Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Why Are Fringe Rabbis on the Front Page?

By: Chaim Steinmetz

No news story about an anti-Israel protest would be complete without a quote from a member of the Neutrei Karta, a group of Ultra- Orthodox Jews who oppose Israel. Indeed, at a recent anti-Israel rally, the Montreal Gazette, put a picture of a Hassid holding a placard on its front page. But who are the Neturei Karta, and are they truly newsworthy?

In the early 1900’s, before the State of Israel existed, Zionism was debated among Orthodox Jews. A significant group supported Mizrachi, a religious Zionist organization that worked together with secular Zionists. However, many Orthodox Jews rejected Zionism. Some, part of a coalition called Agudath Israel, were concerned by the lack of religiosity in the secular Zionist leadership. A much smaller group, coalescing around ultra-Orthodox groups in Hungary and the Edah Hacharedis organization in Jerusalem, took the extreme view Zionism was a heresy. In their view, Jewish belief in a Messiah obliged loyal Jews to wait for the Messianic redemption, rather than take matters into their own hands. The group most prominent in contemporary demonstrations, the Neturei Karta, was formed in the mid-1930’s as a radical breakaway from the Edah Hacharedis.

The Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel transformed Orthodox views on Zionism. Rabbi Issacher Shlomo Teichtal, a prominent anti-Zionist, became a religious Zionist because of the Holocaust. Formerly anti-Zionist groups, such as the Hassidic communities of Belz, Klausenberg, and Lubavitch, adopted a more positive and pragmatic view toward the new Jewish state. Indeed, Agudath Israel had its representatives sign Israel’s Declaration of Independence. For most Orthodox Jews, rejectionist anti-Zionism was a matter of the past. Even many of those who have retained an anti-Zionist stance, such as Satmar Hassidim, currently value Israel as place where Jews can live in safety, and refuse to make any common cause with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.

Today, the Neturei Karta have about 1,000 supporters. Finding themselves more isolated than ever, the Neturei Karta’s theology has grown even more radical, and the behavior of its leaders is increasingly bizarre. For example, a leader of a Neturei Karta affiliated group currently living in St. Agathe, Rabbi Shlomo Elbarnes, spent time in a U.S. jail for kidnapping a teenager. For today’s Neturei Karta, anti-Zionism is the focus of their theology, and as a consequence, they demonize all Zionists as disciples of Satan.

Indeed, the Neturei Karta are enamored of Israel’s enemies and even anti-Semites. Rabbi Moshe Hirsch, the group’s elder statesman, has close ties to the Palestinian leadership, and was on Yasser Arafat’s payroll. These Neturei Karta maintain close ties to Iran’s radical regime as well. In June 2000, Rabbi Yisroel David Weiss supported Iran’s accusations that 13 Jews had spied for Israel; this, while governments around the world protested these false arrests. Neturei Karta’s leaders have also cultivated relationships with Louis Farrakhan, an American preacher known for his anti-Semitism, and Abu Hamza, a radical British cleric later imprisoned under Britain’s Terrorism Act. Because of their bizarre views and behavior, they have been condemned multiple times by other ultra-Orthodox groups, and they are viewed as infuriating oddities. Frankly, the Neturei Karta are a fringe group, even less relevant than the Amish or the Raelians.

Yet, despite being a marginal phenomena, the Neturei Karta receive a lot of media attention. Certainly, the Neturei Karta work tirelessly at public relations, issuing press releases, buying the occasional advertisement, and traveling all over North America to join with any anti-Israel group they can find. Due to sympathetic journalists, they manage to get a lot of media attention.

Of course, the Neturei Karta seem made for media. People are fascinated by Hassidic Jews in general, as exotic figures who seem to have stepped straight out of the 18th century. For journalists, the caftan wearing extremists of the Neturei Karta are an exotic “man bites dog” story, with very Jewish-looking Jews denouncing Israel. Indeed, Jewish solidarity with Israel puzzles many journalists, and leaves them searching in vain for some sort of internal Jewish discord. The Neturei Karta offer a story of internal debate unavailable elsewhere.

