First published by the Middle East Monitor on 30 May 2016
The news that the Israeli cabinet has confirmed the appointment of extremist settler and former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman as Defence Minister is troubling to Palestinians and their supporters. The leader of Yisrael Beiteinu is known for his hatred of Palestinians. In 2015, he said that “Israeli Arabs” who are disloyal to the State of Israel should have “their heads chopped off.” More recently, he initiated a bill that would allow the death penalty for “convicted terrorists”, but only if they were Palestinians. He is also a man who is happy to “lose” Israeli citizens if they are not Jewish, saying: “We won’t be moving people, we will be moving the borders. It’s not a transfer.” He made his comment when asked about land swaps with the Palestinians.
Lieberman is but one example of the extremist leadership that now runs Israel; even its own Environment Minister Avi Gabbay described it as such when announcing his resignation recently. Other extremist members of the Israeli government include Naftali Bennett, leader of Jewish Home, who once said proudly that he had “killed lots of Arabs in his life and there’s no problem with that.” The intolerant Israeli education minister recently banned a novel from the school curriculum because it dared to imagine that a Jew and an Arab could fall in love. Another member of Bennett’s party is the extremist, so called Justice Minister, Ayalet Shaked. She infamously called the entire Palestinian people the enemy and justified their destruction, “including their elderly and their women, their cities and their villages, their property and their infrastructure.” She went on to call for the slaughter of Palestinian mothers who give birth to “little snakes.” More recently, Shaked pushed for a plan to apply Israeli law to the illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, effectively annexing them to Israel.
Culture Minister Miri Regev has insisted that the Israeli flag should fly on every state cultural institution, even in Arab areas. Her extremist views are not new but she has reconfirmed her former statement that African migrants are a “cancer”, adding, “Heaven forbid we compare Africans to human beings.”
Another group now facing an unprecedented attack are leaders and proponents of the peaceful Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Transportation Minister Israel Katz has called for the “civil targeted killing” of BDS leaders like Omar Barghouti. Interior Minister Arye Deri followed this up with a decision not to renew Barghouti’s Israeli travel document, which effectively bans him from travelling.
Sitting at the top of the tree of the most extreme government in Israel’s history is, of course, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The normally skilled communicator of Israel’s “victim” narrative and peace-seeking propaganda let his guard slip in the run up to the 2015 elections, when he promised voters that there would be no Palestinian state “on his watch” and incited against Palestinian citizens of Israel who were going to the polls “in droves”.
If Israel’s political leadership is seen as the most extreme in its history then what about its religious leadership? Take Rabbi Yitzhak Shapiro of Yitzhar as an example. In his book “The King’s Torah” he wrote that even babies and children can be killed if they “pose a threat to the nation.” At the height of Israel’s 2014 war on Gaza, Rabbi Dov Lior – who lives in the occupied West Bank – announced that “Jewish law permits the destruction of Gaza.” This followed the 2007 letter from former Chief Sephardi Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu to then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that there was “absolutely no moral prohibition against the indiscriminate killing of civilians during a potential massive military offensive on Gaza aimed at stopping the rocket launchings.” He advocated the carpet bombing of Gaza. The most recent ruling by a religious leader was Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu‘s call to the Israel Defence Forces to execute rather than arrest alleged Palestinian attackers.
Even when it comes to coexisting with Israel’s Palestinian minority, its religious leaders tend to fall on the side of racism. In 2010, dozens of top Israeli rabbis signed a ruling to forbid the rental of homes to “Arabs”. Furthermore, the religious ranks have been silent on the predicament of the Bedouin citizens of Israel. Although what was called the ‘Prawer Plan’ to displace thousands of Bedouins from their homes in the Negev into what are more or less US Native American-style reservations was defeated, Israel has continued to implement it by stealth. The obscenity of destroying Bedouin villages and displacing their residents against their will only to build Jew-only settlements on the ruins has not troubled the religious leadership of Israel. This applies in particular to the Negev villages of Umm Al-Hiran and Atir.
You would be hard pressed to see any condemnation of the attack on the Bedouins in Israeli society, which I have described as being in a deep moral coma. Not only has its leadership moved towards extremism and racism but so too has the society that it represents. How else do you explain the recent call for Palestinian and Jewish mothers to give birth in segregated hospital wards? Jewish Home’s Bezalel Smotrich supported this call, saying: “My wife is truly no racist, but after giving birth she wants to rest rather than have a hafla [a mass feast often accompanied by music and dancing] like the Arabs have after their births.” He claimed that, “It’s natural that my wife wouldn’t want to lie down [in a bed] next to a woman who just gave birth to a baby who might want to murder her baby twenty years from now.”
It seems that Israeli society wants to see segregation not only in maternity wards but also in schools. A recent poll reported that half of Israeli Jews do not want “Arabs” teaching their children. The figure rose to 82 per cent among Israel’s religious Jews.
Anyone looking to the political left for an alternative will be disappointed. Israel’s Labour Party accepted its leader’s plan for separation from Palestinians, particularly around Jerusalem. It is, therefore, clear that Israeli society, religious leadership and political leadership are moving dangerously towards further racism, with not only separation from the Palestinians under occupation but also their Palestinian fellow citizens of Israel. The collective lurch to extremism and intolerance will increase the disdain towards Israel held by ordinary people around the world; increasingly, this includes Jews, particularly in the US. The success of BDS and the recent refusal of Holland, Ireland and Sweden to condemn or outlaw the campaign will increase pressure on Israel just when it thought that its friends would criminalise the movement across the world.
While BDS is succeeding in isolating Israel to some degree, though, it is Israel’s own lurch towards extremism that will increase its isolation even further. The government of Israel can choose to end this by ending the occupation, ensuring equality among its citizens and allowing the Palestinian refugees to return. It’s Israel’s call.