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American Jewish Leaders Are Accused of Silence in the Face of Growing Racism in Israel

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
March - April 2009

The February election in Israel saw the rise of the extreme right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, which was described in Newsweek (March 9, 2009) in these terms: “… the big winner turned out to be ultranationalist Avigdor 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, Harvard University mathematician Dennis Gaitsgory, according to The Forward (Feb. 27, 2009), “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 Benjamin 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.’”  
The Forward reports that, “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 for 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 Forward (Feb. 27, 2009) he calls Yisrael Beiteinu’s campaign “an outrageous, abominable, hate-filled campaign, brimming with incitement that, if left unchecked, could lead Israel to the gates of hell.”  
Yoffie declares: “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 that we abhor.”  
Beyond this, states 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 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.”  
In a column entitled “Whose Israel Shall It Be?” in The Washington Post (Feb. 24, 2009) Richard Cohen writes: “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 Jews and another for the Arabs,’ he wrote.”  
Discussing the horrors of the 20th century, culminating in the Holocaust, Cohen notes 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. … Israel can swap land for peace, but not Arab for Jew. That would leave an empty space — not only where the Arabs once were, but where Israel once kept its values.”  
Many Jewish voices have spoken out against racism in Israel. The New Republic’s Martin Peretz, a long-time Zionist, calls Lieberman a “neo-fascist … a certified gangster … the Israeli equivalent of (Austria’s) Jorg Haider.”  
Anne Roiphe, writing in The Jerusalem Report (March 16, 2009) states 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 February 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 that Lieberman’s presence in an Israeli government “does not create an automatic problem.”  
M.I.T.’s 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.” Mark Pelavin of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, says that the recent election “raises ultimate issues about the character of the State of Israel. It touches on the need to respond to democratic values and Jewish values.”

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