To see what is in front of one's nose needs a constant struggle.
--- George Orwell

Monday, December 1, 2014

Friday The Rabbi Spewed Hate: Cleric At Upscale New Jersey Synagogue Says 'Vanquish All Arab Enemies Of Israel --- And Bury Their Ashes With Dead Pigs’ (Updated)

Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem

As someone who has been immersed in the reactionary religious nationalisms of the former British Raj---Sri Lanka and Burma for the most part---I’m no stranger to militant clerics and the bloodcurdling things that can come out of their purportedly holy mouths.  

In Sri Lanka during the long civil war there, is was not uncommon to hear Sinhalese monks cite verses from the ancient Buddhist narrative called the Mahavansa in which monks salve the conscience of a triumphant Buddhist king by noting that the Tamils that the king’s army had just vanquished were not in fact “believers” and therefore not full human beings. In Burma right now, Buddhist monks belonging to the militantly nationalistic movement “969” preach the most virulent hate against the Muslim minority, demanding it be stripped of citizenship and/or driven out of the country in the name of the “land, the race and the faith.” This is so this small minority of about 5% can’t join forces with other Muslims in the region to “engulf” Burmese Buddhism, as happened centuries before in other formerly Buddhist lands like Afghanistan and Indonesia.

Still, there is something shocking about hearing this kind of bloodymindedness from American rabbis. In fact, some of the most deranged things I’ve heard in the two years I’ve been immersed in the American debate about Israel have come from some of these “men of the cloth.” Some of them have a streak of atavistic, Old Testament wrath so strong you’d think they were Biblical re-enactors psyching up their troops for battle against the Amalekites or the Canaanites. We’re talking ugly here, and we’re talking vengeful. And we’re talking hate.

The latest addition to this lengthening list of toxic rabbis is Rabbi Steven Pruzansky , the chief rabbi of  Congregation Bnai Yeshurun, a “modern Orthodox” synagogue in upscale Teaneck NJ. Bnai Yeshurun is considered a leading light in the “modern Orthodox” movement, which is gaining numbers and influence in America. The modern Orthodox are the sect that Times columnist David Brooks, observing affluent and educated groups of modern Orthodox shopping at a luxury kosher supermarket in Brooklyn, touted last year as representing the Jewish future, what he called “The Orthodox Surge.”

Pruzansky is an Ivy League graduate, Columbia 1978, and practiced law for 13 years as a litigator before assuming his “current pulpit” as his bio says. He was trained in “yeshivot” in Israel and the US, is on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and has served as the American co-spokesman for the International Rabbinic Coalition for Israel. His institutional affiliations also include the board of the Temple Reclamation Project, a messianic Zionist group with a long record of Jewish moral chauvinism and disdain for Islamic religious sensitivities which is working to establish the Third Temple in Jerusalem. Shumley Boteach, "America’s Rabbi" who is also  Zionist moneyman Sheldon Adelson’s chief clerical contact in the US, calls Pruzansky “a lion” who possesses the kind of “moral courage” needed to make rabbis “relevant.” Though it’s hard to tell from Pruzansky’s resume whether he himself is a dual US-Israeli citizen, the bio does say he has four married adult children, three of whom live in Israel.

On Friday last week Pruzansky used his personal blog to publish an essay he titled “Dealing With Savages.” According to Pruzansky, “there is a war for the land of Israel that is being waged, and the Arabs who dwell in the land of Israel are the enemy in that war and must be vanquished.”That enemy “rides our buses, shops in our malls, drives on our roads and lives just two miles from us,” he says, and is capable of inhuman acts of violence. Referencing the recent massacre at an Orthodox synagogue in Jerusalem in which three rabbis, two of them dual US-Israeli citizens, were killed, Pruzansky asked rhetorically: “How does a human being (or two) walk into a synagogue and begin hacking at worshippers who are immersed in prayer, leaving behind a trail of blood, victims, grief and horror? He argues that in fact

The question is misplaced because no “human being” could do such a thing. It would have to be a beast in human form, a relic from primitive times before true humans became civilized. The Arab-Muslim animals that span the globe chopping, hacking and merrily decapitating – from Iraq to Jerusalem to New York to Oklahoma, and places in between and beyond – are a discredit even to the term “animal.” Most animals are not that brutal.

The real issue “confronting Israel for decades and the civilized world today," Pruzansky explains, "is what to do about the proliferation of savages who lust for blood and derive inspiration from their religious texts?” At a certain point he argues, “the unrestrained behavior of unruly animals becomes the fault of the zookeeper, not the animals. “Little can or should be expected from Obama or from the Europeans," he says, “mired as they are in cultural deterioration, moral relativism, population decline and Muslim-inspired Jew hatred." He adds that “we should be clear, as the wave of recognition sweeps Europe in the coming year: any country that recognizes a 'Palestine' is endorsing the mass slaughter of Jews."

