circumstances in which killing of non-Jews is supposedly permitted by Jewish law: ” … every place the presence of a non-Jew endangers a Jewish life – it is permitted to kill him (even if he is one of the righteous among the gentiles and bears no guilt for the situation that had been created ).” Most bizarrely, the book shares the opinion that when it is certain that children or infants are being raised with the objective of harming Jews, it would be doing them a favor to kill them to prevent them from growing up into evil adults.

It’s only possible to imagine Jews engaging in this kind of theorizing when we were the powerless victims of violence by our non-Jewish neighbors, often with the sanction of state or church; in other words, when we were incapable of acting on such revenge fantasies. In our world – clearly not the same as the author’s – in which we have both power and responsibility, attempting to make such determinations would be abhorrent even as a thought experiment.

Most of the religious Zionist world rejected “The King’s Torah” as halakhically indefensible, morally repellent or both. Some rabbis sought to repress the book, fearing fools who would take it as a pretext for violent action. Since the author of “The King’s Torah” refers readers to another book, one extolling Baruch Goldstein, we can assume Palestinians would be the likely target.

Despite his extreme anti-Arab pronouncements over the years, Rabbi Lior remains a widely respected leader within the religious Zionist community. He has not been charged with a crime and he did not write “The King’s Torah.” But his endorsement was not a publicity blurb, it was a heksher – the necessary seal of approval for a Torah commentary to be disseminated and taken seriously. We might debate the free speech aspects of the case, but it is clear why the police would want to investigate him for incitement.

But if Rabbi Lior and his followers’ excesses might be dangerous, equally worrisome is how their targeting the judiciary and prosecutors’ office dovetails with the agenda of our current government.

“We will continue to grow until the day that we will be the majority in the state,” promised Knesset member Yaakov Katz, of the National Union, after the rally for the rabbis. “We will pass legislation to use to investigate everyone who transgressed in the name of the High Court and state prosecutor’s clique.” Like the rabbis’ followers, Katz and company want to weaken the Supreme Court and the State Prosecutor’s Office. The latter have become Israeli democracy’s institutions of last resort to counter attempts to ride roughshod over Palestinian rights and land claims, and to occasionally block illegal settler activity. While the protesters see the court as evil because the law it upholds is not rooted in their interpretation of Torah, Katz promises to prosecute anyone who dares to challenge settlement building or settlers themselves. It is not hard to picture visions of show trials flitting through his mind.

But Katz is not alone. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also wants to weaken the Supreme Court, to eliminate legal encumbrances to settlement expansion, and to concentrate more power in his own office. This confluence between our government’s short-term political agenda and the worldview of anti-democratic fanatics is the most threatening turn of this week’s political wheel.

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