Modern Judaism does not lend itself to violence or extremism1. In history it has proven to be the most peaceable Abrahamic religion. Nonetheless Judaism has still amassed a monstrous catalogue of horrors in its name. If the stories of the Bible can be believed, the founding of Judaism occurred amidst pointlessly murderous battles with the rightful native inhabitants of Canaan and huge numbers of Biblical statements can be used to support violence and aggression in the name of religion. In history, Jewish nations conducted forced conversion en masse2. Modern terrorist incidents have also centered on the struggles to control land that has special religious significance for Jews in Israel. Extremist groups in the West Bank have executed violent terrorist campaigns against Palestinians and other campaigns have occurred against the Temple Mount3,4,5,6,7. Today, mainstream Judaism and the government of Israel speak out consistently and strongly against extremism, but the Haredim (ultra-conservative Orthodox Jews) are still growing in number and can be found aggressively trying to segregate the genders, enforcing strict rules of dress on others and banning free access to secular reading material especially via the Internet.
When the Jews conquered the land of the Samaritans, they found that the populace were already monotheists, so, they could not be forcibly converted, and they were in part descended from Israelites anyway. But they had their own temple, which the Jews destroyed, by wiping out the entire city (Nablus) and then obliterating the temple. This horrid act is commemorated by a Jewish tradition that on the twenty-first day of the month of Kislev, the day the Samaritan temple was destroyed, it is forbidden to mourn or fast.8
“Like other single-deity religions that would hold power in the future, the Hasmonean theocracy used the sword to spread not only its territorial domain but also its religious following. [...] In 125 BCE Yohanan Hyrcanus conquered Edom, the country that spread south of Beth-zur and Ein Gedi as far as Beersheba, and Judaized its inhabitants by force. Josephus described it in Antiquities of the Jews:
Hyrcanus took also Dora and Marissa, cities of Idumea, and subdued all the Idumeans; and permitted them to stay in that country, if they would circumcise their genitals, and make use of the laws of the Jews; and they were so desirous of living in the country of their forefathers, that they submitted to the use of circumcision, and of the rest of the Jewish ways of living, at which time therefore this befell them, that they were hereafter no other than Jews.
Thus did the ruling Hasmonean high priest annex an entire people not only to his kingdom but also to his Jewish religion. Henceforth, the Edomite people would be seen as an integral part of the Jewish people. [...] Hyrcanus was not the only one. In 104-103 BCE his son Judas Aristobulus annexed the Galilee to Judea and forced its Iturean inhabitants, who populated the northern region, to convert to Judaism.
Jewish historiography has always been ill at ease about the forced conversion and assimilation practiced by the Hasmoneans [...] though the rabbinical tradition did in fact renounce any attempt to force people to change religion, it only did so much later - after the Zealot uprising in the first century CE, when forced conversions to Judaism were no longer feasible.”
Because Judaism has no reputation for fundamentalism, many dismiss extreme-sounding Jews as oddities. The press of the West exclaim loudly about extremist Muslims; but it is a rare paper indeed that dares approach Judaism with the same boldness. All it takes is one angry or biased comment from a Western Imam, and the newspaper industry goes on a rampage against them. But it took Yitzhak Ginzburg years to become known as a Jewish extremist, despite constant barbaric, sectarian and radical pronouncements. He's said that there shouldn't be any Muslims or atheists in Israel, that Jewish lives are worth more than others', and that the killing of Jews is a worse crime than the killing of non-jews. Now, he is frequently called an extremist. But it took a long time for the Western press to notice; this is because the press start out with the assumption that Jews can't be extremist, and, that as a once-persecuted minority in most countries, it is somehow disrespectful to criticize Jewish opinion. As such, Jewish extremism is under-reported.
“In the case of Judaism, it is too convenient to dismiss merely as twisted deformations the views expressed by orthodox rabbis such as Yitzhak Ginzburg, a member of the Habad sect (followers of the late 'Lubavitcher Rabbe', Menachem-Mendel Schneerson) and head of the government-funded 'Tomb of Joseph' Yeshiva (talmudic college) in Nablus, who declared: 'The life of Israel is worth more than the life of the gentile.' [..] Ginzburg hailed the 1994 Hebron massacre of Arabs as 'a shining moment'. Ginzburg represents the outer edge of religio-nationalist extremism. Not so the former Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, Ovadia Yosef, spiritual leader of the Shas Party which won seventeen sears (out of 120) in the Knesset in the 1999 elections. [... Yosef in 2001] called for the annihilation of Arabs: 'It is forbidden to be merciful to them. You must send missiles to annihilate them. They are evil and damnable.'”