Contemporary media, much like pro wrestling, thrives on conflict. In that regard, the Neturei Karta are the “Andre the Giant” of pro-Israel events, protesting in order to irritate and annoy, hoping this will initiate conflict with supporters of Zionism. Sadly, when journalists give the Neturei Karta prominent coverage, they have taken a circus sideshow and put it on the front page. There are many important debates about the Middle East, but instead of those, these journalists have chosen to focus on a fringe phenomenon and consider it newsworthy.

It’s a shame the media seems to make this journalistic mistake, over and over again.

Friday, August 04, 2006

On Pacifism, Proportionality, and State Terrorism

By Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz

I have always dreamed of world peace. As a child, I was nurtured on visions of the messianic era, an epoch when soldiers world would beat their swords into plowshares. Because of this intoxicating image I have always aspired to fulfill the Psalmist's exhortation to "search for peace and pursue it".
Obviously, I can't stand wartime.

I read the newspaper, and the headlines assault me. An awful report about the dozens of civilians killed in an air raid in the village of Kana in Southern Lebanon. The story of the Al-Akhrass family, tragically wiped out while on vacation in Southern Lebanon. The ongoing saga of three Israeli soldiers held captive, uncertain if they will live or die. Yehudit Itzkovitch killed together with her 7 year old grandson, Omer, when a Kaytusha crashes into their home. There is much too much tragedy on both sides of the Israel-Lebanon border. As a supporter of Israel, it disturbs me when Israelis are killed; it disturbs me even more if Israelis have to kill.

As Golda Meir put it, "We can forgive you for killing our sons. But we will never forgive you for making us kill yours."

Considering the horrors of war, one has to examine the morality of each and every war, including this one. Of course, it is to be expected that the network of anti-Israel pundits would use the current bloodshed for polemical effect, as another opportunity to demonize Israel. However, other, more neutral voices have also questioned Israel's case for war. Some have made claims of "State Terrorism" and "Disproportionate Force", and have questioned the wisdom of Israel's strategies as well. As much as I love peace, I still cannot find any merit to these claims. Please allow me to explain why.

1. State Terrorism

Jack Todd, the sportswriter for the Montreal Gazette, has opined that Israel's actions amount to "state sponsored terrorism". He argues that if Israel strikes at Hezbollah targets in highly populated areas where there is a certainty of civilian deaths, this is same as targeting civilian lives. To Todd, Israel's actions are state sponsored terrorism, because "if you know there are going to be civilian casualties, is that not deliberate?".

This argument is the intellectual equivalent of a three base error. By Todd's logic virtually all war is a form of terrorism. No country could go to war, because every serious war will eventually cause civilian casualties.

How could the allies plan D-Day, knowing they will eventually kill civilians in the French countryside? (Let's forget for a moment the bombing of Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) Is it possible to fight a war that will avoid civilian casualties?

What Todd has forgotten is that in the ethical realm, intention matters. In extenuating circumstances, an acceptable act that also causes a secondary, unintended and unwanted forbidden outcome is morally acceptable. (In Jewish ritual law, this category is called "p'sik reisha d'lo nicha ley"). Just like there is a major difference between a sacrifice bunt and a simple out, there is a major difference between targeting civilians and targeting combatants. Civilian deaths are always tragic. However, their deaths are not terrorism if they are unintended.

Because he ignores each side's stated intentions, Jack Todd has a problem picking out the good guys and bad guys in this war. I have no such problem.
Hezbollah openly targets Israeli civilians, and even uses Lebanese civilians as human shields; that is why they are despicable terrorists. Israel sends out warning flyers asking civilians to leave targeted areas, and endangers ground troops in order to reduce the collateral damage of an aerial bombing campaign; that is why they are the heroes. It's a shame Jack Todd is too politically correct to see this.

2. Disproportionate Force

Disproportionate force is the new mantra of internationalists such as Kofi Annan, Javier Solana, Jack Straw and Jacques Chirac. Israel, in their view, is not responding proportionately. On the surface, they may have an argument. International law does require proportionality of response. That means, to quote Michael Newton, a professor of law at Vanderbilt University Law School "if someone punches you in the nose, you don't burn their house down." So, at first glance, it would seem two kidnapped soldiers is not a large enough grievance to start a full scale war.

