Rabbi Lior’s Arrest Is The Price Of Entangling Religion & State

Rabbi Lior’s Arrest Is The Price Of Entangling Religion & State July 5, 2011

For those of you who haven’t been following the latest religious follies in Israel, I should probably update you about the arrest of Rabbi Dov Lior.

Lior is the chief rabbi of the Hebron-adjacent settlement known as Kiryat Arba.  It is one of the most ideologically hard line settlements, full of the most intransigent nationalistically religious opponents of a two-state solution.  Here’s the gist of what happened from Ynet:

An arrest warrant was issued against Rabbi Lior a few months ago for alleged incitement over statements published in his book “The King’s Torah,” in which he legitimized the killing of non-Jews in war time.

Lior also took part in a protest where he criticized the Justice Ministry and State Prosecution over their order to remove his books from stores. “It is inconceivable that in the State of Israel some clerk from the justice Ministry gets to dictate what rabbis say,” he said.

“I assume that it isn’t Israel’s policy to silence rabbis and so we call on the prime minister the man responsible for the system as a whole to give an unequivocal order to put a stop to this stupid persecution,” he added.

First of all, a small correction.  Lior did not write the book.  He wrote a letter commending the book that was published in the book itself.  This is a common Orthodox publishing ritual.

This whole incident requires some understanding of Israeli governance.  On one hand, Israel has laws against incitement that limit freedom of speech in ways that Americans cannot understand.  Other democracies also have such restrictions on expression.  In some nations, for example, it’s illegal to deny the Holocaust.  Israel has no concept of separating religion from the interests of the state.  And by religion I mean Orthodox Judaism.

So along comes Lior, a state-paid official (that’s what a chief rabbi is) and makes the claim that he’s being denied his freedom of speech.  Do you see the problem here?  Ideally any citizen, even a reactionary like Lior, should be able to hold and express odious beliefs.  On the other hand, he works for the state.  So even without reference to anti-incitement restrictions on speech, he has self-selected to keep his mouth shut.

Herein lies an illustration of the brilliance of the U.S. founders.  They accorded maximum freedom of expression for every idea and absolutely no government entanglement with any belief system. Those are big cogs in American democracy.

Lior and his followers don’t really understand democracy and what they do know, they despise.  Here’s what he had to say about it (my translation from “Yisrael HaYom”):

“The idolatry of our generation is democracy.  Once it was Baal and the Ashteras, today it’s democracy.  Instead of it being a type of governance, it’s become a value.  That’s fine for people who live lives of abandon because they want no restraints on themselves.”

In fairness, he’s not really experiencing the true value of a secular democratic system, not that he’d appreciate that more.  Democracy is not merely a matter of majority rule.  It must also feature fair courts, freedom of speech, protections for minorities (and minority opinions) and no coercion in matters of conscience.  A true separation of religion and state is also desirable, but there are successful democracies without that.

Have the authorities done the correct thing by arresting him?  The American civil libertarian in me says absolutely not.  My more realistic side says that if you’re willing to dance with whoever you consider to be the devil (and take a salary from him) you better follow his rules.  If Lior wants that nice government subsidized rabbi’s salary, he shouldn’t cry foul when they tell him what he may or may not write.  Maybe these Orthodox Jews should start looking at the enormous downside of being the privileged religion.

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  • Yoav

    A similar case of the haredi double standards is the recent whining from the head of the Slonim hasidic court over the finance of the Imanuel girl school. The court have ruled that as long as they insist of segregating ashkenazi and sepharadi girls the school can’t receive any public funds and knowing how the haredim work the judges made it clear that this mean city funds as well (Imanuel is a haredi city so they could have easily had the city council transfer as much money as they wanted to the school). Now they are crying over the evil government for refusing to fund their medieval bigotry.
    The story in Hebrew (sorry can’t find the English version)