The speech Simcha Rothman should give, but won’t - opinion

MK Rothman should apologize for his role to feed the ugliness and focus on rebuilding the tissue of mutual trust every healthy democracy needs.

 MK SIMCHA Rothman chairs a meeting of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, on Monday. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
MK SIMCHA Rothman chairs a meeting of the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, on Monday.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

This is the speech MK Simcha Rothman should give – but won’t.

Fellow citizens:

Two Friday nights ago, as my wife and I walked back to our hotel in New York, a few rabid protesters harassed us, recording us – and their own despicable behavior, unashamedly. They insulted us, berated us and called for our deaths. One protester kept shouting in my ear with her megaphone – which constitutes assault.

International law considers aggressively using loud noise as “torture,” while New York City’s police patrol guide authorizes seizing bullhorns causing “unreasonable noise,” that “disturbs the peace, comfort, or repose of a reasonable person.”

Eventually, I seized the bullhorn, without touching my assailant. I am not embarrassed that I defended myself or my wife. But I am ashamed that the conversation about our beloved Israel has deteriorated – and am troubled by the growing assault on basic democratic decency.

What kind of people, Jewish or non-Jewish, would violate our Shabbat – by recording us, let alone bullhorning us? What does all that anger do to their souls? What do they say to their loved ones, to their children – “sorry, I’m abandoning you Friday night to go harass a Sabbath-observing democratically-elected representative of Israel who dares to disagree with me?”

Theodor Herzl and Ahad Ha'am (credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Theodor Herzl and Ahad Ha'am (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Zionism’s “secular Rabbi,” Ahad Ha’am, taught that “more than the Jewish people kept the Shabbat, the Shabbat kept the Jewish people.” Ahad Ha’am appreciated Shabbat menucha – tranquility – for uniting us, calming us, elevating us. What did these people accomplish by shattering their own Sabbath peace?

We should leave domestic disputes at home

And what kind of patriot violates the democratic value of leaving domestic differences at home? During the Cold War, America clashed over civil rights and other issues. Yet, in fighting Soviet Russia, most politicians agreed: politics “stops at the water’s edge.” Moreover, what kind of democracy “defenders” menace the people’s representatives – and their families – in their homes, while leaving Sabbath dinner?

That Shabbat, although the New York synagogue I attended read a different Torah portion – because of the two days of Shavuot abroad – I also studied Be’ha’alotcha, the portion in Numbers about lighting the menorah.

Thinking of light – and the democratic, Jewish, Zionist and Israeli enlightenment we all seek – filled me with remorse. Too many of my political allies have also behaved boorishly, brutishly, undemocratically. I especially regret the harassment my current coalition colleague Idit Silman endured, even though she did something I abhorred when she joined Naftali Bennett’s coalition.

Just as my wife and I did not deserve this Shabbat harassment, Idit, her husband, their children – and other coalition members — did not deserve the harassment they suffered. One man pushed her as she refueled her car. Another said he hoped she’d be slaughtered. Others stalked her. Protesters shouted outside her children’s schools. Former teachers of her children denounced her. One parent told her 11-year-old: “Your mother is the devil, may she burn in hell.” Distressed, that son stopped attending school temporarily. Her six-year-old daughter started sleeping in her parents’ bed again.

Let's rekindle decency and not do to others what we don't want to be done to us

SUCH BROWBEATING of any politician or fellow citizen is unacceptable. It must end, immediately. Let’s follow Beha’alotecha by rekindling the light of decency and mutual respect. Let’s stop doing unto others what we would never want done to us and our families.

While we have long learned what to do democratically from our American friends – we’re also learning what not to do. In America today, “conservatives” distrust the FBI and the Justice Department while “liberals” distrust the Supreme Court. No side acknowledges any imperfection.

Most forget Mayor Ed Koch’s humbling warning: “If you agree with me on 7 of 12 issues, please vote for me. If you agree with 12 of 12 issues, please see a psychiatrist.” Such all-or-nothingness, rejecting inconvenient truths, characterizing partisan rivals as evil not just incorrect, feeds the bullying – on both sides.

Admittedly, my family and I are now being targeted, so this call may seem self-serving. I acknowledge the scars, the anger, the mistrust. Today’s protesters fear that if they stop today, we won’t reciprocate tomorrow.

But we must break this cycle. We must take a leap of trust – and each call off the dogs. I am starting the trust-building effort by repudiating the counter-protesters supporting our proposed reform who have behaved thuggishly, demanding they control themselves.

Meanwhile, I am founding a new Knesset Caucus for Democracy and Decency. I won’t personally invite any MK – except our Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and MK Idit Silman. I hope one of them volunteers to chair this all-party caucus. Otherwise, I am making a general call. I will invite journalists to the hallway to see who shows up. But once we meet, we will go off-the-record.

We need a joint statement, asking all Israelis to make every public official’s home and family off-limits. More specific guidelines should include serious fines, paid from our political budgets, if any of us incite such hooliganism or even protest outside any homes. And if we cannot find an all-party council of respectable MKs to police ourselves, we should invite older, broadly-respected, leaders to help us like former president Reuven Rivlin and Miriam Peretz.

My friends, this anti-social, undemocratic plague must end. Clearly, many other challenges loom. But this one is solvable. Our own behavior as 120 colleagues is easily monitored and easily fixed.

I apologize for everything I have done to feed this ugliness. All Israelis, inside the Knesset and beyond, must defend democracy and decency. Let’s contain our passionate disagreements within proper forums, while rebuilding the tissue of mutual trust every healthy democracy needs.

The writer is an American presidential historian, and, most recently, the editor of the three-volume set, Theodor Herzl: Zionist Writings, the inaugural publication of The Library of the Jewish People.