Friday, August 14, 2015

Extremism: Sacred and Secular Approaches to Prevention

This post argues for both religious and secular approaches to preventing extremism. I am writing this against the backdrop of two incidents of Jewish violent extremism. In recent days a Palestinian home was firebombed: an 18-month-old Palestinian baby Ali Dawabsheh and his father were killed. Shira Banki, a 16 year old girl, who attended a gay pride parade in Jerusalem in support of social justice was stabbed and murdered by a man clearly identifiable as a devout religious Jew.

One response to this is that we need face up to “the contradiction of trying to live in the progressive modern world with a set of rules created by religious-political leaders thousands of years ago… we see rabbis trying to make the Torah fit a modern world. It just doesn't. It can't (1)” In this week’s Torah reading we have references to the Jewish people being the “chosen ones…out of all the nations that are upon the earth (2)”, disobedience of God’s law is equated with “the curse (3)”, and a command to “utterly destroy all the places where the nations, that you shall possess, worshipped their gods (4)”. 

Yesterday I spoke about Torah and tolerance to a group of teachers at my children’s school. I noted that the same religious books that the extremists use to justify their deplorable views and evil actions are read by many other people who reach completely different conclusions. 

Why do so many people reject the hateful conclusions that these texts in Judaism or in other faiths ostensibly call for? As I listened to prominent counter terrorism scholar, Boaz Ganor, at the 2015 Shalom College Graf Oration recently, it occurred to me that this question might not be a focus for leaders who ponder extremism.  In an Op-Ed in the Australian Jewish News (5) I quoted Professor Ganor assertion that counter-terrorism is essentially about ensuring that people who might commit a terrorist act, have neither the capability nor the motivation to do so. Yet, in an hour's presentation, Ganor, offered little more than one sentence on how to prevent the motivation for extremist violence.

I argued in my Op-Ed, that the absence of a clear direction to prevent this motivation for extremism, in Ganor’s talk confirms what I have learned working in this field. Ghaith Krayem, the current president of the Islamic Council of Victoria, was in the process of preparing a strategic plan for countering violent extremism when he confided in me that his discussions with academics had turned up little empirical data to guide communities in this task.

My conversations with Muslim religious leaders and youth, and my grappling with my own faith, suggest to me that there are religious solutions to the multi-faceted problem of extremism (which is not to suggest that extremism is simply a religious problem, it is not).

One approach is to examine texts that some claim legitimises violent extremism and consider the (multiple (6) ways that these have been understood traditionally. What are traditional approaches to interpretation of text and law? Ignorance of methodology of interpretation makes a person, with other social factors at play, vulnerable to being easily led (7).

A second approach is not just to look at one verse whose interpretation is being argued about but to consider it in the context of other relevant texts.  Discrimination in Judaism cannot be considered without the emphatic and repetitive calls not to mistreat the stranger (8).  

A third is to look at the motivations to do the right thing. One surprising motivation I heard from Muslim teenage boys was their fear of their mothers. Muslim leader Maha Abdo, told me that “there are only two factors these boys fear, God and their mothers (9)”. Judaism also demands fear of one’s mother, but western influences or ego seems to have dulled this for many young Jews, but it is apparently less so for the young Muslim I spoke to. Is the influence of mothers being considered by policy makers? My conversation with the NSW attorney general in Bondi last night confirmed that she was a surprised as I was about this phenomenon. 

In a Jewish context, I argued to the teachers at my children’s school I spoke to, for a role for secular knowledge and mores. I told them that this does not contradict the Torah. In fact the opposite is true. One verse in our reading calls the Jew to do “what is good and proper in the eyes of the Lord, your God (10)”. “Good” is interpreted as that which is objectively (11) good in the eyes of God, while “Proper” is defined subjectively, by the “eyes of man (12)”. This surprising traditional interpretation suggests that what is good in the “eyes of God”, (the words at the end of our verse), must include accountability to human (13) notions of ethics. If humans deem bigotry against Palestinians or gays as repugnant then God doesn’t approve of it either. 

A synthesis of religious and secular wisdom might be the best protection against hate and extremism.

1)    Facebook post by David Langsam, on 5/8/2015
2)    Deuteronomy 14:2
3)    Deuteronomy 11:28
4)    Deuteronomy 12:2
5)    Australian Jewish News 07.08.2015
6)    I use the word multiple to refer to the diversity of interpretations within Jewish tradition which states that there are 70 faces in the Torah, I cannot speak for other faiths
7)    Conversation with Sheikh Ahmed Abdo at Sydney University 5.08.2015
8)    Exodus 22:20, and Exodus 23:9, this translation is from There are traditional sources that interpret the Hebrew word Ger,  גרwhich literally means stranger, as convert and focus their commentary on the particular situation of a convert, the commentary cited above relates as much to a newcomer to a religious community as it would to any marginalised person.  One beautiful thing I learned from my son’s teacher Rabbi Benji Simons after my talk, is the etymological roots of the word Ger גר , is גור, “Gur” which means fear. This is an allusion to the fear the stranger might experience without their previous networks that now make them more vulnerable in their new country. Alternatively the fear is xenophobia on the part of the locals.
9)    Conversation with Mrs. Maha Abdo at Bass Hill, 12.08.2015
10)    Deuteronomy 12:28
11)    Gur Arye, super-commentary on Rashi on Deuteronomy 12:28, explaining why Good is related to God’s perspective while straight or proper is linked to human perspectives
12)    Sifre, quoted in Rashi on Deuteronomy 12:28
13)    Yeriot Shlomo, super-commentary on Rashi on Deuteronomy 12:28, citing Pesikta for this parsha (Reay), Sifri and Yalkut


  1. nice post.

    perhaps a rule of thumb for the religious: if secular society thinks it's good/right, not necessarily so in G-ds mind, so can avoid it . On the other hand, if secular world thinks something is bad/evil, mostly likely it's perceived as such by G-d as well, and should not be done.


    1. thank you Tzvi, your comment fits really well with the way I am reading Gur Aryeh who talks about , מעוות"crookedness" which can be seen by people and should be avoided, one does not need religion to point those out and not every scenario will be articulated in religious text.