They don’t make Orthodox rabbis like Aharon Lichtenstein anymore. A polymath born in 1933, he received rabbinic ordination from Yeshiva University and a doctorate from Harvard, and set out to bridge traditional Judaism with modern life and culture. Lichtenstein moved to Israel in 1971, where he spent the next four decades educating students in his religious humanistic tradition and preaching political and territorial compromise with Israel’s Palestinian neighbors. He drew upon his vast Jewish legal erudition to defend the Israeli government’s right to evacuate settlements and cede land for peace, condemned anti-Arab violence, and rebuked rabbis who eulogized the notorious Jewish terrorist Baruch Goldstein. In 1995, the co-head of Lichtenstein’s yeshiva, Holocaust survivor Rabbi Yehuda Amital, even served as a minister in Israel’s government to lend religious support to the Oslo Accords.
In the religious Zionist movement, which was deeply enmeshed in the settlement project, some of these positions were profoundly unpopular, but that did not deter Amital or Lichtenstein, for whom pursuing peace was a matter of principle. In 2014, Lichtenstein was awarded the Israel Prize, the country’s highest honor. In 2015, he passed away—but not before he predicted the future.
Eight years before his death, Lichtenstein was interviewed in a public forum about his life and work. Toward the end of the conversation, the rabbi was asked a classic job interview question: What did he consider to be his greatest failure? Many people would use this prompt as an opportunity to spin their past defeats into life lessons and cause for future optimism. Lichtenstein did the opposite.
“I experience frustration with regard to my position within the Israeli public scene,” he began. “I have been active to some extent in the political area, but with little success. I think mine has been a moderating voice, in certain respects a positive one, but by and large, the religious Zionist community has, I think, been taken over, politically and sociologically, by people who have misguided values, and that is not a good feeling.”
“I am, politically speaking, almost a lone wolf,” he continued. “It pains me, not for myself … but I am pained for our society. We have been losing so many kids with wonderful values, so many great idealists. They have not absorbed the totality of the counsel which Matthew Arnold quoted in the name of Bishop Wilson. He said, ‘Firstly, never go against the best light you have; secondly, take care that your light be not darkness.’ These are kids full of idealism, but the wrong ideals.”
Lichtenstein was a spiritual giant, but he was an almost anti-charismatic figure. As you can see from this quotation, he spoke in complex elliptical sentences, which he often delivered in a somewhat mumbled monotone. Perhaps that’s why no one at the time seems to have taken note of this devastating indictment.
Fifteen years later, it reads almost like prophecy.
This past Sunday, many Jews around the world celebrated Jerusalem Day, which marks the restoration of Jewish control over the city and its Jewish holy sites in 1967. The Jewish connection to Jerusalem cannot be overstated. It is the cradle of the Jewish faith, the capital of the ancient Jewish kingdom, and the site of the two Jewish temples. Around the globe, Jews pray facing Jerusalem. The most practiced Jewish ritual in the world, the Passover seder, traditionally concludes with the exclamation, “Next year in Jerusalem!” At Jewish weddings, many sing the words of Psalm 137, “If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand wither,” recalling the city even at that most intimate of moments.
Given Jerusalem’s centrality to Judaism, it is unsurprising that Jews maintained a constant presence in the city for centuries, despite countless efforts by non-Jewish conquerors to expunge them. In 1947, on the eve of Israel’s founding, Jews constituted a majority of Jerusalem’s population. But in the ensuing war, they were cleansed by Jordan from the city’s Jewish Quarter, home to the Western Wall and the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site. The Jordanians subsequently destroyed dozens of synagogues and barred Jews from accessing their most sacred shrines for nearly two decades—until Israel took the territory in its 1967 war with three Arab armies.
Given this history, the Jewish joy of Jerusalem Day is understandable. But what unfolded in the city itself on Sunday was something else entirely, and far darker. For many years, religious Jewish youths have marked the occasion by marching through Jerusalem, singing songs and waving Israeli flags. But over time, these festivities have been increasingly overtaken by far-right factions who have used the march as cover to harass and intimidate the city’s Arab residents. On Sunday, that bigotry was on full display, as clusters of participants chanted slogans like “Death to Arabs” and “Mohammed is dead,” banged on the doors of Arab shops, and engaged in physical altercations with journalists and Arab locals. This abuse was not about celebrating a Jewish connection to Jerusalem, but about asserting dominance over its non-Jewish residents. It was Lichtenstein’s dark premonition made manifest.
