Yesh Atid's Stern: Rabbis are 'playing with fire'

Top rabbis urge followers to ‘do everything’ to thwart new government

Chaim Druckman, one of the national religious leaders who signed letter, disavows incitement and violence after Shin Bet chief warns of rising threat of political violence

MK Betzalel Smotrich and right-wing demonstrators at a protest against the unity government outside the home of Yamina parliament member Ayelet Shaked in Tel Aviv on June 3, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
MK Betzalel Smotrich and right-wing demonstrators at a protest against the unity government outside the home of Yamina parliament member Ayelet Shaked in Tel Aviv on June 3, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Leading national religious rabbis on Saturday night released an open letter calling for their supporters to “do everything” to ensure the so-called “change government” is thwarted.

The letter was released shortly after the director of the Shin Bet security service, in a rare statement, warned against political violence and incitement, saying that somebody could get hurt. Nadav Argaman urged politicians, religious leaders, educators and other public figures to speak out clearly to defuse the danger.

In a follow-up statement on Saturday night, Rabbi Chaim Druckman, one of the signatories of the letter, denied that the rabbis’ public call could be interpreted as incitement and said he opposes all forms of violence. Another signatory, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner, on Sunday morning said it was self-evident that the rabbis opposed any hateful actions or even hateful thoughts.

The rabbis’ letter said: “We cannot accept a reality in which a government will be formed in Israel that will harm the most fundamental matters of religion and state that were accepted since the establishment of the State of Israel and until today by all Israeli governments.”

Rabbi Chaim Druckman speaks during an interview with Channel 12 news on May 4, 2021. (Screen capture: Channel 12)

“There is no doubt that this government will also harm matters of security, which relate to our very existence, as it relies on terror supporters and includes ministers who urge the International Criminal Court in The Hague to investigate IDF officers for war crimes,” it continued, referring to the Islamist Ra’am party and Meretz leader Nitzan Horowitz’s past comments on the ICC, respectively.

“This government is entirely against the will of the people as directly reflected by the past elections. We must try and do everything so that this government is not formed,” it said.

Druckman, in a video statement on Saturday night, declared, “There is no incitement here.”

“It’s inconceivable that this [would be seen] as a [call for] physical violence or even verbal [violence]. Rather, [the government should be prevented] only through democratic means,” he said.

Rabbi Shlomo Aviner (Ariel Horowitz / Wikipedia)

Aviner, head of the Ateret Yerushalayim yeshiva, told Army Radio on Sunday: “When an Orthodox man, a rabbi… says to ‘do everything,’ he means to act without breaking [the rules] of the Torah…. The Torah says you must not hate — in your actions… your words… and your thoughts.”

When it was put to Aviner that he and his fellow signatories were making “the same mistake,” in terms of fueling incitement, as in the period preceding the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, he denied this was the case. Those who asserted, prior to the assassination, that Rabin merited the death penalty for being prepared to relinquish divinely promised land, were violating the rules of the Torah, Aviner said.

Yesh Atid MK Elazar Stern slammed the letter and accused the rabbis of “lying” about the coalition.

“I ask myself, are we not playing with fire?” he said during an interview with Army Radio on Sunday.

Yesh Atid MK Elazar Stern, speaks during a conference for Young Leadership programs, at Haifa University, on April 11, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The rabbis were engaging in “incitement” and “getting into all these lies of a ‘leftist Arab government,'” Stern said.

“These rabbis are lying,” he said. “They don’t know the basic guidelines [of the coalition agreement] the way I do,” he said.

The rabbis’ remarks, Stern cautioned were “a double-edged sword that in the end will stab someone.”

He warned that some of the rabbis’ followers could take the statement that “everything must be done” to stop the change government too seriously. He also urged against rabbis becoming involved in the political arena, saying that such activity serves to dismantle democracy.

In an extraordinary statement on Saturday evening, the head of the Shin Bet internal security service, Nadav Argaman, had warned of rising incitement and hate speech on social media, and the danger that it would spark political violence.

Head of Shin Bet security service Nadav Argaman visits at the 8th International UVID Conference at the Avenue Convention Center in Airport City, on November 7, 2019. (Flash90)

“We have recently identified a serious rise and radicalization in violent and inciting discourse, specifically on social media,” Argaman said.

“This discourse may be interpreted among certain groups or individuals as one that allows violent and illegal activity and could even lead to harm to individuals,” he said.

As the so-called “change government” has become increasingly likely to be sworn in, right-wing social discourse has become increasingly alarmist, with angry protests outside politicians’ homes, the burning of political posters, and allegations of treason issued via traditional and social media.

The leaders of the right-wing Yamina party Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked have come under intense attacks from others on the right for their decision to join the change government, and have had their security increased due to threats to their safety. Other Yamina MKs have also been targeted with threats and abuse. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared that the new government endangers the Land of Israel, the State of Israel, and the Israel Defense Forces.

Argaman said politicians, public opinion leaders, religious figures, and educators across the political spectrum must speak clearly against any violence.

Right-wing activists protest against the ‘change government’ outside Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked’s home in Tel Aviv on June 3, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/ Flash90)

Channel 13 said the security establishment is concerned by the possibility of “physical harm” to Bennett, the prime minister-designate, and the members of his Yamina party, “religious Zionists who are facing… calls for physical violence against them.”

