David Hoffman
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The dark lessons of tolerating hate speech

20 years ago, as now, an Israeli leader was depicted as a Nazi -- all of us know the price of staying silent

I still have not forgiven myself—20 years later.

In the fall of 1995, I remember walking through a political demonstration in the center of Jerusalem. Not an uncommon event—certainly in those days—but that is where the prosaic nature of the rhythms of living in Jerusalem stopped.

I remember the following image like it was yesterday. There was a man wearing a kippah, with his ritual fringes hanging by his sides, carrying a poster of the Prime Minister of the State of Israel—Yitzhak Rabin—in a Nazi uniform.

Emotions in Jerusalem could not have been running higher. Prime Minister Rabin had agreed to the Oslo Accords a short time before. He had signed a peace treaty with Jordan and had, in a controversial move, extended his hand to Arafat, a man who certainly had Jewish blood on his hands. Israeli society was divided because of a Prime Minster who was ready to return historical lands for the prospect of peace. To be honest, at the time, I too was wary of the direction Rabin was taking Israel.

But I remember being viscerally shaken by the image of a Jew equating another Jew to a Nazi. What intensified my feelings was the utter indifference the group had to this man brandishing this depiction of the Prime Minister as a murderer of Jews.

Later that fall, on November 4, all of us in Jerusalem and the world learned of the ultimate consequences of incitement and violent language. A Jew with a kippah killed the Prime Minister.

On the 30th day after the murder of Yitzhak Rabin—in one of the greatest displays of religious leadership I have ever witnessed—I heard Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein bravely address the religious Zionist community. He painfully confessed to all of Israeli society that the Israeli Zionist camp could not claim, “Our hands did not shed this blood.” (Deuteronomy 21)

Yes, Yigal Amir fired the shot that killed Yitzchak Rabin. But Rav Aharon Lichtenstein argued that the entire religious camp was implicated in the Prime Minister’s murder.

Amir came through our communities and our schools. He was a product of the larger cultural environment. The pathology of violence and hate dressed in the garb of religious commitment had too deeply entered into public discourse.

The Talmud presciently and powerfully declares, “Whoever has the ability to protest against his family or the people of his town [and does not do so] is punished for the sins of the perpetrators.” (Shabbat 54b) This week an Israeli political organization, Im Tirtzu, posted a horrifying video that destructively plays on all of our security fears. They associate four Israelis of the political left with a knife-wielding terrorist. The video ends by suggesting that these Israeli men and women seek to do harm to “us” and are plants within Israeli society.

In the last few weeks, we have seen President Rivlin labeled a traitor and also depicted in an SS uniform. To make such a comparison invites reckless violence.

I still regret the words I did not say on that Jerusalem street 20 years ago. But I know what I need to say now: Enough. We must individually and collectively shut this talk down. All of us are implicated in the crimes such speech will spur.

About the Author
Rabbi David Hoffman is President of the Honey Foundation for Israel. The Honey Foundation for Israel invests in the growing field of Israeli communal rabbinic and spiritual leadership, around the entire country and across the broad spectrum of religious expression, providing financial and professional resources that allow these talented leaders to build robust and engaged communities.
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