Obviously, as is the case when dealing with extremism in any community, it is important to distinguish between the peaceful majority and extremist minority, and not tar an entire population with the misconduct of its worst actors. Most of the thousands of participants in Jerusalem Day festivities did not partake in the debased, racist revelry. (To take one obvious example, in the videos of Jewish extremists from the day, you will be hard pressed to find a single woman, even though thousands were present at the celebrations.) Hamas, the terrorist group that controls Gaza, had threatened to launch rockets at the march, which led many to join the event simply to defy this violent blackmail. But making these distinctions does not absolve us from acknowledging the reality that racism in Israel is on the march—and not just in Jerusalem.
Yair Lapid, Israel’s foreign minister and the architect of its anti-Netanyahu government, likes to say of the country’s Jewish and Arab mainstream, “We are the majority; they are the extremist minority.” As he told me when we last spoke, “The majority of Israelis,” Arab and Jewish, “do not define ourselves by hating somebody else, but by the proactive, positive ideas that ensure our ability to live together.” Lapid repeated this mantra when condemning the ugly events of this past week. “Instead of a day of joy, extremists are trying to turn Jerusalem Day into a day of hate,” he said. “Jerusalem deserves better. Israeli society deserves better. The Israeli flag isn’t theirs … We are the majority.” This may be true. But there is more to the story.
Last October, at a parliamentary event commemorating Yitzhak Rabin, the peace-seeking Israeli prime minister assassinated by a far-right activist in 1995, Lapid declared: “The ideological descendants of Yigal Amir,” Rabin’s murderer, “are sitting today in the Knesset. They receive legitimacy, they are welcome guests in all the studios. If we had not performed this miracle, the government of change, they would now be ministers in the government.” Lapid was referring to an alliance of far-right religious parties that now holds 7 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, and whose members have claimed that the country’s Arab university students are “illiterate,” called for segregating Jews and Arabs in maternity wards, and dubbed Arab politicians “terrorists” and “enemies” who are “here by mistake.”
But while Lapid himself is willing to name the evil that stalks Israeli society, almost half of his coalition is afraid to do so. The current Israeli government spans from left to right, Jew to Arab, united by its determination to oust Benjamin Netanyahu from office. Its members know that politicians like Mansour Abbas, the leader of the coalition’s Arab flank, are not “terrorists.” On the contrary, Abbas has forcefully condemned violence against Jews. But when he and the community he represents are inundated with incitement and worse, the right side of his own coalition loses its nerve. When confronted with the reality of racism in Jerusalem and the spiking specter of settler violence in the West Bank, these politicians prefer to speak in generalities or dismiss the problems as fringe phenomena. This is not just a failure of moral and political courage. It’s an act of enabling. Because as is true in every country, including our own, when those who know better are silent, evil is able to metastasize, and those who seek to spread it are empowered.
At the Jerusalem march, Itamar Ben-Gvir, a member of the far-right alliance whose recent exploits include menacing an Arab with a handgun in a parking lot, was greeted with rapturous chants of “Here comes the next prime minister.” This man is no longer a fringe figure frothing from the sidelines. He’s a politician in a party that Netanyahu himself midwifed into existence, and that is expected to be part of any future right-wing government. And its sentiments are echoed now by members of Netanyahu’s own Likud Party. Days before the march, Yisrael Katz, a former minister under Netanyahu, stood in the Knesset and assailed Arab students who had waved Palestinian flags in university protests. “Remember your Nakba,” he warned, deploying the Palestinian term for catastrophe that refers to Israel’s founding to threaten them with further disaster.
And then there’s Netanyahu himself, who this week blamed the country’s cost of living—which is rising just as it is in America and around the world—on the country’s Arabs. “Every week, they [the current Israeli government] transfer billions to political blackmailers, terror supporters and Israel haters. Israeli citizens are forced to pay high taxes in order for the government to pay the Abbas tax, the Tibi tax, the Zoabi tax,” said Netanyahu, referring to various Arab politicians. “And for whom is nothing left? Nothing is left for Israeli citizens.” The implication, of course, was that Arabs—who constitute 20 percent of the country’s population—are not Israeli citizens.
