By Moshe Phillips
Israeli election campaigns are notorious for extreme accusations and nasty name-calling. But must such distasteful behavior spill over into the American Jewish community?
Writing recently in Ha’aretz, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, a longtime leader of Reform Judaism, denounced Israeli cabinet minister and Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett as “crazy.”
Such epithets contravene the guidelines for civil discourse that the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations adopted back in 1995. They state that “demeaning characterizations and other excesses violate basic Jewish as well as standards of decency while endangering the interests of the community.” Calling a respected Israeli public servant “crazy” simply because one disagrees with some of his positions is certainly demeaning and crosses the line that the Presidents Conference drew in the sand. Rabbi Yoffie’s organization, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, was one of the signatories on those guidelines.
Rabbi Yoffie’s attack on Minister Bennett was off base in more ways than one. Yoffie claimed that Bennett’s plan to have the Palestinian Authority rule areas where most of the Palestinians live, while having Israel annex the areas where few Palestinians live would constitute “abandonment of democratic principles” and would “deny basic human rights” to the Palestinians.
But Bennett’s plan would mean little more than formalizing the situation on the ground that the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin established. To test the Palestinian Authority’s willingness to live in peace, Rabin in 1995 withdrew from the areas in Judea-Samaria (the West Bank) where more than 95% of the Palestinians reside. He maintained control of areas where very few Palestinians live.
The only thing that Rabin–and Bennett–would not grant the Palestinian Authority was the right to establish a full-fledged army. That’s not a “denial of basic human rights.” Nobody has a human right to set up an army in Israel’s back yard.
Rabbi Yoffie predicted that Bennett’s plan would mean the “abandonment of democratic principles.” No need for predictions; we can look at actual experience. Prime Minister Rabin’s strategy of Palestinian self-rule did not make Israel any less democratic; neither would Bennett’s similar plan.
For Rabbi Yoffie to write as if Bennett is proposing some new, radical, untested theory is a disservice to the memory of Prime Minister Rabin and all the sacrifices he made to see if the Palestinians really wanted peace. Rabin tested the Palestinians. He ended Israel’s occupation of more than 95% of the Palestinians. The reason his efforts did not bring peace is not because he was undemocratic or unfair to the Palestinians. It was because the Palestinians themselves have made it clear time and again that they are not sincerely ready to live in peace with Israel.
How do we know? Consider Rabbi Yoffie’s own previous statements on the subject. On June 3, 2001, Yoffie told the annual meeting of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, of which he was president, that the chances for peace were being undermined by the “anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi language in the Palestinian media.”
That point is reminiscent of the address by Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban to the 1968 World Zionist Congress. Eban said that the extreme anti-Jewish propaganda in the Arab media showed that “Nazism is deeply embedded in the style and content of the Arab wore against Israel…[Arab leaders speak] about the Jewish people in terms which would have done justice to the loathsome Goebbels and Streicher.”
Rabbi Yoffie was not alone in the sentiment he expressed in 2001. The entire leadership of Reform Judaism supported him: following his remarks, the UAHC adopted a resolution which stated, in part, “During the past nine months, we have learned a great deal about the Palestinians’ present unwillingness to make the hard choices necessary for peace…We misjudged Palestinian intentions; and we failed to pay enough attention to the culture of hatred created and nourished by Palestinian leaders.”
Rabbi Yoffie and the UAHC were speaking nearly eight years after the signing of the Oslo accords. Eight years after the Palestinian leadership pledged to make peace with Israel, and teach their children to live in peace with Israel. Yet after eight years, they were instead nurturing a “culture of hatred” and using “anti-Semitic and neo-Nazi language.”
Sadly, little has changed since then. In recent weeks, we have heard Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas claiming that Jews are “contaminating” the Al Aqsa Mosque. We have heard his Fatah movement urging the Arab masses to stage “days of rage” against Israel. We have seen the cartoons in the Palestinian Authority-controlled media encouraging Arabs to use their cars to run over Israelis, and showing Israeli soldiers about to rape Arab women. We have heard Secretary of State John Kerry say that the Jerusalem synagogue massacre was “a pure result of incitement” by the PA.
Precisely because so little has changed, because the PA is still promoting a “culture of hatred,” Rabbi Yoffie’s attack on Minister Bennett is badly misplaced. The central danger to Israel today, as in June 2001, is the unending Palestinian war against the Jewish state.