"Israel & Palestine" by Bernard Wasserstein (2003)4
Calling for the annihilation of an entire race of people is terrible; but it is worse when words turn into actions. Gush Emunim is one of many violent terrorist groups linked to the battles between Israel and Palestinians, and it "built a base among the Jews who settled in the West Bank territory": in the 1970s and 1980s they conducted an escalating series of attacks - one incident saw them cripple several Arab mayors of West Bank towns using car bombs5. Thankfully, Jewish institutions themselves actively condemn terrorist groups such as Gush Emunim - they were arrested in 1984. Individuals and Jewish academia speak out against them: for example Ehud Sprinzak of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem published an article entitled "Fundamentalism, Terrorism, and Democracy: The Case of the Gush Emunim Underground" (1986).
“The settlers in some of the most isolated settlements in the West Bank include a high proportion of militant elements, among them followers of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane and of underground Jewish terrorist movements inspired by his racist ideology. But such groups are indeed isolated, and not just physically, from the mainstream of Israeli society and would be most unlikely to succeed in mobilizing mass support for resistance to a withdrawal decision.”
"Israel & Palestine" by Bernard Wasserstein (2003)3
It is often the case that poor choices are amplified if they are combined with the belief that they are endorsed by divinity (this is the central argument behind Why Question Beliefs? Dangers of Placing Ideas Beyond Doubt, and Advantages of Freethought). What normal people dismiss as daft flights of fancy can be embraced by religious folk with deadly seriousness for fear of losing their own place in the afterlife if they fail to support their own religion. The following list contains some of the most well-known incidents of Jewish terrorism and it serves to highlight what lines of thought feed the process of radicalisation - most of it involves the struggle for control for land which holds special religious significance:
Kach and Kahane Chai terror movements: Rabbi Meir Kahane preached that all Arabs should be expelled attained a large and enduring following frequently associated with violence. The Israeli government declared both to be illegal terror organizations in 1994 and prime minister Yitzhak Rabin said "we will treat the Kahanists exactly as we treat Hamas".9
Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by an Israeli orthodox extremist10 who opposed the Oslo Accords (part of the peace process between the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Israel). It was a sad end to a great opponent of extremism.
Baruch Goldstein murdered 29 Muslims worshippers in 1994 in Hebron. He was linked to the Kach movement.9
Ami Popper murdered seven Palestinian workers in 199011.
"An organized campaign of violence against the mayors of Arab towns in the West Bank"11 by Gush Emunim (see the text preceding this list for detail).
Failed Attempts to Attack the Temple Mount. This structure was once the location of Judaism's central Temple but was replaced by an Islamic place of worship and has been a sore spot in Jewish religious memory ever since.
“In 1984, a group of Jewish terrorists brought explosives to the Temple Mount but ran off when they were discovered by a Muslim guard. After they were arrested, it became clear that the plotters belonged to a militantly religious messianic sect. They had hoped to raze the existing mosques in order to prepare for the construction of a new Jewish Temple on its ancient site. This plot was one of the few terrorist attempts by an organized underground; twenty-one people were involved. More recently, in May 2005, three ultra-Orthodox Jewish extremists were questioned in connection with a scheme to fire a missile at the Temple Mount.”
“In Israel there have been several attempts by Jewish fundamentalists to destroy the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque, which were built on the site of the Second Temple destroyed by the Romans in 66 CE. At his trial on terrorist charges one of the plotters, Yehuda Etzion, [said] God had given him personal responsibility to advance the process of redemption through radical action. There is a registered association, the Faithful of the Temple Mount, which demands that the Dome by levelled and the site purified by the slaughter of a flawless red heifer, as prescribed in the Bible, before the new temple is built.”
“Judaism today takes no action in response to apostasy. But its historical starting-point was equal in barbarity to the worst elements of Christianity and Islam. Deuteronomy 13:6-11 is harrowing and worrying in its commands for Jews to put to death those who try to deconvert others:
“[If even your relatives try to convince you to leave Judaism then you must] show him no pity. Do not spare him or shield him. You must certainly put him to death. Your hand must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone him to death, because he tried to turn you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no one among you will do such an evil thing again.”
In modern times, Jewish lore on apostasy is codified in the Schulchan Aruch, which is the most widely consulted compilation of Jewish moral law. It is the product of Yosef Karo in 1563 CE13. Although harsh and immoral in its social effects, it at least isn't as murderously bold as the original holy scripture on this topic:
“The Schulchan Aruch is a compilation of Jewish laws and customs that dates back hundreds of years but is considered current by many very observant Jews. [... It deals] harshly with those who [leave] the faith. ... In effect, if you quit the club, the club throws you out - unceremoniously. You are ostracized when alive and not mourned upon death. But beyond that, there were seldom any violent punishments that ensued. To the extent that the above rules and views are invoked nowadays, it is almost always by the Orthodox.”
