Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel by Israel Shahak and Norton Mezvinsky

Jewish Fundamentalism in Israel


Israel Shahak and Norton Mezvinsky

published by
Pluto Press
ISBN 0 7453 1281 0 hbk

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Virtually identified with Arab terrorism, Islamic fundamentalism is anathema throughout the non-Muslim world. Virtually identified with ignorance, superstition, intolerance and racism, Christian fundamentalism is anathema to the cultural and intellectual elite in the United States. The recent significant increase in its number of adherents, combined with its widening political influence, nevertheless, make Christian fundamentalism a real threat to democracy in the United States. Although possessing nearly all the important social scientific properties of Islamic and Christian fundamentalism, Jewish fundamentalism is practically unknown outside of Israel and certain sections of a few other places. When its existence is acknowledged, its significance is minimized or limited to arcane religious practices and quaint middle European dress, most often by those same non-Israeli elite commentators who see so uncompromisingly the evils inherent in Jewish fundamentalism's Islamic and/or Christian cousins.

As students of contemporary society and as Jews, one Israeli, one American, with personal commitments and attachments to the Middle East, we cannot help seeing Jewish fundamentalism in Israel as a major obstacle to peace in the region. Nor can we help being dismayed by the dismissal of the perniciousness of Jewish fundamentalism to peace and to its victims by those who are otherwise knowledgeable and astute and so quick to point out the violence inherent in other fundamentalist approaches to existence.

This book is a journey of understanding—often painful, often dreary, often disturbing—for us as Jews who have a stake in Jewry . With our hearts and minds we want Jews, together with other people, to recognize and strive for the highest ideals, even as we fall short of them. We see these ideals as central to the values of Western civilization and applicable throughout the civilized world. We believe these values do not stand in the way of peace anywhere. That a perversion of these values in the name of Jewish fundamentalism stands as an impediment to peace, to the development of Israeli democracy and even to civilized discourse outrages us, both as Jews and as human beings. To identify and lessen, if not purge, this outrage, we have written this book and undertaken this journey in the hope that it may bring understanding to our readers as it has brought understanding to us. Our assumption is that peace in the Middle East cannot be achieved until the currents and cross-currents of contemporary life in the region are understood. In this most historical and most religious area, understanding entails an exploration of the past that continues to impinge upon the attitudes, values, assumptions and behaviors of all the people of this beautiful and troubled land. Jewish opposition in Israel to Jewish fundamentalism greatly increased after a Jewish, fundamentalist, religious fanatic, Yigal Amir, who insisted that he was acting in accordance with dictates in Judaism, shot and killed Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. That numerous groups of religious Jews after the assassination supported this murder in the name of the "true" Jewish religion aroused interest in Israel in past killings by Jews of other Jews who were alleged to be heretics or sinners. In our book we cite present and past investigations by Israeli scholars documenting that for centuries prior to the rise of the modern nation state, Jews, believing they were acting in accordance with God's word and thus preparing themselves for eternal paradise, punished or killed heretics and/or religious sinners. Contemporary Jewish fundamentalism is an attempt to revive a situation that often existed in Jewish communities before the influence of modernity. The basic principles of Jewish fundamentalism are the same as those found in other religions: restoration and survival of the "pure" and pious religious community that presumably existed in the past.

In our book we describe in some detail the origins, ideologies, practices and overall impact upon society of fundamentalism. We emphasize mostly the messianic tendency, because we believe it to be the most influential and dangerous. Jewish fundamentalists generally oppose extensions of human freedoms, especially the freedom of expression, in Israel. In regard to foreign policy, the National Religious Party, ruled by supponers of the messianic tendency of Jewish fundamentalism, has continuously opposed any and all withdrawals from territories conquered and occupied by Israel since 1967. These fundamentalists opposed Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai in 1978, just as twenty years later they continued to oppose any withdrawal from the West Bank. These same Jews printed and distributed atlases allegedly showing that the land of Israel, belonging only to the Jews and requiring liberation, included the Sinai, Jordan, Lebanon, most of Syria and Kuwait. Jewish fundamentalists have advocated the most discriminative proposals against Palestinians. Not surprisingly, Baruch Goldstein and Yigal Amir, the most sensational Jewish assassins of the 1990s, and most of their admirers have been Jewish fundamentalists of the messianic tendency.

