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How the rule of the rabbis is fuelling a holy war in Israel

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The emergence of a class of influential rabbis who preach genocide against Israel's neighbours has set the stage for a perfect storm in the region
The emergence of a class of influential rabbis who preach genocide against Israel's neighbours has set the stage for a perfect storm in the region
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In which country did a senior, state-salaried cleric urge his followers last month to become "warriors", emulating a group of young men who had murdered a woman of another faith?

The cleric did so with impunity. In fact, he was only echoing other highly placed colleagues who have endorsed a book again without penalty urging their disciples to murder babies belonging to other religions.

Where can the head of the clergy call black people "monkeys" and urge the expulsion of other religious communities?

Where does a clerical elite wield so much power that they alone decide who can marry or get divorced and are backed by a law that can jail someone who tries to wed without their approval? They can even shut down the national railway system without notice.

Where are these holy men so feared that women are scrubbed from billboards, college campuses introduce gender segregation to appease them, and women find themselves literally pushed to the back of the bus?

Is the country Saudi Arabia? Or Myanmar? Or perhaps, Iran?

No. It is Israel, the world's only self-declared Jewish state.

Which 'shared values'?

There is barely a politician in Washington seeking election who has not at some point declared an "unbreakable bond" between the United States and Israel, or claimed the two uphold "shared values". Few, it seems, have any idea what values Israel really represents.

There are many grounds for criticising Israel, including its brutal oppression of Palestinians under occupation and its system of institutionalised segregation and discrimination against the fifth of its population who are not Jewish its Palestinian minority.

But largely ignored by critics have been Israel's increasing theocratic tendencies.

This hasn't simply proved regressive for Israel's Jewish population, especially women, as the rabbis exert ever greater control over the lives of religious and secular Jews alike.

It also has alarming implications for Palestinians, both under occupation and those living in Israel, as a national conflict with familiar colonial origins is gradually transformed into a holy war, fuelled by extremist rabbis with the state's implicit blessing.

Control of personal status

Despite Israel's founding fathers being avowedly secular, the separation between church and state in Israel has always been flimsy at best and it is now breaking down at an ever-accelerating rate.

After Israel's establishment, David Ben Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, decided to subordinate important areas of life for Israeli Jews to the jurisdiction of an Orthodox rabbinate, representing the strictest, most traditional and conservative stream of Judaism. Other, more liberal streams have no official standing in Israel to this day.

Ben Gurion's decision in part reflected a desire to ensure his new state embraced two differing conceptions of Jewishness: both those who identified as Jews in a secular ethnic or cultural sense, and those who maintained the religious traditions of Judaism. He hoped to fuse the two into a new notion of a Jewish "nationality".

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Jonathan Cook is a writer and journalist based in Nazareth, Israel. He is the 2011 winner of the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are "Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East" (Pluto Press) and "Disappearing Palestine: (more...)
 

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