Who are the radical rabbis inspiring Israel’s most violent Jewish settlers?

Originally published on Jul 31st 2015 for The Independent

View online

JERUSALEM: While Israeli politicians have roundly condemned the deadly arson attack on a West Bank Palestinian home, no conciliatory words are to be expected from the extremist rabbis who have spent years inciting such violence.

The Hebrew words “revenge” and “long live the messiah” spray-painted on the charred building suggest extremist settlers are to blame, and the Israeli army deemed the incident “Jewish terror”.

This will come as no surprise those who have been following the West Bank’s radical rabbis. In 2009, Rabbis Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur, leaders at a seminary in the settlement of Yitzhar, drew controversy with The King’s Torah, a book on the permissibility of killing non-Jews.

The authors claim Jewish law allows the killing of non-Jewish children because of the future threat they may pose. “There is reason to harm children if it is clear that they will grow up to harm us,” it says.

The authors were arrested on suspicion of inciting racial hatred after the book’s publication but were released and were never charged. In 2011, Elitzur was banned from entering Britain because of the book.

But they are hardly the only religious leaders to use religion as justification for racism and violence. Rabbi Yitzhak Ginsburgh, the president of the Yitzhar religious school and the authors’ teacher, drew fire in the 1990s for praising Baruch Goldstein, the settler who in 1994 massacred 29 Palestinians as they were worshipping in a mosque at Hebron’s Cave of the Patriarchs. He justified Goldstein’s actions by saying they fulfilled the Jewish legal principle of “revenge” – the very phrase marked on the house burned down in the early hours of yesterday morning.

Rabbi Dov Lior, the former chief rabbi of the settlement of Kiryat Arba, is said to have personally counselled Mr Goldstein. After his death, the rabbi deemed him “a holier martyr than all the holy martyrs of the Holocaust”.

As a municipal rabbi, Lior received a government salary and since his retirement last year collects a government pension. Last year he said Israel should “cleanse” its territories of Arabs, who he calls “camel riders”.  Statements by these rabbis fall far outside the norm of Jewish opinion. And the mainstream settler movement is careful to dissociate itself from its fringe elements. To the casual onlooker, the religious leaders may not appear dangerous at all.

There is little fire and brimstone and more seemingly logical argument. But those seeking justification for violence – vandalism, the torching of a church or murder – may find in the sometimes quiet but always menacing words of rabbis just what they are looking for.