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Uncomfortable questions for comfortable Israelis

As shocking expressions of anti-Arab hatred go mainstream, a compelling vision of co-existence is needed more urgently than ever
Inside the Max Rayne Hand In Hand Jerusalem School, an Arab-Jewish school that was vandalized on November 28, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/JTA)
Inside the Max Rayne Hand In Hand Jerusalem School, an Arab-Jewish school that was vandalized on November 28, 2014. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/JTA)

Meir Kahane was right. Not in his ideology of Jewish supremacy, but about the potential to leverage significant public support for such views. Because even as Israel gears up for unprecedented do-over elections, we cannot ignore that the April election ushered the Kahanist party Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) into the recently elected Knesset as part of the Union of Right-Wing Party, giving them five seats. We can assume that Otzma Yehudit will vie hard to remain at the table in the next elections as well, perhaps winning an even better place. We are anything but safe from the extreme agenda they promote.

The Kahanists have come far in 30 years. In 1985, Meir Kahane managed to get enough votes to get a seat in the Knesset. However, during his term in office, his fellow parliamentarians would empty the plenary when he spoke rather than lend their ears to his dangerous vitriol. The Knesset then passed legislation against the expression of racism, in order to provide the legal grounds necessary to bar Kahane from running again for Knesset. This was how far they went to prevent him from promoting his extreme racist agenda from the floor of the Knesset.

But in the lead-up to the April 2019 elections, the Prime Minister felt his own chances of electoral success would improve if he encouraged the alliance between Otzma Yehudit, and other right wing parties such as Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home). Rolling out the red carpet to them crossed the red lines of some in Israel, and even of major American Jewish establishment organizations, who broke with their usually careful neutrality about Israeli politics to condemn this legitimization of Otzma Yehudit. But in Israel the red lines have moved far from what they once were. What was once anathema, has become one of the keys to garnering popular support and power.

At the heart of this is a battle of ideas about Judaism, Israel, democracy, and the Arab Palestinian population. To go beyond the sound bites and rhetoric, and understand Meir Kahane’s ideas better, I delved into one of his books, Uncomfortable Questions for Comfortable Jews, in which he details his views on these issues. He believed that “the Almighty chose the Jewish people to be His special, holy nation, armed with His Divine Law” and that there is no other legitimate interpretation; liberal, humanistic interpretations of Judaism are wrong and abominable. Reform and Conservative rabbis “are paragons of ignorance”, “dishonest swindler[s]”. Simply put: “The Jews against the Hellenists. The real struggle.” He declares that “it is time to speak about the ignorance, the perversion, the corruption, the counterfeiting of Judaism…. So that never again will they dare raise the flag of ‘Judaism’ in the service of their perverted schizophrenic Hellenism and gentilized concepts, it is time to instill terror into their hearts (italics mine).” He repeats this last phrase and variations on it several times throughout his book.

According to Kahane, Israel cannot be both a Jewish and democratic state, as the latter will eventually undermine the former. “Any advocate of and believer in western democracy would agree that the Arabs have an absolute and inalienable right to the same political aspirations as the Jews and should their birthrate produce enough Arabs to produce an Arab majority within the State of Israel, they have the right (and from their point of view, the obligation) to create a state that would no longer be known as the Jewish State.” Therefore, to ensure that the state remains Jewish, Kahane contends that “the non-Jew has no share in the Land of Israel. He has no ownership, citizenship, or destiny in it. The non-Jew who wishes to live in Israel… may live in Israel as a residential stranger, but never as a citizen… with any political say, never as one who can hold any public office that will give him dominion over a Jew or a share in the authority of the country.” Indeed “he is entitled to personal rights, economic and cultural and social rights within Torah law. But national rights, the right to say anything about the structure, the character, of the state – never!”

Kahane argues that Arabs can never support the Jewish State of Israel and therefore must always be viewed as the enemy. “In the mind of the good liberal-left Jew, the good Arab is the one who will become a Semitic Quisling, and, like some modern-day Esau, trade what he sees as his birthright for a mess of Zionist lentils.” They are wrong, he posits, rather: “A good Arab is one who wants to live in what he believes is his homeland; who wants an Arab State; who wants an Arab Knesset; who wants Arab sovereignty. In a word, a good Arab is remarkably similar to a good Jew and his desire to live in a Jewish State is about equal to the Jew’s wanting to live in Syria. It is precisely Jews with national pride who can understand the reality of Arab pride. It is only good Jews who can define a good Arab. It is only good Jews who can understand a good Arab.”

Given this, “The normal, healthy, and correct perception by Israelis,” he argues, is “of the Arab as their enemy”, and “the nature of the Arab [is] as a cruel, brutal, murderous enemy”. In war “the life of one Jewish soldier [is] worth more than those of all the Arabs – soldiers, terrorists or civilians”. We must forget complex moral efforts when at war, and this “madness called ‘purity of arms’.”

