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Reviewed by:
  • Jews and Violence: Images, Ideologies, and Realities
  • Warren Rosenberg
Jews and Violence: Images, Ideologies, and Realities. Studies in Contemporary Jewry: An Annual, XVIII, edited by Peter Y. Medding. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. 328 pp. $55.00.

In Steven Spielberg's film Munich, Robert, a Jewish bomb maker, confronts Avner, the leader of a group of Israelis chosen to assassinate the Palestinians supposedly responsible for planning the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. "All this blood comes back to us," he tells Avner. "We're Jews, we're [End Page 194] supposed to be righteous. I lose that, I lose everything." For Israelis, then, and by extension for all Jews, the question of violence is anything but academic; it goes to the core of Jewish identity. So a symposium on violence supported by the Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University demands our attention. In eleven invited essays, scholars, nine of whom teach at Israeli universities, look at Jews and violence in various contexts—historical, political, religious, and cultural. Most of the essays are informative and thoughtful, yet there are clear limits to the range of perspectives offered. As the editor points out, his office sits "less than 50 yards" from the 2002 cafeteria bombing at Hebrew University that killed nine Israelis and Americans. The collection as a whole both gains and suffers from that proximity.

Through the Israeli perspective the reader gains an understanding of the problem violence has posed for the idea of a Jewish state since the earliest years of the Zionist movement. The essays by Blidstein, Holzer, Cromer, and Friedman all treat the tensions that exist among a people that hold non-violence as a defining religious-ethical principle but who inhabit a nation-state that seemingly must use violence to create and maintain itself. Only those steeped in the reality of Israeli life and history can fully understand this ongoing internal and external conflict over the uses of violence. Elie Holzer's essay "The Use of Military Force in the Religious Zionist Ideology of Rabbi Yitzhak Ya'akov Reines and His Successors" is particularly important in tracing the differences between the influential teachings of Rabbi Kook, who saw violence as acceptable in the creation of a Jewish state, and the position of Rabbi Reines, who argued for the midrashic view that "Sword and Book that came down from heaven intertwined . . . cannot possibly rule in tandem" (p. 76).

Menachem Friedman's essay, "Haredi Violence in Contemporary Israeli Society," interestingly analyzes the current view of violence among Israel's increasingly influential Orthodox community, showing the same kind of internal contradictions that Holzer traced historically. Friedman quotes Moshe Sheinfeld, a haredi leader, who sees violence as "not intrinsically Jewish" and a result of the influence of modern secular society (p. 187). Friedman argues that this is not the case, that violence is an intrinsic part of the tradition going back to Pinhas the zealot in the Tanakh, which is the model for maintaining the tradition of killing religious transgressors. However, Friedman focuses on the "ambivalence" in the tradition as well. The Torah commentators always attempted to place great restraints on the use of violence. He concludes with a pessimistic prediction of the level of haredi support for violence based on deteriorating socioeconomic conditions for young haredim and on the influence on them of Islamic and Christian fundamentalist violence, as well as the Kahanist Kach movements. [End Page 195]

The negative effect of this collection's primarily Israeli and male orientation (only one essayist is female) is a defensive tone, only a fleeting regard for gender's relationship to violence, and an absence of a Palestinian perspective, either as instigator or recipient of Jewish violence. A problematic note is struck in the volume's preface where Medding, the editor, characterizes the centuries old "image (if not the myth) of the Jew as timid and passive, as unable or unwilling to use force or resort to arms—even in self-defense" as "negative" and "in itself, a form of violence against them" (p. vii). While this one-sided view is challenged in the two essays noted above, and to some extent in Rosenak...


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