When somebody begins a sentence, ‘I’m not a racist, but...’

For 2,000 years, Jews have lived as a minority – we should know better how to treat others.

Bezalel Smotrich. (photo credit: Courtesy/Regavim)
Bezalel Smotrich.
(photo credit: Courtesy/Regavim)
For a secular Israeli, Passover is the festival that still resonates. Rosh Hashana and Succot provide a good time to go away at the end of a hot summer, the specialness of Yom Kippur centers on the lack of traffic on the roads while Shavuot seems mainly to be the festival of Tnuva and other dairies. Passover, however, is different.
The annual retelling, in a family setting, of the ancient myth concerning the Exodus from Egypt and the creation of the Israeli nation inside the Land of Israel not only creates a bond stretching back generations but also inspires hopes for a better tomorrow – if we learn the lessons of this compelling narrative.
In a radio interview last week, Likud MK Ze’ev Binyamin (Benny) Begin, once regarded as one of the most right-wing members of the Knesset but today viewed as a beacon of moderation given the ugly wave of fascism sweeping over the Israeli Right – Begin himself recently used the term “fascist” when decrying the Im Tirzu campaign against Israeli artists associated with left-wing organizations – made a crucial point that should be the focus of any serious discussion at Seder night.
Condemning the outrageous racist remarks of Bezalel Smotrich, the Bayit Yehudi MK who advocated separate maternity wards for Jewish and Arab women, Begin pointed out that one of the central tasks facing the Jewish majority in the State of Israel today was how to behave toward the country’s large Arab minority. For 2,000 years, Begin noted, Jews have been the minority in the countries in which they lived. Now that we have our own state, he said, we should know better how to treat others.
When somebody begins a sentence “I’m not a racist, but...,” you know the following phrase is not going to be pleasant, and so it was with Smotrich. First of all, he said, “My wife really isn’t a racist, but after giving birth she wants to rest and doesn’t want those mass parties that are the norm among the families of Arab women after birth,” and then went on to make the ridiculous claim, “It’s natural that my wife wouldn’t want to lie next to someone whose baby son might want to murder my son.”
Chances are, of course, that that Arab woman’s baby son is more likely to save his son’s life than harm him. According to a 2011 report by the civil service commissioner’s office, 12.5 percent of Israel’s doctors in the public health system are Arab, as are 11.3% of nurses. A 2015 study by Tel Aviv University meanwhile indicated that Arabs account for 35% of all pharmacists.
Not that this would mollify the Smotrich family. In a chilling Channel 10 television interview, his wife Revital, when asked if she would agree to an Arab doctor delivering her baby, answered: “The moment of birth is a sacred moment, a pure moment.
It’s a moment that is very Jewish. I’d be very pleased if Jewish hands were to touch my baby the moment it enters the world.”
Let’s just imagine, for a moment, the outcry that would have followed say, the deputy speaker of the German Bundestag and his wife making similar comments, talking about not wanting shared maternity wards with Jews and only German doctors delivering “German” babies. Our prime minister would not have missed the opportunity to seize the moral high ground and lecture the world on the dangers of anti-Semitism.
But you can search the Internet in vain for any condemnation by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Knesset’s deputy speaker’s remarks.
A counterpoint to this depressing tendency of those on the Right to view any culture outside our own with, at best, suspicion, comes a fascinating exhibition now showing at the Israel Museum, “Pharaoh in Canaan: The Untold Story,” which chronicles the rich cross-cultural ties between Egypt and Canaan during the second millennium BCE, the time of the biblical narrative of Joseph and Moses. An empty room, save for a video presentation, is devoted to the story of the Exodus from Egypt, pointedly reminding visitors that there is no archeological evidence for the biblical story.
Instead, the exhibition highlights the fact that the during the Canaanite settlement in the eastern part of the Egyptian Delta during the Middle Bronze Age and the consequent period of Egyptian rule over Canaan during the Late Bronze Age, there was a clear cross-fertilization of ritual practices and aesthetic vocabularies between the two distinct ancient cultures.
This message of different cultures, remaining true to their own beliefs while interacting with others, is one from which we can learn, because our society will only flourish if it has the confidence to be open and tolerant of others.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of The Jerusalem Post.