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Israel’s Demons’: An Exchange

In response to:

Israel's Demons from the December 21, 1995 issue

To the Editors:

Notwithstanding Amos Elon or the director of the Jewish Agency, Avrahum Burg, whom Elon cites in his “Israel’s Demons” [NYR, December 21, 1995], the equivalence between Teheran and Bar Ilan University is outrageous. Bar Ilan is not Teheran, nor even Ber Zeit. It may be easy to lump orthodoxies together; for a variety of reasons (many political, many deeply cultural), such characterizations play both in Israel and abroad. NYR readers may be surprised to learn, however, that well over half of Bar Ilan’s students are women, and that 47 percent of the student population—at a University internationally renowned for its contributions to the sciences—come from non-religious backgrounds. Indeed, a recent participant to a conference, hosted by Bar Ilan, on the American philosopher Stanley Cavell, was surprised at the University’s “normalcy.” Expecting the irredentist fringe, he was confronted with a campus, it seemed to him, like that of any other Israeli University.

But Bar Ilan is different: Yigal Amir, as we all know, studied at Bar Ilan; indeed, this is a painful fact with which administration, faculty, and students continue to come to grips. Students and faculty remain obsessed by the crime; and the questions and self-searching continues. That, as Elon cites, one of Amir’s teachers “laid awake all night wondering where he had gone too far” should be taken as an index of the campus’s seriousness in soul-searching and accountability, not as Elon suggests, of Bar Ilan’s exclusive guilt. The nation is at fault—both left and right (the terrifying suggestions of General Security Service involvement with Amir and his handler Raviv, and the general use of tactics of incitement by the government, subjects upon which Elon remains strangely silent, attest in the most concrete terms to such joint responsibility). But, of course, Elon’s cartoon characterization of Bar Ilan serves a very real purpose: to characterize what had been the center as right, fanatical—beyond the pale.

Elon’s rhetoric thus not only contributes to misperception and provocation (my students who had habitually hitched rides to Bar Ilan are now—on their way to study Milton’s Areopagitica—spat on and passed by, condemned as “murderers”), it also contributes to a marginalization of the center, the delegitimization of dissent, and the betrayal of democratic principles. To be sure, the announcement on the Internet that the “Witch is dead,” was an egregious act of bad taste, and perhaps incitement (though, did all Americans, I wonder, react with the requisite horror and constraint to the assassination attempt on President Reagan, or George Wallace?). But even Bar Ilan’s expulsion of this student was, for Elon, not enough. Elon wants to bring to justice those teachers who “thought the same,” and in the same vein talks approvingly of the attempts to identify Amir’s “spiritual adviser”—a process which has lent an aura of McCarthyism to the continued investigations into the assassination (they have yet to find such an adviser, just as the police have failed to uncover the “conspiracy” in which Elon believes so assuredly). Despite the suggestion of an Orwellian thought police (a suggestion perhaps more apparent to the NYR reader immersed in traditions of civil liberty), Elon, it seems, wants to root out any one who might not think as he does. Not only, according to Elon, do words kill (the convenient cliché of the month in the Salem that Jerusalem has become), but so do thoughts. (One can only wonder, in this regard, why the government continues to negotiate with an organization that is committed on paper—that is, in the words of the Palestinian National Covenant—to the total destruction of Israel.)

For Elon, there is no center: just the left and the “mystagogues” and “salvation mongers” to which he refers. If Elon’s rhetoric revolves finally upon an Enlightenment rejection of various orthodoxies and fanaticisms, then Elon’s very arguments betray his principles. For while Enlightenment paradigms call for tolerance and difference, Elon can accommodate neither. Despite Elon’s misleading and inflammatory rhetoric, the ethos of Bar Ilan—with its commitment to negotiate between the diverse claims of divergent traditions—may, in fact, hold a ray of hope for a country increasingly divided. For in Israel, only at Bar Ilan do students (both religious and non-religious, Labor and Likud) sit down together to study Isaiah and the Song of Songs in the mornings, and Homer and Shakespeare in the afternoons. This community, where extremes come together and attempt—though not always successfully—to harmonize should be a model for the nation, not, pace Elon, its scapegoat.

William Kolbrener

Professor of English

Bar Ilan University

Ramat-Gan, Israel

To the Editors:

There are obvious dangers in rushing to judgment. Amos Elon, confronting “Israel’s Demons” [NYR, December 21, 1995] in a report filed November 16, illustrates two of the most serious: (1) a presumption may be undermined by new facts; and (2) contrary evidence may be ignored.

