The people here are not aware of the signifi cance of their acts. They only think they have turned Hebrew into a secular language. That they have released the apocalyptic sting out of it… but God will not remain silent in the language in which he was invoked again and again, thousands of times, to return into our lives.
So wrote Gershom Scholem to his colleague Franz Rosenzweig in his 1926 letter, ‘A Confession about our Language’. Scholem, a young Jewish philosopher from Berlin, had just immigrated to Palestine. He was among the founders of Brit Shalom, an organisation that supported the establishment of a bi-national Jewish-Arab state, and was concerned not only by the dominant political trends of Zionism, but with its very tongue, with the project of reviving, modernising, and secularising Hebrew. Scholem believed that recruiting the sacred biblical language for the modern political Zionist cause would plant a messianic ticking bomb in the hearts and minds of the Jewish people in Palestine.
The echoes of ‘God will not remain silent’ still whisper in the streets of Jerusalem, eighty-four years after these words were written. Although Scholem feared that religious sanctity would either dominate or destroy the people, he did not anticipate the more complex, ambivalent relationship that Zionism would form with religion. He did not assume that the very political struggle that facilitated the return of the Hebrew language actually included asking God, very politely, to remain silent. This attitude enabled the founders of Zionism and the majority of Israelis today to pull out of the sea of Jewish knowledge religious precepts that support their agenda. Like skilful pearl divers, Israeli society has brought up to the surface only those glowing stones which have Zionist purposes, and kept those which do not (including those in which God himself is mentioned) deep at the bottom of the ocean. Consider some of the more popular Israeli-Jewish ‘moral validations’ of state policy. These validations, drawn exclusively from Jewish tradition and texts, have become part of the political consensus, and secure the place of religion not just in the ‘secular’ political debate but in wider Israeli-Jewish society.
Ha-Ba le-Horgekha Hashkem le-Horgo is a teaching of increasing popularity among Israelis. Taken from the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 72:1, its most precise translation is: ‘If someone comes to kill you, get up early to kill him first.’ It seems that every online newspaper Comment section will include this sentence when discussing Israeli aggression: the Gaza offensive? ‘Kill him first’. The Second Lebanon War? ‘Kill him fi rst’ again. A Google search for the expression ‘kill him first’ and ‘flotilla’ yields more than 4,200 Hebrew results, confi rming the centrality of this narrative. This convenient license to kill extends beyond the online community to Israeli decision makers and politicians. Following the Second Lebanon War, Ehud Yatom, a Likud MK, explained the asymmetrical death toll of 44 Israeli civilians and 1,191 Lebanese civilians with the same trump card:
‘and if someone comes to kill you, get up early to kill him fi rst.’ It has been used by Minister of Strategic Affairs Moshe Ya’alon when addressing university students about their military reserve service and by Minister of Public Security Avi Dichter when lecturing about IDF strategy. It was also the explanation provided by Minister of Minorities Avishai Braverman for the assassination of a Hamas leader in Dubai. Even Ayoub Kara, a Druze MK from Likud, has used it. When asked about the Iranian nuclear plan Kara showed little originality: ‘I think an attack on Iran will be justifi ed’, he said, ‘since if someone comes to kill you, get up early to kill him fi rst.’ Meharsayikh u-Makharivayikh Mimekh Yetse’u is another overexploited formula. Translated as ‘your destroyers and devastators will depart from you,’ and taken from Isaiah 49:17, this sentence has become Israeli society’s remedy for criticism that comes from ‘within’—from Jews, either Israeli or Diaspora. It stems from a refusal to acknowledge wrongdoing and brands all critics ‘destroyers’. From Gideon Levy’s Haaretz articles on the eviction of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah to Judge Goldstone’s report proving that IDF soldiers shot at Palestinians waving white fl ags, the chorus rings out: ‘Destroyers and devastators will depart from you.’ Also for Channel 10’s Shlomi Eldar when he dares to say that ‘Hamas is not a diabolical junta’, and for the eminent Israeli poet Natan Zakh, who supports the end of the siege on Gaza, even volunteering to swim there. The Israeli Government’s recent revival of the embarrassing ‘Ministry of Propaganda’, offi cially known as the Ministry of Public Affairs, effects a similar principle—it ignores the dissenting voices from within Israel, rejecting them as ‘destroyers’ rather than as concerned players. In other words, Israel is not going to rethink its policies, but will only strive to explain them better.