An unnamed security official told the TV station: “We are familiar with this: Somebody will read this [material castigating the planned new government] and will think that he has to ‘save the country’ — that if the change government is established, the Zionist project will be over — and will take action.”

Argaman and the Shin Bet fear that somebody will “misinterpret” the criticisms of the planned change government, the TV report said, “will grab a weapon, will carry out a violent act, and will harm either Bennett or one of the MKs” heading into the change government.

The report said the Shin Bet does not have any specific alerts regarding concrete threats to Bennett or members of his party, but that Argaman chose to sound the alarm over the fear that “we are getting closer and closer to 1995, to the months before the Rabin assassination.”

Argaman issued his warning, it said, amid ongoing Shin Bet monitoring of the “social media discourse,” having seen a “very significant surge in recent days of references to ‘treason against the state,’ [and the ostensible imperative to] ‘save the state from the change government.’”

During protests outside the homes of Yamina members over the past week, some characterized Bennett’s move to sit in a coalition with centrist Yesh Atid and the Islamist Ra’am party as “treason,” and carried placards proclaiming “Leftists. Traitors.”

Right-wing activists chant slogans and hold signs during a demonstration against the possibility of the Yamina party being part of a new government, in Tel Aviv, May 30, 2021. Placards read: Leftists. Traitors. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Political incitement, and in particular the use of the term “traitor,” is a highly contentious issue in Israel as it is an accusation that was made by right-wing protesters against prime minister Yitzhak Rabin before he was assassinated in 1995 by a far-right Jewish extremist. The incitement against Rabin, which included him regularly being called a traitor by protesters, was seen as contributing to the motivation of his killer Yigal Amir.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks in Caesarea on May 28, 2021, imploring right-wing political rivals not to join a “left-wing government” with Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid. (Screen capture/Twitter)

On Friday, Netanyahu posted a message on Facebook referencing the weekly Torah portion and the attempts to form a government booting him from power, invoking the Biblical account of the spies who sought to weaken “the spirit of the people.”

“In this week’s Torah reading, we read about the spies — representatives of the Israeli people who spread false reports about the Land and weakened the spirit of the people out of concern for their own personal interests,” he wrote.

“Two members of this group did not agree to lie. Yehoshua Bin-Nun and Calev Ben-Yefuneh contradicted [the others] and assured the people of Israel: “The land we traversed and scouted is exceedingly good.

“The Land is exceedingly good, and in our generation too, in our time, those who were elected with the votes of the right must stand up and do the right thing: establish a strong, good, right-wing government that will protect the Land of Israel, the citizens of Israel and the State of Israel.”

(With the exceptions of Yehoshua and Calev, the spies are said to have been struck down by a plague and died.)

“It seems we have not learned the necessary lessons from past events,” Defense Minister Benny Gantz tweeted on Saturday, referring to the 1995 assassination, in the wake of the Shin Bet warning.

“Anyone who tries to deny the legitimacy of basic democratic processes and ignites the fire of incitement, also bears responsibility,” Gantz said, adding that he calls on everyone, especially public leaders, to speak out against the incitement.

Likud MK and Finance Minister Israel Katz said he joined the warning against incitement. “You can have a profound argument without crossing dangerous lines. We all have the responsibility to act this way,” Katz said.

Yesh Atid MK Merav Ben Ari tweeted: “No MK should have to go through this. The violence against them comes from the Prime Minister’s Residence].”

Meanwhile, the head of the Religious Zionism Party, Bezalel Smotrich responded with disdain.

“Several weeks ago Jewish citizens were killed and wounded here in severe rioting carried out by many of Israel’s Arabs. The Shin Bet under your leadership did not expect, warn of prepare for this in advance,” he tweeted. “Israelis deserve an explanation as to where you were, and how you missed the incitement and nationalism ahead of those riots.”

Likud’s Transportation Minister Miri Regev vowed to “continue to protest the theft of right-wing votes in a democratic and dignified manner, without violence.” She also complained of alleged “censorship and violation of the right to protest, while painting the entire right-wing camp as violent and dangerous.”

The eight-party coalition that aims to oust Netanyahu appears increasingly likely to secure the necessary majority support in the Knesset in a vote likely to be held either Wednesday, June 9, or on Monday, June 14.

A photo montage shows the leaders of parties in the prospective “change government” that Yesh Atid chief Yair Lapid announced he can form on June 2, 2021. (Flash90)

On Thursday morning, the Shin Bet said its unit that protects the top officials of the state, Unit 730, had placed a security detail around Bennett, the coalition-to-be’s first prime minister. Security had already been increased last month in response to threats against his life, the party said at the time.

Last week, the Knesset Guard decided to increase security for Yamina party No. 2 MK Ayelet Shaked as she and party leader faced threats from right-wing activists.

Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg at a Knesset faction meeting on April 26, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Tuesday, Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg took her family out of their home following a string of threats against her and her baby daughter, in the wake of false information published about her proposed legislation to restrict the proselytizing of minors.

On Saturday, Zandberg said the Shin Bet message was “referring directly to Netanyahu and his entourage, who operate a well-oiled hate machine with results that it is impossible not to think can lead to murder.”

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