Answering the President’s Call

6 August 2015

The murders of a Palestinian baby by a firebomb and a sixteen-year-old girl who marched in the Jerusalem Pride parade appall us all. That includes Israel’s political leaders, who have condemned the violence in the strongest possible terms, across the polarized political spectrum.

We at the New Israel Fund, who are so frequently vilified for our explicit opposition to political and religious extremism, joined with thousands of perhaps less-predictable voices in horror and sorrow, and in urging Israel and its supporters worldwide to do better. We abhor all terror, and we worry about the spiral into a new round of violence.

President Reuven Rivlin, who has shown himself to be a true and courageous patriot, again spoke out against the extremism and violence that is overtaking some sectors of Israeli society. If you have not seen his comments, you must take a moment to do so now:

“We cannot continue to dismiss these flames, which are consuming the public in Israel, as an unfortunate set of coincidences. These flames, which are consuming all of us, cannot be extinguished with weak condemnations… A blatant disregard for the rule of law, for human dignity, for a love of mankind, for a love of Israel, and freedom of opinion, has spread within us and is wreaking havoc. An atmosphere has been created here that has allowed leniency toward what is naively called ‘weeds’. Every society has extremist fringes, but today we have to ask: what is it in the public atmosphere which allows extremism and extremists to walk in confidence, in broad daylight? What is it that has enabled these ‘weeds’ to threaten the safety of the entire garden of flowers?”

It pains me to say this, but part of the answer to Rivlin’s difficult question has to do with the manner in which some Israeli political leaders have exploited the divisions within Israeli society for political gain.

For years, we have told you about racist statements and incitement from many leaders of the current government and their political bedfellows. Prime Minister Netanyahu turned out his base on Election Day by frightening them with the specter of “Arab voters going to the polls in droves.” Education Minister Bennett has boasted of killing Arabs and boycotts liberal Israeli groups including NIF. Former Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks of stripping Arabs citizens of Israel of their rights, whether by subjecting them to a loyalty oath or by calling for their towns be transferred to Palestinian Authority control. Culture Minister Miri Regev compares African refugees to cancer and Deputy Interior Minister Yaron Mazuz told Arab MKs that Israel was doing them “a favor” by allowing these elected officials to sit in the Knesset.

These leaders and their allies have at the very least been irresponsible in promoting rhetoric of divisiveness and exclusion. At worst, they have contributed to an environment in which violence flourishes, and in which attacking the “other” is fair game.

This past week, President Rivlin was asked by law enforcement authorities to file a police report, so rabid were the attacks on him on social media for his defense of democracy and equality. (Let’s remind ourselves that the President was Speaker of the Knesset while representing the Likud party.) In addition to death threats, photos of the President himself, photoshopped to look like Hitler, were circulated online. It’s a sign of the times – or maybe of the pressure that the extremists feel – that NIF was also threatened, now with physical violence, and we have taken steps to secure our offices in Israel.

Lack of political will in the face of vigilantism and violence is not, of course, an exclusively Israeli condition. Here in the United States, mass shootings have become an almost regular part of the evening news. We have leaders who express horror and remorse after every shooting, but who do everything in their power to ensure that no meaningful gun reform sees the light of day. These shootings do not appear out of thin air. They are, in part, the outcome of our political leaders’ failure to overcome an all too powerful gun lobby.

We can hope that the deaths of Ali Dawabsha and Shira Banki will not be in vain, that they will caution Israel’s leaders to take responsibility for rebuilding a society of comity and decency. But we must do more than hope. We must continue to empower those who challenge hatred and violence, who insist that Israel do better, and who works towards restoring an Israel that we all can believe in.