Friday, November 28, 2008

Jews, Muslims, and Terrorism

At which point does a religious person go from being a devout believer interested in doing the will of God to becoming a terrorist? I ask this in all seriousness. I’m not sure I can answer the question but it certainly deserves discussion.

It cannot be that zealotry alone makes one a terrorist. Kannaus – zealotry - is highly praised by Chazal. One need only look at the quintessential zealot in the Torah, Pinchas ben Elazar ben Aharon HaKohen. He saw a massive public Chilul HaShem and acted where even Moshe Rabbenu didn’t. His act was a violent one. In one moment he killed two people who were in the midst of desecrating the Name of God in public. For this Chazal tell us he was given eternal life and the priesthood was guaranteed to all his progeny in perpetuity.

And yet most responsible Jews including most rabbinic leadership across the board condemn anyone who acts in the name of God violently – even when no one dies as a result. This is clear every time it happens. But the violence continues. In fact it seems to be increasing.

I guess that those who act with such zealotry use Pinchas as a model. But they are wrong. The violence they do is for a cause that does not even come close to the cause for which Pinchas acted in biblical times. But the fact remains this is the model and the source motivation is zealotry in the Name of God.

One often hears the zealotry of religious Jewish fanatics compared to the fanatics of other religions, most specifically Islamic fundamentalists. The comparison usually takes the form of saying that they are the same – it’s just a matter of degree.

Many criticize this attitude as anti religious. How dare someone compare a Jew who acts L’Shem Shamyim – even if in a misguided violent way –to a Muslim terrorist non Jew who gives no value to human life?! – to even his own?! Those Muslims are evil incarnate. Jews are holy and though wrong and to be condemned, are certainly not inherently evil – and have almost never killed anyone.

But I submit that religious fanaticism is indeed sourced in the same type of religious motivation. In fact the Muslims who do these kinds of things are true believers and are perhaps more spiritual than many Jews who act violently in the name of God. The Muslims are Moser Nefesh for their beliefs! They are willing to give up their own lives in the cause of serving what they believe to be the will of God! Are the zealous thugs of Meah Shearim willing to do that?

On the other hand there are Jewish zealots who are willing to Moser Nefesh. The Religious Zionist settlers are on that level. I doubt very strongly that the thugs of Meah Shearim would be willing to give up their own lives to achieve the ends they seek!

But it doesn’t matter. In all the cases mentioned the zealots are wrong. And even though in all cases they believe they are doing God’s work, they are instead bringing misery to innocent people. And in some cases their acts end up causing death and destruction. They view their own beliefs on specific issues as the over-riding concern. Though based in religious law - their beliefs are not universally shared by their co-religionists. But that doesn’t stop them from imposing themselves on others even if it means causing harm while trying to achieve their goals.

In one sense Religious Zionists settlers are worse than the Meah Sherim thugs. At least Meah Shearim rabbinic leaders pay lip service condemnation to the violence. The settlers on the other hand have rabbinic leaders who advocate it - condemning anyone who opposes them as traitors worthy of being tried for treason!

The common factor is their religious zealotry. This is what guides them. The only difference is in the way they understand their service to God and to what degree they will go to achieve that end. That includes settler rabbis, Meah Shearim thugs and Muslim fundamentalist terrorists. Of course the Muslims do not look to Pinchas. They look to Muhammad’s son, Hussein, a fundamentalist warrior who shed much blood in spreading his faith forcefully across the Middle East.

These people are not zealots working for God. They are in fact all terrorists.

I think we as religious Jews have to recognize that fact and realize that the comparisons are valid. And their actions have to be treated in a similar fashion. Criminals have to be punished in accordance with the severity of their crimes. One cannot look at ideology as a factor. Murder is murder. Protests - or acts of resistence which turn violent - whether by Charedi thugs or Religious Zionist settlers – all in the name of their cause - need to be prosecuted without regard to source motivation. Especially those who say their own version of religious law supercedes the law of the land.

The only exception to ever be made in a Jewish state is when actual Halacha is contradicted. Then one must stand up for the Torah and not the state – and be willing to accept the consequences.

One more point about Religious Zionists who advocate violent resistance to authority. I used to respect and admire their idealism. They truly were (and are) willing to put their lives on the line for their beliefs in settling the Land of Israel. How I admired the courage of those who lived in or near Chevron… How I looked up at those from that community who served in the army and volunteered for the most dangerous assignments! A far greater proportion of Religious Zionist soldiers gave up their lives than did secular soldiers. I was truly in awe of them.

But their inability to face reality and insist on the impossible makes them a menace to the public welfare. They are no better than any other criminal and I now see their idealism as selfish and a dangerous imposition which risks the very lives of all of Klal Yisroel.