The police investigation of assassin Yigal Amir, Mr. Elon writes, exposed “the seedy underworld of ruthless terrorists informally allied with fairly prominent religious leaders, rabbis, mystagogues, kabbalists, and other salvation-mongers.” Quite astonishingly, it also exposed (three days after Mr. Elon filed his report) Avishai Raviv, the Israeli Security Services informer and agent provocateur, as the man who distributed the odious poster depicting Yitzhak Rabin as a Nazi. The entire political Right has now been pilloried—by Mr. Elon, among many others—for what was done by a government agent. By reprinting Raviv’s poster, the New York Review has graphically illuminated the zeal of the Rabin government to demonize its political enemies.

Mr. Elon relies heavily on Rabbi Yoel Ben-Nun’s dramatic assertion that he knew of rabbis who had incited Amir to murder Rabin by declaring the prime minister a rodef (pursuer) who deserved to be killed. But the day before Mr. Elon filed his report, the respected Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz covered a press conference in which Rabbi Ben-Nun conceded that he had no evidence that any rabbi had issued such a ruling. Nor, as of this date (November 30), has any such evidence emerged.

Finally, Mr. Elon cites as an “extreme conclusion” any notion in Jewish law “to settle the Land [of Israel].” But when David Ben-Gurion was asked to identify the mandate for Zionism, he replied succinctly: the Hebrew Bible. Isn’t settling the Land of Israel precisely what Zionism has always been about?

Jerold S. Auerbach

Professor of History

Wellesley College

Wellesley, Massachusetts

Amos Elon replies:

In “Israel’s Demons” I suggested that Yigal Amir’s coolly self-confessed crime, and that of his alleged accomplices, must not be seen in isolation, as professors Kolbrener and Auerbach—and others in and out of Bar Ilan—are now trying to do, but rather against the background of the widespread politicization of religion in Israel after the 1967 war.

Rabin was murdered for “religious” reasons within a subculture infected by the feverish messianism generated by the 1967 war, a war promptly named after the six days of Creation, and seen by mystagogues and clever manipulators of faith (from Brooklyn to Hebron) as atkhalta di geulah, the dawn of Salvation that heralds the imminent Coming of the Messiah. I referred to the growing ties between right wing fanatics and leading spokesmen of the Orthodox establishment after 1967, to a point where they became almost indistinguishable, in preaching a grim, neo-Yahvist blood-and-soil theology.

As a result, there was and still is a determined attempt to subject state law and even foreign policy to so-called halachic rulings, issued almost as divine Law by former chief rabbis and other prominent exegists of the Tradition; rulings on what must never be traded with the Palestinians, not even for lasting peace. And, finally there was in the aftermath of that war a fetishist sanctification of every inch of The Land and of Greater Jerusalem. In the eyes of the fundamentalists among whom the murderer had grown up as a militant devotee, it was this sanctity that Rabin had so blasphemously violated by his deal with the PLO. For this alone, in Amir’s view, Rabin deserved to die as a rodef.

Children must not be handed the halacha,” a leading Orthodox scholar (himself a settler near Hebron) bitterly complained after the event. Amir may be childish but he is not a hothead. He seems chillingly coldblooded, as shown by his calm reenactment of his crime, at the scene of the crime, with a real (but unloaded) gun in his hand, before police and TV cameras. God was his accomplice, he claimed in court.

He was not incited to commit his act by slogans or by a poster, the Attorney General confirmed last week. He was prompted by a simplistic but “complete world-view,” the Attorney General said. He did not invent his halacha, or his interpretation of one or another aspect of it. It was part of a seemingly systematic way of thinking, a discipline, what in Orthodox parlance is called mishna sedura. Several similarly simplistic interpretations of the tradition are rampant in recent years among fully grownup members of the Orthodox religious establishment, in Israel and abroad. These pronouncements, reminiscent of certain fatwas emanating elsewhere in the Middle East from fundamentalist ulemas, have usually been dismissed by the general public with a shrug, as folkloristic, politically benign splittings of Talmudic hairs. The religious establishment, especially its most radical wing in the settlements, took them more seriously. In some of the paramilitary yeshivas—run by fanatic opponents of the peace process—they may have become paramount. Ori Orr, the deputy minister of defense, proposed last week that these institutions, which enable youngsters to combine their military service with a three-year course at a yeshiva, be abolished. The internal debate within the Orthodox community was public knowledge. The chairman of the “Organization of Rabbis in Judea, Samaria and Gaza District” formally opened the debate last year by addressing a questionnaire to rabbis in the territories and in Israel proper; the rabbis were asked to state whether, in their carefully considered view, Rabin was or was not, directly or indirectly, a traitor and a rodef, i.e., deserving the death punishment. It is highly likely that the question, at least as theoretical speculation, was also discussed at Bar Ilan’s Higher Torah Institute which Amir regularly attended. After the murder, the author of the questionnaire explained himself by saying that he had sent it out in an attempt to foreclose the issue (and put an end to the debate) by assembling an impressive number of renowned Talmudists to rule that Rabin was not a rodef. It is a pity he did not publish the results, if there were any, earlier. He has not published them to this day.

