Last summer, about a week before Israel invaded Gaza and just one day before settlers in East Jerusalem kidnapped and murdered Palestinian teenager Mohammed Abu Khdeir, Israeli politician Ayelet Shaked took to Facebook to call for the genocide of Palestinians. Quoting an unpublished article by a settler activist, she wrote:
What’s so horrifying about understanding that the entire Palestinian people is the enemy? Every war is between two peoples, and in every war the people who started the war, that whole people, is the enemy…They are all enemy combatants, and their blood shall be on all their heads. Now this also includes the mothers of the martyrs, who send them to hell with flowers and kisses. They should follow their sons, nothing would be more just. They should go, as should the physical homes in which they raised the snakes. Otherwise, more little snakes will be raised there.
Even in the fiercely nationalistic environment of Israeli politics, the far-right firebrand recently described in the Daily Beast as “The Scariest Politician in Israel” managed to stick out.
On Wednesday night, a crowd of several dozen gathered at the Yeshiva University Museum on a quiet residential block in downtown Manhattan to hear a conversation between Cardozo law professor Suzanne Last Stone and Shaked, who was appointed Israel’s Justice Minister in May. Held in the museum’s small atrium, the event had the subdued atmosphere of a book reading. The only sign of her status as a controversial politician was the presence of a small security detail standing around the perimeter of the room in suits and earpieces. The name of the talk was “The Justice of Shmita,” referring to the traditional Jewish sabbatical year. Shaked spoke of how, as part of shmita, her party – the Naftali Bennett-led Jewish Home – had supported debt forgiveness for some 30,000 Israelis (an unusual move for a far-right party, but one in which Shaked claims to find no contradiction).
Professor Stone’s laid-back demeanor gave the impression of someone undisturbed by Shaked’s record of racial incitement. She made no mention of the infamous “snakes” rant, but pushed back slightly against some of the more blatant xenophobia. Invoking the “resident stranger,” she wondered if perhaps Shaked was being a little too inhospitable, at least to the immigrants already living within Israel’s borders. According to Jewish tradition, the resident stranger – or ger toshav – is a non-Jew who accepts some of the commandments of the Torah in return for permission to reside in Israel. Stone’s focus on tradition rather than politics or international law comes with its own set of problems. A more in-depth reading of the Jewish notion of ger toshav might mention this questionable edict from Leviticus: “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property.” Drawing on Jewish tradition to shape modern morality can be a losing battle.
As it turns out, drawing on Jewish tradition to challenge Ayelet Shaked is a losing battle as well. Whenever Stone tried to broach the subject of “Jewish values,” it became evident that Shaked had no interest in such values, at least in the traditional religious sense of the term. Liberty, nonviolence, justice – to her and the Jewish Home party, all can be readily sacrificed to the overarching mission of ethnic and religious homogeneity. The ideology of Naftali Bennett is hostile to any interpretation of Judaism that would place greater emphasis on these values than on settlement expansion, wars of aggression, and the jailing of innocent refugees.
The more Stone tried to bring the discussion back to the topic of values, the more the two women talked past each other. Shaked claimed that Israel – unlike the U.S. – was simply not a country of immigrants, and that the refugee crisis must be addressed with proper consideration for the so-called demographic threat posed by a sudden influx of non-Jews.
Putting aside the Jewish refugees who fled to Israel to escape the Holocaust and the Palestinian refugees who fled from Israel to escape the Nakba, the history of Israel as told in the Torah is explicitly a story of refugees. The power of the book of Exodus, to Jews and gentiles alike, is to depict the escape from captivity and journey to a promised land of milk and honey where suffering and persecution could give way to peace and prosperity. And yet when asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea track Moses’ path across the Sinai in order to escape war and genocide, they are treated like vermin by the white supremacists of the Jewish Home party, who demand their captivity in Saharonim Prison.
There is something almost refreshing about Shaked’s bluntness, the shameless ease with which she warns of the demographic threat posed to Israel’s Jewish character by “infiltrators” and the bill she passed to stop them. The African immigrants she speaks of, many of whom arrive by foot, are fleeing horrific circumstances and are trying to make Israel their home. They have no intention to destroy the country or attack its inhabitants. Yet to Shaked, they are menaces nonetheless, solely by virtue of their not being Jewish. This is Zionism unvarnished, free of any mitigating factors – compassion, mercy, acceptance – that secular humanism might provide. Speaking at length about the conflict between Israel’s Jewish character and its supposed commitment to democracy, Shaked said there are three kinds of Israelis: those who see Judaism and democracy as equally important, those who prize Judaism over democracy, and those who want to be “democratic but not Jewish.” The very idea of a secular democratic state elicited a chuckle from someone behind me.
There were a few passing mentions of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign (BDS), not as a full-fledged protest movement with concrete demands and a principled stance, but merely as something to be “defeated.” Yet the fact that it was even discussed should be seen as a good sign: the fear of a boycott was every bit as palpable as the fear of immigrants. There was also some mention of administrative detention – or imprisonment without trial – one of the the means by which Israel exerts total control over its Palestinian subjects. Administrative detention is also being used to hold right-wing Jewish terrorists held in connection with the recent deadly arson attack in the West Bank. And Shaked acknowledged that the perpetrators were “probably” Jewish.
There are echoes of Trump in Shaked’s fear-mongering about “infiltrators” – to the Israeli right (and arguably to the Israeli public at large), Palestinians and Africans play the same role as Mexicans do to the American white nationalist crowd. What was striking about the event was just how nakedly Shaked played on fears of The Other – even using the phrase “the other” to describe those who fall outside the purview of Jewish self-interest. This Other includes refugees, asylum seekers, Palestinians living under occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, and Arab citizens of Israel. It does not, however, include homosexuals, as Shaked was quick to point out in her broken English: “Regarding the gays, by the way, we support all the civil rights for gays and we promote also that gays can have the mortgage.”
During the Q&A, an elderly refugee from Nazi Germany stood up to express his displeasure. “This conversation has been far too polite,” he protested, describing Israel as “one of the most bellicose countries on earth” and saying it made him “very sad” to see Israel’s rightward turn under Netanyahu. Though Israel’s history teems with liberal politicians arguing for policies similar to Shaked’s call for ethnic cleansing to maintain Jewish purity, it was refreshing to see a semblance of sanity among all the racist calls for preserving “Jewish identity.” The man sat down, his sour expression unchanged.
For the first time that night, Shaked appeared rattled. “I didn’t hear a question,” she said. And with that, the event came to an end.