While Pruzansky furtively maintains that “many things can be done that should not be in print,” he does quite openly advise that:  

*Israel should make clear that a Palestinian state will never be created between the river and the sea. There will be no non-Jewish national entity tolerated. The Muqata in Ramallah should be destroyed and “President” Abbas should be incarcerated as a war criminal.
*Terrorists will be killed, not captured (no great loss, as their fondest wish is for martyrdom). Their bodies will not be returned to their families but will be cremated, and perhaps the ashes buried with deceased pigs.
*The homes of the extended family (up to and including first cousins) of the terrorist will be destroyed, and they will all be deported to the Muslim country of their choice. A second terrorist in a village results in the destruction of that village and the deportation of its residents to a friendlier country. (If the homes in that village would be useful to Jews, then they should be retained and given to Jews after the evil residents are deported. Or, as they used to say in Israel, disengaged.)
*Anyone who riots or throws a stone at a Jew should be shot – with real bullets. Rubber bullets and tear gas should be sold to the Amish. Those who wish to be martyred and who celebrate death should be accommodated as often as possible. The media should be barred from scenes of violence, cell service canceled and cameras confiscated, like in most war zones.
*Arab access to the Temple Mount will be denied for at least six months, and Jewish prayer will be allowed thenceforth at permissible locations, such as they might be. It is unconscionable crime to deny Jews the right to move their lips on the Temple Mount! … Perhaps the day will come in the near future when the mosque and the dome can be uplifted intact and reset in Saudi Arabia, Syria or wherever it is wanted. (The Arab countries can fight over it if they want.) That itself will preclude any Arab claim to Jerusalem.
* Implement measures that encourage Arab emigration – the payment of stipends, compensation for property, etc. Thy must be made to feel that that they have no future in the land of Israel – no national future and no individual future. Start with the Arabs of Judea and Samaria who are stateless; they deserve to find a country in which they can be full citizens and make their contribution to society.

Pruzansky closed his post by noting that “Rational thinkers will argue that the “world” will never tolerate such Draconian sanctions, that countries will sever diplomatic relations with Israel, cut off trade ties and completely isolate the Jewish state. And, in the short term, much of that is true. But is there an alternative short of national suicide and self-immolation?” In keeping with the moral grandiosity that goes along with the whole “Light Onto The Nations” idea, Pruzanky says the backlash won’t be that bad because “Israel has much to offer the world, without which many people in the world would suffer. Any “alienation” that such a hardline action plan might engender “will be short-lived.”

Rabbi Pruzansky is not exactly a political wallflower. Back in 1995 he drew scorn in some quarters for calling Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin a “Judenrat” for his efforts to make peace with Palestinians, using a reference to the Jews who did the Nazis’ bidding during the Holocaust. Rabin was assassinated shortly thereafter In Israel many believe such rhetoric set the stage for Rabin’s assassination, which followed shortly after the rabbi’s disparagement. Just this year, Pruzansky picked a fight with the New York Jewish Week, likening it to the Nazi publication Der Sturmer.  

But the Rabbi’s racist, eliminationist rhetoric, including the open espousal of collective punishment; desecration of corpses, the destruction or dismantling of Muslim holy places (including the Dome of the Rock),  as well as  forced deportations, population transfers and other violations of international human rights seemed to cross a line.

Within two days, Pruzansky’s post had triggered such a furor, including threats against him, his family and his shul that he took the post down. He told the Times of Israel however that he didn’t think he was saying anything all that “outlandish.”

The TOI also noted that the rabbi’s “extreme views” did not “faze” the synagogue’s congregants. It quoted one of Bnai Yeshurun’s board member, Stan Steinreich, a former attorney who owns a communications firm that, among other things, does PR for Shmuley Boteach’s Value Network. Steinrich said the congregation was “lucky to have a spiritual leader of Rabbi Pruzansky’s intellect and depth.” Steinrich said that Pruzansky enjoyed broad support in the synagogue, and that anyone who found him objectionable as a spiritual leader had ample alternatives in a township that was filled with Orthodox shuls. For his part, Shmuley Boteach chose not to return a request for comment.

Meanwhile, Abe Foxman of the Anti Defamation Leaugue denounced Pruzansky’s “screed” as “outright racism and bigotry,” adding that “coming from a rabbinic authority, it’s just hideous.” The Orthodox Union, an important institutional and moral voice in that community issued condemned Pruzansky’s “incendiary rhetoric,” said it was “anathema to Jewish tradition” and “had no place in civil society”--- but did so without specifically mentioning the rabbi’s name.