Meanwhile, for calling out the obvious turn toward extremism on the Israeli right, Lapid was publicly labeled by another Likud member of parliament as “the most dangerous person on the political map today, if not ever, since the establishment of the state.”
Take care that your light be not darkness.
To understand how Israeli society has lost ground against its racist elements, one needs to understand one of the Jerusalem Day chants: “Shuafat is on fire.” This is a reference to the brutal 2014 murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir, a 16-year-old Palestinian resident of the Shuafat neighborhood of East Jerusalem who was burned alive by Jewish racists, in a revenge attack after the abduction and murder of three Jewish teens. The killing was a source of profound shame for Israeli society, and the murderer was subsequently sentenced to life in prison. “Shuafat is on fire,” in other words, is an unforgivable utterance. But it rings even worse when placed in historical context.
Back in 2015, an Israeli secret service investigation into Jewish extremism unearthed a shocking video. In it, revelers at a far-right wedding celebrated the occasion by waving knives in the air and stabbing a portrait of Ali Dawabshe, a Palestinian baby who died when his home was firebombed by a settler extremist. That perpetrator, too, was sentenced to life in prison. When the video of this “wedding of hate” aired on Israeli TV, it shocked the public and was excoriated across the political spectrum. Notably, even the settler leadership felt compelled to condemn the event, with one hard-right politician named Bezalel Smotrich declaring that “the demonic dance with the picture of the murdered baby represents a dangerous ideology and the loss of humanity.”
That same Smotrich is now the leader of the far-right alliance in Israel’s parliament. He is the same man who dubbed Arab students “illiterate” and called for segregation in the country’s hospitals. On Sunday, he rode on the shoulders of marchers in Jerusalem. He did not condemn the taunting of the murdered Abu Khdeir.
Rabbi Lichtenstein was fond of another quote attributed to the British poet Matthew Arnold: “Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.” In today’s Israel, men like Smotrich no longer feel the need to feign shame. They have moved from hypocrisy to outright advocacy.
The reasons for this shift are manifold, including the global rise of irredentist nationalism, the passing of more moderate religious leadership from the scene, and the increasing political involvement of radicalized ultra-Orthodox youth who are joining far-right parties. And, of course, there is Israel’s ongoing occupation of another people, which creates a constant need for justifications to maintain the hierarchical status quo.
The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is full of two-faced actors who preach unity between the two communities while doing whatever they can to undermine it in practice. The most mendacious members of the Jerusalem march purported to be celebrating the “unification” of the city, even as their abusive actions did everything possible to drive its Jews and Arabs apart. The leaders of the boycott movement against Israel reject a two-state solution in favor of turning the entire land into a binational state for Arabs and Jews, yet simultaneously advocate boycotting Jewish-Arab shared society groups as well as Israeli universities—the very institutions that have been at the progressive forefront of integrating Israel’s Arab citizens.
The conflict is likewise full of individuals who claim to serve a merciful God, yet wrap themselves in the robes of religion to justify their violent acts. In recent years, settler extremists have attacked Palestinians and their villages on the Jewish Sabbath and holidays like Shemini Atzeret, compounding one violation of Jewish religious law with another. This past Ramadan, rioters at the al-Aqsa Mosque smashed and stockpiled its holy stones in order to hurl them at Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall below, all while wearing shoes and thus desecrating the mosque. Like the extremist youths marching in Jerusalem, Palestinian youths on the Haram al-Sharif waved Hamas flags and chanted bigoted slogans like, “Jews, remember Khaybar; the army of Mohammed is returning,” a reference to the subjugation and expulsion of Jews in seventh-century Arabia.
One of these groups has more power and is winning, while the other is currently losing. But if the roles were suddenly switched, the region would be in the same situation, hostage to extremists who pervert the highest religious and political ideals in service of the lowest ends. Darkness turned into their guiding light.
