Incitement in Tel Aviv

May 25, 2012

J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami shares his thoughts on Wednesday's violence in Tel-Aviv:

Like many American Jews, I grew up believing that my people would always be at the forefront of protests against racism, not perpetrating it. I believed that history obliged us to fight not tolerate, much less engage in, prejudice.

So, seeing pictures and reading first-hand reports of Wednesday night’s riot in which Jews targeted African refugees in Tel Aviv left me shocked and saddened.

The violence took place in a neighborhood struggling with poverty and hardship. The presence of tens of thousands of jobless refugees – mostly from Eritrea and Sudan – has added to the troubles facing an already burdened area.

The residents’ grievances over crime and lack of services are real. Their desire for change and answers is legitimate.

But what happened Wednesday is simply inexcusable. As President Shimon Peres reminded us, “hatred of foreigners contradicts the foundations of Judaism.”

What’s most distressing about Wednesday’s events is the role played by Members of Israel's Knesset in inciting the crowd to violence. One is a disciple of Meir Kahane. Others are identified with extreme-right views on issues related to Palestinians and Arabs.

It's no surprise to see those who peddle hate against one group inciting a crowd to violence against another. This incident is part of a pattern of broader and disturbing actions by these MKs that put Israel’s democracy and the rule of law at risk.

Thankfully, their words and behavior have drawn public rebuke from the country’s leaders. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the violence and the role of the public officials who were present, saying, “I want to make it clear that there is no place for the statements and acts that we witnessed yesterday.”

Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin added, “When the masses are furious, public leaders must try to contain that anger and offer a solution, not to fan the flames. We must not use the same language anti-Semites use against us. We are a people that suffered a great deal of incitement and harassment, and we have an obligation to be extra sensitive and moral.”

American Jewish groups spoke out as well, with the Anti-Defamation League saying, “We are disturbed by inflammatory public statements made by certain Israeli officials, some of which has veered into racism. These statements are counterproductive and only serve to further inflame tensions.”

You too can express your personal outrage, if you’d like, thanks to the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), which immediately began organizing Israelis and Jews worldwide to speak out against both the violence and the incitement. (Please click here to sign IRAC's open letter.)

Let’s be very clear: the words and actions of a few on the fringes don’t speak for an entire people or a nation.

All countries have their extremists. They seek opportunity in despair by peddling hate and promoting fear.

But the test for those nations is how they deal with their most extreme fringe. And there is a growing fringe in Israel whose values are out of sync with those of the Jewish community broadly and whose actions are undermining their country's interests.

The challenge for Israel now – whether dealing with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the religious-secular divide, refugees, or the status of women – is to establish what kind of country the national home of the Jewish people is going to be. Will it reflect the best values and principles that our people have brought to the world over the millennia? Or will it reflect the likes of the MKs who brought us Wednesday’s riots?

I know that I'll be standing with millions who live in Israel – and millions who don't – in fighting for a country rooted in the values on which I was raised.

I'll be fighting for an Israel to which my children and grandchildren will be deeply connected and of which they will be proud.

And I'll be fighting to ensure that the people on stage Wednesday evening inciting the crowd to violence against refugees do not destroy the amazing nation that the Jewish people longed for 2000 years to regain.