Why settlers believe in the power of the curse

Militant Jewish youth have issued a list of abusive terms to hurl at Israeli police


Israeli police arrest a right-wing activist in Samaria earlier this year during a protest in support of Jewish settlements

Israeli police arrest a right-wing activist in Samaria earlier this year during a protest in support of Jewish settlements

Just recently, the so-called "hill youth" - an extreme and violent posse of youngsters who appropriate empty hillocks throughout Judea and Samaria for the purpose of illegal settlement - issued a list of curses for their members to use as the need arises. When attacked by border policemen, they now have precise formulations by which to fend off the foe - in the same way Harry Potter might ward off Muggles or other dark powers with his magic wand.

For a people for whom the word - spoken or written - is sacrosanct, it is hardly surprising that the idea of a verbal curse has a venerable tradition that has maintained its power right up to the present day.

Some of these curses are straight off the Israeli street: "Indiani" (Aboriginal), 'Paedophil' (for policemen attacking the young ladies in the group), "Wine-based Vinegar" (for police with a right-wing backgrounds who have gone sour). Only one curse shows a slight familiarity with the Bible. For policemen with a left-wing leaning, the youth are told to throw them off guard with the imprecation "Son of Rahab". This is a complete misreading of the rabbinic spin on this lady from Jericho, of which more later. The real issue is what inspired these young men and women, who have gained a reputation as religious thugs with a penchant for aggression, to suddenly believe in the power of the word.

Cursing is as old as our biblical-rooted civilisation. On the first pages of the Book of Genesis, God Himself curses the primordial snake (3:14), and Cain, the first fratricide (4:11); Noah curses his son Ham/Canaan for uncovering his father's nakedness - that is, having incestuous, homosexual relations with his besotted dad ((9:25)). The roll call of curses reaches its climax in the book of Deuteronomy (27:15-26; 28:15-19) which is followed by a detailed, graphic description of what God will do to His people in the event that they fall short of His commands (28:20- 68).

Cursing is as old as our biblical-rooted civilisation

In all fairness, it should be noted that alongside these curses (and there are many more in the Prophets and the Writings), blessings are also liberally dispersed throughout the Holy Writ, as a reward for the people keeping their part of the Divine Covenant. There is a logic in this. For if you believe in the power of the word to curse, why should this not equally hold for blessings?

Over the generations, a whole range of new execrations found their way into Jewish communities around the world. The danger that these curses represent - according to Joshua Trachtenberg's classic Jewish Magic and Superstition - is that they give an "opening to the devil" to wreak damage and destruction on good Jewish folk. By making an oath, especially in times of stress, the individual becomes vulnerable to all the curses in the bad angels' repertoire.

Even mentioning such common phenomena as illness, rather than talking about possible cures, could engender a self-fulfilling prophecy to the point of death. Jews often used subterfuge to talk of these darker aspects of experience, calling a cemetery, for example, a beit olam (a house of eternal life), while the classic rabbinical book on death and mourning is called Semachot ( Rejoicing).

Another standard medieval text, Sefer Chasidim, warns its readers "not to live among people given to cursing". Other medieval communities formulated incantations against the forces of evil that had been unleashed by curses.

In modern times, there is an urban myth about the late Joseph Kennedy, who was said to have been cursed for his antisemitism by a leading rabbi who told him: "May God have as much compassion for your children as you have for mine". Closer to home, in Israel, accusations still fly around concerning curses directed at the late, assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

So the Israeli version of the hillbillies have history, if not common sense on their side. (How, for example, they are to distinguish between attacking right-wing and left-wing policemen is never explained).

As for Rahab and her descendants, whom the hill youth use as a curse, they ought to have checked their sources. They would have discovered that the rabbis praised this whore of Jericho not only for her beauty (just her name brought a couple of sages to an orgasm), but also for her greatness in doing teshuvah (repentance) to the extent that the rabbis married her off to Joshua. Her descendants were thus precisely the people responsible for settling the very land that these latter-day conquerors wish to inherit.

    Last updated: 3:12pm, December 9 2010