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Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The BBC's shocking view of rabbis

On its Monday night Newsnight show, the BBC presented a shockingly biased view of the role of rabbis in the Israel Defense Forces. Here's part of their write-up:
Israel's army is changing. Once proudly secular, its combat units are now filling with those who believe Israel's wars are "God's wars".

Military rabbis are becoming more powerful. Trained in warfare as well as religion, new army regulations mean they are now part of a military elite.

They graduate from officer's school and operate closely with military commanders. One of their main duties is to boost soldiers' morale and drive, even on the front line.

This has caused quite some controversy in Israel. Should military motivation come from men of God, or from a belief in the state of Israel and keeping it safe?

The military rabbis rose to prominence during Israel's invasion of Gaza earlier this year.

Some of their activities raised troubling questions about political-religious influence in the military.

Gal Einav, a non-religious soldier, said there was wall-to-wall religious rhetoric in the base, the barracks and on the battlefield.

As soon as soldiers signed for their rifles, he said, they were given a book of psalms.

And, as his company headed into Gaza, he told me, they were flanked by a civilian rabbi on one side and a military rabbi on the other.

"It felt like a religious war, like a crusade. It disturbed me. Religion and the army should be completely separate," he said.

'Sons of light'

But military rabbis, like Lieutenant Shmuel Kaufman, welcome the changes.

In previous wars rabbis had to stay far from the front, he says. In Gaza, they were ordered to accompany the fighters.

"Our job was to boost the fighting spirit of the soldiers. The eternal Jewish spirit from Bible times to the coming of the Messiah."
Some of you may recall that just after the war, Haaretz complained about religious materials being distributed to soldiers. The materials in question were biblical and ancient rabbinic quotes about the law of war and how to deal with an enemy. At the time, I noted that 40% of the casualties in Operation Cast Lead were religious soldiers, and told you that reflected the percentage of combat soldiers in the IDF who are religious, and therefore, the fact that rabbis are being granted a larger role in inspiring troops is not surprising.

I want to show you a brief clip from the BBC report (I may get more of it later; it cannot be viewed from outside the UK, but my friend Ray in the UK got this for me and may be able to get more), and then we'll talk some more after the video.

Let's go to the videotape.

Unfortunately, that clip doesn't do justice to what outraged Melanie Phillips, who put me onto this story:
But the really disgraceful element was Adler’s suggestion that that these rabbis were somehow the equivalent of Islamic jihadi fanatics who were transforming the mission of the IDF into ‘holy war’. Jewish religious belief, she implied, was the equivalent of the jihad. This appalling equation of course ignored the crucial difference between the jihad and the wars waged by the Israel Defence Force: that the jihad is aggressive and seeks to conquer, colonise, murder and enslave while the sole rationale for the IDF is to defend Israel against precisely such aggression.

Adler made this leap because to her, all orthodox Jewish religious observance is extreme, right-wing and aggressive; all settlers are orthodox and therefore extreme, right-wing and aggressive; thus all orthodox Jewish soldiers are settlers and therefore they are all extreme, right-wing and aggressive. Every aspect of that is tendentious, distorted, ignorant and bigoted.

The settlers believe the land was given to them by God, she charged. Well, they may well do so; but as Israel’s soldiers they are fighting to defend not the settlements but the State of Israel of which they are citizens and to which land they are fully and indisputably entitled under international law. Indeed, contrary to what she stated they are also entitled under international law to settle the disputed territories which are still the site of aggressive war waged against them; but that’s not in fact what they are in the IDF or were in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead to do.

You would never have known it from her report, but these religious soldiers were in Gaza not to conquer the Palestinians in accordance with their belief that Gaza was divinely given to them but to defend the State of Israel against rocket attack from Gaza – from where religious soldiers had actually been involved in the operation to remove the settlers in 2005. Maybe some of these rabbis had issued leaflets which really were politically extreme. So what? To suggest that this represents all of orthodox Judaism is like suggesting that preachers handing out leaflets proclaiming the end of days is nigh are representative of mainstream Christianity. Far worse, Adler made the doubly appalling suggestion that the IDF had singled out Gazan infants and other civilians for ill-treatment – and that they had been encouraged to do so by the tenets of Jewish religious belief. Neither element, of course, was true.
Read the whole thing. Melanie's comments on the religious - secular divide in Israel and on the deficiencies of secular education here are spot-on.

Unfortunately, many non-religious/atheist commentators are incapable of understanding the differences between Orthodox Jews of all stripes, fundamentalist Christians and Islamic jihadis. To many of those looking in on religion from the outside, all religious belief is the same and all religious belief turns its adherents into warriors who will kill at random under the pretext that God commanded them to do so. Of course, that view is wrong. Orthodox Jews and fundamentalist Christians don't generally go around murdering people at random. But that's never going to stop those who have taken upon themselves to denigrate religious observance from assuming that they do. Take Christopher Hitchens, for instance.

Let's go to the videotape. Although most of his comments are about Islam, note that he also makes comments disparaging monotheistic religions generally.

It would be unfair to tar all non-religious people and atheists with the same brush of failure to distinguish among religions. Does the BBC's Katya Adler deserve to be painted with it? Monday night's BBC report sure makes it look like she does.

Exit question: How many more correspondents at the BBC are likely to make the same mistakes Adler made in drawing an equivalence between Orthodox Judaism and radical Islam?


At 1:02 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

Judaism does envisage a war of no mercy against pagans. But the pagans are extinct and different rules of warfare apply today. There are political problems with Islam and its embrace of pagan practices. Despite this, no one in Israel has ever embraced extirpating the Muslims. One expects better of al-Beeb. And it helps to keep in mind that not all religions are created equal.


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