Israeli leaders have a duty to speak out against a climate of division and hatred

There are worrying parallels with the atmosphere leading to Rabin's assassination.


TOPSHOT - Head of Israel's right-wing Yamina party Naftali Bennett addresses lawmakers during a special session to vote on a new government at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on June 13, 2021. - Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced the likely end of his 12-year rule as a fragile alliance of his political enemies hoped to oust him in a parliament vote and form a new government. (Photo by Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP) (Photo by EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images)

May 05, 2022 09:45

Last week, Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his family received two death threats in the mail. Both letters had a live bullet attached.

Israel was shaken to its core in 1995 when Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin was shot and killed by Igal Amir, a right-wing extremist. So when a prime minister is sent bullets in the post, we can’t afford to ignore the warning signs.

Too many people describe Igal Amir as a lone wolf. We talk about violent extremists as bad apples, as the people on the side-lines. Of course they aren’t the majority - but they don’t exist in a vacuum.

We have a duty to learn and be aware of the behaviours, language and actions that allowed the murder of a prime minister to take place.

Rabin’s murder was not simply about one event on one day. It was part of a very long process of incitement, hate, lies and propaganda that led to death threats, violence and eventually three bullets and a dead Prime Minister.

Dvir Kariv, formerly a senior Shin Bet official (the Israeli Security Service), spoke about this recently on Israel’s Channel 11. He pointed to the fact that while extremists like Igal Amir are not sent by anyone, in their minds they believe they are representing a specific camp. It’s therefore crucial that the people who lead that “camp” speak out and condemn inflammatory language and threats.

The leader of Israel’s right, Benjamin Netanyahu, has however said nothing. Worse, he has fanned the flames of hatred, with help from his sons, his MKs and far-right allies, such as Bezalel Smotrich – whose response to the death threats against Bennett was to suggest that they were a spin story, a distraction.

Meanwhile we’ve seen increasingly divisive politics in Israel’s right wing – a wing Bennett has been historically part of, but which now labels him a traitor and a defector.

Netanyahu’s son Avner – the tamer of the two sons –recently called Bennett a liar and a conman (the most common insult currently used by Netanyahu supporters) and compared him to historical figures who pose a danger to the Jewish people as a whole: Herod Archelaus and Abimelech. These are specific and carefully chosen references, painting the PM as a historic threat to Jews.

In the lead up to November 1995 we saw similar, if not identical, methods of provocation, populism, and political hatred. How can anyone forget the image of Benjamin Netanyahu standing on the balcony as crowds called Rabin a traitor, while extremists burned his effigy and held posters showing targets on Rabin’s head?

Naftali Bennett can be accused of a lot of things but being a left-wing politician is not one of them. Bennett’s party is right wing. He is an ideological settler, who has traditionally aligned himself to the parties and politicians who are now attacking him.

His cardinal sin is twofold. First, he unseated Netanyahu, who has a hardcore baseline support like no other politician in Israel. Second, he has formed a government with not only an Arab party but with two parties on the left. And in Israel, Netanyahu has turned the term ‘left’ into a slur, while the word ‘Arab’ for many is akin to ‘terrorist’.

By using consistent tactics of delegitimisation, Netanyahu has been very successful in creating a narrative whereby the left are anti-Israel traitors and the right are the right kind of Zionist. But not just any right: his right wing. In other words, supporting Netanyahu is being pro-Israel. Anything but that is a sign of being a traitor and a danger to Israel’s very existence.

The pattern of incitement is clear and we ought to take note of all the red flags.

It was Itamar Ben Gvir, former extremist activist and now extremist MK, who was interviewed in ‘95 while holding the symbol stolen from Rabin’s car. He said it served as a reminder of “how close” they could get to the late PM.

The threats and language haven’t changed, nor have the extremists and populist leaders involved in stirring up hatred.

Israel is a nation divided. Some might paint it as diverse, and that’s not untrue, but divisions run deep: Mizrachi and Ashkenazi, Left and Right, Charedi and secular, Israelis and Palestinians - the list goes on. Divisions are a gift for populists.

A couple of months ago, Bezalel Smotrich arrived in the UK and was swiftly and loudly rejected by the Board of Deputies. More than ever it’s clear this was the right call. The response to extremism isn’t compromise. We must be clear in our absolute rejection of those who seek to sew division and hatred. Leaders have a responsibility and a duty to fight hate and incitement - not to negotiate with it.

May 05, 2022 09:45

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