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Israel’s Dangerous Dance With The Fundamentalists

From left to right: Otzma Yehudit leader MK Itamar Ben Gvir, Likud chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, and Religious Zionism head MK Bezalel Smotrich (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Dr Martin Cohen
21st Century Wire

The United Nations is probing whether Israel is committing genocide. The US President pleads with it to stop killing civilians – to no avail. And despite its evident bias, the news media is day after day full of horrific tales of death and destruction in Gaza.

Surely any government would draw back at this point – from what is by any measure a completely futile and pointless campaign. What use is it to Israel to pile-up another ten thousand bodies of women and children?

The fate of apartheid South Africa and Rhodesia shows that defying world opinion comes at a cost.

But not for Israel.

To understand why, it’s necessary to consider the nexus of nationalism and religious extremism.

Israel is built on an Old Testament ethics which actively celebrates extermination of “enemies”, men, women and children. In other words, Israel – like South Africa under Apartheid – has institutionalised a rival ethics opposed to that of the liberal West. There’s no appealing to their better natures, because within Israel “wrong” is “right”.

Netanyahu left many in shock when he invoked this specific Old Testament story in order to justify Israel brutal military operation against the people of Gaza. “They are committed to completely eliminating this evil from the world,” he said in Hebrew. “You must remember what Amalek has done to you, says our Holy Bible. And we do remember,” he added.

This comes from the passage the first Book of Samuel when God commands King Saul in to kill every person in Amalek, a rival nation to biblical Israel. “‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.”

Make no mistake here: the Israeli PM was signally to his far-right baser when chose a specific biblical reference to justify killing Palestinians.

Israel was always intended to be a theocracy. A series of “Basic Laws” serve as the country’s constitutional foundation. The Basic Law: Israel – The Nation State of the Jewish People (Nation State Law) recognises “the exercise of the right to national self-determination in the State of Israel” as “unique to the Jewish People” and calls for promotion of “Jewish settlement” as a national value.

In fact, around one in five of the world’s countries favour a particular religion. But very few allow ancient religious texts to drive practical policy to the extent that today Israel does.

After all, most of the passages in the Talmud, the primary source of Jewish religious law, are cryptic and difficult to understand. Its language even contains many obscure Greek and Persian words.

But other elements of it are familiar in the form of the Old Testament stories involving the slaughter of whole peoples – genocide in fact. One tale in the ‘holy books’ that is all too similar to the Palestinian question: the conquest of Canaan. God, it starts, promised Israel that He would give them this land, even though to do so the people living there had to be displaced. The holy text doesn’t suggest forcibly relocating them, though. Instead, God instructs the Israelites to kill every man, woman, and child. Moses gives these instructions:

“As for the towns of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God has commanded.”

Just a nasty story from an crueller age? Not in Israel. Texts like these have legal standing, because the Jewish religion has legal standing. And because  the Jewish religion has legal standing, Israeli governments are increasingly dominated by religious fundamentalists.

Jewish religious political parties have always been part of the Israeli political scene. In fact, their roots go back to the pre-state Zionist movement’s institutions. Over the years these parties represented two different religious sectors: the ultra-Orthodox (e.g., Agudat Israel Party) and the Orthodox or National Religious (e.g., Ha’Mizrahi, later known by the Hebrew acronym Mafdal, or National Religious Party). Neither of these parties represented or could have represented both sectors at the same time, as the two were deeply divided over the Zionist creed and the question of Israel as a Jewish entity. The ultra-Orthodox sector was anti- or at least non-Zionist and hence saw the state of Israel as a political entity with no Jewish religious value. The national Orthodox sector, however, is deeply committed to the Zionist idea and sees Israel as an entity invested with religious significance.

SEE ALSO: Seven Ways Israel Controls The News Agenda

But both kinds of parties, ultra-Orthodox and National Religious, acknowledge the authority of religious texts and both agree that even a partial  withdrawal from parts of the Greater Land of Israel is forbidden, as such a move goes against the promise of God to give the land in its entirety of the Children of Israel (i.e., the Jews).

Up until recently, the Jewish Israeli religious parties, whether Zionist or non-Zionist, were still small in terms of their electoral appeal. Even so, they had a disproportionally strong political influence due to the structure of the Israeli parliamentary system with its need to build multi-partner coalitions in order to get a large enough majority in the Knesset. Add to which, almost all Israeli prime ministers, regardless of their party affiliation, sought to emphasise their commitment to Jewish history and values by having religious parties as part of their coalition-based governments.

And so, ever since Israel was founded, both the ultra-Orthodox and the so-called National Religious parties could easily join every coalition, be it led by Labor or Likud, the two main secular forces.

Originally, though, the ultra-Orthodox parties were mainly interested in securing large budgets for their communities, and ‘separatist’ rights, like separate schools and the religious courts in which no women are allowed to serve as judges, despite much of the law being handled concerning the rights of women.