He opposes Jewish-Arab efforts to build any kinds of ties. Joint Jewish-Arab projects are “program[s] created by Hellenists wracked with doubts, complexes, guilt and self-hate, in order to eliminate the source of their guilt: The existence of a separate Jewish people.” And, drawing on Biblical condemnations and punishments of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews, he warns that Jews must beware the “widespread sexual perversion among Arabs”, and prevent Jewish women from being tricked and seduced into relations with Arab men.

These are only some examples of the worldview which he elaborates upon extensively and explicitly, weaving a circular logic which is internally coherent if you accept his basic premise that all of this is endorsed by God, and can inure yourself to the moral repugnance of his conclusions.

This is the godfather of Otzma Yehudit. And yet these core ideas, even if less colorfully iterated, are not exclusively held by Otzma Yehudit; they have been gaining strength for the last decade.

How did we get to this point? And what can be done about it?

First they came for the Arabs

This was not an overnight surprise. Around ten years ago, I was shocked by public declarations such as: “Don’t rent to Arabs.” “Kahane was right.” “Death to Arabs.” Some came from Israeli mayors and rabbis (paid by state taxes); others in graffiti and vandalism targeting Palestinians, Arab citizens, Christian sites, the left.

These expressions, and the general lack of public response or condemnation, were troubling. They are the soundbites of a deeper ideology that can lead to horrific results. I had worked for many years with refugees who had fled wars in Bosnia and other countries, and so many of them spoke with me, their voices cracking and eyes widened, desperate to make me understand that: “It wasn’t always like this in my country – but then the extremists took over.” And of course Jewish history has plenty of examples of the horrors and suffering that intolerance can bring about.

As I watched these changes in the Jewish sector in Israel, I feared its incremental normalization. What was once so shocking as to be beyond the pale, can be repeated often enough as to lose its power to shock. Then it can become the norm. Then, even popular.

Students learning in an Israeli Hand in Hand school, where the curriculum is both in Hebrew and Arabic. (Courtesy: Debbie Hill)

My concern about these issues brought me to Hand in Hand, a network of Jewish-Arab schools. I decided to send my children there and then to join the organization’s mission of expanding Jewish-Arab cooperation. It seemed like one of the most constructive pathways to bolstering democracy and building a viable future.

And then this rhetoric really began to hit close to home. In 2012 “Death to Arabs” graffiti appeared on our school basketball court walls. Rumors emerged that it was a disgruntled soldier on leave who was upset about a game lost by his favorite soccer team, Beitar Jerusalem, known for a fan base which is openly hateful of Arabs. A year later our students were attacked on a public bus for speaking Arabic. In the fall of 2014, seven graffiti tags of “Death to Arabs” were written on the exterior wall at the threshold of our school.

Graffiti reading, ‘Arabs to the slaughter,’ appears on the wall of a bilingual, Jewish-Arab elementary school in Jerusalem on June 30, 2015. (Courtesy Hand in Hand)

A month later, arsonists set the school’s 1st grade classrooms on fire, leaving behind charred walls and school bags, a huge pile of burnt books, and a clear message so there would be no mistaking the intention: “Kahane was right.” “Death to Arabs.” “There is no coexistence with cancer.”

Three arsonists were caught. One of their lawyers was Itamar Ben Gvir, a well-known defense lawyer for Jewish extremists, who now heads Otzma Yehudit. In the recent elections Ben Gvir himself did not get a Knesset seat (he was seventh on the list, and the Union of Right-Wing Parties received five seats), but he is part of a coalition which did get in the Knesset, and we can assume that his party will do its utmost to wield influence and increase their strength in a new round of elections.

It is a mistake to minimize the significance of their position, or chalk it up to campaign tactics and assume that having served their purpose they will now be sidelined. After the arson attack on the Hand in Hand school occurred, I witnessed a process of rationalization among fellow Jews which struck me for how it minimized the significance of their actions.

“They are young,” many said about the arsonists, especially the two Twitto brothers. But they were the same age as the soldiers we entrust with missions of life and death every day. “They are from a radical fringe,” said others. But as the acts of violence from this supposed fringe grows in numbers and strength, mostly unchecked and unpunished, it seems that these actions have a wider base of support. “They are from a troubled family,” yet others said. Perhaps, but even if this was a contributing factor, this extreme ideology has a growing number of adherents who seem to be from perfectly fine families.

As I heard these explanations offered by enough different people, I sensed that such rationalizations offered a sort of protective compartmentalization. These were ways to distance “us” from “them”. “We” would never do something like that. These are not our values. This does not represent us, the majority, the mainstream. It lets us off the hook from asking hard question, or taking further action.

