Monday, August 11, 2014

The Magnes Zionist: On Demonizing the Enemy (in his case, the Shas party)

In a post on the Magnes Zionist blog, Charles Manekin (who goes by the nom de plume Jeremiah [Jerry) Haber], asks the reader to stop demonizing Hamas. I'm not going to engage with his main argument, which I disagree with, and which I'm sure others will seek to demolish. My problem is with a statement he made about the Israeli political party Shas. He writes:
I shudder to think how the Jewish Home party, or better, the Shas party, would fight a war were they to be in control of the Israeli government, and Israel was under Palestinian occupation for generations, and a decade long-siege. Needless to say I detest Hamas’s anti-Semitism, just like I detest the anti-Palestinianism and anti-Arabism of the Jewish fundamentalist right.
Haber seems to be equating the Jewish Home party and Shas with Hamas. If Jews in Palestine were under occupation and siege, then these two parties would act like Hamas and launch rockets against civilian targets, blow up buses, and send suicide bombers to blow up pizza parlors.

I have read this equation before, as applied to Shas - that it's just like Hamas, only without suicide bombers. I think this is a gross slander on the Shas party, its leaders, and the people who vote for it. Historically, the Shas party, like the other ultra-Orthodox parties, has not been the leader of the aggressive Israeli right-wing. Currently it's not even in the government, while Jewish Home, led by Naftali Bennett, is in the government. Therefore Shas has nothing to do with the actions of the current government in Gaza. (The other Jewish ultra-Orthodox parties are also not in the government, nor are the Arab parties).

Ari Shavit, in his book, My Promised Land (chapter 11) recounts the story of Aryeh Deri, the once and current leader of the Shas party. The chapter tells his story from his roots in Morocco, the family's aliyah to Israel, their suffering as new immigrants, Aryeh's mother's sending him to an ultra-Orthodox boarding school, his attendance at the Hebron Yeshiva, his involvement in the founding of the Shas party, his rise to power as leader of the party, and his downfall on corruption charges. Much of the chapter is in Deri's own words. From reading this chapter, it's clear that Shas was founded by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, with the support of Rav Shach (at that time the leader of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox world), in order to give strength - spiritual and material - to the Sephardi-Mizrachi community in Israel which had lost its way with the immigration to Israel.  The slogan of the Shas party is מחזירים עטרה ליושנה - "returning the crown to its glory," meaning returning the spiritual strength to Mizrachi Jews. Aryeh Deri himself was in his earlier days more dovish as regards questions of war and peace - I'm not sure what his own position is now.

The Shas platform can be found on the party's website. The two central goals of the party are "to return the crown to its glory" and "advancement of social justice" (קידום הצדק החברתי). Shas is now a Zionist party and belongs to the World Zionist Organization, and has over the years become a supporter of the settlements in the West Bank - part of the party platform is "to build a Jewish home in a large and strong Jewish state in all areas of the land of Israel." The platform also includes an insistence that Jerusalem will never be the subject of negotiations. In the Israeli political scene, Shas is definitely on the right wing, as concerning issues of war and peace with the Palestinians.

While Shas can now be defined as Zionist, it does not support the conscription of yeshiva students into the Israeli army, and this is the main reason it does not belong to the current government coalition. This is in contrast to the Jewish Home party, which was one of the important supporters of a law to begin conscripting yeshiva students. The Jewish Home party is an updated version of the National Religious Party, and it is much more aggressive in its Jewish nationalism than Shas is. We don't have to imagine how it would behave in the current war with Hamas in Gaza - the leader of the party, Naftali Bennett, has made it clear that he and his party are to the right of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister. He opposed the current ceasefire, which went into effect at midnight Israel time today.

One important thing that leading rabbis in the party have recently done is to harshly denounce the killing of Muhammad Abu Khdeir, which was one of the catalysts for the current war. Rav Shalom Cohen, the spiritual leader of Shas, has ruled that the murderers of Abu Khdeir are in the category of "din rodef." From Ynet:
The harshest condemnation came from Rabbi Shalom Cohen, the new spiritual leader of the Sephardic Shas moment. Ynet has learned that Cohen told his associates on this way to a rally in memory of the three Israeli teens murdered by Palestinian terrorists that "those whose hands are stained with clean blood are subject to 'din rodef,' and their punishment from God cannot be described." 
The rabbi was referring to the traditional Jewish "law of the pursuer," under which a person who is "pursuing" another to murder him or her must be killed by any bystander after being warned to stop and refusing. 
"My heart bleeds at the evil rumor that a Jewish hands killed the soul of an Arab youth for no fault of his own," Rabbi Cohen told his associates. "One's ears will tingle upon hearing about the horrifying act which infuriates the nations and may lead to horrible bloodshed."
As I wrote in an earlier blogpost, one reason for the harsh denunciation of the murderers of Abu Khdeir is that they come from prominent rabbinic families in the Shas movement. Of the three accused killers, only one has been named (because he is the only adult among the three). His name is Yosef Chaim Ben-David, and his father is Rabbi Saadya Ben-David, the leader of a kollel (a yeshiva for married men) and a community in Har Nof, and also a noted educator. Yosef Chaim was the manager of an optical store in the Geula neighborhood in Jerusalem.

As I wrote previously,
The father of three of the suspects, who are brothers, is known as a educator in the Haredi Sephardic community. From the article, “In Shas they explain the severe response of the spiritual leader of the movement, Rav Shalom Cohen – who ruled that the murderers are subject to ‘din rodef’ – with horror that comes from his (the educator’s) renown among the community from which the suspects in the murder come, because this is flesh from the flesh of the movement, and also from its Torah elite. The chief rabbi of Israel, Yitzhak Yosef, also harshly denounced the murder, and even requested to visit the mourning tent of the family of Abu Khdeir (the visit did not occur because of instructions from the Shin Bet).”
When I wrote those words, the court had not yet permitted the publication of the names of the accused, but now we know that the educator in this paragraph is Rav Saadya Ben-David, and that the main suspect is his son Yosef Chaim. I don't know if the other two sons of Rav Ben-David are still suspects, since the other suspects are minors and their names have not been revealed by the court.

What is clear is that the leaders of Shas were horrified by the thought that a son of one of the esteemed rabbis of the movement was a suspect in an especially brutal murder. As Rabbi Cohen said, this horrifying act "may lead to horrible bloodshed" (as it has).

Are these the words of men who would send their followers out as suicide bombers to murder innocent men, women, and children? Would they countenance their followers blowing up buses full of innocent passengers? Clearly not.

The Shas party is not one that I agree with - it is socially very conservative (Rabbi Cohen has also denounced gay people and ruled that women in Shas should not go on to advanced education - in direct contradiction of the rulings of the late leader of Shas, Rav Ovadia Yosef), and I do not agree with their position on settlements and their belief that the entire land of Israel should be under Israeli rule. But the party is led by people who know murder when they see it, even when it is committed by a member of their community, and who denounce it harshly, even when the victim is a Palestinian teenager. Hamas, on the contrary, has sent out suicide bombers, has launched missiles heedlessly at civilian targets, and has never apologized for killing innocent people, much less issued denunciations of murder done by its operatives.

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