But let's take the nose-punching analogy a step further. Imagine if someone punched your nose every so often, frequently enough to harass you, but infrequently enough for you to justify a serious retaliation. And what if this nose puncher has promised to kill you, and is presently searching for a knife. Now let's say he's got some local bullies to help him out. All of a sudden, his promise to kill you is looking a lot more threatening.

Now you have the full picture. Even after Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon 6 years ago, Hezbollah continued to fire rockets into Israel and skirmish with Israeli soldiers on a regular basis. Israel is not fighting this war for two kidnapped soldiers; they are fighting because Hezbollah, backed by Iran and Syria, is a genuine threat to Israel. Hezbollah doesn't care much about the 3 convicted Lebanese terrorists in Israeli jails; they want to destroy Israel, piece by piece. Now, the legal judgement is quite different. Almost all legal codes, (based on passages in the Bible in Exodus 22:1-2, and the Talmud Sanhedrin 72a), recognize that one can preemptively use lethal force against a person who will become a mortal threat in the near future.

Proportionality may be a valid principle in a grievance, when one party retaliates against another for the sake of righting a wrong. But self defense is different. When it comes to self-defense, there is no reason to give a future murderer second chances, even if his his last attempt was just a measly punch.

Hezbollah will be a mortal threat to the State of Israel in the near future (if it isn't one already). Israel would be failing its citizens if it didn't defend against this threat.

3. The Arab Street

Pacifism has a mixed reputation. Most people have a healthy respect for the idealism embodied in pacifism. At the same time, there is a general recognition that pacifism is quixotic and naive. Indeed, pacifism is often an unwitting form of collaboration with evil, a formula for ensuring that the bloodthirsty and immoral triumph.

But the one area pacifism excels at is public relations. Gandhi took the world by storm with a campaign of non-violence. Certainly pacifism can be strategic, advancing one's political cause without recourse to violence.

In the current conflict, it is undeniable that public opinion in the Arab world is inflamed against Israel. From a political point of view, this is a serious loss. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times argues that Israel should consider what I would term as "strategic pacifism". He argues that despite initial disappointments, both Spain and England succeeding in curbing the IRA and ETA through restraint. To Kristof, "The record of Spain and Britain suggests that restraint and conciliation can seem maddeningly ineffective - but they are still the last, best hope for peace."

Actually, I don't completely disagree with Kristof. Unquestionably, Israel should try to win over public opinion in the Arab world. I imagine any intelligent supporter of Israel will regret how this conflict will hurt Israel's image in the Arab world. However, Israel's predicament is far different than Spain's and England's.

Hezbollah and Hamas don't want a specific territory; they are planning nothing less than the destruction of Israel. Their entire theologically laced ideology is based on the belief that all of Israel must become an Islamic land. The upshot of this is, unlike Spain and England, Israel cannot afford to gamble; If Hezbollah succeeds, it's bye bye Israel. In addition, because Hamas and Hezbollah are religious movements, their supporters are far less likely to be swayed by any overtures Israel has to offer. In fact, these true believers will interpret any overtures by Israel as proof that their extremist ideology is triumphant.

More upsetting to me is the implication that Israel is primarily responsible to win over the Arab world. Somehow, after the vast majority of the Arab world has refused to accept the State of Israel for the last 60 years, after multiple Arab regimes have sponsored terrorist groups, Israel bears the responsibility to make nice, as if all this fuss is her fault. Perhaps, for a change, someone else should be responsible for the political change in the Middle East!

And by the way, didn't overwhelming force, as opposed to strategic pacifism, transform Germany, Italy and Japan in 1945?

4. What Now?

Ultimately, peace must remain everyone's dream. But the peace of the naive is not a peace at all. When dealing with an uncompromising, rejectionist enemy, peace is elusive. Violent enemies may require an even more violent response. At times like this, we must fight.

However, at the same time, we must continue to hope and pray for world peace, a time when every one of God's children will unite together in brotherhood and love.