Op-Ed: Jews should confront racism in Israel, too


JERUSALEM (JTA) — The gains made by far-right parties across Europe in the recent European parliamentary elections are certainly cause for concern. But Europe is not the only place Jews should be concerned about the far right rising.

It’s happening in Israel, too.

In Europe, analysts have commentated on the interplay of factors that contributed to the success of overtly racist and ultranationalist parties such as the British National Party in Britain and the Freedom Party in the Netherlands. There is the public mood of fear, frustration and uncertainty fueled by the global economic downturn. There is the prevalence of anti-Islamic sentiment and skepticism of the European Union. There was low voter turnout and a protest vote by those disenchanted with the mainstream left in the wake of the economic crisis, political scandals, and fears over rising immigration and unemployment.

In such a turbulent climate, far-right parties with platforms based on fear-mongering and extremism were well-positioned to pull in votes.

Rightfully, Jewish leaders across the world have been quick to express their consternation over the alarming election results. The European Jewish Congress, for example, decried the "use of racist, xenophobic and anti-Semitic campaigns" and insisted that there "be no tolerance for any elected officials or political parties to espouse racism or anti-Semitism in any form or under any circumstance."

Israel also has seen the far right rise to prominence and power in recent months.

The sweeping popularity of Avigdor Lieberman’s anti-Arab ideology and rhetoric in the campaign leading up to the national elections in February won his Yisrael Beiteinu Party 15 seats in the Knesset. It is now the second-largest party in the governing coalition, and Lieberman has assumed the coveted post of foreign minister.

Lieberman’s ultra-right-wing party campaigned on a racist platform that fanned the flames of fear and hostility toward Israel’s Arab minority. Propelled by the slogan "No loyalty, no citizenship," Lieberman’s key policy proposal was to make Israeli citizenship contingent on pledging a loyalty oath to Israel as a Jewish state and was directed primarily against Israel’s Arab citizens.

The other campaign slogan, "Only Lieberman understands Arabic," was steeped in demagoguery and unbridled racism.

Staying true to campaign promises, Yisrael Beiteinu already has played an instrumental role in pushing forward a slew of anti-democratic legislative proposals mainly targeting the Arab minority. These bills include the Nakba bill, which would make it a criminal offense to hold a public event commemorating Israel’s Independence Day as a "Nakba," or catastrophe, for the Palestinian people; and the loyalty oath bill, which would require new immigrants and 16-year-old Israelis to swear allegiance to the "State of Israel as a Jewish, Zionist and democratic state" as a precondition for obtaining an Israeli identity card.

Lieberman, like his far-right counterparts in Europe, scored significant electoral success in a time of crisis and uncertainty. The election took place in the immediate aftermath of the war in Gaza, when militarism and extreme nationalism were at an all-time high among Jewish Israelis, and against the backdrop of security threats, economic instability and dwindling public faith in democratic politics.

Like his European counterparts, Lieberman constructed an ultranationalist campaign that tapped into the public’s fears while feeding on and fueling the growing atmosphere of racism and intolerance in Israel.

And, like his European counterparts, Lieberman deserves unequivocal condemnation for his racist and anti-democratic messages and policy proposals.

It is the duty of the Jewish leadership around the world to speak out against racism in any form, even when it emanates from Israel. There can be no tolerance for elected officials who incite against minorities and propagate racism anywhere and under any circumstance.

Out of a sense of moral responsibility and credibility, Jewish leaders across the globe must take a strong and consistent stand against racist policies and values promoted by the far right in Israel.

The disturbing trends that we are witnessing in Israel threaten to undermine Israel’s democratic foundations and are contrary to universal human rights values and basic Jewish principles. For those who care deeply about Israel, about Jewish values, and about democracy and equality for all, now is the time to unite around a common message that says no to racism, wherever it arises.

(Gila Orkin is the director of international relations at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.)

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