However, in recent years things changed. Voters and the parties representing them⁠—the ultra-Orthodox parties United Torah Judaism and Shas, and the National Religious parties Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home)—have become deeply politicised, some would even say “Zionified.”

Today, the Israel’s religious parties strongly identify with the settlement project as well as with the settler community. The political grouping has undergone a cognitive transition: they no longer see themselves as a parochial political player, but rather as the ideological spearhead of Israeli Jewish society. A common metaphor used by the leaders of this sector is, “We are no longer just riders of the nation’s train, but occupy the locomotive driver’s seat.”

This is no mere posturing. Religious fundamentalists really are driving Israel these days,  courtesy of decisions made by Binyamin Netanyahu and his right-wing Likud party.  In particular, the decision to have a narrow coalition with the religious parties rather than seek a broader one without them.

The strategy reflected Israel’s steady move towards fundamentalism and division. Rather than push back again the irrational, cruel and bizarre views of the religious parties, as many on the left and centre do, the Likud and the splinter right-wing parties tend to celebrate their unvarnished speech and nod through reactionary laws that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago. No wonder, that on the other side of the political spectrum, parties have grown increasingly anti-religious. But electorally, the centre and left are out of favour and polls show the public linking up behind the extremists, and all the more so now that the talk is of “wars” and “survival”.

The hypocrisy of Likud and Netanyahu can be seen if it is recalled that  one of Netanyahu’s first statements was to  pledge  that his  coalition of  religious and far-right politicians will not impose “Talmudic law” on Israel. Likewise, when Bari Weiss, of the podcast Common Sense, pressed Netanyahu about including figures in the coalition, such as  Otzma Yehudit leader Itamar Ben-Gvir, Netanyahu replied, “Israel is not going to be governed by Talmudic law.”

But that’s not what Netanyahu told far-right Bezalel Smotrich whose political platform is precisely that of completing Israel’s journey towards being a theocratic state subject to religious law. The leader of the Religious Zionist Party was entrusted with the administration of the occupied territories in the West Bank.

In other words,  a religious fundamentalist and extremist settler is de facto governor of the area, with  authority over the “Civil Administration” – a military body – that manages the day-to-day occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Smotrich  isn’t there despite being a radical fundamentalist. He’s in post because of it. As finance minister, 43-year-old Smotrich caused a stir in the country on March 1. As soon as he took up his new post, he called for the Israeli army to commit ethnic cleansing by “razing” the Palestinian village of Huwara.

And so, today, he is a key part of a government intent on destroying and ethnically cleansing the whole of Gaza. Other members of the government, people who might once have been counted as ‘moderates’ are instead sitting on the sidelines shouting encouragement.

“I hear the calls for a ceasefire,” Israel’s then foreign minister, Eli Cohen, said at the United Nations. “Tell me, what is a proportional response for the killing of babies? For rape women and burn them? For beheading of a child? The proportional response to the October 7th massacre is total destruction, total destruction, to the last of the Hamas.”

Eli Cohen’s reference to “killers of babies”, by the way, came via one Yossi Landau, head of operations of the non-governmental ZAKA rescue unit. Landau is exactly the kind of religious fundamentalist who now dominates Israeli society. As a Haredi Jew, he subscribes to utracorthodx views curiously similar to the Taliban, including bans on the internet as “information can be corrupting” and pressure on women neither to be educated or to work, but rather to bear and bring up children.

After October 7, Landau told reporters that Hamas burned to death “two piles of 10 children each” in a house in Kibbutz Be’eri. However, he was unable to provide any evidence to corroborate the story.

Nonetheless, the UK mainstream media itself played a significant role in promoting and endorsing Landau’s accounts of 7 October. The Express, the Daily Mail, the Times, the Independent and Metro all ran front-page stories amplifying Israeli claims about 40 dead babies. In the US, Joe Biden talked of “beheaded” babies, despite being warned by his staff that the accounts were unverified.

In fact, we now know that two babies died on 7 October. One was killed, presumably by the IDF,  when a bullet was fired through a door, while the other died following an emergency caesarean section after the mother was shot, again by the IDF. Neither baby was burned or beheaded.

But back to Smotrich again, now offering the use of the Bible as a kind of political trump card. “The Palestinian people are an invention of less than 100 years ago. This is the historical truth. This is the biblical truth.“

The Palestinians currently dying at the hands of his government don’t count because they are “a fictitious people”, Arabs with no business to be in the Land of Israel.

According to the annual religion and state poll conducted in August by religious freedom NGO Hiddush, most (58 percent) of Jewish citizens, let alone out of all Israel’s citizens, do not affiliate with any religious group. But as history has shown many times, a well-organised minority, equipped with an extreme message, can easily seize power in a democracy. In Israel, that is what has now happened.

Martin Cohen is a writer and editor with a special interest in political philosophy and ethics.







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