Last week I wrote about Bibi Netanyahu’s attempt to use religious authority to create support for a strike on Iran. There are many problems with going down this path – and I should add that Netanyahu is not unique in this regard; there is a long history of Israeli and even American officials seeking Rav Ovadia Yosef’s approval for various national security initiatives – but one of the bigger ones is that once you allow politics to be influenced by religion, you can no longer control the deluge that is guaranteed to follow. To wit, Netanyahu has to deal with the fact that he is being publicly challenged by influential rabbinic authorities on implementing the High Court’s order to evacuate Migron, the settlement outpost that was built on land privately owned by Palestinians. Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, the chief rabbi of the Shomron Regional Council and a past ally of Netanyahu, declared over the weekend that if the prime minister attempts to “raise a hand on Migron [he] will have it cut off.” He also made implicit threats that the IDF will have to disband if the government offends the religious Zionist community since if yeshiva students stop joining the army on the orders of their rabbis, “there will be no army. Who will join the army? Those who raise two kids and a dog?” He took great pains to let everyone know that he wasn’t actually threatening the prime minister, but simply hoping that God makes his words come true.
This is not the first time that Rabbi Levanon has attempted to use religious pressure to change or influence government policy. This past January, he quit his position as head of the Elon Moreh hesder yeshiva (hesder yeshivot allow observant Israelis to combine army service and Torah study) because he vehemently disagreed with an IDF ruling that soldiers could not walk out of events in which there were women singing. Before quitting, he had given an interview in which he said that the IDF was “bringing us close to a situation in which we will have to tell [male] soldiers, ‘You have to leave such events even if a firing squad is set up outside, which will fire on and kill you.’ I hope the army rabbinate will bring in some wise figures who will stop this terrible state of affairs. But if there are no such rabbis, we won’t have any choice, and I’ll recommend to anyone who asks me about the IDF that he shouldn’t enlist.” Given Levanon’s position as head of an influential hesder yeshiva and as chief rabbi of the Shomron Regional Council, which oversees 30 settlements in the West Bank, his thoughts on such matters cannot be simply brushed off, and his comments on Migron represent only the tip of the iceberg of what is to come from the religious settler community should the High Court decision be enforced.
This ties into the excellent piece by Dan Byman and Natan Sachs on settler terrorism in Foreign Affairs, in which they argue that Israel needs to treat settler violence the same way it treats Palestinian violence and that “mainstream rabbis should denounce their radical brethren and demonstrate how their views contradict centuries of religious tradition.” They are correct with this recommendation, and there is already a growing movement to do exactly that. The problem, though, is that the involvement of rabbinic authority goes both ways. If the Israeli government is to appeal to religious tradition to convince the violent settler fringe to cease its terrorist activity (and if you need any convincing as to how deep the fanatical rot has penetrated, the three suspects in the firebomb attack last week are 12 and 13 year olds from Bat Ayin, which is known for having something of an artsy and hippie vibe), it then makes it tough to operate when religious authority dictates that the government is doing something that contradicts Jewish law, which is what Rabbi Levanon contends is the case with evacuating Migron. Bibi runs to Rav Yosef when he wants to pressure Eli Yishai into supporting military action, but nobody should fool themselves about what this means when the government decides to give an order to evacuate a settlement. Religious authority is not something that can be turned on and off with a switch, utilized when convenient and ignored when not. Netanyahu is going to have a serious problem on his hands with Migron and other settlements down the road, and the fact that he so brazenly and nakedly uses religion for something he regards as a priority is going to haunt him when religion operates to stifle actions which he has no choice but to take.