Israel’s escalating culture wars turned surreal in late February, when a vitriolic battle of words erupted between right and left over this question: What is the biblical birthplace of the Jewish people? One side picked Jerusalem. The other side picked Egypt. Both sides were wrong. But days later the battle is still raging, from the Knesset to the op-ed pages to Twitter.
It’s just the latest and silliest in a series of furious political-religious clashes dividing Israelis throughout February. The biblical spat and two other noteworthy incidents in the series mostly boil down to this: leaders of the religious and nationalist right accusing figures on the center-left of sacrilege.
Taken together, the three incidents point to a growing popular anger at what much of the public sees as leftist elites who are soft on Arabs. The Netanyahu coalition has been promoting legislation that tries to restrict Arabs and liberals in various ways. Critics say the government has no mandate for its extreme actions. These public dustups suggest there may well be a mandate.
The Jerusalem vs. Egypt debate began on February 22, when Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home Party announced in the Knesset a special curriculum for the next school year that will teach the importance of “united Jerusalem.”
“Our history began from Jerusalem,” Bennett said, “from the binding of Isaac at Mount Moriah,” traditionally identified with the Temple Mount, “through the united kingdom of King David.”
In reply, firebrand Labor Party lawmaker Stav Shaffir tweeted: “The minister of education should know that according to the Torah, we came here from Egypt.”
Her remark, reposted on Facebook and splashed across the media, drew thousands of responses, overwhelmingly hostile. Some charged she’d denied Israel’s right to Jerusalem. Others claimed secular Jews aren’t qualified to discuss the Bible, or that leftists like her endanger Israel, or that she should have stayed a slave in Egypt. Her defenders mostly retorted unhelpfully that religious Jews are destroying Israel.
Shaffir quickly replaced her original tweet with a clearer one: “According to the Torah the Jewish people first stood together not in Jerusalem but at Mount Sinai.” This set off a whole new round of attacks.
Reading the text, it seems both sides are wrong. Jerusalem wasn’t Israel’s birthplace. King David did build his capital there, but it was his second capital, after Hebron. Indeed, David was Israel’s second king, following Saul. And the first biblical reference to Jewish nationhood isn’t at Sinai, either. It comes when God commands Abraham to leave his Mesopotamian “homeland” and go to another country where “I will make of you a great nation” (Genesis 12). The Torah’s Jewish history begins neither in Jerusalem nor Sinai, but Iraq.
The Jerusalem furor came just days after another firestorm engulfed Israel’s military chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot. Addressing high school students near Tel Aviv on February 17, he was challenged by students claiming that strict rules on opening fire, which Eisenkot tightened last summer, endangered soldiers. The general’s reply: “I don’t want a soldier to empty a magazine on a girl holding scissors.”
He added: “We don’t operate according to slogans like ‘When someone comes to kill you, kill him first,’” referring to a popular maxim from the Talmud. “A soldier can release his safety and fire if there is danger to him or his comrades.”
The comment filled headlines for days. Much of the criticism came from rabbis protesting Eisenkot’s calling a Talmudic dictum a “slogan.” Fueling the anger, though, was a fundamental ideological divide. Since the current wave of violence began last October, a number of prominent rabbis have publicly urged soldiers to kill attackers on the spot rather than capture them alive. They include Israel’s Sephardic chief rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, who called killing terrorists a “mitzvah,” and the chief rabbi of Safed, Shmuel Eliyahu. One senior Sephardic scholar, Rabbi Meir Mazuz of B’nei Brak, called last fall for bystanders to kill terrorists rather than let them survive. Supporters say killing deters future attackers. The army says it fuels more revenge attacks.
Like Shaffir’s tweet, Eisenkot’s remarks touched off a storm of protest. One Likud leader, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, declared darkly that he hoped Eisenkot’s remarks didn’t lead to a loss of Israeli lives. On the other hand, Eisenkot received prompt backing from his immediate boss, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, usually regarded as a Likud hard-liner.
Still, it’s a reflection of the politically charged nature of the debate that the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, waited four days before weighing in. Even then, he offered only lukewarm backing, saying the entire debate was “pointless.”
The third major flare-up, and by far the most emotional, began on February 7 on broadcaster Razi Barkai’s morning Army Radio newsmagazine, “What’s Burning.” Barkai, Israel’s longest-running newsy talk radio host, was interviewing Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan on Palestinian demands for terrorists’ bodies to be returned to their families. Erdan opposes it, saying funerals might turn into disturbances. Barkai asked the minister to “imagine Israeli families — and sadly we know cases like that, Protective Edge for example — waiting and waiting for the bodies of their loved ones to return.” The bodies of Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, two soldiers killed in Protective Edge, the 2014 Gaza war, are being held by Hamas.
Barkai’s comment brought on what’s described as the largest flood of protest mail in Israeli broadcast history. Goldin’s father appeared on Army Radio the next day and angrily denounced the comparison of his grief with a Palestinian’s, saying it implicitly likened his son to a terrorist. Critics demanded that Barkai be fired, that Army Radio be purged of “leftist elites,” that the government get out of broadcasting altogether. Under pressure, the station hired a popular right-wing journalist, Erel Segal, to take over Barkai’s second hour, then backed down when Barkai threatened to quit.
As of two weeks later, the furor showed no signs of abating. Israel’s newly appointed national police commissioner, Roni Alsheikh, addressing a conference of bereaved families on February 22, said it was “impossible not to feel the difference” between bereaved Israelis’ grief and that of “some of our neighbors”: “While we’ve chosen to sanctify life, to give it significance, to celebrate the contribution of the fallen to Israeli society, the eternal legacy that they’ve left us — our enemies have chosen to sanctify death.”
The furor will probably continue for some time. Center-left Israelis are now living in an atmosphere where the slightest comment is enough to get them bombarded with criticism. Whether it’s suggesting that mothers of slain Palestinian terrorists feel the same grief as mothers of slain Israeli soldiers, or saying that soldiers should try to avoid killing children, or tweeting about the Bible, it’s really easy to commit “sacrilege” these days.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).