American Jewish leaders accused of Silence in the face of growing Racism in Israel

Israel’s Feb. 10 election saw the rise of Avignor Lieberman’s extreme right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party. As Newsweek described it: “…the big winner turned out to be ultranationalist Avignor Lieberman, who considers Israel’s Arabs a dangerous fifth column and favors separating Arab and Jewish populations. Doves dismiss his plans as racist, but according to one recent poll, a solid majority of Israelis–60 percent–now favor ‘encouraging’ Arabs to leave the country.”

Several days before Israelis went to the polls, according to the Feb. 27 issue of The Forward, Harvard University mathematician Dennis Gaitsgory “called his friend Josh Tenenbaum, a professor at M.I.T., and told him he could not sleep at night. The thought of Lieberman becoming Israel’s kingmaker drove the two Jewish academics to launch a petition calling directly on Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni, head of Kadima, not to include Lieberman in a governing coalition…’We respect the right of Israeli citizens to elect their own political leaders. Yet as supporters of a democratic state, we cannot remain silent at a crucial time,’ read the petition, signed by more than 400 people as of Feb. 18. ‘We remember well how democracies in the 20th century were brought down by anti-democratic leaders who came to power through popular elections.'”

Reported The Forward: “To the petitioners’ surprise, major Jewish organizations were reluctant to take on the issue. ‘They said it is not part of their mission,’ Tenenbaum said…The two professors learned quickly that they had stumbled on a sensitive issue of the American Jewish community in its relations with the state of Israel: the fear of being perceived as meddling in internal Israeli politics. In the days following Israel’s elections, there has been a growing sense of unease within the Jewish community, as organizational leaders have tried to navigate between an apologetic approach to Lieberman and his position and mild expressions of concern…”

Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, notes that, “This is one of those things that drives home two competing truths–one, that Israelis have the right to choose whoever they want, and the other, that we can say that it is outside the agreed views of American Jews.”

Thus far, the most prominent leader to speak out is Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Writing in the same issue of The Forward, he called Yisrael Beitenu’s campaign “an outrageous, abominable, hate-filled campaign, brimming with incitement that, if left unchecked, could lead Israel to the gates of hell.”

Yoffie declared: “The apologists and the excuse-makers in the American Jewish community have begun their work. No need for concern, they say, Avigdor Lieberman…is not really an extremist…he is basically a mainstream politician who poses no threat to U.S.-Israel relations or to relations between Israel and American Jews. But the apologists are wrong. Lieberman’s views are anathema to the overwhelming majority of American Jews…His intention was to inflame hatred of Arab Israelis among the Jewish Israeli public…American Jews–the vast majority of whom are strong supporters of Israel as both a Jewish and a democratic state–are dismayed by Lieberman, mostly because he represents values we abhor.”

Beyond this, stated Yoffie, “American Jewish leaders, too, face a significant test. For all those who claim to speak and lobby on our behalf, who fight anti-Semitism whenever it appears, and who champion Jewish rights everywhere, this is a moment of truth. If we are silent or speak the language of equivocation we will weaken rather than strengthen Israel’s cause. We will also undermine our credibility with our government and with American Jews who are looking to us for leadership. We do not make excuses for the haters, the bigots and the demagogues who incite against Jews and other minorities around the world, and we must not make excuses when the inciter is one of our own.”

Whose Israel?

In a Feb. 24 Washington Post column entitled “Whose Israel Shall It Be?” (see “Other Voices” supplement), Richard Cohen wrote: “The day after the U.N. created the state of Israel, the country’s first president, Chaim Weizmann…issued a warning to the Israeli leaders of today: ‘I am certain that the world will judge the Jewish state by what it will do with the Arabs.’ It was Nov. 30, 1947…Peering into the future, he glimpsed the ugly turn Israeli politics has recently taken and how it is now acceptable to talk in repulsive ways about the country’s 1.3 million Arabs. ‘There must not be one law for the Jew and another for the Arabs,’ he wrote.”

Discussing the horrors of the 20th century, culminating in the Holocaust, Cohen noted that, “Israel, too, engaged in some ethnic cleansing–or why else all those Palestinian refugees? But the attempt was both chaotic and, as we can see, not wholly successful. More important, the concept was anathema to important members of the Zionist establishment such as Weizmann. The way of the world–eliminating ethnic minorities–would not be practiced by the very ethnic minority that had suffered the most…Lieberman’s rhetoric has excited some concern in the American Jewish community, but, as usual, most of the leaders are mum.”

Many individual Jewish voices have spoken out against racism in Israel, however. Even The New Republic’s Martin Peretz, a long-time Zionist, calls Lieberman a “neo-fascist…a certified gangster…the Israeli equivelant of [Austria’s] Jorg Haider.”

Anne Roiphe, writing in the March 16 Jerusalem Report, stated that, “I couldn’t feel worse. I feel as if my spouse had cheated on me with Mussolini…Jews should know that stirring up hatred, group against group, is always bad…There is nothing normal about a state that cannot tolerate a minority within its borders and treat them as it would have wished its people to have been treated in the centuries of Diaspora life. I would call it pathological that Israel is listening to leaders who don’t understand that the entire West Bank cannot belong to Israel without making it a pariah nation, without violating the spirit of the Torah, and the sacred memory of the Jewish people…Under the present conditions, it is vitally important that American Jews, liberal, decent, democratic, continue to play a major role. We may have to be the ones to carry the Jewish nation forward, in all its intelligent moral purposes.”

