Jewish racists betray Judaism and Jewish history. Having taught the world how humane and open religion can be, we must never forget Judaism’s sensitivity to others. Having suffered from discrimination, we must never practice it.
Similarly, Zionist racists betray Zionism and the Zionist mission. Zionism’s rise is intertwined with liberal democratic nationalism, mixing ethnic and civic nationalism. And Zionism’s mandate to end anti-Semitism must never degenerate into discrimination against others.
The bullying bigots constitute a shrill minority – and have been widely denounced. Police arrested the hooligans. The Likudnik Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin – among many others – said the racist Rabbis’ letter “shames the Jewish people.” Given the relentless attacks on Israel and Zionism, given how mainstream anti-Semitic discourse is among Arabs, given how Palestinians routinely outlaw land sales to Jews, given how intellectuals have camouflaged modern anti-Semitism as anti-Zionism, it is a tribute to Zionism’s moral fibre that these voices remain so marginal.
Still, the demagogues test us all, morally, ideologically, educationally. The bigotry – which is nation-based not race-based – festers due to many problems today. It highlights the Israeli rabbinate’s corruption, hijacking state funds to advance a soulless, picayune, anti-Zionist, non-humanistic perversion of Judaism that has alienated generations of Israelis. It showcases epidemics of educational failure, growing violence, untrammeled aggressiveness, pagan youth, religious Jews loving land more than people or peace, in an increasingly rudderless society needing strong leaders and a reaffirmation of its founding ideals. It reflects the growing scar tissue of a society inured to any mistakes made regarding Palestinians because of Palestinian violence and rejectionism – which the world enables.
Silence is consent. Every rabbi, every educator, every settler, every Israeli citizen, every Zionist must boldly, loudly, and constructively denounce this ugliness. Rabbis must reaffirm the Torah’s teachings seeking justice based on mutual respect, because we were strangers in a foreign land. Educators must launch a civics curriculum teaching democratic values based on inherent rights. Settlers, so often caricatured as anti-Arab aggressors, can distance themselves from this scourge by rejecting racist rabbis in their communities and implementing programs affirming democratic values.
Israeli leaders must spearhead this fight while all Israeli citizens should recommit to the defining civic, democratic values expressed in Israel’s Proclamation of Independence and embodied by David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin. Meanwhile, Zionists everywhere should reaffirm the teachings of Theodor Herzl and Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Ahad Ha’am and Rav Kook, that healthy nationalism rejects racism, that a Jewish state can be a democracy not a theocracy, that Zionism involves cultivating the best in us not bringing out the worst.
Contempt for “the goyim” is an ugly Jewish characteristic Zionism tried burying in Europe. Oppressed peoples use insularity and superiority as defense mechanisms. African-American humor mocks white Americans; Jewish humor mocks non-Jews. But when you return to history, wield power, become a majority, those jokes stop being funny – or necessary.
Zionism was about becoming whole again, about taking responsibility. This Altneuland was to be another normal expression of nationalism, as so many other peoples fulfilled their rights of self-determination through nation-states. This old-new state was also to be a special framework for fulfilling Jewish values in a state, not theorizing about them in seminaries.
In the happy meeting between Judaism and modern Western thought, after nearly two millennia of misery, most Jews internalized fundamental democratic ideals. Jews saw how the most welcoming polities respecting individual rights and fostering mutual respect, the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada, were also the most successful societies. Jews also functioned as society’s watchdog, denouncing anti-Semitism and other prejudices. Every one of us who demanded in the 1980s that Jesse Jackson disavow Louis Farrakhan’s anti-Semitism, every one of us who demanded in 2008 that Barack Obama disavow the Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s anti-Jewish and anti-American demagoguery, must combat our own anti-Arab, anti-immigrant bigots.
The Obama case is instructive. Many of us resented that Obama and his family regularly attended a church led by a man whose offensive rantings targeted us. We abhorred Obama’s passivity, dismissing his denunciations in 2008 as calculated and long overdue. Here now is our opportunity to lead, demonstrating that every movement produces extremists, every form of nationalism has its xenophobes but constructive, democratic movements understand the value of self-policing and living up to our highest standards, not treating others as our enemies treat us.
Political morality transcends policy differences. We need a passionate debate about the complicated questions regarding growing anti-Zionism among Israeli Arabs, regarding the messy immigration dilemmas bedeviling America and Europe not just Israel, regarding the complicated quest to empower a Jewish majority and an Arab minority in a democracy besieged by its neighbors. But we also need red lines against stereotyping, demonization, and bigotry. Tzfat’s racist rabbis, Jerusalem’s Jewish hooligans constitute an ugly minority. They pervert Zionism, threatening to corrupt the collective Jewish soul, while unintentionally inviting us to clarify our values and affirm defining principles.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He is the author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” and, most recently, “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.” [email protected]