Don’t Misread the Israeli Orthodox

by Gedalyah Reback

I read the New York Times article (http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/22/weekinreview/22BRONNER.html?pagewanted=1) from this weekend about an aura set by the Israeli Defense Forces’ Chief Rabbi Brigadier General Avichai Rontzki over the Gazan battlefield in January. But many of the things he said are hardly militant-extremist, and should not be framed into some form of religious extremism. It is tempting to stereotype a society according to atheists, rationalists and fanatics, but such a breakdown has been the failing mindset of American policymakers and media in regards to approaching the Islamic World, and it would assuredly be a repeat in mistakes to characterize Jewish society in such a way.

The author’s approach suggested a fomenting religious militancy in Israel parallel to the psychotic ideologies that tore apart Iraq or influenced the September 11th attacks is a gross misconception of Israeli religion. These quotes have a context independent of some subjective attempt to see right-wing, religious folk as simple-minded, killing machines.

The verses, as quoted by the author, are taken from sources elaborating on justice. For instance he quotes, “He who is merciful to the cruel will end up being cruel to the merciful.” This quote is taken from the classic Rabbinical commentary on the Book of Lamentations, explaining that people have a tragic tendency to sympathize for those that must be confronted and/or face justice, depending on if the situation is a “time for war or a time for peace.”

Any defensive war is, by default, a war carried out with merit and seen favorably by the Jewish religion. There is no matter if all its soldiers are aware of this concept or not. That latter quote from Lamentations regarding times of war and peace describes the explicit natural reality that there are times for to communal self-defense. It is related to, though not totally similar, to the rules regarding individual self-defense. Defensive warfare is seen as a “mitzvah,” a divine commandment, and presents no contradiction with contemporary rules of international warfare.

Attempting to frame Israel’s religious communities in terms of “right-wing” and “politically liberal” is an intense mistake. It is the same type of generalizing that plagues Americans’ perceptions all Middle Eastern religion, exacerbates the perception the Jewish and Islamic law are at their hearts brutal, and that tyrannical or religious regimes in the contemporary Middle East adequately represent their respective religions. Things are not as simple as “right” and “left,” or ‘militant’ and ‘rational.’

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