In the 1990s, Israeli sociologists and scholars in other academic fields have focused more attention than ever before upon the social effects in Israeli society of Jewish fundamentalists. The overwhelming opinion of these scholars is that the adherents of Jewish fundamentalism in Israel are hostile to democracy .The fundamentalists oppose equality for all citizens, especially non-Jews and Jewish "deviants" such as homosexuals. The great majority of religious Jews in Israel, influenced by fundamentalists, share these views to some extent. In a book review published on October 14, 1998, Baruch Kirnrnerling, a distinguished Israeli sociologist, citing evidence from a study conducted by other scholars, commented:

The values of the [Jewish] religion, at least in its Orthodox and nationalistic form that prevails in Israel, cannot be squared with democratic values. No other variable—neither nationality, nor attitudes about security, nor social or economic values, nor ethnic descent and education—so influences the attitudes of [Israeli] Jews against democratic values as does religiosity.1

Citing additional evidence, Kimmerling commented further that secular, Israeli Jews who had acquired college or university education had the greatest attachment to democratic values and that religious Jews who studied in yeshivot (religious schools) most opposed democracy. It is clear that fundamentalist antagonism to democratic values, as well as to most aspects of secular culture and life style, is deeply instilled in Israel's religious schools.

The documentation of fundamentalist antagonism to the secular life style of a majority of Israeli Jews is clear. The September 20, 1998, edition of Yediot Ahronot, the largest circulation, Hebrew language, daily Israeli newspaper, for example, contained a "cultural profile" survey of Israeli Jewish society. The survey revealed that the major Israeli consumers of culture, who visit museums and attend concerts and the theater, had finished high school and defined themselves as either secular or not Orthodox (religious). The Israeli religious press and pronouncements by Israeli rabbis, condemning cultural activity, have confirmed the survey's findings.

Jewish fundamentalists have displayed severe enmity against Jews who adopt a different sexual life style. Many Israeli rabbis and the Israeli religious political patties in the 1990s reacted sharply against the increased visibility and power of the homosexual and lesbian communities in Israel. According to the Halacha {Jewish religious law), homosexuality is punishable by death by stoning, and, although the punishment is not clear, lesbian relations are forbidden. The Israeli secular press emphasized in the 1990s some of the more outrageous rabbinical proposals for dealing with homosexuals; these included a "compulsory healing treatment" and/or a period of "education in a closed institution." Many rabbis, when interviewed, indicated that they favored imposition of the death penalty for Jewish homosexual men. (The rabbis tended to leave lesbians alone.) In their televised election advertisements, Israeli religious political parties usually have emphasized that homosexual Jews constitute one of the greatest dangers facing Israel. The religious parties have been successful in their attempts to eliminate in public school courses any mention of Hebrew homosexual love poems, some of which contain beautiful Hebrew lyrics. This censorship is evidence of fundamentalist influence.

Conflicts in Israeli society between adherents and opponents of Jewish fundamentalism rank among the most important issues in Israeli politics. In this book we do not attempt to discuss all of these problems and/or issues. Rather, we focus upon what we consider to be the most vital problems and issues of Jewish fundamentalism.

Defenders of the "Jewish interest" often attack persons who write critically about Jews and/or Judaism for not emphasizing in the same text positive features that may have nothing or little to do with the substance under focus. Some of these defenders, for example, attacked Seffi Rachlevsky after the publication of his best-selling book, "Messiahs' Donkeys." In his book, Rachlevsky correctly claimed that Rabbi Kook, the Elder, the revered father of the messianic tendency of Jewish fundamentalism (who is featured in our book), said "The difference between a Jewish soul and souls of non-Jews—all of them in all different levels—is greater and deeper than the difference between a human soul and the souls of cattle." The Rachlevsky detractors did not attempt to refute substantivey the relevance of the Kook quotation. Rather, they argued that Rabbi Kook said other things and that Rachlevsky, by neglecting to mention them, had distorted the teachings of Rabbi Kook. Rachlevsky pointed out that Rabbi Kook's entire teaching was based upon the Lurianic Cabbala, the school of Jewish mysticism that dominated Judaism from the late sixteenth to the early nineteenth century. One of the basic tenants of the Lurianic Cabbala is the absolute superiority of the Jewish soul and body over the non-Jewish soul and body. According to the Lurianic Cabbala, the world was created solely for the sake of Jews; the existence of non-Jews was subsidiary. If an influential Christian bishop or Islamic scholar argued that the difference between the superior souls of non-Jews and the inferior souls of Jews was greater than the difference between the human soul and the souls of cattle, he would incur the wrath of and be viewed as an anti-Semite by most Jewish scholars regardless of whatever less meaningful, positive statements he included. From this perspective the detractors of Rachlevsky are hypocrites. That Rabbi Kook was a vegetarian and even respected the rights of plants to the extent that he did not allow flowers or grass to be cut for his own pleasure neither distracted from nor added anything to his position regarding the comparison of the souls of Jews and non-Jews. That Kook deprecated unnecessary Jewish brutality against non-Jews should not minimize criticism of his expressed delight in the belief that the death of millions of soldiers during World War One constituted a sign of the approaching salvation of Jews and the coming of the Messiah.