The arsonists’ actions were the extreme expression of anti-democratic, anti-coexistence, anti-Arab and Palestinian, illiberal ideas that are becoming increasingly dominant. They have been playing out, sometimes more subtly, sometimes more explicitly, in the last several national and municipal elections campaigns of the last years; in legislative efforts such as those that motivated the Nation State Law’s curtailing of Arabic language and privileging of Jewish settlement; in efforts to sideline or silence public grappling with issues like the Nakba, whether in art and cultural spheres, or public debate; in the educational curriculum in Israeli public schools; in the attacks on rule of law; in demands to separate Jews and Arabs in hospital rooms, etc.

As I have watched the growing extremism I have sometimes struggled to express the depths to which I felt these attitudes needed to be taken seriously. At times I have wanted to shake people by the shoulders and ask, do you understand what is happening here? Do you understand where this can take us? But I remained carefully measured in my words and tone, fearing that too much emotion would be deemed hysteria, and that pointing to the deeply troubling aspects of what is taking place would be dismissed as anti-Israel. However, these concerns are based on a very sober assessment of what has been happening here, and an understanding of how such trends have played out in other contexts and countries in history.

It would be simpler to trust that we Jews, as a morally sensitive, persecuted people, defending our own state after millennia of exile and persecution, are not at risk of extremism and its concomitant misbehavior. And yet here we have just finished the 2019 election campaign with parties trying to out-compete each other as to who could promote the most explicitly anti-Arab and Palestinian agenda, grant the most exclusive power and privilege to Jewish supremacy, and undermine the fundamentals of democratic norms and institutions. The fact that not all of those candidates got a seat in the Knesset reflects the fragmented parliamentary system, not a lack of popularity of these views. Promoting these ideologies are tactical choices of intelligent, politically astute individuals, competing for Israeli Jewish hearts and minds and intended to capture voters. The fact that this seems to be a growing global phenomenon is relevant, but not a reason to sit back and observe how it will play out in our particular context.

So what now? The battle of ideas

At one of the court hearings for the school arsonists their lawyers claimed they were repentant. This was belied by the smiles they gave to their family and friends who were there, cheering them on, laughing, and hissing to those of us from the school that they were only sorry it hadn’t been worse. Next time, they promised, it would be. Outside of the courtroom the threats were more explicit. “It’s a shame that the class that was burned was not full of Arab children.” “This is what they will do to you,” said one of the arsonist’s supporters, drawing his finger across his throat.

Horrifying? Crazy? Not necessarily, if you fully believe that the Arabs and those who believe in coexistence and democracy will destroy you, and that only you are walking in God’s intended pathway.

Kahane may have been right that he could gain greater public support for his ideas. He offered a simple way to respond to a complex scary world. But his is a catastrophic pathway.

As the judge who presided over the arson case said: “Your school is much bigger than a school, it is an idea.” That is true: it does represent an idea of coexistence and shared society, one which is implemented today widely in various ways in cities, businesses, cultural forums, organizations – both those dedicated to shared society as well as others. But nonetheless, this idea is under attack. We are witnessing a demonization of Arabs, democracy, coexistence, liberal values, and non-orthodox Judaism and Jews. This has allowed an extremist agenda to root itself in the mainstream.

It’s time to start grappling with the fact that supremacist ideas are taking hold. For many Israeli and diaspora Jews this is shocking and difficult to fully believe, because we never imagined it could happen to our people. But it has. It is the extreme version of our religion, our people, our nation, our state. Neither the problem, nor the solution, should belong exclusively to the “right” or “left” wing but to all of us who care for the greater good of this place and the people who live here, both Israelis and Palestinians. Let this serve as a wake-up call that can call us back from the brink of something which may be far worse.

An Arab girl stands near signs against racism at the entrance of the Max Rayne Hand in Hand school for Bilingual education in Jerusalem (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

This needs to catalyze a deep reassessment of the central issues. How can we create a state and society which promote a meaningful sense of identity, security and citizenship for all citizens, as individuals, as distinct collectives and as an overall shared collective? This requires reexamining the tensions in the Jewish and democratic aspects of the state; examining why negative attitudes towards Arabs have become such a mobilizing force for growing numbers of Jewish citizens; fostering support for Jewish-Arab shared society; examining the aspects of Judaism which promote Jewish separation, what aspects of religion and state allow for supremacist beliefs and what the potential implications are; determining what values will best serve us, and maximize the greatest good for the greatest number, and reduce harm for the greatest number? It requires not demonizing or ostracizing those who raise questions about the status quo. It requires that those who have alternatives articulate and advocate them more widely.

These might be uncomfortable questions. But avoiding them allows others the power to provide answers which have growing potential to cause terrible harm. With a second round of elections looming ahead, it’s as good a time as any to step up, step out of our comfort zones and start tackling these issues.

About the Author
Rebecca Bardach oversees growth and strategy at Hand in Hand: the Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel. Prior to that she worked with international migration, conflict, relief and development efforts. She holds an MPA in Public Policy and International Development from NYU, and lives in Jerusalem.
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