But there are alternatives to these absolutist approaches. They go beyond reacting to bigotry after the fact, and instead attack the roots of prejudice proactively, countering the forces that feed it and preventing incidents like those at the Jerusalem march from happening in the first place. These efforts exist; they just don’t generate angry headlines or go viral on social media with incendiary videos, which is why most people haven’t heard about them. Here are just a few examples:
At the same time as the Jerusalem march was winding its way through the city, hundreds of activists from Tag Meir, a religious Jewish anti-hate organization, held their eighth annual counter-march, distributing thousands of flowers to Jerusalem’s residents and messages of compassion and coexistence. Throughout the rest of the year, Tag Meir organizes religious solidarity missions to Palestinian villages and visits to Arab individuals menaced by Jewish terrorism, building bridges where others would burn them.
A day after the Jerusalem march, hundreds of Palestinian and Israeli activists gathered in that same city for the annual conference of the Alliance for Middle East Peace, an umbrella group for more than 150 peace-building organizations, representing tens of thousands of Arabs and Jews. As ALLMEP’s executive director John Lyndon put it, “The violence, racism, and injustice are real. But so is this community, and it is clearly growing. Together, these Israeli and Palestinian activists can break this structure of violence and dehumanization and build something better and more just in its place.”
That community includes institutions like Israel’s network of Hand in Hand bilingual schools, which educate Jewish and Arab children together, creating the groundwork for a shared future. And it encompasses organizations like the Givat Haviva Center for a Shared Society, which for 70 years has fostered equality and pluralism in Israel through an array of initiatives, from Jewish-Arab high school programming to Arabic instruction for Hebrew speakers.
When in doubt, it’s worth following a simple principle: Support the things the racists hate.
Why did Jewish bigots vandalize one of Hand in Hand’s bilingual schools in Jerusalem? Because they feared the future it represented. Why did Smotrich, the far-right leader, call Arab students “illiterate”? Because he was incensed by Israeli universities creating successful preparatory programs that have achieved proportional Arab enrollment. These progressive projects deserve international backing in the face of such assaults. Diplomats and policymakers should support Arab and Jewish leaders on the ground who build Jewish-Arab partnerships in politics, education, and culture, and reject those who slander them as sellouts. And yes, the international community should invest in efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and end its ongoing occupation, the festering sore which feeds so much fanaticism. But without grassroots trust built from the ground up, no solution—whether two states, one, or something in between—will be possible.
There is a lot more that can be done on that front. Back in 2020, the U.S. Congress passed the Middle East Partnership for Peace Act, which earmarked $250 million to fund joint Israeli-Palestinian peacebuilding projects like those mentioned above. That support is a start. But as ALLMEP has noted, “There are 13.5 million Israelis and Palestinians living in the region, yet the international community is spending less than $4 per person, per year, towards peace in the region. By comparison, to achieve a sustainable peace in Northern Ireland, the international community spent over a billion dollars over two decades.” International policymakers ought to establish an international fund for Israeli-Palestinian peace, while closing tax exemptions for donations to extremist groups in the region.
Ultimately, if the hate on display in Jerusalem is to be defeated, it needs to be named, not dismissed. Some have already begun to do so. When Smotrich touched down in London this past February, the Jewish community’s leadership wanted no part of him. “We reject Smotrich’s abominable views and hateful ideology,” the Board of Deputies of British Jews tweeted. “Get back on the plane, Bezalel, and be remembered as a disgrace forever. You are not welcome here.” Other communities should follow suit, making clear that people like him are unwelcome—as are the sentiments he espouses, whether they come from him or someone from a more mainstream party.
In his October Knesset speech commemorating Yitzhak Rabin, Lapid closed with a pointed pronouncement: “We have decided that we will not sit on the sidelines and write scholarly articles on tolerance and liberalism while the state of Israel is taken over by dark, anti-democratic forces.” It’s a fight that will define Israel’s future for all its inhabitants, and those waging it—Jewish and Arab alike—are going to need all the help they can get.
Take care that your light be not darkness.
Thank you for reading this free edition of Deep Shtetl, a newsletter about the intersection of politics, religion, and culture. Be sure to subscribe if you haven’t already. I expect many of you will have thoughts about this piece, so as always, please feel free to send them my way at email@example.com.