Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin apologized to Jamal Julany, one of the victims of a racist attack in Zion Square, during his visit to the 17-year-old.
“We are sorry,” said Rivlin, a Likud Party leader. He went on to say, “It is hard to see you hospitalized because of an inconceivable act” and “What happened is the responsibility of every leader and member of Knesset.”
The Jewish month of Elul calls us to evaluate our actions and mend our ways to avoid the same mistakes next year. An honest evaluation will reveal that this unprovoked attack on three Arab youths by dozens of Israeli teenagers is part of a phenomenon much broader than the character of these youths. It is the result of the chronology of prolonged Israeli government tolerance toward Jewish religious extremism and its manifestations, and of the government’s tacit acceptance of racist incitement toward Israel’s Arab minority by certain members of Knesset and a number of extreme Orthodox rabbis.
Every religion has its extremists; Judaism is no different. Notably in this raging culture war, the chief rabbi of Safed, Shmuel Eliyahu, has repeatedly called Israel’s 1.2 million Arab citizens “the enemy” and urged Jews not to rent or sell apartments to Arabs. He also claims that all Arabs have a violent nature. In his manifesto published in March 2008, he wrote, “The time has come to tell the truth. Providing a livelihood for our enemies leads to grave consequences.”
Shmuel Eliyahu is not alone. There are approximately 50 state-employed Israeli rabbis who, like Eliyahu, engage openly in racist rhetoric toward non-Jews with impunity. While Israeli law clearly states that racist incitement is a criminal offense, there have been no disciplinary measures or a serious police investigation.
When leading public figures dehumanize others, the descent from hateful speech to violent acts is often swift and severe. These rabbis did not physically attack the three Arab teens still recovering in the hospital, but their words and teachings were a major catalyst and a spiritual motivation for their impressionable young followers to take the next step and actually commit a violent act.
There is a direct connection between the immunity given to rabbis and the ease with which a group of teenagers beat up a 17-year-old Arab boy to “teach him a lesson” about eyeing Jewish girls in Zion Square. If the government of Israel is truly appalled by the attack in Zion Square, here is a suggestion: As the state has the power to fire civil servants who are racists, why not use this power immediately?
The Israel Religious Action Center is monitoring racist statements by rabbis and pursuing legal and public action against them. Our recent report, “Love the Stranger as Yourself? Racism in the Name of Halacha,” details this disturbing trend.
Racist incitement recently has taken on a new focus: Jewish women and their purity. In Zion Square, flyers are being distributed in Arabic that read “Our girls are dear to us, just like you don’t want a Jew to date your sister, we also are not willing to accept an Arab dating one of our women. Just like you would do anything to stop a Jew from dating your sister, so would we! Last week, an Arab who thought he could come here and find a Jewish girlfriend was hurt, we don’t want you to get hurt, respect the honor of our girls because they are dear to us!”
Misogyny and racism meet again, this time disguised as Judaism. The Israeli Movement for Progressive Judaism is working to answer the questions that these recent events pose: What is our Jewish obligation to the non-Jewish minority in Israel? How do we respond to the objectification of women in service of racism?
Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora must offer answers to these burning questions. Jews everywhere have the responsibility to respond to racist statements by Jewish extremists. It is our duty as Jews to remind others and ourselves that the Torah commands us to love the stranger 36 times more than any other commandment.
Jamal Julany remembers nothing of the attack. He is struggling in his hospital bed to gain back the use of his limbs, his eyes and his ears. We must remind ourselves, and the State of Israel, of every blow he received and demand that the state stop turning a blind eye and a deaf ear to racism in its own ranks.
This first appeared as an op-ed in JTA.