Challenging Extremism Everywhere
In Israel's general elections in February, Avigdor Lieberman and his ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu party won 15 Knesset seats, eventually becoming the second party in the government coalition with Lieberman as Foreign Minister.
Their electoral campaign featured disturbing demagoguery and egregious racism, including slogans such as "No loyalty, no citizenship" and "Only Lieberman understands Arabic."
For the most part, American Jewish leaders refrained from speaking out against Lieberman. Nathan Guttman in the Forward reported that "Jewish Leaders Largely Silent on Lieberman's Role In Government: But One Prominent U.S. Rabbi Criticizes 'Hate-Filled Campaign"
That rabbi is Union for Reform Judaism President Eric Yoffie, who declared in "Confronting Our Demagogue" that
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.
Rabbi Yoffie wrote that the rise of Lieberman presented a "significant test" to American Jewish leaders and urged that they not remain "silent or speak the language of equivocation."
Orkin's op-ed is a call for Jewish leaders to take a stand against the extremism and racism propagated by Israel's far right.
What has transgressed since February? In spite of Rabbi Yoffie's hopes that Lieberman either be kept out of the government coalition or exiled to its margins, he has used his position as Foreign Minister to reject the Annapolis Peace Conference and American diplomatic efforts to achieve a settlement freeze so as to advance peace negotiations, and his party has sought to enact their "loyalty oath" (though thankfully this has been rejected for now), advanced a ban on Nakba commemoration, and tried to outlaw "denial of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state."
Orkin's call is necessary due to the general indifference of Jewish leaders outside Israel In Israel, many organization are speaking out,. They include Orkin's ACRI and our own Israel Religious Action Center (which among other things, monitors government-funded rabbis with a history of racist hate speech and incitement pressing the government to take the disciplinary action.
As far as I can tell, only one other leader has joined Rabbi Yoffie in denouncing this agenda.
In February, JTA reported that Abe Foxman and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) shared the concerns of Lieberman and advocates of the loyalty proposal. Though he was then defending the legitimacy of Lieberman's proposals, "Foxman promised to speak out if Lieberman advanced any legislative proposals not in keeping with the spirit of Israeli democracy, noting that the ADL had criticized his proposals in the past."
In May, as Yisrael Beitenu's agenda advanced, Foxman lived up to the promise and, as noted by the New York Jewish Week, "slammed as discriminatory and undemocratic two bills from the party of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman that are stoking Arab-Jewish tensions."
As Orkin notes, trends underlying some of the increase in popularity of these ideas and parties have mirrored trends seen in Europe, where far-right parties have "scored significant electoral success in a time of crisis and uncertainty...Like his European counterparts, Lieberman constructed an ultranationalist campaign that tapped into the public's fears while feeding on and fueling the growing atmosphere of racism and intolerance in Israel...like his European counterparts, Lieberman deserves unequivocal condemnation for his racist and anti-democratic messages and policy proposals."
Israel has seen extremist movements rise in the past. Today's trends are indeed, as Orkin describes, "contrary to universal human rights values and basic Jewish principles," with the potential to "undermine Israel's democratic foundations."
Will other Jewish leaders hear Orkin's call to "unite around a common message that says no to racism, wherever it arises" and confront racism in Israel, too?