The organized Jewish community, however, takes a far different position. Alan Solow, the new chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said in a Feb. 15 press conference in Jerusalem that American Jewish leaders should not interfere in Israel’s coalition-forming process. Steve Gutow, executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said Lieberman’s presence in an Israeli government “does not create an automatic problem.”

M.I.T. Professor Tenenbaum disagrees. He states: “Democracy and human rights are a sacred value for us as Jews. It is deep in our psyche.” Support for Israel, he added, is based on the fundamental notion that Israelis are “like us.”

In his important new book, The Holocaust Is Over, We Must Rise From Its Ashes, Avraham Burg, former speaker of the Israeli Knesset, discusses Israel’s growing anti-Arab racism and laments the silence of the organized American Jewish community.

While the Palestinians had nothing to do with the Holocaust, in a strange reversal of history, they have had to pay a severe price for it. In the minds of many Israelis, Burg writes, “…we will never forgive the Arabs, for they are allegedly just like the Nazis, worse than the Germans. We have displaced our anger and revenge from one people to another, from an old foe to a new adversary, and so we allow ourselves to live comfortably with the heirs of the German enemy–representing convenience, wealth and high quality–while treating Palestinians as whipping boys to release our aggression, anger and hysteria, of which we have plenty.”

Burg recalls a talk he had with a member of the Border Police, who was Druze. He told Burg, “We, the Border Police, are not Jews, you know. We are Druze. We guarded the tomb and the yeshiva [at Hebron]. The students are not religious like you, but like the others, with the big yarmulkes and threads hanging outside their shirts. They were inside and we were outside. All day we heard them studying, and in the evening we escorted them and their rabbi back home to their settlement. We heard them talking. And what did they say? That the blood of the goyim is not like the blood of the Jews, and that Arabs are like beasts…Our blood is only good enough to guard them and to die for them. That is, like a watchdog.”

An example of the kind of extremism which is growing in the West Bank and elsewhere in Israel, Burg reports, is Rabbi Yitzhak Ginzburg. Born in the U.S., he studied mathematics and philosophy, then embraced an ultra-Orthodox religious worldview and emigrated to Israel. He once called for the boycott of all Arab goods and was active in publishing the book memorializing Baruch Goldstein, the Brooklyn-born physician who in 1994 massacred 29 Arabs at prayer in the Cave of the Patriarchs.

Exclusivity vs. Inclusiveness

“From the first days of our patriarchs,” writes Burg, “two trends rose in Jewish history: exclusivity and inclusiveness. The exclusivists separated themselves from the world and detested the gentiles’ being and inputs; the inclusivists were open to adopt positive spirits and ideas from other cultures…Our forefathers never succeeded in erasing the significance of the gentiles in our lives. Judah, the patriarch of the House of David, was the first Israelite to have a mixed marriage outside the patriarchal family. He married ‘a daughter of a Canaanite man, whose name is Shuam…’ Ruth the Moabite slept overnight at the feet of the Israelite farmer Boaz, who later married her according to Jewish custom. The couple created a lineage from which David, the king of Israel, was born, starting a royal dynasty…This is the weave that produced us. On the one hand, exclusivity; on the other, universalism. Jews and gentiles created the historic Jewish identity.”

The words of Jewish self-segregation in the world begin with the believer’s personal wake-up prayer, which includes the line, “Blessed are you, our God, king of the universe, for not having made me a gentile.” The line drawn between Jews and non-Jews in sacred literature is widespread. This is something of which few contemporary Jews–particularly American Jews–are aware. Rabbi Yehuda Liwa ben Bezalel, known as the HaMaharal of Prague, for example, draws a precise line between a Jew and a non-Jew: “It is written that this nation is holy, that it tends toward God, for it is the beginning of all nations.” In another place he interprets the universalistic, humanistic phrase, “Favorite is Man for being created in his image” as excluding non-Jews. Although it says man, it does not include all: “The stage of Israel in relation to the nations is as the stage of the nations in relation to the non-speaking animals.”

Sadly, in Burg’s view, the racism suffered by Jews has not caused a revulsion to all such forms of separation and discrimination, but has reinforced a Jewish variety of exclusivity. American Jewish organizations, which proclaim that Israel is “central” to their identity, which ignore rising racism in Israel, and which engage in the political arena largely on behalf of Middle East policy are, Burg notes, unrepresentative of the vast majority of American Jews in whose names they speak.

Burg declares: “It seems that instinctively millions of Jews understand that a White House that is good for Israel should not do everything Israel requests, but rather do what Israel needs. Furthermore, an ordinary Jew…wants his children to grow in a healthy society. He would rather integrate into a multicultural society and look forward to the future than linger, holding on to the past. American Jews seek solutions both as members of the Jewish faith and as partners in the building of the American nation. The one-issue strategy does not address these goals as it deals with Israel and nothing else. Yet every time a strategic reevaluation concerning Israel is called for, the silencing voices are heard: Shoah, pogroms, self-hating Jews. Again anti-Semitism, swastikas, and Hitler decide the debate on Jewish identity and an opportunity for dialogue dies before it often begins.”

Avraham Burg urges an open Judaism, one which shares a common fate and values with others. He wants Jews–in Israel, the U.S. and throughout the world–to confront the injustices done in their name to the Palestinian people. The rise of racism in today’s Israel and the silence of America’s organized Jewish community does not represent the views of the vast majority of American Jews–an often ignored silent majority. It is time that their voice be heard.