This week, in response to the highly publicized murder of a Jewish family in the West Bank settlement of Itamar, a group of 27 U.S. senators signed a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging her to press Palestinian leaders to end "incitement directed against Jews and Israel within the Palestinian media, mosques, and schools." According to the letter, the grisly killings in Itamar (for which no suspects, Palestinian or otherwise, have been identified), "is a sobering reminder that words matter, and that Palestinian incitement against Jews and Israel can lead to violence and terror."
As evidence for the allegation of pervasive anti-Jewish incitement in Palestinian society, the letter cites a recent, official ceremony honoring Delal Mughrabi, a perpetrator of the 1978 coastal road massacre in Israel, as well as a payment of financial compensation made by the Palestinian Authority to the family of a deceased terror suspect.
Such actions are deserving of condemnation. But if it is indeed the case that "words matter" -and if the elimination of violent and dehumanizing rhetoric is, as the letter says, "critical to establishing the conditions [for] a secure and lasting peace"-then what can explain the senators’ silence on the veritable carnival of hate and racist incitement against Arabs and Palestinians that has lately engulfed Israeli society?
Anyone who reads Israel’s press these days will find it difficult to do so without chancing upon yet another outrageous example of such incitement. Be it the declaration of Rabbi Dov Lior, a senior authority on Jewish law in the Religious Zionism movement, that the offspring of non-Jews possess "genetic traits" of "cruelty and barbarism"; or an open letter signed by dozens of Israel’s municipal chief rabbis calling on Jews "to refrain from renting or selling apartments to non-Jews"; or the wives of those state-sponsored rabbis urging Jewish girls not to date, work with, or perform national service in the company of Arabs; or even news of the publication of "The King’s Torah," a theological text widely endorsed by settler rabbis that authorizes the killing of non-Jewish children and babies, since "it is clear that they will grow to harm us."
Could it be that the senators who so rightfully condemn the glorification of violence when it issues from an obscure Palestinian official are simply unaware of the multiple proclamations of such a prominent figure as Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Shas party (a member of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s governing coalition) and a former Chief Rabbi of Israel’s Sephardi Jewish community? "It is forbidden to be merciful to [Arabs]," Yosef was quoted as saying in 2001, "You must send missiles to them and annihilate them. They are evil and damnable." More recently, Yosef sermonized that "Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] and all these evil people should perish from this world." "God should strike them with a plague, them and these Palestinians," he said.
The poisonous effects of these statements are no less publicly available than the statements themselves, and of equal concern to anyone seeking "to establish the conditions for a secure and lasting peace." Polling has routinely documented the explosion of anti-democratic and militaristic sentiment in Israel, particularly among the youth population. In a Tel Aviv University poll released last year, 49.5 percent of Israeli high school students responded in the negative when asked whether "Arab citizens should be granted rights equal to that of Jews," while a majority of 56 percent said that Israel’s Arab citizens should be ineligible to serve in the country’s parliament. "While an overwhelming majority (91 percent) expressed a desire to enlist in the Israel Defense Forces," reported Haaretz, "48 percent said they would not obey an order to evacuate outposts and settlements in the West Bank." As recently as this week, a new poll was released attesting to the diminished importance of "democracy" among Israeli teens (only 14 percent of whom consider it a national priority), as well as unprecedented levels of reverence for Israel’s military and a marked desire for "strong leadership" at the expense of minority rights.
Not surprisingly, this rising tide of racism in Israeli society has translated into both discriminatory legislation directed against Israel’s Arab citizens and into violent hate crimes which, while not as gruesome as the massacre in Itamar, are more pervasive, bordering on quotidian.
As the New York Times reported last week, a law passed by Israel’s Knesset on March 23 allows "that communities with 400 or fewer families [in the Negev and Galilee, areas with large Arab populations] may set up committees to screen potential residents for whether they fit in socially" – a statute intended to legitimize the barring of Israeli Arabs from Jewish villages. Yet another law, passed during the same legislative session, imposes financial penalties on state-subsidized organizations that would publicly mourn the losses incurred by Palestinians during Israel’s 1948 war of independence. This flurry of anti-democratic legislation follows the successful attempt last year by Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman (who supports a form of ethnic population transfer), to establish a "loyalty oath" requiring non-Jews seeking Israeli citizenship to pledge allegiance to the "Jewishness" of the state.
Such legislation promotes the sense among Jewish Israelis that Arab citizens of Israel present a threat to the body politic, and to the physical security of Jews. It is therefore no coincidence that Israel has recently witnessed a spate of violent attacks on its Arab population. According to the Israeli news website Ynet, a gang of seven Israeli youth, including a fourteen-year old girl, were arrested in December for reportedly "luring" young Arab men to Jerusalem’s Independence Park, where the Arabs were "brutally attacked by the teens with stones, glass bottles and tear gas." Earlier this week, four Palestinian laborers were assaulted in the middle of the night by police after being falsely accused of raping an 11-year-old boy (the boy later admitted he had fabricated the story). "The police treated us like dogs, not like human beings," one of the Palestinians told Israeli Army Radio in an interview on Thursday.
But it should be made clear that the routine acts of violence against Arabs within Israel – and even the daily pogroms, or "price-tag" attacks, inflicted on West Bank Palestinians by rogue settler bands – are only the tip of the iceberg. The whole wide-ranging system of occupation in the West Bank, and the hardhearted policies that promote the economic asphyxiation of the entire civilian population in Gaza – themselves the most deadly form of "incitement" – are underwritten on the ethical and cultural plain by the growing disdain and racial animus against Arabs in Israeli society. On Thursday, Ynet reported that when "Asked how they feel when they think of Arabs, 25% [of Israelis polled] responded with ‘hate’ and 12% responded with ‘fear.’" Is it any surprise, then, that Israelis have grown increasingly tolerant and supportive of government policies that undermine not only the prospect of peace and coexistence with their neighbors, but also their country’s own, much vaunted democratic character?
The senators are correct to inveigh against Palestinian incitement. But doing so in the conspicuous absence of any assessment of Israel’s own rampant and destructive incitement speaks to an agenda driven less by a genuine concern for the physical and moral well-being of Israelis and Palestinians than by domestic politics. Leadership – and peace – demands more than that.
Matt Berkman is a Research Associate at the U.S./Middle East Project, a policy institute in New York City.