Expulsion and shunning were used to isolate Jews with unwanted beliefs from the community, including from their friends and family. In the 17th century in particular there several famous cases including some who just believed in the wrong type of god15. Uirel Da Costa 'led a miserable, isolated life', 'utterly alone' after being excommuniated and excluded16. Baruch Spinoza suffered the same punishment in 1656 for ceasing to believe in the ritualistic side of
as well as Juan da Prado in 165717. Most examples are of famous and well-known thinkers who flourished outside of Judaism, whereas there must be many more who silently wept themselves into history, unmentioned. "To the extent that the above rules and views are invoked nowadays, it is almost always by the Orthodox"14 but thankfully it is difficult to enforce in a world where religion has mostly lost its power and influence.”
Some forms of Judaism are inherently racist and intolerant towards outsiders, forbidding intermingling and mixed marriages; in a 1997 survey 36% of rabbis said they would refuse to endorse or officiate at an interfaith wedding, and this number fell to 0% among Orthodox and Conservative rabbis18.
Many world religions have religious doctrine that forbids or frowns upon the marriage of outsiders (exogamy). Sometimes this is defined as people with wrong beliefs and is designed to protect believers from being exposed to outside ideas. Scriptures warn that intermarriage brings god's wrath and makes people impure. Anthropologists suspect that in some situations, the argument that "the bloodline must be kept pure" is actually an excuse to justify practices that are really just power-games (i.e., the prevention of land becoming inherited by non-family-members). Often, such rules stem from racist and xenophobic instincts. Nearly always, dogmas against exogamy result in prejudice and de-humanization of outsiders, leading in some cases to faith-based sectarianism, religious intolerance and extremism.
The Hebrew Scriptures / Christian Old Testament has many stories warning against marrying foreigners. Deuteronomy 7:3-4 and Ezekiel 20:32-34 says believers are not to marry nor live among non-believers because foreign women will "turn away" men from worshipping God - the punishment is God's anger and losing God's favour. Malachi 2:11-12 says the same thing, but also adds that the descendants of such unions will also be punished (so much for free will). Ezra has long been a source of racism and pointless sectarianism. It says when his people marry outsiders, it offends God and "corrupts" the community (Ezra 9:2). Learning of intermarriage causes the prophet Ezra to tear his clothes, pluck out his beard hair and sit down astonished (9:3). This prejudice and intolerance is found again in Ezra 10:2-3, 10-12 where 113 men are forced to abandon foreign wives else face God's wrath. Continuing this, Neh 13:23-27 has a holy man chastising and punishing mixed-culture families and forces believers to promise they will no longer marry or let their sons marry foreign women. In Numbers 25: 6-15 another holy man is rewarded by God for murdering a newly wed husband and foreign wife (Zimri and Cozbi) for the offence of marrying an outsider, because God had sent plagues as a result of such impurities.
For more details, see: Religious Dogmas Against Marrying Outsiders (Exogamy).
Religious rules are voluntary. People choose to follow the rules, based on their beliefs. If someone doesn't want to follow those rules, they are free to abstain. It might mean that they are transgressing against their own beliefs and their conscience will have to deal with that in the long-run. But it is not right to take your own beliefs and to force other people to follow them. Hence, why religion so often contradicts human rights and modern morality. Such is the central argument of Legislation and Faith: Religious Rights and Religious Wrongs (click for full page).
But Orthodox Jews in Israel have taken it upon themselves to police others' actions in accordance with their own strict beliefs, no matter how minor. In this respect, they are readily comparable to the horrible fashion and behaviour police of Saudi Arabia and places like Iran. Luckily in Israel there is a strong moderate movement that opposes extremism. Some examples reported by the BBCBBC News (2011)19:
Unfortunately about 10% of Israelis are Ultra Orthodox and this is rising due to their large family sizes.
The Hebrew Scriptures, which the Christians adopted as their Old Testament, are infamously violent. The endorsements of violence, mass murder and rape & pillage are dramatic, and are conducted under the direct commands of God for the betterment of the believer's religion21. The worry is that this gives justification for anyone who hears voices in their head telling them to murder for their religion that actually they should do so, and indeed, historically many have used the Bible to justify murder. For example, Emperor Theodosius tricked, trapped and murdered several thousand civilians from Thessalonia, and when his Bishop complained, he argued that he was acting as did David from the Old Testament22,23. Many Jewish terrorists have followed this line of logic and for hundreds of years Europe fell into the barbaric and ignorant dark ages under the terrible machinations of Christian institutions that embraced the Bible's endorsements of violence.
