Israelis wave national flags as they watch fireworks during celebrations marking Israel's Independence Day in Tel Aviv .
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Passing unnoticed among the recent commemorations and celebrations of springtime in Israel, the Knesset this year for the first time marked the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
The March 21 event was observed the following day by the Knesset Lobby for the Struggle against Racism, which held discussions against racism in the relevant committees.
It was a timely initiative.
Among the topics discussed were the disturbing findings of the Coalition against Racism in Israel’s 2016 annual survey.
The survey found that 52 percent of the public think that racism in Israel is a bigger problem than it was two years ago. This breaks down to 79% who say there is racism toward Arab citizens; 77% who say there is racism against asylum-seekers; and 75% who say there is racism against Ethiopian Israelis.
A quarter of Israelis report having experienced racism personally. When asked to attribute a cause to this grim picture, 72% say that the discourse on social media intensifies racism. When asked to suggest a solution, 73% say that education is the best way to combat racism.
One assumes that the education referred to would include such traditional Jewish values as “loving thy neighbor as thyself” – but this would be a mistake, given the distortion of Jewish values that holds sway among much of the public, particularly its Knesset representatives.
IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Maj.-Gen. Yair Golan was recently castigated for warning against a deterioration of democratic values among the public. One example of this was a recent survey that found that 31% of Jews would deny Arabs the right to vote for the Knesset. Golan’s caution was right on the mark: while Israeli society is not inherently racist, we must not fool ourselves into believing that as Jews we are immune to the evils of bigotry.
However, less than a month after the Knesset’s first observance of the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, one Knesset member chose to escalate his own campaign to promote racial discrimination in Israel.
Bayit Yehudi MK Bezalel Smotrich stunned the public by saying in a radio interview that Israel’s maternity wards should be segregated. He amplified this view in a tweet, saying, “It is natural that my wife would not want to lie down next to someone who just gave birth to a baby who might want to murder her baby in another 20 years.”
Smotrich said that such hostility is “natural and understandable” because of what he termed the blood feud between the two peoples. He told Israel Radio that the Arabs of Israel, although they have equal rights, traitorously support our enemies.
Smotrich’s fears for Israel’s future are not confined to the maternity wards. He first attracted public condemnation in 2006, when he organized an anti-gay “Beast Parade” in Jerusalem in response to the city’s annual gay pride parade, which featured goats and donkeys to illustrate what he called “deviant acts” of same-sex relationships. He referred to the annual event as “an abomination parade.”
Last year, before joining the Knesset, Smotrich characterized himself as a “proud homophobe” at a discussion with high school students. He again drew condemnation for terming the 2015 pride parade an “abomination,” just days after 16-year-old Shira Banki was stabbed to death at the event by an ultra-Orthodox extremist. Rather than verbally attack those whose sexuality he opposes, Smotrich has lately directed his venom at a more acceptable target, terrorism. His solution: vengeance.
Just a few days before Independence Day, Smotrich called in a Facebook post for acts of “legitimate” revenge for Palestinian terrorism. Such acts by the state would obviate “difficult cases of private people taking the law and the revenge into their own hands,” he said.
Smotrich is mistaken in thinking that revenge is “an important value and moral” of Judaism. The same punishment cited by the Torah for homosexuality and for violating the Sabbath – death by stoning – has long been abandoned by Halacha. Similarly, our tradition teaches that revenge is forbidden to mankind.
Smotrich is not alone. He represents a part of Israeli society and as an elected official needs to understand that his words can quickly be translated into actions. Yair Golan might have been wrong to use Holocaust Remembrance Day to issue his warning, but Smotrich is a constant reminder that there is still a lot of work needed to eliminate bigotry and racism in Israel.