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ISRAEL: Religion everywhere

December 16, 2009 |  7:10 am

Religion is the opiate of the masses, Karl Marx said. That might be true in some places, but in Israel, this drug induces dangerous hyperactivity. Always a scratch-of-the-surface away, religion is an emotional factor in conflict -- between Israel and the Palestinians, between Israelis and themselves.

Recent days have provided one reminder after another.

A mosque in the Palestinian village of Yasouf was torched. "Price Tag" was the graffiti left by the arsonists. "Price Tag" is the name of a policy of settler extremists who have pledged to exact a toll from Palestinians whenever the government makes a move the settlers take to be against their interests and Israel's, such as dismantling structures illegally built by Jews in the West Bank.

Often this takes the form of harassment or vandalism, ranging from mild to severe. But attacking a holy site raised the bar -- and the stakes. The act met with swift condemnation from around the world, as well as from across the board of Israeli politicians, quick to realize that the flames that consumed Koran books could burn out of control. Most right-wing leaders condemned the attack, although some reminded that hardly a day goes by without a Jewish site being desecrated or vandalized somewhere in Israel or abroad.

Moshe Meirsdorf, a spokesman for the nearby settlement of Tapuach, dismissed accusations the perpetrators came from the community, which he conceded does not have good relations with its Palestinian neighbors. The army and state are to determine price tags, he said, not individuals. Referring to the blanket coverage the incident received in local media, he said he understands "why this in an item" but expects desecration of Jewish sites to get the same attention and public outrage.

A group of 50 rabbis set out for Yasouf to express revulsion at the attack, bearing new Korans to replace the burned ones. The army prevented their entrance, which officials said hadn't been coordinated and could not be safeguarded. They met village leaders at a nearby junction. The following day, Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger made it in with a Palestinian escort.

The debate over religion's place in politics rages in other contexts too. This week, the Defense Ministry removed the yeshiva of Har-Bracha from a decades-long arrangement between the army and dozens of higher-studies religious institutes. The arrangement allows devout youths to divided their time between military service and religious studies instead of having to choose. Most students are extremely motivated to serve in combat units. Following comments headmaster Rabbi Eliezer Melamed had made, Defense Minister Ehud Barak summoned him to what had been called a "hearing"; what Barak wanted to hear was an unequivocal statement against political and ideological protests within the army.

Melamed chose not to appear. Aware of the consequences but determined to preserve his educational autonomy, which some rabbis liken to the academic freedom cited by outspokenly left-wing university professors, he said he rejected Barak's "tyranny." Ancient sages have said that he who seeks the rabbi must come to him, but Barak decided to show who was boss in the army and for the first time in the country's history removed a yeshiva from the arrangement. If there are two commanders to every operation, said President Shimon Peres, there will be no operation and no victory. The army -- and by extension Israel -- won't survive without a clear chain of command and a single source of authority, many warned.

The state and law as source of authority are repeatedly challenged by some (but by no means all) religious individuals when deemed to be in conflict with divine decree and religious law -- especially where this concerns the "Land of Israel." The armed forces' delivery of settlement freeze warrants has resulted in violent scuffles with settlers rejecting the warrants as immoral, even illegal.

Israeli leaders are adamant that the law be upheld. The question is: What law? Recently, Justice Minister Yakov Neeman said Israel should regain the heritage of its fathers and that Jewish law and the Torah really contained the complete solutions to all the problems people deal with. His clarification that this wasn't a call for Jewish religious laws to replace the laws of the state did not soothe the angry, even panicked public debate over Israel becoming a theocracy.

On the very far, deep end of all this is Yakov Jack Teitel, whose recent arrest brought an end to a chain of unresolved violent attacks carried out over more than a decade. In the course of his private vigilantism, Teitel allegedly killed two Palestinians and planted bombs outside the homes of a left-wing professor and a family of Messianic Jews. Criminologists called him a "mutation" of the common ideological-political terrorist, noting he acted against a wide range of victims that didn't fit his views. His response to the 25-page indictment -- besides the V-sign -- was this: "It was my pleasure and honor to serve my God. God is proud of what I have done, I have no regrets." 

-- Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

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