Condemnations Are No Longer Enough

6 August 2015

Israel’s leaders have lined up over the past week to condemn the two terror attacks undertaken by extremist Jews. The first attack targeted marchers in the Jerusalem Gay Pride Parade and left a 16-year-old girl dead. The second attack, firebombs targeting homes in a West Bank village, killed an 18-month-old Palestinian baby, whose older brother and parents remain hospitalized.

At first, it’s reassuring to hear condemnations from Prime Minister Netanyahu and his allies. Israel’s leaders did not mince words or pull punches. Here’s what Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the hard-right Jewish Home party, had to say: “Violence begins when we don’t know how to accept the other because he is different. The other can be a gay person, or a lesbian, or a religious person, or secular or charedi, or an Arab. … The Bible commands ‘thou shall not kill,’ not simply ‘thou shall not kill Jews.’ We must never tolerate a discourse that leaves the impression that it is permissible.”

It’s a great statement. It says it all. The problem is I’ve also heard what he and his political allies have said on other days, over the course of years. Their past actions are the context for today’s condemnations. And this context should give us all cause to worry.

The reality is that Israel’s internal divisions are often exploited by political leaders. This tactic may help them win elections, but it has also created a discourse that is permeated by racism and bigotry and which, terrifyingly, ends up making this type of violence more likely.

Let me give you a few examples:

With his polling numbers declining, Prime Minister Netanyahu famously warned Likud voters on Election Day that “Arab voters are coming in droves to the ballot boxes” — in order to strengthen his turnout. His last coalition collapsed in part over his refusal to guarantee equality to non-Jewish Israeli citizens in the draft Basic Law that would redefine Israel as “the Nation-State of the Jewish People.”

The prime minister also repeatedly rejected law enforcement requests to apply the same tools used against Palestinian terrorists to try to stop the so-called “price-tag” attacks, in which radical Jewish settlers attack Palestinians, Christian institutions, and even the IDF. Devastatingly, police assume the arson in which the Palestinian baby was killed to have been just such a “price-tag” attack.

Bennett might have quoted the Ten Commandments’ prohibition on killing, but that didn’t stop him from proposing that suspected Palestinian terrorists be killed after capture rather than imprisoned. In his words, “if you capture terrorists, you simply have to kill them.” When Israel’s national security adviser protested that this idea was illegal, Bennett responded: “I’ve already killed lots of Arabs in my life, and there is absolutely no problem with that.”

Moreover, Bennett’s strong words of support for gay rights last week are inconsistent with the actions of his party’s Knesset members, one of whom boasted on the campaign trail last winter of being a “proud homophobe.” This currently serving MK also organized an “Abomination Parade” of donkeys and pigs as a counter-event to a previous pride parade in Jerusalem.

Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s foreign minister until May, has repeatedly expressed his desire to strip Arab citizens of Israel of their rights, whether by subjecting them to a loyalty oath or by proposing that their towns be transferred to Palestinian Authority control. He also uses violent language. Last March he spoke of beheading Arab-Israelis who disagree with him. “Those who are against us, there’s nothing to be done — we need to pick up an ax and cut off his head,” he said.

Each of these examples might be explained away. Israel’s state prosecutor, for example, determined that Lieberman’s call to behead Arabs was simply figurative, and did not constitute incitement. But such rationalizations do little to diminish the damage done. And, whatever the justifications looks like, the reality is that these statements and actions — and there are dozens more — constitute a pattern.

It’s painful to admit, but this is the dominant political narrative in Israel today. It is divisive. It is violent. It is hate-filled. It is xenophobic. It is profoundly out of touch with millennia of Jewish experience, in which our people knew just how terrible it could be when the demagoguery of the majority was turned against the minority.

One cannot signal, year after year, that Israel exists only to serve its Jewish citizens, or even only the Jewish citizens who comply with a narrow interpretation of Judaism, and then be shocked when extremists feel free to attack Palestinians or gay Israelis. Nor is it reasonable to assert that the violence is only the product of an isolated fringe. When the incitement of many Israeli leaders — against Arabs, against leftists, against African refugees, against human rights organizations, and against anyone else who gets in the way of the ultranationalist agenda — passes for acceptable political discourse, the results are terrible and they are tragic. But they are not really a surprise. They are the predictable outcome of a dysfunctional politics.

Extremism in democratic societies is rooted in and expressed through politics. It’s time for Israel’s leaders to show greater responsibility, not only so that Israel can live up to the liberal values of its founders, but also to do right by the millions of ordinary Israelis who yearn for a better life, and who deserve to live in a society marked by solidarity and not division, by respect and not discord, by moderation and not fanaticism.

This op-ed was originally published in the New York Jewish Week