The detractors of Rachlevsky and those who may level similar criticisms against our book and us are not the only hypocrites in this area. Shelves of bookshops in English-speaking and other countries groan under the weight of books on Jewish mysticism in general and on Hassidism and the Lurianic Cabbala more specifically. Many of the authors of these books are widely regarded as famous scholars because of the minutiae of their scholarship. The people who read only these books on these subjects, however, cannot suspect that Jewish mysticism, the Lurianic Cabbala, Hassidism and the teachings of Rabbi Kook contain basic ideas about Jewish superiority comparable to the worst forms of anti-Semitism. The scholarly authors of these books, for example Gershon Scholem, have willfully omitted reference to such ideas. These authors are supreme hypocrites. They are analogous to many authors of books on Stalin and Stalinism. Until recently, people who read only the books written by Stalinists could not know about Stalin's crimes and would have false notions of the Stalinists' regimes and their real ideologies.

The fact is that certain Jews, some of whom wield political influence, consider Jews to be superior to non-Jews and view the world as having been created only or primarily for Jews. This belief in Jewish superiority is most dangerous when held by Jews who love their children, are honest in their relations with other Jews and perform, as do fundamentalists in all religions, various acts of piety. This belief is less dangerous when held by Jews who are not overwhelmingly concerned about religion and/or corruption. A parallel worth citing here is that in a secular, totalitarian system, a dedicated party worker or a convinced nationalist is usually more dangerous and harmful than a corrupt member of the same ideological system.

Our final point in this preface is both personal and universal. As Jews, we understand that our own grandparents or great-grandparents probably believed in at least some of the views described in our book. This same statement may apply to other contemporary Jews. In the past many non-Jews, as individuals and as members of groups, held anti-Semitic views, which, especially when the circumstances were propitious, influenced the behavior of others towards Jews. Similarly, in the past, slavery was universally practiced and justified, the inferior status of women was a global phenomenon and the belief that a country belonged to an individual or family and was heritable was common. Jewish fundamentalists still believe, as they have in the past, in a golden age when everything was, or was going to be, perfect. This golden age is so much of a reality for them that, when faced with issues of pernicious beliefs and practices, they take refuge by invoking God's word, by falsely describing the past and by condemning non-Jews for harboring feelings of superiority and having contempt for Jews. The fundamentalists also justify their own belief in Jewish superiority and their feeling of contempt for non-Jews; they seek to reproduce the mythical golden age in which their views would dominate. We have written this book in order to reveal the essential character of Jewish fundamentalism and its adherents. This character threatens democratic features of Israeli society. We believe that awareness is the necessary first step in opposition. We realize that by criticizing Jewish fundamentalism we are criticizing a part of the past that we love. We wish that members of every human grouping would criticize their own past, even before criticizing others. This, we further believe, would lead to a better understanding between human groups and would be followed, perhaps slowly and hesitantly, by better treatment of minorities. Most of our book is concerned with basic beliefs and resultant policies in Israeli Jewish society. We believe that a critique of Jewish fundamentalism, which entails a critique of the Jewish past, can help Jews acquire more understanding and improve their behavior towards Palestinians, especially in the territories conquered in and occupied since 1967. We hope that our critique will also motivate other people in the Middle East to engage in criticism of their entire past in order to increase their knowledge of themselves and improve their behavior towards others in the present. All of this could constitute a major factor in bringing peace to the Middle East.


This is a political book about Jewish fundamentalism in Israel. It includes some original scholarly research but is based to a great extent upon the scholarly research of others. Hopefully, this book is analytical.

We have inserted in the text many and copious quotations from serious articles that have appeared in the Israeli Hebrew press. The majority of articulate Israeli Jews have learned about Jewish fundamentalism and some of the reactions thereto during the past ten to fifteen years from these articles. Some of these articles provided summaries of and analyses by leading scholars who have researched in-depth aspects of Jewish fundamentalism.

