JERUSALEM — The police questioning of two prominent rabbis over their endorsement of a controversial book that authorities claim condones killing Arabs and other non-Jews is pushing the debate over whether Israel should be ruled as a religious state or as a secular one to the fore once again.
Thousands of the rabbis' backers have demonstrated nightly since Thursday, after Israeli police detained the first of the rabbis for questioning about his support for the controversial text, "The King's Torah." A second rabbi was taken into custody over the weekend. Both have been released while authorities determine whether they can be charged with a crime.
The author of the book is an obscure West Bank rabbi, but the support of high-profile clerics has lent it credibility and popularity with many of Israel's Jewish factions, particularly the country's ultra-Orthodox.
Police said they'd questioned prominent clerics Yaacov Yosef and Dov Lior as part of a larger investigation into whether the book is an illegal incitement to violence. Israeli security officials said Jewish settlers could use the book as justification for "price tag" or retributive attacks on Palestinians. The book argues that killing non-Jews, including women and children, is acceptable as part of a religious war.
Whether that constitutes a violation of Israeli law is hotly debated. Israel prohibits "publishing incitement to an act of violence or terrorism, or praise of, support of or encouragement of an act of violence or terrorism," but it limits the infraction to cases in which the publication creates a "viable possibility of causing violence or an act of terrorism."
The issue is further complicated because the author lives in the West Bank, where military law prohibiting incitement often is applied. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel has said repeatedly that rabbis in Israel aren't prosecuted for incitement to the same degree as Palestinians.
The two rabbis refused to answer a police summons for questioning, instead saying that rabbis should be permitted to pursue their religious work without hindrance and censorship by the state.
Lior was stopped at a West Bank checkpoint last week and detained for several hours as police questioned him about his support of the book. Yosef was taken into custody over the weekend.
"It is a witch hunt by the State of Israel against the devout," said Rivka Navah, a 21-year-old who was among the few female protesters last week during a demonstration in Mea Sharim, Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox enclave. Wearing a long black skirt and sweater despite the summer temperatures, she'd taped a piece of paper across her mouth that read, "The state wants to silence the righteous."
Lior defended his support of "The King's Torah" at the rally of several hundred people, saying his job was to "guide and instruct" the public.
"Israel's rabbis must express their views without fearing that some may not like it. The source of Israel's power is its spiritual basis," he said.
Police gave wide berth to the protesters, but the hostility between the rabbis' supporters and the police was obvious. Several male protesters spat at the floor in the police's direction.
"This is the kind of disrespect we see from them. It starts here, but it shows they have no respect for the police — for the rule of law — at all," said Shlomi Mazoch, a 35-year-old police officer.
Police said they'd transferred their files on the rabbis to the state prosecution office, where there'd be a review of whether they'd been responsible for incitement.
"Nobody is above the law, and I demand that every Israeli citizen respect the law," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in response to the protests.
The mood among the Israeli public has been divided. While some have derided the protesters as trying to return the country to biblical law, others have pointed out that religious, or observant, Jews are a growing population group and they should be allowed to follow the rulings and authority of their own leaders.
Writing in the Hebrew daily newspaper Maariv, popular columnist Ben Caspit said, "The arrest of Rabbi Dov Lior yesterday was an event whose importance was far greater than the sum total of its demonstrators. It was another stage in the war that is being waged by the state, the sovereign State of Israel, a law-abiding and law-enforcing country, against the people who want to replace it with a Torah state."
The Torah, or the Pentateuch, is the religious text that observant Jews follow.
"More and more people believe that the rabbi takes precedence over the commander, that the Torah sages take precedence over the Knesset and the government, and that instead of training for the next war, we need to pray more intensely and to hope for a miracle," Caspit wrote.
Also in Maariv, Rabbi Haim Druckman wrote a defense of the rabbis, saying that secular Israelis supported discriminating against the religious population.
"There is a very large religious sector in Israel that feels that it has been offended, that it has been trampled underfoot" because of the rabbis' questioning, he wrote.
The conservative news organization Arutz Sheva said the questioning of the rabbis was a "sacrilege" that couldn't be ignored.
In an editorial, Arutz Sheva outlined the rabbis' position as that of "religious sages," and likened their support of the "The King's Torah" to that of any education text.
"Rabbi Dov Lior is not only a Torah giant. He is a genuine hero, standing up for the rights of the Jewish people in their land, being able to live according to Torah," the editorial said.
(Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent.)
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