Earlier this week the Times of Israel published a post, written by American Yochanan Gordon, titled “When Genocide is Permissible,” which concludes with the following question:
If political leaders and military experts determine that the only way to achieve its goal of sustaining quiet is through genocide is it then permissible to achieve those responsible goals?
Last week, the man gunning for the top spot at the Anti-Defamation League, New York University senior fellow Thane Rosenbaum, authored an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal legitimizing Israel’s killing of civilians, telling Palestinians in Gaza that, because a plurality of their voting-age population voted for the political wing of Hamas in national elections eight years ago, “you forfeit your right to be called civilians… you have wittingly made yourself targets.”
On Monday, the president of the New York Board of Rabbis, David-Seth Kirshner made this same assertion at a pro-Israel rally of 10,000 people a few blocks from the UN (which had just issued astatement expressing concern over “the deteriorating situation). In a video posted to Youtube, he is heard saying: “When you are part of an election process that asks for [Hamas]… you are complicit and you are not a civilian casualty.” Kirshner then proclaimed that the Israeli army is “the most moral army in the history of civilization.”
It goes without saying that apart from being cruel, such logic is, as many others have noted, identical to the justification used by Osama Bin Laden for the morality of killing civilians on 9/11. That is, Americans (or Israelis) elected a government that acted unjustly or criminally, therefore Americans (or Israelis) as a whole are fair game. As Daniel Larison succinctly put it, such logic: “unintentionally endorses the logic of every terrorist group in history.”
For decades, most mainstream Jewish leaders outside of Israel have publicly supported the military adventures of the Israeli government, regardless of the Palestinian death toll. But they have at least paid lip-service to the sanctity of human life and expressed regret for the souls lost on both sides. As Israel’s latest assault on Gaza enters its fourth week, however, we are witnessing a significant rhetorical departure.
Yet as reprehensible as remarks from American Jewish leaders have been, the dehumanizing discourse among political and religious leaders in Israel—where I live and work—has for years been moving toward the grotesque.
The images that have emerged from the Gaza Strip over the past three weeks of Israel’s assault, and the fact that the vast majority of those killed have been Palestinian civilians–including three hundred children—should fill any decent human being with revulsion, regardless of which side they support.
But Israeli leaders have begun to speak openly of their disdain for the lives of Palestinian civilians, damning them to death along with the militants in their midst.
Anti-Arab racist rhetoric is common in Israeli politics. Recent comments by a Member of Knesset and whip of the religious Jewish Home party – key members of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s governing coalition – were especially heinous. In a Facebook post published a month ago, Ayelet Shakedadvocated for the killing of “the entire Palestinian people… including its elderly and its women… otherwise, more little snakes will be raised.”
This week Israel’s most popular online news source, Ynetnews, published an op-ed by a rabbi citingBiblical passages as a rationale for extending the bloodshed in Gaza.
The statements of Ovadia Yosef, whose recent passing was met with flattering memorials both in Israel and the US, are legendary. The former Chief Rabbi of Israel and spiritual leader of many Middle Eastern Jews, said, among other things, that Palestinians “should perish from the world” and that “it is forbidden to be merciful to them”; of non-Jews in general, he declared that “Goyim were born only to serve us.” Despite comments like these, his funeral last October was the largest in the country’s history, with 800,000 Israelis attending.
In the past month, Rabbi Noam Perel, head of Bnei Akiva, the largest Jewish religious youth group in the world, called for the mass-murder of Palestinians and for their foreskins to be scalped and brought back as trophies, alluding to an episode in the Book of Samuel; and a Jerusalem city councillor, in charge of security, encouraged a crowd to mimic the Biblical character of Phineas (Pinchas in Hebrew), who murdered a fellow Israelite and his Midianite lover for the “crime” of miscegenation:
I am calling out to all the Pinchases that are here … Moses didn’t act, Pinchas acted … every one of us has a mission … The Rebbe, who is here with us, expects us to commit acts of Pinchas.
Mere hours after these incidents of incitement, a group of Israeli Jews, including the grandson of thechief of the Jerusalem rabbinical court, kidnapped a Palestinian teen, beat him and forced him to drink gasoline, before burning him to death from the inside out. When Israeli security forces finally caught and interrogated them, the group referenced the story of Phineas. They also mentioned the Biblical injunction to kill all Amalekites, an ancient people who no longer exist, but whose legacy is often attributed to Israel’s enemy de jure.
None of these leaders were dismissed from their posts or censured in any way for making these harsh, cruel statement. No surprise then that other Israeli religious officials joined the genocidal chorus. One local chief rabbi ruled that bombing Palestinian civilians is permissible, while another, considered a “liberal” by Israeli standards, declared the assault on Gaza to be a holy war mandated by the Torah–one which must be merciless.
These blood-curdling statements, while anathema to many, are made with impunity in Israel because there is widespread support–or at least toleration–among the Jewish population. The statements are not confined to religious sectors of society, but are also flourishing on social media platforms, where average Israelis call for Palestinians to be ethnically-cleansed. In the streets of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, Beersheba, groups of Israeli Jews led by anti-miscegenationist activists march through town chanting “Death to Arabs!” and “Death to leftists!,” assaulting anyone who fits the bill.
Until Israel’s most recent assault on Gaza, Jewish leaders who publicly advocated meting out death to Palestinian civilians were forced to confine their remarks to Hebrew. With Operation Protective Edge, however, a watershed has been breached, with both Israelis and American Jews now permitting themselves to call for the killing of defenseless Palestinians without shame.
Describing this week’s pro-Israel rally at which Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner declared open season on Gazans for voting for Hamas, the Forward’s Hody Nemes wrote:
The pro-Israel rally was organized by UJA-Federation of New York, the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York and other groups, and had the backing of nearly the entire organized Jewish community, including the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements. A crowd estimated at close to 10,000 people, including numerous politicians, attended the rally, dwarfing the protests against Israel’s operation.
With the mainstream American Jewish leadership firmly in support of the current military operation there is little pressure for the Israeli government to end the carnage–or for the U.S. government to pressure it to do so.