We have quoted and have usually explained texts from talmudic literature. Such texts have been and still are often used in Israeli politics and often quoted in the Israeli Hebrew press. We have concluded that in the usual English translations of talmudic literature some of the most sensitive passages are usually toned down or falsified—as a result, we have ourselves translated all of the texts from talmudic literature that we have quoted in the book. The quotations from the Bible, however, follow the standard translations, sometimes in more modem English, except when specifically noted otherwise.

We realize that we have presented a number of lengthy quotations. We determined that this was necessary in order to explain our points adequately. We believe the quotations deserve to be and should be read in full. Instead of footnoting each quotation separately in the traditional scholarly manner, we decided to mention in the text from where each quotation was taken. Although this may at times appear to be a bit redundant, it makes the flow of understanding easier.

Although our book deals primarily with recent developments in Jewish fundamentalism, it is rooted in Jewish history. A brief overview of Jewish history, especially for readers who may lack adequate knowledge thereof, is necessary in order to provide the contextual framework for the subject matter. Fundamentalists of all religions wish to restore society to the "good old times" when the faith was allegedly pure and was practiced by everyone. Fundamentalists believe that in the "good old times" all the evils associated with modernity were absent, To gain an understanding of Jewish fundamentalism, it is imperative to identify the historical period that fundamentalists believe should be re-established. In order to do this, we must specify the various periods of Jewish history.

Jewish history is usually divided into four major periods. The first is the biblical period during which most of the Jewish Bible (Old Testament in the Christian tradition) was written. Although its beginning time is uncertain, this period lasted until about the fifth century BC. Judaism, at least in its major characteristics, did not exist in this time period. The Hebrew word "yehudim" ("Jews" in post-biblical Hebrew) and its cognates in the Jewish Bible only denotes the inhabitants of the small kingdom of Judea and is used to distinguish these inhabitants from all the other people, called Israelites or "sons of Israel" or, rarely, "Hebrews." The Bible anyway is not the book that primarily determines the practices and doctrines of Orthodox Jews.1 The most fundamentalist Orthodox Jews are largely ignorant of major parts of the Bible and know some parts only through commentaries that distort meaning. Controversies, moreover, consumed the biblical period. The majority of Israelites, including inhabitants of Judea, practiced idolatry throughout much of this period. Only a minority of Israelites followed those tendencies from which Judaism subsequently arose. In short, Judaism, as it came to be known, did not exist during the biblical period.

The second period of Jewish history, usually called the Second Temple period, began in the fifth century BC and lasted until the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in AD 70. This was the formative period of Judaism with its subsequent characteristics. The term "Jews," which denotes those people who followed the distinctive religion of Judaism and the name Judea, which denotes the land wherein Jews lived, appeared in this period. Near the end of this period, after Jews had conquered most of Palestine, the Romans adopted the term "Judea" in describing Palestine.3 The two most important new Jewish characteristics that developed in this period were Jewish exclusiveness and the resultant separation of Jews from all other nations. For the first time the persons of other nations were referred to by the collective name of gentiles.4 The second new characteristic was based upon the assumption that the Jews must follow biblical law, that is, the true interpretation of the law. During most of this period, however, disputes centering upon differing and rival interpretations of the law occurred. At times, these disputes erupted into civil wars. The long-lasting quarrel between the Pharisees and Saducees was but one example of such disputes. Shortly after the beginning of this period, Alexander the Great conquered Palestine. States influenced by Hellenism ruled Palestine for almost a thousand years thereafter; even the short-lived independent Jewish state of the Hasmonean dynasty was in most essentials a type of Hellenistic state. Consequentially, Jewish society and the Hebrew language, even though keeping their Jewish characteristics were transformed by the influences of Hellenism. Hellenism influenced even more deeply the Jewish diaspora in Mediterranean countries. Jews in those countries often spoke and prayed in Greek. Unfonunately most of the Jewish literature in Greek, which was produced in this period, was subsequently lost by the Jews; only that part preserved by various Christian churches has remained.

