JERUSALEM – A small group of extremist Israeli rabbis who for years have made incendiary remarks against Arabs are drawing criticism from lawmakers and moderate religious leaders after authorities broke up a ring of Jewish extremists accused in a series of attacks on Palestinian and Christian targets.
These fringe rabbis, mainly affiliated with the settler movement in the West Bank, are blamed for nurturing a venomous atmosphere that led to the killing of three Palestinians in a July firebombing. Critics say their rhetoric must be restrained to prevent more youths from further radicalization.
Israel this week issued indictments against two Jewish extremists in the case of the West Bank arson in July that killed 18-month-old Ali Dawabsheh and his parents, Riham and Saad, and seriously wounded his brother, Ahmad, who was 4 at the time.
The firebombing prompted soul-searching among Israelis and was condemned across the political spectrum. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged "zero tolerance" in the fight to bring the assailants to justice.
In the days leading up to the indictments, Israeli media exposed another jarring scene: a video from a wedding party that appeared to show a frenzied crowd of the arsonists' sympathizers brandishing military-issued rifles, holding a mock firebomb and stabbing a photo of Ali Dawabsheh.
The video caused a public uproar and put a spotlight on radical rabbis accused of firing up young extremists.
"When we see a handful of rabbis succeeding to turn a handful of youth ... into terrorists ... it means something here is not right and needs to be fixed," opposition lawmaker Karin Elharrar said at a recent hearing about the rabbis.
Last month, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon called for certain rabbis to be investigated, and some moderates have distanced themselves from the radicals. In an interview Wednesday on the Times of Israel website, Education Minister Naftali Bennett said Israel was now "looking at" the role of one or two rabbis in radicalizing youth. Bennett, whose Jewish Home party is closely linked to the settler movement, did not elaborate.
Controversial rabbis have long mixed religion and politics. Today's West Bank settler movement was inspired by the teachings of Rabbi Avraham Kook and his son, Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Kook, who viewed Israel's capture of lands in the 1967 Mideast war as a step toward the messiah's arrival.
Hard-line rabbis are accused of spouting incitement against Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin before his assassination in 1995. Critics have pointed in particular to a letter that three rabbis wrote the previous year to a group of religious scholars suggesting that Rabin and his government — because of its peace deals with the Palestinians — were guilty of traitorous acts that under Jewish law could theoretically be punishable by death. His killer, Yigal Amir, said he was inspired by Jewish law.
Israel has taken steps against radical rabbis, including banning the anti-Arab political party of U.S.-born Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was later killed in New York by an Arab assailant in 1990. But the current crop of radical rabbis, who say they do not condone violence, has so far eluded punishment.
Netanyahu has repeatedly accused Palestinian religious leaders of inciting a four-month wave of violence. Video on Palestinian social media has shown Muslim clerics giving incendiary sermons, praising the killings of Jews. In November, Israel banned the northern branch of the country's Islamic Movement, accusing it of incitement
But Netanyahu has said little about the radical rabbis. His spokesman declined to comment.
"The King's Torah," a 2009 book by firebrand rabbis Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur, is perhaps one of the most provocative texts.
It quotes religious sages as permitting, under certain conditions, the killing of non-Jews, including babies, "if there is a good chance they will grow up to be like their evil parents." The book says "thou shalt not murder" does not necessarily apply to non-Jewish victims.
Its authors have said it is meant to be seen as religious theory and not a guidebook. The book has been endorsed by other rabbis, among them Rabbi Dov Lior, a longtime symbol of religious and nationalist extremism, and U.S.-born Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, who heads a yeshiva in the hard-line West Bank settlement of Yitzhar.
Critics blame Ginsburgh's writings — including a pamphlet that praises Baruch Goldstein, a settler who killed 29 Muslim worshippers at a West Bank shrine in 1994 — for fueling the attacks by extremist Jews against Palestinian property, mosques and churches.
Lior has unleashed vitriol against Arabs, repeatedly calling for Israel to be cleansed of what he calls the "camel riders." Ginsburgh has referred to Arabs as a "cancer," a remark that led to him being charged with incitement, but never convicted.
Lior's office declined comment, while Ginsburgh did not respond to interview requests by The Associated Press.
In recent years, Israeli authorities have detained at least four rabbis on suspicion of incitement but released them within hours. The attorney general determined in 2012 there was insufficient evidence to charge the authors of "The King's Torah," a decision upheld by the Supreme Court.
Hard-line settlers say the rabbis have become scapegoats. They blame Israel's policies and say the failure to take a tougher line against the Palestinians and allow even more unrestricted settlement growth is pushing some young Jews to extremism.
The suspects in the West Bank arson are part of the so-called "hilltop youth," a loosely organized group of young people who set up unauthorized outposts on West Bank hilltops — land the Palestinians claim for their hoped-for state.
The Shin Bet says the hilltop youth are extremists who view God, not Israeli law, as sovereign and share a messianic ideology with some rabbis bent on installing a Jewish monarchy in Israel. This ideology also espouses the expulsion of non-Jews from the Holy Land.
As the young settlers ratcheted up their assaults, some rabbis have tempered their statements. Shortly after the West Bank arson, Ginsburgh called for peaceful action from his followers.
"There is no room for violent activities of individuals. As a rule, a strong and forceful response against Israel's enemies is the job of the security forces," he wrote in his August newsletter.
Critics say that doesn't absolve them of past remarks.
"You don't get to backtrack out of these kinds of statements and just get away with it," said Noa Sattath, head of the Israel Religious Action Center, a progressive Jewish group advocating against rabbinical incitement.
Experts say it may not matter because the rogue Israeli youth have adopted an ideology that now goes far beyond that of the religious leaders.
"Even the extremist rabbis have lost control of the most extreme youth," said Dvir Kariv, a former Shin Bet official.