The modern Orthodox day school attended by one of my granddaughters organized an assembly for students and teachers to watch television coverage of the signing of the Interim Agreement in Washington, D.C., in September.
When Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the document, one of the teachers declared publicly, “This man should be killed for this.”
That statement caused no stir on the part of fellow teachers or the school’s administration.
In the wake of the assassination of Rabin by an Orthodox Jew in Israel, news stories and analyses have sought to shed light on the “religious right” in the Orthodox community in Israel and in the United States.
In fact, there is no religious right within the Orthodox community; for all practical purposes, the Orthodox community is the religious right. To be sure, there are varying intensities of conservatism and fundamentalism within that community, but the liberal and moderate expressions of Orthodoxy – what used to be called modern Orthodoxy – once a vital force, have been discredited and disappeared as the Orthodox community veered sharply to the right in the ’70s and the ’80s.
This point is neither semantic nor theoretical, but has serious consequences. The intense religiously defined nationalism that fueled the fury of Yigal Amir, the confessed assassin, is normative in today’s Orthodox community.
Although the view that Orthodox Jews are obliged to prevent Rabin from ceding any part of the Land of Israel to the Palestinians by killing him was held by a fringe element only, the certain conviction of Yigal Amir that Rabin was a traitor to his people and to his faith is not aberrational in the Orthodox community in Israel or in the United States.
Amir and the other men arrested in connection with the assassination are not on the fringes of the Orthodox community, ideologically or socially, but mainline Israelis from respectable middle class families. They are university graduates and law school students.
Similarly, the rabbis who incited them are considered religious authorities, not lunatics.
The notion that Orthodoxy itself is in any way implicated in this tragic event will be rejected, of course, by the Orthodox community.
But on some level they know this to be true despite their denials.
This is evident from the fact that even those within the Orthodox community who are most outspoken in condemning this act do not question the Orthodox bona fides of the rabbis who offered religious justification for the act or of the young men who committed it.
The Orthodox community accuses them of misapplying Jewish law, not of no longer being Orthodox Jews. If these same rabbis had ruled that the halachah permits riding a car on the Sabbath or eating nonkosher food, they and their disciples would have been instantly drummed out of the Orthodox community.
Most Orthodox Jews embrace Jewish nationalism and the Jewish state as the essential foundation of their religious life. It is not only the holiness of the Land of Israel but Jewish political sovereignty over the entire historic Land of Israel that is indispensable, in their view, to full religious observance and to the completeness of their Jewish identity.
The Jewish claim to the Land of Israel is seen as biblical and absolute, and not subject to the normal give and take of the secular political process.
To yield sovereignty over any part of the Land of Israel to foreigners is to betray this religious patrimony and to deny Jewish destiny.
Although there is a lively debate in the larger Jewish community about the security implications for Israel of territorial compromise, with people coming down on both sides of the question, the Orthodox community is virtually monolithics in its view that the Labor government’s policies place the lives of Jews radically at risk, and indeed invite the destruction of the State of Israel.
Of the dozen or more Orthodox organizations that are part of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, not one supports the peace policies of Israel’s government.
A corollary of these hard-line Orthodox positions is the demonization of all Palestinians as terrorists. There is no empathy or understanding even for the most minimal Palestinian claims. A further consequence is a tolerance for the depiction of Israeli leaders who are prepared to accommodate Palestinian demands as collaborators with terrorists and Nazis.
The president of Bar-Ilan University, where Amir attended law school and an advanced program of Jewish religious studies, said Amir’s act “was contrary to everything Bar-Ilan stands for.”
In fact, Bar-Ilan, the only Israel University under Orthodox sponsorship, is a hotbed of anti-Rabin and anti-peace sentiment. On the ideological level, Amir’s religious and extreme nationalistic fervor that fueled his deadly rage expresses precisely what Bar-Ilan and much of the Orthodox community stand for.
Another aspect of the highly particularistic and exclusivist sensibility that now characterizes much of the modern Orthodox community is its essentially anti-democratic ethos. It is not uncommon for Orthodox Jews to advocate the suspension of the most fundamental democratic norms that impede permanent Jewish sovereignty over all of the Land of Israel.
Specifically, they do not believe that Israel’s own Arab citizens should have any voice in determining the fundamentals of the peace process.
They also are prepared to accept the permanent disenfranchisement of the Arab population in the West Bank and in Gaza in a Greater Israel under Jewish control.
Many believe in the supremacy of fundamental religious principles even when they conflict with democratic norms.
In other words, the Orthodox community is the seedbed not only of opposition to the peace process but of a political culture that is profoundly hostile to the traditional democratic and liberal values of American Jews and of the founders of the Jewish state.
Jewish intellectual, religious and communal leaders in the United States and in Israel must finally face this reality and deal with it.
Unfortunately, the triumphalism and intolerance that characterize contemporary Orthodoxy make an internal correction of course within that community unthinkable.
The leaders of the larger American Jewish community – overwhelmingly non- Orthodox – whose sentimentality and nostalgia for a traditional Jewish life they no longer personally observe have led them to support the large network of Orthodox institutions and to see this increasing Orthodox fundamentalism in a benign light, must finally wake up to the consequences of that support.
In Israel, successive governments, including Labor governments, have bought the political support of Orthodox parties by funding their schools and institutions.
The combination of extreme nationalism and religious fundamentalism is a lethal one, whether in Iran or in Bosnia – or, for that matter, in the United States. It is no less lethal when expressed in a Jewish idiom.
Jews, themselves victim o a romantic, xenophobic and racist nationalism that produced a genocide unprecedented in the annals of history, have better reason than most to deal with this phenomenon with the seriousness it deserves. The tragic assassination of Prime Minister Rabin should serve as a wake-up call, both here and in Israel.