Exodus 15:3 states that God loves war, but it is not just enemy combatants that are the target. Exodus 22:18 has been used as the basis for murdering women accused of all manner of daft superstitious things ("thou shalt not suffer a witch to live"). Exodus 32:27-29 has the God of Israel command the army to murder sons, brothers, friends and neighbours and they are then blessed for doing so. In Numbers 31:17 they are told to murder all the children amongst the enemies and any woman who might be pregnant. Deuteronomy 7:1 tells the Israelites to occupy their future land and exterminate the original inhabitants because they are infidels: "you're to make no compromise with them or show them any mercy". Deuteronomy 13:6-9 says that if your relatives or friends try to get you to worship other gods, you must kill them "without mercy" - a deed that Abraham attempts in Genesis 22:1-18. In Deuteronomy 20:16-18 they are told to exterminate "everything that breaths". Joshua 6:21-24 and Judges 20 tell stories where God wants them to kill "everyone in the city, men, women, young and old. They also killed the cattle, sheep and donkeys. ... And they burnt the city with fire" and looted all they could. All with no morality nor sense of loss at all. 1 Samuel 15:1-8 has it that because the indigenous people of Amalek opposed God's murderous army, they killed all the men, women, children, babies, cattle, camels and donkeys there24. Likewise, in 1 Kings 18:21-40 the great prophet Elijah murders 450 followers of Baal because they follow the wrong God. Not all the slaughter is on God's chosen land: In Esther 9:12-16 the Israelites slaughter over 75,000 enemies in an internal strife in the Persian empire. In Hosea 13:16 the infants of Samaria will be "dashed in pieces" because the people no longer follow Israel's bloody God. If you are in any doubt that God commands bloodshed in his name then Jeremiah 48:10 declares that you will be cursed if you refrain from bloodshed. These examples are where it is Humans carrying out God's will and don't include the many times where God leads by murderous example.
For more, see: Endorsement of Violence and Murder in the Old Testament.
There is a big difference between criticizing a religion's belief, and, attacking its followers. For example, it should always be permissible and commendable to engage in rational debate. Arguing that the Torah contains too many immoral and monstrous acts for it to reflect a good god might not please strict Jews, but, that doesn't mean it is not an argument worth having. This is completely different to arguing that Jews are naturally inferior as a race and ought to be eliminated. The first argument is anti-Judaism (a debate of ideas) whilst the second is anti-Jewish prejudice (a question of poor ethics). People have the right to exist; ideas do not. Because it is a slightly complex affair to separate the people from the beliefs, some find an opportunity to disguise power-games as anti-racism. This is what many refer to as "the race card".
“In 1882 the well-known biblical scholar Julius Wellhausen published his Prolegomena to the History of Israel, which became the most authoritative work of biblical commentary of its time. [...] A brilliant philological analysis led him to doubt the historicity of some of the biblical stories and to conclude that certain key passages were written long after the events they described. [...] Graetz launched a furious attack on this 'anti-Jewish' work.”
Graetz used "the race card" to try to defend fundamentalist ideas; he uses an emotional response to try and stifle intellectual criticism. Such a technique is common amongst fundamentalists who are involved in public debates, including by some aggressive pro-Jewish activists such as Heinrich Graetz.
Although there have been a slow stream of violent terrorist incidence against Arabs and Muslims in Israel and the West Bank they are actually quite spread out over several decades, Neil J. Kressel in "Bad Faith: The Danger of Religious Extremism" (2007)6 wonders "why there has not been more Jewish terrorism against Palestinians. After all, Israel has been the victim of countless instances of bloody terror since its founding and, especially, since 2000". Over the same period Muslim-on-Muslim violence is a far worse problem than Jewish-on-Muslim. Kressel concludes that it is because in Israel "the government and all major political, social, and religious organizations have spoken with one voice regarding the illegitimacy of terrorism".26,27
“Jews during the past two thousand years of history, especially prior to the founding of the state of Israel, have been reluctant to use violence as a political approach. This reluctance may derive from religious principles, the Jews' status as a demographic minority, their relative openness to secular principles of human rights [...].”
As with Christianity, there are strong moderate movements that are quite happy to embrace morality and dispense with older doctrine that was violent and aggressive in nature. One of the worst culprits was the Jewish Scripture's concept of the chosen people: God singled out Jews to be his people at the expense of the nations around them.
“Mordecai Kaplan - the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism - has dropped the concept altogether. He judged it too likely to lend itself to misinterpretation and also too ethnocentric for the contemporary world, in that it implied God might play favorites.”
In the modern world where religion is polarizing between extremists and liberals (including the non-religious), we can only hope that Reconstructionist Judaism and ideas like it manage to hold out against a resurgent fundamentalism that is engulfing most other Abrahamic religions.