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Religious extremism: a challenge to the state

    A supporter of Rabbi Lior holds up a Ha’aretz cartoon depicting the rabbi surrounded by a ferocious mob
    A supporter of Rabbi Lior holds up a Ha’aretz cartoon depicting the rabbi surrounded by a ferocious mob

    Over the past few years, Israel has seen a worrying upsurge in religious Jewish extremism. Prominent Israeli rabbis have been using poisonous, inflammatory language that poses a serious threat not only to the already fragile relationship between Israel's Jewish and Arab citizens but also to the justice system.

    Just over a week ago, Jerusalem witnessed the ugly spectacle of religious settler youths running amok outside Israel's Supreme Court in protest at the arrest of Rabbi Dov Lior, a highly respected spiritual leader within Israel's settler movement.

    Lior had been arrested following his endorsement of a deeply questionable publication, Torat Hamelech, which has suggested that innocent non-Jewish civilians may be killed in times of war. Lior originally refused to turn up for questioning. In doing so, he was reflecting the growing conviction of many on the religious right that only the Torah's strictures should be respected, not Israeli secular law.

    The Israeli authorities have agonised for many years over the correct approach to Jewish extremism.

    Following the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin by extremist Yigal Amir, the authorities initiated investigations of several rabbis involved in incitement against the Rabin government. However, many in the national religious sector viewed this as a witch hunt. The difficulty, as always, has been determining where free speech ends and incitement to violence begins.

    The arrest of Rabbi Lior may be viewed as part of the uncomfortable legacy of the Rabin assassination. The Israeli state prosecution system is clearly trying to warn radical Jewish leaders that they should measure their words carefully.

    It is the fallout from these arrests which arguably provoke the greatest concern. Israel's Deputy State Prosecutor, Shai Nitzan, has been subjected to physical threats in the wake of his actions against religious incitement. He has received no support from either Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu or his Justice Minister, Yaakov Neeman. Indeed, some 18 right-wing MKs launched a vitriolic attack against Nitzan and his colleagues. Clearly, Netanyahu has calculated that he cannot risk the loss of the support of his religious coalition allies. However, those responsible for law enforcement cannot perform their duties if they do not enjoy the confidence of their political masters. Ultimately, it is the Israeli system of law and order which will suffer the consequences of such political
    machinations.

    Azriel Bermant is a writer and specialist in British policy in the Middle East

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