This would not do for the Failed Messiah blog, a popular website in the Orthodox community which often challenges the Orthodox right wing. “At what point does the RCA remove Pruzansky from its executive committee? When does it expel him entirely? How many more lines must he cross? And why is Congregation Bnai Yeshurun still a member of the OU even though its rabbi openly espouses racism and collective punishment (among many other very objectionable things) and it has done nothing to reprimand him?" Failed Messiah demanded to know.
Pruzansky also issued a “clarifiction” on his blog, saying that when he was referring to “savages” he was referring to terrorsts and terrorists only. "I certainly did not, nor did I intend to, call all Arabs or Muslims 'savages,' nor do I, obviously, believe that to be so," he explained. But his clarification was less an apology than an exercise in gaslighting, saying he had not said what it fact he actually had. A radio interview he did with the Voice Of Israel showed his lack of repentance. He called the media “lairs” and that “the Geneva Convention doesn’t apply anymore.” Failed Messiah said that it was clear the rabbi still “believes he has done nothing wrong.”   

After a battering week, Bnai  Yeshurun’s board issued a statement taking pains to distance itself from Pruzansky declaring that it was “in no way affiliated with the rabbi’s blog postings and has never had editorial control over them whatsoever.” The board announced that it would establish a panel to ensure “editorial oversight.”  Pruzansky welcomed the measure, but again minimized his transgression. He said that the oversight panel would not censor his ideas but would merely ensure that his ideas would not be conveyed “in such colorful ways.”  

Every faith has its whack jobs and fire breathers. Lord knows there are plenty of imams and mullahs in the Islamic world whose anti Jewish utterances far outstrip Pruzansky’s ugly anti-Arab views. Yet Islamic spiritual leaders here in the States generally do not indulge in rhetoric like this rabbi’s, at least for public consumption.  This seems to underscore a troubling double standard in the American discourse about Israel, which is encouraged by a sense of ethnic entitlement, by a sense of ethnic exceptionalism and by a sense of historical victimization.

The accompanying irony is that a that a community---or at least a significant and influential part of that community---which never ceases to invoke the specter of the Holocaust and as well as Holocaust guilt, would advocate  collective punishment and ethnic cleansing along lines that might not be as extreme as what was done to them but is certainly in and of itself egregious. In some way it underscores what anti-anti-Semitism has wrought, encouraging some Jewish hardliners to be so focused on identifying and rooting out “monsters” ever ready to attack them that they lose the capacity to recognize and restrain the monsters within. Indeed, in making their case for America’s inherent anti Semitism, American Jews often invoke the memory of Father Charles Coughlin, the anti Semitic “radio priest” from the 1930’s. Coughlin was in fact quite harsh, but Pruzansky is more explicitly violent---murderous, really..  

The Pruzansky affair is important to note too because the Modern Orthodox congregation he leads, full of educated upscale professionals, represents that part of the American Jewish community which is gaining in numbers and political strength and which bring significant influence and money to bear on coming Congressional battles over the Iranian nuclear negotiations and in the money-fest that the 2016 presidential campaign will surely be. This community is also the focus of considerable patronage from pro-Israel billionaire Sheldon Adelson who is also devoting his considerable resources to ensuring that the Republican party has a candidate who will mirror or adopt his extremist Zionist views on Israel, including the stated desire for the US to “nuke Iran” as a preemptive warning. Among the modern Orthodox, Greater Israel is an object of religious veneration; sovereignty over the land, which itself “holy” is seen in a sacramental light.

Pruzansky’s noxious words also echo the increasingly strident, neo-fascist rhetoric employed by the Israeli right wing, from political figures like Likud party leader Moishe Feiglin, Knesset member Ayelet Shaked, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and hardliner Naftali Bennett, who might become Israel’s next Prime Minister and has extensive connections to the American Jewish right and its GOP operatives. In fact, the rabbi’s “to do” list reads as a spiteful embellishment of the steps that the government should implement to foster “real deterrence” against Palestinian terrorism as outlined in a Knesset bill introduced by Likud party leader Yari who says he did at the behest of Bibi Netanyahu.

Maybe the most unfortunate aspect of the Pruzansky affair though is the reminder of the way that religious nationalism can profane the very religious and ethical traditions it seeks, nominally speaking anyway, to protect and exalt.

A Jewish novelist I know from a family of “survivors” told me once that he considers Israel a bad advertisement for Judaism--- and a bad influence on it as well. At the time I thought his comment overly harsh, histrionic in fact. The more I see and hear however from rabbis like Steven Pruzansky, the less I am able to dismiss it entirely. I. F. Stone seems to have had it right back in "Holy War," his enduring 1967 piece in the New York Review of Books: “A certain moral imbecility marks all ethnocentric movements.”

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, Congregation Bnai Yeshurun

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