In response to a previous column lamenting both the internal condition of the fervently Orthodox and their disproportionate influence in Israel, I received a response from Chaim Adler, my old madrich (youth leader) and friend for more than 50 years. Chaim wrote that the haredim are a major problem in Israel; a far greater one is the current attack on civil liberties. He compared what is going on to McCarthyism.
Having served as central shaliah (emissary) to Young Judaea and done graduate work at Columbia University in the 1950s, he was well acquainted with McCarthyism.
The focus of this attack on civil liberties is Israel’s foreign minister and leader of the Yisrael Beitenu Party, Avigdor Lieberman.
Lieberman is the prime advocate of a law demanding non-Jews sign an oath pledging allegiance to Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, and of another law which already received preliminary passage in the Knesset to create a parliamentary panel to investigate the funding of a long list of Left-leaning human rights groups. This demand for loyalty oaths from the “other” and the effort to marginalize human rights groups can only serve to have the opposite effect from its intended purpose.
Almost from its birth, Israel drafted members of the Druze sect, while Bedouins and Circassian Moslems volunteered for the IDF. All of a sudden, these people are being asked to sign an oath because they are not Jews. This obviously creates a feeling of second-class citizenship and, if anything, will more likely lead them to identify with those seeking Israel’s harm. Last fall, a mosque in the Bedouin village of Rahat, in the northern Negev, was razed because it violated zoning laws. One of the Bedouin interviewed on TV said he had never heard of a synagogue that was destroyed because of violating zoning restrictions.
This tendency to cast suspicion on the “stranger” was vividly demonstrated by the ruling of Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, chief rabbi of Safed. This ruling forbids Jews to rent or sell apartments to Arabs. An elderly Holocaust survivor ignored the ruling by renting an apartment to three Arab students, noting that he experienced such discrimination as a Jew in Europe and was not going to perpetrate it on Arabs in Israel.
Nevertheless, Eliyahu’s letter “inspired” 47 other chief rabbis to issue similar letters in their towns. Petitions in support of Eliyahu were signed by a reported 300 rabbis. In Jerusalem, a gang of Jewish youths began attacking Arabs and in Bat Yam, an organization called “Jews for a Jewish Bat Yam” sponsored a rally to keep Arabs out of their town. In the Hatikvah neighborhood of Tel Aviv hundreds of residents demonstrated against foreign workers.
There have been physical attacks on illegal African migrants; in one case, several were almost killed when tires were burned at the entrance to their Ashdod apartment. In many of these demonstrations, the speakers claimed that Arab men prey on helpless Jewish women (shades of Nazi propaganda). While Jews are buying Arab homes in Jerusalem and other places, these demonstrations talk of conspiracies by Saudi Arabia, the Gulf Emirates, and even Iran to buy Jewish-owned homes at high prices.
What in the world is happening? When I lived in Jerusalem in the early 1970s, I marveled at the restraint of the Israeli Jews towards Arabs, despite the terrorist attacks that took the lives of many innocents. Members of the IDF have been accused of very few sex crimes despite the temptations of an occupying army. Now, when terrorist attacks have been largely curtailed, there is a climate of racism that is threatening the moral fiber of Israel, estranging the country from its minorities which could lead to a fifth column if hostilities erupt between Israel and her neighbors. As Gerald Steinberg, the president of NGO Monitor, an organization that has frequent come into conflict with leftist organizations such as Human Rights Watch said, the proposed law investigating human rights organizations provides “more ammunition for Israel’s most ardent critics to proclaim the ‘death of Israeli democracy’ further contributing to Israel’s isolation.”
There has been opposition to these disturbing phenomena. Eliyahu’s letter provoked a response from President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as a number of prominent rabbis, including Aharon Lichtenstein, head of the Har Etzion Yeshiva.
Nevertheless, the 47 municipal rabbis and the rabbi of Safed are still at their state-supported jobs, and the attorney general has yet to take action under the laws of incitement.
In a recent editorial, The Forward stopped just short of asking for Lieberman’s removal, instead quoting the Israeli daily Ha’aretz which did just that. I don’t recall ever reading in a Jewish newspaper a suggestion that an Israeli minister be removed. We are witnessing a parallel phenomenon in which the right-wing government of Israel is estranging the state from its minorities and its intellectual elite while at the same time taking positions that even its best friends in the Diaspora cannot support. Certainly Bibi Netanyahu, who grew up in Philadelphia and attended MIT, cannot be insensitive to this. When will he assert some moral leadership to stop this drift to isolation? There are more important things than maintaining a sick coalition.