Racism and Religious Zionist Youth Movements: Own Up
Do Israel's religious Zionist youth movements, like Bnei Akiva and Ezra, encourage racism against Arabs? By Dr. Assaf David.
Rabbi Avihai Ronski, former Chief Rabbi of the IDF and religious Zionist extraordinaire, a man who once ruled that the Sabbath takes precedence over a gentile’s life, and Jewish law over the IDF ethical code, has been announced as Naftali Bennett’s choice for appointee to head the Israeli government’s new “Jewish Identity Administration.” His job will be to instill “Jewish values” in the public. But if the religious Zionist youth movements are any indication, those values will be anything but universal or humanist.
A few weeks ago, in anticipation of Bnei Akiva youth movement members’ typically “provocative and racist” behavior during Jerusalem Day’s traditional flag march (“rikudgalim”), Rabbi Chaim Drukman issued a request. He asked that members of the movement avoid physical and verbal abuse of Arabs.
Not only did Druckman’s request fall on deaf ears (at least in some cases), the very fact that he had to make an appeal such as this raises the question: How and why has Bnei Akiva reached a point where it feels it must instruct its members to avoid “rioting” against Arabs?
Bnei Akiva youth (in this case mainly girls) were screaming in the city center, “Muhammad is dead, Muhammad is dead, he is not a prophet, just another Arab, he has a mustache and it’s full of fleas and he sells goat cheese.” Their counselors stood by, encouraging them. The only interruption came when youths from a different branch of the movement wanted to prove that they’ve had more group spirit. No one stopped the chants or hushed them; not even when I warned them I was taking pictures.
The ensuing thread was packed with terrible, ugly comments. And it makes one wonder: Are the values of humanism and human rights considered too liberal for a patriotic youth movement like Bnei Akiva?
A reporter for the Orthodox website Srugim was convinced that the provocations executed by the Bnei Akiva youth were, in fact, led by “left-wing groups and progressive Jewish organizations” which use “informants who try to sabotage the festive atmosphere.” In other words, the problem is not the act of evil itself—physical violence against and verbal abuse of Arabs—but “snitching” on it. What a sophisticated ethic.
And Bnei Akiva’s more Orthodox sister youth movement, Ezra, was not to be outdone. Less than two weeks later, the movement’s counselors went on a field trip near the city of Ashdod wearing T-shirts that said “burning Arabs for education.” The movement’s secretary general explained that it was an innocent “pun that meant that the counselors are working night and day” (the word for Arabs in Hebrew, aravim, also means “nights”). The movement, he stressed, “teaches Torah, Zionism and devotion for the state” as well as “love of mankind.” “This was a serious mistake,” he explained, “emanating from a bad joke.” He promised that the lesson had been learned and the movement would make sure such things do not happen again.
But will Ezra and Bnei Akiva ensure such a promise by introducing into their curricula the values of universal humanism and human rights, which would include—gasp!—Arabs? Don’t count on it. The book of Genesis tells us that man was created “in the image”—b’tselem—of God. But that was a long time ago. Nowadays b’tselem is just a name of an NGO full of liberal Israelis and progressive Jews.
When Jews cry foul on popular Islamist racism against them, like Morsi’s now-infamous comment about Jews being “the descendants of apes and pigs,” Islamists shrug. Arab politicians and presidents may duck and weave, attempting to explain their slips as they seek financial support from the West, but at the end of the day, Islamists don’t bother to deny their genuine belief that Jews are less than human. And so the question must be asked: Do our religious youth movements not express similar ideas? Do religious Zionist leaders truly believe racism against Arabs is “a serious mistake” to be corrected? And supposing they do—will they really fight for it, thoroughly and relentlessly? It’s tough to imagine. Their worldview is victim-like: it’s the “liberals” and the “progressive Jews” (i.e. the snitchers and the informers), on top of the Arabs, that provoke these Orthodox youths who are then pushed to retaliate and then, of course, are documented and shamed. Nowhere in this narrative is there a moment or a mention of open self-examination.
A childhood friend of mine is currently employed as the principal of a religious school in the north of Israel. I have always considered him to be a man of upstanding morals and values. About a year ago he discussed the arrangements of their annual trip to Jerusalem with his pupils on Facebook. One such pupil, unprovoked, wrote “Death to the Arabs” in the thread. Just for fun. And with no negative response from my friend, his schoolmaster. I sent my friend a private message asking him why he didn’t erase the comment or rebuke his student. He replied as follows: “My dear brother. Jewish-Arab relations, and relations to the ‘other’ in general, are at the core of what I do as an educator. But Facebook is not the place to educate. It would be considered too ‘prying’ and would have either no impact, or a negative one.” He admitted that even phrases like “death to liberals” are not rare, and he promised to react to them at the right place and time. I do not know what he did, and I want to believe him, but those who are deaf to curses like “death to the Arabs” will inevitably have to explain bad jokes and riots.