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Wednesday, 5 October 2011

1.2 – The Religious Justifications Provided by Jewish Extremists: Do They Stand up to Scrutiny?

This article provides an overview of the religious concepts that are most frequently referred to by Jewish extremists as the driving force and justification for their actions. They are remarkably similar to those verbalised by Islamic and Christian terrorists (articles to follow), and provide the key characteristics of radical Jewish ideology.

No high-profile Rabbi or major Jewish figure has claimed to support terrorism in any form but the general rabbinical consensus agrees that Judaism does permit war or aggression in certain circumstances. Jewish militants cast their actions in undeniably religious terms by referring to religious concepts and historical examples to provide divine legitimacy for their behaviour. Like their Islamic counterparts, Jewish extremists seek rabbinical approval and sanctioning before they commit violent behaviour, which further supports the notion that religiosity and terrorism are compatible and divine sanctioning is of key importance. The religious concepts frequently referred by Jewish terrorists are addressed below, including discussion on cosmic war, just war, self defence, and Halacha (Jewish religious law). Like in Christian and Islamic doctrine, the concepts are presented as having a symbiotic relationship with faith.

Cosmic War
Radical Jews believe they are ‘enmeshed in a continual struggle against an inherently anti-Semitic world, surrounded by hate-mongers and closet anti-Semites in the United States and predatory, bloodthirsty Arabs both inside and circling Israel.’[1] This state of warfare has its roots in Jewish history, and contemporary Jews claim that Arabs in the modern era ‘are simply the modern-day descendants of enemies of Israel described in the Bible for whom God has unleashed wars of revenge’.[2] Cosmic warfare is a notion proposed by terrorist groups of all Abrahamic faiths, (and in most militant religious sects of other faiths), and one which sets the stage for religiously-motivated conflict. A dichotomous worldview defines cosmic war and reinforces the division between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Such a stark perception allows for no middle-ground, and demands that individuals must align themselves with the forces of good, in the name of their faith, or evil, which attempts to bring religion into disrepute and marginalise its authority. Once allegiance has been pledged it becomes a religious imperative to actively fight for religious purification and supremacy.

Just War
The rabbis distinguished religious war from optional war. The former was based on a moral or spiritual obligation to protect the faith or defeat God’s enemies, whereas the latter was waged for reasons of political expediency.’[3] The concept of just war is the foundation and legitimisation for terrorist violence for all three religions.  They believe they are fighting a battle between good and evil in a spiritual sense, but it appears that the logic is transferable whether referring to traditional or cosmic warfare. One rabbi explained: ‘The Arabs around us in Israel want to kill us…we are at war whether it is official or not.’[4] This understanding not only aligns secular and spiritual conflict, but provides justification for violence in both instances. The notion of just war is embedded in the Holy Scriptures, which provides the perpetrators with legitimacy as they claim to be acting in accordance with God’s wishes.

Self Defence
Similarly to Christian and Islamic doctrines, self-defence is considered the primary justification for violence within Jewish thought, and (religious) terrorists define their actions in terms of it. One rabbi claimed, ‘one has the right to use violence in order to protect another person or persons, and therefore violence in this instance protects the Jewish people…violence is permissible within Judaism, first and foremost for self-defence’.[5] Within an extremist worldview, Judaism is involved in a cosmic struggle between the forces of good and evil, and this state of warfare becomes the justification for violence committed by Jews, even when they might not appear to be in direct retaliation. Extremists believe Judaism must battle the advancing tide of anti-Semitism and the encircling Arab forces, while during the conflict; any (terrorist) violence is permitted to defend the faith.

Halacha (Jewish Law)
The Talmudic concept of din rodef refers to an ancient mandate of Halacha, derived from Exodus 22:1 – ‘if a thief found breaking in, and be smitten so that he dieth, there shall be no blood guiltiness for him’. This advocates violence in situation of self-defence, and when defending the lives of others. The Halacha of rodef was employed by Yigal Amir as justification for assassinating President Rabin: ‘According to the Halacha, you can kill the enemy’, Amir said. ‘My whole life, I learned Halacha. When you kill in war, it is an act that is allowed’. Amir perceived Rabin to be an enemy actor in the cosmic war – a ‘murderer and a traitor’[6] – due to his involvement in the Arab-Israeli peace process. He believed Rabin had betrayed the Jewish people by compromising Israel’s security and plunging its boundaries into jeopardy and believed it was his religious duty to stop him in order to save the nation. A major religious principle within Judaism is to save life, and Amir argued in accordance with Halacha, that Rabin was a rodef (aggressive pursuer), and by assassinating him he was saving the lives of countless Jews who would have perished under the conditions of a peace settlement. Within Jewish law, treason and murder and punishable by death, and killing a murderer is acceptable if it stops further slaughter.

Rabbi Meir Kahane advocated Amir’s actions and also referred to religious law, claiming that it was Israel’s refusal to use it that condemned the Jews to suffer. ‘It is precisely our refusal to deal with the Arabs according to halakhic obligation that will bring down on our heads terrible suffering.’[7] Amir and Kahane use religion to explain and provide justification for the violence, and urged stringent and uncompromising religious adherence to rectify the problems facing the Jews.

Despite such religious references, there is still debate as to whether politics or nationalism may play a larger role than religious faith, in the make-up of radical Jewish ideology. The next article will discuss the question of whether 'Jewish' terrorism is in fact politically motivated. 

[1] Hoffman (2006), p. 97
[2] Juergensmeyer (2003), p. 156
[3] Madawi & Marat (2008), p. 156
[4] Al-Khattor (2003), p. 53
[5] Ibid, p. 48
[6] Al-Khattor (2003), p. 51
[7] Kahane (1981), p. 272


  1. Hello Sarah, your write up has been helpful in my PhD proposal. keep it up

  2. Hi Emeka, glad it has been useful. Thanks for reading