Most historians date the beginning of the third period in AD 70 with the destruction of the Second Temple. Other historians prefer to date the beginning of the third period in AD 135, when the last major Jewish rebellion against the Roman Empire ended. This period ended at different times in different countries with the onset of modernity and the rise of modern nation states. Modernity began when Jews were granted rights as citizens equal to those granted to non-Jews and consequently when their autonomy, which entailed subjection to the rabbis, ended. This occurred in the United States and France, for example, by the end of the eighteenth century; this did not occur in Russia until 1917 or in Yemen until the 1950s. The Jewish rebellions against the Romans resulted in a permanent loss of Jewish population in Palestine; the importance of the Jewish diaspora thus increased. This change became fully operative in the fifth century AD. Additionally, the failure of rebellions caused the Jews to lose hope that the Temple would be rebuilt and that the animal sacrifices performed in the Temple, previously the heart-center of the Jewish religion, would be restored before the coming of the Messiah. The repeated defeats caused most Jews to accommodate themselves to the ruling authority of Rome and of other states in return for the limited autonomy directed by the rabbis. Thus, in the Roman empire of the fourth century AD, in a system created much earlier, all the Jews were in religious matters subject to the Patriarch who had the power to punish them by flogging, by levying fines for religious offenses and by imposing taxes. The dignitary called Patriarch in Roman sources was called President ("Nassi" in Hebrew) in Jewish sources. He presided over the Sanhedrin, the supreme Jewish court, and in Palestine appointed court members and other religious functionaries. The Patriarch, whose post was hereditary, held a high official rank in the hierarchy of Roman state officials. A similar arrangement simultaneously existed in Iraq where the top official was called the head of the diaspora. Both the patriarch and the head of the diaspora claimed to have been descended from the family of King David. The office of the patriarch lapsed shortly after AD 429; the office of the head of the diaspora lasted until about AD 1100. Both offices provided the framework for models of Jewish autonomy. This autonomy, which persisted until the modern era, and later repercussions thereof, contributed to the rise of Jewish fundamentalism. The great abundance of literature produced in the third period, the longest in the entire course of Jewish history, was written mostly in Hebrew but also in Aramaic, Greek, Arabic, Yiddish and other languages. The major theme was religion; the minutiae of religious observances were mainly emphasized. Poetry, philosophy and science, predominantly of the Aristotelian variety, appeared at some times in some places but were neither universal nor continuous. In many diaspora areas, particularly in central Europe, the only literature produced until 1750 was religious. From the perspective of Jewish fundamentalism the most important occurrence in the third period was the growth of Jewish mysticism, usually referred to by the name of Cabbala. Jewish mysticism transformed Jewish beliefs without changing, except for a few details, Jewish observance. Between 1550 and 1750, the great majority of Jews in western Europe accepted the Cabbala and its set of beliefs. This was the end of the third period of Jewish history, which immediately preceded the rise of modern nation states and the beginning of modern influences. Mysticism is still accepted by and constitutes a vital part of Jewish fundamentalism, being especially important in the messianic variety. As shown in our book, the ideology of the messianic variety of Jewish fundamentalism is based upon the Cabbala. In spite of making occasional references to the Bible, Jewish fundamentalists generally have consistently pinpointed and described the last part of this third period as the golden age that they wish to restore. It is important to note that, beyond the spawning of Jewish fundamentalism, the wide circulation of religious literature in this third period created a strong sense of Jewish unity, based upon a common religion and the Hebrew language. (Almost all educated Jews, regardless of what language they spoke, understood and employed Hebrew as a written language for their religion.)

The fourth and modern period of Jewish history is the one in which we live. It began at different times in different countries; many Israeli Jews passed directly from pre-modern to modern times. As discussed in Chapter 3 of our book, this phenomenon has been especially important for Oriental Jews. Our book emphasizes that Jewish fundamentalism arose as a reaction against the effects of modernity upon Jews. The influence of Jewish fundamentalism upon the Israeli Jewish community can only be understood adequately within the context of the entire course of Jewish history.


1. Baruch Kimmerling, review of Yohanan Peres and Efraim Ya'ar Yukhtman, Between Agreement and Dispute: Democracy and Peace in Israeli Society (Jerusalem: The Israeli Institute for Democracy, 1998) in Hebrew. Kimmerling carefully reviewed and analyzed the data, assembled between 1993 and 1995 by Peres and Yukhtman.

2. We explain this to some extent in this book. This is explained in greater detail in Israel Shahak, Jewish History, Jewish Religion (London: Pluto Press, 1994).

3. The Romans actually adopted the term Judea by employing the form of "provincia Judea" in describing Palestine, which in the Bible is called by other names.

4. The Hebrew word for gentiles is "goyim," a word which, as used in the Bible, simply means nations. The singular "goy" in the Bible was—and is—applied to the Israelites themselves.

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