(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
There are times when America's organized Jewish community must assert its collective core values of democracy and equality, civility and civil rights in the face of what is the exact opposite of these principles. Taking such a principled stand is something we owe to ourselves - and to our brothers and sisters in Israel - when the antithesis to our values becomes a senior member of the Israeli cabinet.
I am referring, of course, to Avigdor Lieberman, the ultra-nationalist bigot who has said time and time again that his goal is to rid Israel of its Arab citizens, to drive them out either by redrawing the borders to slice large Arab communities off sovereign Israel or by denying their citizenship.
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"In my opinion, the main problem, the obstacle, are Israel's Arabs," Lieberman told a reporter in 2002, asserting that "90 percent of Israel's Arabs will have to find themselves in the Arab entity that will be established there," not within Israel. "It may seem brutal and sound brutal, but there is no other solution," he said. "They have no place here. Let them take their packages and go to hell," he added, using a Hebrew slang profanity borrowed from his native Russian.
This man, who for years has been openly and actively striving to turn Israel from a Jewish and democratic state into a Jews-only state, will this week be sworn-in as Israel's deputy prime minister and minister for strategic affairs, a newly-minted portfolio.
US JEWISH groups, always quick - as we should be - to denounce Arab, European or American politicians who wear their bigotry on their sleeve have now fallen silent. When it comes to an Israeli populist provocateur with a long, documented record of chauvinism and hate, our community has nothing to say.
Applying the lessons of our history, we have assumed a proud role in American society of exposing and condemning intolerance. We pursue anti-Semites and bigots, immigrant-haters and homophobes, white- supremacists, sexists and xenophobes, whether here, in Europe or in the Arab world. But when a man who has called for the execution of his fellow Knesset members - Arab legislators who met with Hamas leaders - becomes the deputy prime minister of Israel, we'd rather look the other way.
It's not that we don't care about equality and civil rights for Israel's Arab citizens. To the contrary. Earlier this year, several large Jewish groups - not only those which work for progressive causes in Israel, such as the New Israel Fund, but organizations such as the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Joint Distribution Committee - finally formed a task force on Jewish-Arab relations in Israel. The new body is working to raise awareness and money to promote civic equality and to bridge the deep socioeconomic disparities that confront Israel's Arab minority, 20 percent of the country's population.
Members of the task force put forth two main rationales for the importance of a Jewish-American initiative on this issue. One is that Jewish Americans, having suffered discrimination, have something to offer Israeli Jews regarding their relationship with the Arab minority. The other is that American Jews have a stake in Israel's national security, and they recognize that one of the state's chief national security imperatives is the integration of Arab citizens into the state's civil fabric.
Both the moral and strategic rationales are, of course, correct. The overwhelming majority of Israel's Arab citizens want to remain Israelis and would like nothing better than to be equal, loyal members of Israeli society. Even if Lieberman doesn't believe their sincerity or simply resents it, the fact is that Arab citizens of Israel are not going anywhere. Years of discriminatory government policies have not pushed them out.
Instead they have sowed the seeds of anger, resentment and a growing identification with Palestinian nationalism.
Can we stay silent when the Israeli government welcomes an advocate of forcing Arabs out? Where is our outrage? What kind of message does our silence send? That we will acquiesce when an Israeli government actually carries out a forced expulsion? Would that not be a red line for us, either?
There are some rare moments when the Jewish values shared by all of us - whether doves or hawks, conservatives or liberals - oblige us to speak out. Even if at the receiving end of our outrage is a senior Israeli politician. This is such a moment.
The writer is the president and CEO of Americans for Peace Now.