Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Rejecting the Extremists in our Midst

Today's Daf Yomi (Shabbat 54b-55a) presented a forthright and powerful ethical message:

Anyone who is able to protest against the transgressions of one's household and does not, is punished for the actions of the members of the household; anyone who is able to protest against the transgressions of one's townspeople and does not, is punished for the transgressions of the townspeople; anyone who is able to protest against the transgressions of the entire world and does not is punished for the transgressions of the entire world.
We are all culpable for our environment. We cannot claim that we are not interconnected with those who live in our home, our community, our town, or even our planet. It is our responsibility to raise our voices to protest when we see injustice, wrongdoing.

This passage struck a deep chord, because I had been thinking about the incident that happened last week with Rav Lior. If you are not up to date, here is the story as reported (link):
Rabbi Dov Lior, the chief rabbi of Kiryat Arba and one of the settler leaders, was surprised last week by the chilly reception he received from reserve soldiers stationed on the Gaza border.

One of the reserve soldiers called up by the IDF at start of Operation Pillar of Defense was Rabbi Lior's son-in-law, Efraim Ben-Shachar. Ahead of the weekend, shortly before the reservists were released, Ben-Shachar invited his father-in-law to meet with infantry fighters and support them with a Torah lesson following the arrival of many artists throughout the week.

But Rabbi Lior's visit sparked a row. Some of the unit's soldiers were outraged by the presence of the controversial rabbi, who had endorsed the "King's Torah" essay, which legitimizes the killing of non-Jews.

'Persona non grata'

According to one of the unit's soldiers, Omer Parter, an activist in the Working Youth movement, protested the rabbi's presence. Rabbi Lior tried to shake his hand, but he refused. When the rabbi asked, "Am I not allowed to speak to the soldiers?" Parter replied, "You are a persona non grata here."

As religious soldiers began gathering around the rabbi to listen to what he had to say, Prater told his comrades that Lior was one of the rabbis who gave their consent to the "King's Torah" book. Along with other soldiers, he searched for quotes from the book on his cell phone, including the permission to kill small children "if it is clear that they will grow up to pose a threat to our nation."

As tensions rose, Rabbi Lior decided to leave several minutes later without addressing the soldiers.

"I believe there is no room for Rabbi Lior's messages in the army," Prater told Ynet. "I oppose and condemn Rabbi Dov Lior's work and activities. I did stop him from speaking in light of his support for Baruch Goldstein and his conduct in the period before Rabin's murder. This is how I educate my pupils at the Working Youth – to love the land and practice equality, and not to hate anyone."

Amos Netzer, a friend of the protesting soldiers, wrote about the incident on his Facebook page: "I am proud of my friends who insisted on the truth, despite the harsh conflict with their comrades, exposing the true colors of one of the greatest instigators in Israel."

So that is the story. I read it and felt inspired by of those soldiers who actively opposed Rav Lior's presence in the army base. Rav Lior is an extremist. His views encourage violence and even murder. His political views, phrased in religious language, were part of the incitement in the lead-up to Rabin's murder. He has supported the book "Torat Hamelekh" a pseudo-halakhic work that incites violence and hatred against Arabs, moreover, when he was summoned for questioning by the Israeli police, he refused to comply. I have not studied his works in detail, but even upon this evidence alone, his views and personal example are dangerous for Israelis and for Judaism.

I asked myself whether I would have protested his arrival at an army base, or at my shul, with the moral clarity and stridency of those soldiers, and I am unsure whether I would have raised my voice or remained on the sidelines, not taking a stand. I live in a yishuv (settlement) in which I feel like a moderate, and I frequently encounter many people hold extreme views, some of which are expressed in blatantly racist language. When people write something offensive, I usually just read and ignore it; after all who wants to get into a fight? And standing up for your beliefs against other people always means that you will be attacked, accused and maligned. It is compounded more when, in the case of Rav Lior, the man is undeniably a huge Torah scholar and has a devoted following. There is a conflict: Do I shame a Torah scholar? And yet, I find his views unacceptable. How strongly should I oppose him? Should I personally not attend his lectures, or should I protest outside them? Should I campaign that he be removed from his post as chief rabbi of Kiryat Arba? (- a position paid for by the State of Israel.)

Here let me make a general comment which goes to the heart of the problem. Every community has difficulty reigning in their extremists. We propose that the Haredim in Beit Shemesh control their extremists who insult and harass schoolgirls on their way to study. We suggest that ordinary Palestinians bring pressure to bear on Hamas to stop firing rockets into Israel and to cease storing weaponry in hospitals and kindergartens. We wonder why the Peace camp cannot restrain their anarchists who throw stones at the IDF in Billin every Friday. And the moderate settler community should be responsible to expunge their extremists.

But it is hard for the community at large to bring down their radicals, the people at the more extreme fringes of the community. Why? First, these are frequently scary or powerful groups. But second, these people share the ideology of the entire community; their basic political perspective is not enormously different from everyone else. But they take it to an extreme, engaging in violence or unethical behavior. So how does one draw lines? And how does a person turn against their neighbour and possibly report them to the police, or protest against them? And how does one know for sure if this person is harmful?  

In a lecture I attended recently, they spoke about how one of the favourite pastimes of kids in Israel in the 1950's was going out and picking wild flowers, with some even sold commercially. In the mid-1960s, however, the Nature Reserves Authority, with the help of the Society for the Protection of Nature, published a list of protected wildflowers and launched a vigorous education campaign. The public was urged: "Don't pick! Don't uproot! Don't buy! And don't sell!" The effort saved Israel's wildflowers, and three decades later it is considered the most successful nature protection campaign conducted in the country. A professor of botany (who has an official permit to pick wild flowers) reported that he cannot go into the countryside on weekends or vacations because he is stridently accused and virtually accosted with children who berate him for ruining nature!
If we can teach our kids about protecting flowers and empower them to speak out, how do we educate our kids to speak out against other forms of extremism?

violence is involved, that should be a clear line. I often wonder how we can hear so many reports about settlers cutting down Arab's trees and nobody has been arrested and put on trial. Either the reports are fabricated, or the police are inept, or worse -apathetic.Why have the perpetrators of "Tag Mechir" ("Price Tag") attack not been located and tried? The moderates condemn them but will the mainstream settler community actively eschew them?

Some time back, when a nearby mosque was firebombed, I attended a public demonstration to protest the fact that a Jew would attack a mosque. But in an area of many thousands of Jews, only 30 people turned up. Happily several key local Rabbis made a visit to the mosque to express their moral outrage, and to express their regret to the local muslims, but again, these are the moderates - Rav Lior was not there. A similar scenario when some youths in the area threw a firebomb at an Arab taxi with six people injured. Moderates condemn, the rest are silent. If we do not protest these things, are we not compliant when the next attack comes? We need to find ways to empower ourselves to eject extremist elements from our communities, and to send a clear message that racist, hateful and murderous philosophies, and acts of violence or prejudice are unacceptable and reprehensible.

In the meantime, think about this. Would you have protested Rav Lior's visit? And what will you do next time you encounter reprehensible behavior?

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