In addition to ongoing Palestinian terror attacks, Israel has been rocked over the past year by a series of attacks against Palestinian individuals and property, presumably committed by members of the religious Zionist community. The attacks, known as “price tag” attacks, led to the administrative detention of a group of young religious nationalists from the small ultra-nationalist/religious movement known colloquially as the “hilltop youth”, following an arson attack last July on a home in the Palestinian village of Duma. In July, charges were filed against Amiram Ben-Uliel, 21, one member of the group, for murdering three members of the Dawabshe family in that attack. An unnamed minor was charged with lesser offences.
The incidents prompted a series of calls for soul-searching, not least from leading members of the religious Zionist community. One group of settlers hosted a prayer rally, attended by MK Yair Lapid, in response to the Duma attack. Others have visited churches and Arab families to show their support following graffiti attacks.
The Australia/Israel Review spoke with Rabbi Shlomo Kimche, Rosh Yeshiva and Principal of the Orot Yehuda yeshiva (seminary) high school in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc for a candid discussion of his views about the state of religious Zionism, religious extremism and his 20-plus years guiding Orthodox Israeli teenagers through turbulent times.
Your community has taken a lot of heat in recent months for a series of attacks against Arabs, most notably the arson attack in Duma that killed three members of the Dawabshe family. Do you feel the religious Zionist community has an issue with extremism?
Absolutely not. First of all, there are no more than a few dozen individuals who have carried out price tag attacks. It is wrong and insulting to throw mud at our entire community for the actions for a few misguided teenagers. Their actions are not representative of the education they’ve received in religious Zionist schools and communities. Very much to the contrary: They are frustrated young people who have left their homes and communities and chosen to attack innocent people. That is not Judaism.
I also stress that the attacks we’ve seen against Arabs have been very, very rare and blown way out of proportion in the media. The story of hilltop youth is a story of rebellious teenagers, not ideological religious extremists.
Still, there is a long history of religious Zionists who were responsible for horrible terror attacks, from the Jewish Underground in the 1980s, to Baruch Goldstein (who opened fire on Muslims at prayer in Hebron in 1994), to (Yitzhak Rabin assassin) Yigal Amir to the Dawabshe killers. Isn’t this an issue the community needs to deal with?
The answer is that there are no guarantees in life. Sometimes there are mental health issues, such as the ultra-Orthodox boys who were accused of murdering Mohammed Abu Khdeir in the summer of 2014, following the abduction and murder of the three high school boys in Gush Etzion. Yigal Amir had been very heavy into Kaballah (Jewish mystical teachings) for the last six months before he murdered the prime minister.
Now, I know what Kaballah is – it can take you to very dangerous places and lead you to do very dangerous things if it is not properly [taught]. And Yigal Amir was studying the Kaballah on his own, with no guidance at all. So I could go case-by-case to discuss each of the examples you gave.
But, again when all leaders of religious Zionism – rabbis, politicians and educators – consistently condemn vigilante attacks against Arabs, that is the true face of our community, not the frustrated individuals who take the law into their own hands.
What do you teach your students about the Land of Israel?
If you read through the Torah once, you’ll see that it says very clearly: there is only one Promised Land. Read through it again, and it says that there is only one Chosen People. The Promised Land was promised to the Chosen People. That is the beginning, the middle and the end.
At the same time, we are 100% committed to the State of Israel. I’ll illustrate what that means with an example from the 2005 disengagement from Gaza. I went to Gush Katif for the last three months before the pullout because groups of high school students had gone down there, mostly on their own, and I wanted to make sure they had some adult guidance during a difficult time.
On “d-day”, the IDF officer in charge came up to me – we were sitting on the beach – and served me with eviction orders and said we would have to leave. I told him – loud enough for the kids to hear – that we would never, ever raise a hand against an Israeli soldier, but that we simply could not comply with his eviction notice. So we allowed ourselves to be carried away, they put us on buses and that was that.
That’s what education is all about. You work for years, all for that one moment that you can make all the difference. Real education is not a lesson in physics or in maths. It is about emotional intelligence, about commitment and about leading by example.
All of which means that we adhere to two guiding principles. One, absolute commitment to the entire Land of Israel as an eternal inheritance for the Jewish People, and two, our absolute commitment to Jewish morality, and to the laws of the State of Israel as the expression of our national aspirations in this land. There is no contradiction between those principles.
You mentioned the summer of 2014 and the abduction of Eyal Yifrah, Gil-Ad Sha’ar and Naftali Fraenkel. Especially in Judea and Samaria communities, teenagers have had to deal with many years of Palestinian attacks. These incidents must breed strong feelings and desires for revenge. How do you guide your students through these issues?
First of all, it is critical to let kids know that their feelings are normal and legitimate. We talk about this when we visit concentration camps in Poland, and after Palestinian terror attacks. It’s important to let them know that their feelings are completely appropriate.
The main question, then, is where do you take these feelings? What do you do with them? I know an old lady with a number on her arm, each child has a middle name of Nekama (revenge). Tzvi Nekama, Rivka Nekama, Chaim Nekama. Because she sees each one as her personal revenge against the Nazis.
So at rough times, like when Dafna Meir was murdered in her home a few weeks ago, I tell kids to take their emotions, wrap them in a black box, and store them away in their hearts. And I remind them that in two or three years, they are going to be serving in an IDF unit somewhere, and it will be raining and freezing and miserable out. They will be hungry, cold and they’ll have gone three days without a shower, and they are going to have to find the inner strength to undertake very, very difficult tasks in order to defend our country.
When that happens, I tell them to take out the box and remember that that is our revenge. Living in the Land of Israel is our revenge. Serving in the first independent Jewish army in 2000 years is our revenge for Treblinka, for [the murder of Gush Etzion rabbi] Rav Yaakov Don, for the Crusades and Inquisitions and all the pogroms our people suffered throughout the years of Exile. We channel these emotions within the context of the legal commands you receive as a soldier in the IDF. We remain committed to the State of Israel and to the values of the State of Israel. There is no better revenge than that.