Americans can hold their heads high for giving no quarter to a racist Twitter attack against a high-profile black woman by a Jewish female comedian. Almost everyone is mortified.
Perhaps she thinks it’s funny? Perhaps it is payback for the dreadful humiliation weeks earlier of a high-profile female politico chained to her chair on the dais at a public dinner by another highly criticized Jewish female comedian?
The funny women are the progeny of Borscht Belt comedians who laughed at themselves. Today, the targets are people whose political beliefs are at odds with their own, turning free speech to dystopia.
Hate speech occurs too frequently in Israel, but without the personal consequences or national chagrin.
A recent video shows a Haredi man chasing teen girls while menacingly waving a stick and screaming at them, as if chasing wild dogs off his Beit Shemesh streets. It is something akin to photos from the Nazi archives. It’s what happens when authorities and the public tolerate misogyny, racism and religious hate.
Israel advocates get their undies twisted in knots when enemies call Israel an apartheid state. Polish officials set off a firestorm, threatening diplomatic relations, by defending the actions of Poles during Nazi occupation. A Romanian government officer wonders aloud what secret deals his head of state is making with the Jews on his visit to Israel.
Likewise, Israelis of all stripes fulminate when President Mahmoud Abbas blames the Holocaust on Jews’ own behavior. Words matter.
But government and moral leaders, the media and the public in Israel are unruffled and feckless at bigoted, racist and misogynistic hate speech.
I heard it all before in the 1960s while working in the U.S. civil rights movement.
Shame on Israel for not punishing leaders who speak hate speech.
Shame on politicians for not using their bully pulpit to challenge banal racist prattle.
Shame on Jewish community leaders for not holding racists responsible.
Shame on moral leaders for the hateful things they say and the silence of the Israeli media.
Ignoring hate speech encourages it. It molders the society. Hate speech embeds self-aggrandizement, which leads to demagoguery. Next, they block the entrances to schools and lunch counters. They make the “others” sit in the back of the bus (including women in Israel). Tweens are chased down a street with a stick and worse.
Monkey See, Monkey Do
Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef gives a weekly public sermon. Explaining a blessing uttered upon seeing an “unusual creature,” the rabbi allegedly likens a black person to a monkey, using the derogatory Hebrew term Kushi.
There are no calls for the rabbi to resign or be fired. There is no shame.
Some claim that the rabbi never meant it in a racist context, but an inference is enough to render the talk racist and obscene. It reminds me of claims by white preachers that slavery is the will of G-d, bestowing on whites the right to defy desegregation.
White, angry parents shouted “monkey” at black children as our team of government civil rights educators wended our way through crowds escorting black children into Northern schools under federal desegregation orders.
Say such a thing today in most democracies, and you’re sacked. A television show is summarily canceled. Rarely in Israel.
There was minimal reaction and no consequences for the company or for the paper with an ad in August 2016 for a job opening including the caveat “does not want Ethiopians.”
There is also a war on women in Israel. They don’t know their place. According to some rabbis, it is in the home, popping out babies.
Rabbi Yosef Kelner is said to believe that women are “weak-minded” and “spiritually limited,” and he compares women with careers to “gorillas.”
Another rabbi claims that educated and financially successful women feel so independent that they undermine Judaism, not wanting marriage. They forsake their role in family life, where they belong.
Another hater claims that the lion’s share of damage to the country is “due to loss of morality” because women in IDF combat units are destructive to Judaism’s moral fiber.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett calls the remarks “intolerable and inappropriate.” No, the remarks are hateful and demeaning. Inappropriate is a cheap reprimand.
Intolerable? Bennett has yet to punish Rabbi Kelner, his institution and others.
Evil Words, Evil Deeds
More stories about racist and misogynist speech in Israel appear in foreign press than in Israel’s media. Reporters here are not hovering, demanding explanations at every corner. Israeli media are not boiling about hate speech or the resulting violence.
Where does bigoted speech lead?
It becomes institutionalized. Rabbis demean the authority of female commanders. There are more than a few instances where Sephardic and Ethiopian children are restricted from enrolling in white schools. There are reports a municipal rabbi of a large city will not marry black couples.
The video of a Haredi man chasing girls with a stick has not been investigated or condemned by local rabbis. His Haredi fellow travelers throw with impunity bags of urine, feces and rocks at women walking through their communities on the wrong side of the street or not wearing Haredi fashion.
The words that deracinate promote hate and violence. Doing nothing about it lets such speech enshrine violence and institutional racism.
Israel ranks 30th on the Democracy Index (2017) out of 167 countries for guaranteeing personal and media freedom of speech. That is one reason for my jeremiad. Like Avis, we need to try harder. It is disappointing that Israel and Israelis treat the matter with benign neglect.
Let’s hope Israelis will take the cogent warning from Dr. Seuss: “Unless someone like you cares a whole lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not.”
Harold Goldmeier is a public speaker, writer and investment consultant who teaches Middle East politics, business and marketing in Tel Aviv to international university students. He was a research and teaching fellow at Harvard and worked for several U.S. governors.