Almost as popular as these two precepts is‘Aniyei ‘Irkha Kodmim, loosely translated as ‘the poor of your city take precedence over the poor of a different city.’ Taken from the Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 71:1, this is used by Israelis to justify the
preferential treatment of Jews. It is quoted almost every time human rights organisations highlight the inferior treatment of Palestinian citizens of Israel or the living conditions for Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. The use of this quote has intensified lately due to the debate about the thousands of refugees and migrant workers threatened with deportation. The fact that many of them have children who were born in Israel, or that deporting them would endanger their lives, does not convince large parts of the Israeli public, who cleave to principle of the ‘precedence of our poor’. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Finance Yuval Steinitz announced that at the heart of their plan to reduce unemployment is a strategy of encouraging Israelis not to hire migrant workers, and emphasised that ‘precedence of the poor of your city’ is a sacred principle. This Talmudic proverb has also served well during wars and military operations. One month before the Israeli attack on Gaza, Yossi Peled, a Minister from Likud, gave a good ‘Jewish’ explanation for the future use of excessive force. ‘I don’t want to hurt the Palestinians living in Gaza Strip, but we need to defend ourselves, or as the Jewish tradition teaches: “The poor of your city take precedence”’ Six weeks later, the poor people of Gaza had buried 1,400 men and women. These three verses, overused in Israeli-Jewish discourse, exemplify the hijacking of ‘Judaism’ to suit the Zionist programme. It is therefore not surprising that they are much more popular among ‘secular’ and national-religious Jews in Israel than among the traditionally Orthodox Jews. Interestingly, when considered in their religious context, their assumed meanings appear to be quite different. ‘Get up early to kill him first’ refers in contemporary Israel to the pre-emptive strategy of the Israeli military, particularly the notion of defensive rather than offensive action. The expression supports the Israeli ‘self-defence’ theory by presuming that all enemy casualties are caused either in response to a previous act or a pre-emptive ‘response’ to a future act. But the original verse refers to an individual acting in self-defence, and there is no indication that this teaching applies at state level. Indeed, one can even argue that the sacredness of life lies at the heart of this precept, since it sanctions killing only to preserve life, and only when the enemy is coming to kill you. It is anything but a religious ‘license to kill’. Similarly, ‘your destroyers and devastators will depart from you’ originally taught that foreign elements will eventually leave the country they are trying to destroy and carries no reference to internal criticism and how to handle it.
Zionism’s basic separationist aspirations—Hebrew labour, a Hebrew market, a Hebrew state—have been nurtured and protected by the belief that ‘the poor of your city take precedence over the poor of a different city’. In contemporary Israel, this verse provides a pseudo-religious justification for racist practice, while in its original context it is closer to our own ‘charity begins at home’. According to the Talmud, if two people request a loan from the same rich person and he or she is unable to help both of them, that wealthy individual is ordered to be more generous with the poor of his own city, regardless of religion. In the case of ‘the Jewish state’ of Israel, ‘the poor of your city’ are actually the Palestinians and the migrant workers who remain socially and politically disenfranchised.
Selecting religious texts for political use is not a Jewish invention. But the selected adages, which all stem from a Diasporic experience, acquire new meaning and dangers when used by a majority in a sovereign state, and even more again when that state also happens to be the strongest military power in the Middle East. Ironically, Israeli society attributes fundamentalist readings of religious text to Islam, choosing to deny its own decontextualised following of violent texts. With respect to Bava Metzia, the Sanhedrin, and even to the Prophet Isaiah, there are texts more central to Judaism with more urgent lessons for Israeli society: ‘Foreigners living among you will be treated like your own people. Love them as you love yourself, because you were foreigners living in Egypt’ (Leviticus 19:34). A clear threat to Zionism’s founding principles, this has been marginalised, together with God, and more politically comfortable quotations selected. Israeli scholar Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin has summed up the relationship between Zionism and ‘secular’ Judaism: ‘There is no God, but He promised us the Land.’ God has indeed been left outside the Israeli political debate, replaced by the People and the Land of Israel. Slowly but steadily, concepts such as ‘the State of Israel’, ‘the Arab’, ‘security’, or even the Iranian ‘existential threat’ have been shaped through misquoting of Jewish religious texts, a process aided by national institutions like the Chief Rabbinate, the IDF rabbinate, and the Religious-Zionist movement. Gershom Scholem warned that God would not remain silent in the language that invoked him thousands of times. The revival of Hebrew and its common use in Israel did not bring God into the lives of ‘secular’ Jews but instead created a dangerous validation of contemporary political dilemmas with the authority of ‘omnipotent’ religious texts. Contemporary Hebrew with its ancient Biblical resonances grants this political-religious God-free coalition the illusion of entitlement. How long God will remain silent is another story.
Yonatan Mendel is completing a PhD on the relationship between security, politics and Arabic language studies in Israeli-Jewish society. The research is conducted at the Department of Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge. He is the co-editor of ‘Reflections on Knowledge and Language in Middle Eastern Societies’, which will be published in 2011.