Incitement’s lessons

B’Tselem or Breaking the Silence may be wrong in some of their choices. Addressing the UN at the invitation of Bolivia deserves to be confronted – but not through incitement.

Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres in 1994 (photo credit: SA’AR YA’ACOV/GPO)
Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres in 1994
(photo credit: SA’AR YA’ACOV/GPO)
On Tuesday and Wednesday, suspicious packages were discovered across the United States. They were addressed to former president Barack Obama, former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, CIA Director John Brennan and philanthropist George Soros. The packages also had the return address of Congresswoman and former Democratic Party chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
As the FBI investigates, it appears this was an orchestrated effort to target high profile Americans who have been at the center of far-right incitement online over the last few years. Rhetoric on the Right, which has targeted the media as “fake news” and spoken harshly against the Clintons and Obama, is likely responsible.
This reminds us of our own national trauma in Israel and how incitement brought down one of the Jewish state’s greatest leaders, the soldier-statesman Yitzhak Rabin, who was murdered 23 years ago on November 4, 1995 at the height of the controversy over the Oslo Accords. Rabin was a believer in peace; he sought to find a way out of the quagmire of conflict with the Palestinians through a peace deal. At the time, it seemed impossible – but through Herculean efforts he was able to change the public’s view in Israel and also to bring the Palestinians to the table.
Yet Rabin’s vision of an Israel at peace and of a stable region made possible through Israel’s military superiority was cut short by the vile assassin’s bullet. For many of the Oslo generation, that bullet ended the dreams of peace and set Israel on a different trajectory. If not for the vicious campaign of incitement that was waged in the lead-up to the assassination, the terrible loss and trauma that we suffered might have been avoided.
Noa Rothman, the late prime minister’s granddaughter, spoke movingly at a memorial service for Rabin at Mount Herzl this week. After 23 years she reminded the public that the incitement has not diminished, but has increased. We have not learned our lessons. “Blood could be spilled again,” she warned. She pointed to the description of critics as “traitors” by the far-right in Israel.
Over the years, many on the Left in Israel have been called traitors in heated exchanges and at times of tension by those on the Right. For instance, B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence were denounced as traitors by Israel Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman in 2016. When B’Tselem head Hagai El-Ad spoke at the UN recently, Israel’s Ambassador Danny Danon accused him of serving Israel’s enemies. “Shame on you, collaborator.”
These kinds of words are not the way. B’Tselem or Breaking the Silence may be wrong in some of their choices. Addressing the UN at the invitation of Bolivia, a country with its own problematic human rights record, deserves to be confronted – but not through incitement.
Groups that critique Israel should be welcomed as part of Israel’s commitment to democracy; where politicians think that these critics have made mistakes, they should be confronted with ideas, not rancor. The Jewish state was built on ideas; it was built on the strength of Zionist ideals, not through incitement. Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion, as well as the commanders of the Hagana and Irgun, achieved statehood not through speeches, but through action.
While the leadership of anti-Zionist parties in British Palestine and abroad incited against Jewish dreams in the land of Israel, the Zionists built communities and put facts on the ground. Incitement didn’t build the eleven communities overnight on October 5, 1946 which helped Israel later secure the Negev. While the Palestinian leadership incited about “driving the Jews into the sea,” it was pragmatism and strength of activity that carved out the borders of the Jewish state.
Today, Jewish communities throughout the world are threatened by the rising populist extremist rhetoric. Historically, Jews have always been the first to be attacked when extremism and division threaten society. Jews become the target of the extreme Left and Right. We have seen that today with the tidal wave of hatred unleashed by the rise of Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and also the antisemitic incidents in the US and elsewhere in Europe.
It is the duty of leaders such as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump to send a message against incitement. This includes confronting the dangerous rhetoric in the ranks of their parties and supporters. It is not enough to simply say that a few extremists are not connected to the ruling parties, but instead to create a culture of tolerance and decency.