Just as the Rabbinate never condemned the “practical kabbalists” who tried to bring about Rabin’s death by invoking the help of “angels of evil,” so—with the exception of a few courageous outsiders—no representative religious body within the Orthodox establishment has so far issued a clear ruling that the third-century term rodef no longer applies, or at the very least cannot be applied to a democratically elected Israeli government.

It is this highly explosive climate that Kolbrener refuses to confront. Instead he draws the idyllic picture of the Bar Ilan campus as the only one in Israel where students of all political and religious convictions “sit down together to study Isaiah and the Song of Songs in the mornings, and Homer and Shakespeare in the afternoons.”

That every single one of Amir’s alleged accomplices attends or attended Bar Ilan, that Kahanist and other racist propaganda on the campus were benignly overlooked by university authorities, but Peace Now posters were regularly torn off from notice boards as soon as they were displayed, and that prominent Bar Ilan teachers had publicly favored denying Israeli Arabs the right to vote or abolishing the rule of law in favor of halacha, cannot be gleaned from Kolbrener’s description of a happy, harmonious model place.

Nor does he note that on the occasion of a recent ceremony at Bar Ilan to commemorate the thirtieth day after Rabin’s death, a professor named Hillel Weiss publicly announced that the “legal” consultations to determine whether, in view of its agreement with the Palestinians, the new Peres government was not guilty of “treason” must, notwithstanding Rabin’s death, continue as before. In another country, such an announcement would be dismissed as academic nonsense. Not, however, in Israel where religious as well as secular rightwingers are now threatening those who disagree with them that they may be provoking a “civil war.”

The Chief Rabbinate has gone back on its promise of over a month ago, to appoint a committee to consider the accusations of Yoel Bin-Nun, a prominent West Bank rabbi, who maintains that certain rabbinical authorities had given Amir an implicit or explicit mandate to perform his crime. Bin-Nun himself has not retracted. He has been warned that he might be found guilty of being a mosser (a betrayer, another crime punishable by death in the halacha) and has not been heard from since. Nothing reflects the ludicrous, surrealistic quality of this halachic discourse more than the term mosser, which, like rodef, originated in the dark ages to meet the secret needs of a persecuted religious minority forced to defend itself, as best it could, in a hostile, alien world. The World Union of Rabbis for the Land of Israel has roundly condemned Bin-Nun. The police have investigated “under caution” a number of prominent rabbis on his list. They included one who after the Hebron massacre last year had likened the mass murderer Baruch Goldstein to the “saintly martyrs of the Nazi holocaust” and another who had issued a fatwa authorizing the minings of roads leading to the settlements and the blowing up of Israeli army cars withdrawing from the West Bank. Both rabbis have denied all responsibility for Amir’s act. The investigation of these rabbis has drawn accusations of McCarthyism. But the investigations continue. It is still widely thought that a pious Talmud student like Amir would not have acted without, at least, an indirect religious mandate from a rabbinical authority.

At Bar Ilan, the violently worded posters and stickers have disappeared. The theology of settling the Land continues as before. If there is “soul-searching” at Bar Ilan, as Kolbrener claims, it would be good to know what its pedagogical results have been. It is not Bar Ilan that is guilty, Kolbrener claims glibly and self-righteously, but the entire nation, “both left and right.” The term “left” seems to refer to the General Security Service, Israel’s FBI. The GSS, he darkly suggests, may have been “involved with Amir [sic!] and his handler Raviv.” Is this simply a clumsy formulation? Or is he accusing the GSS of complicity in Rabin’s murder? Raviv may well have been a GSS agent and an agent provocateur. But no proof has so far emerged to substantiate right-wing accusations that he (and/or the GSS) had printed and distributed the leaflets showing Rabin in SS uniform. Jerold Auerbach does not seem aware that two other men, in addition to Raviv, were arrested for distributing the leaflets; the picture published in these pages, moreover, was only one of many vicious caricatures of Rabin.

Auerbach states that settling the Land is precisely what Zionism has always been about. But that kind of Zionism—and the wars it implies—cannot in reason, and in infringement of another people’s human and political rights, go on indefinitely, as recommended by Auerbach from his grandstand seat at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. Settling the Land is imperative only in halacha. Political Zionism, on the other hand, aimed at the establishment of a safe haven for Jews within a state of their own. After the 1967 war, Ben Gurion, whom Auerbach quotes approvingly, felt the haven was safe and strong enough as a nuclear power to return the entire West Bank (with the exception of East Jerusalem) in exchange for peace. The final borders should not, in justice, be decided by Jewish halacha but by international law and freely contracted treaties. This is what the late Yitzhak Rabin meant when, in one of his last speeches, he reminded his compatriots that they were not alone in the Land; there was another people there. For this heresy Rabin was assassinated.

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