From the Editor

Silence Revisited

Menahem Kahana / AFP / Getty Images

Yesterday I blogged about Wednesday night’s race riot in south Tel Aviv and the resulting silence from American Jewish groups. Thankfully, that has now begun to change. Kathy Manning, chairwoman of the board of trustees of the Jewish Federations of North America, said the Federations “deplore expressions of racism, the stereotyping of population groups and, of course, all violence.” Rabbi Steve Gutow, the president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said “We hope and expect that the authorities will take effective measures to protect this population from further violence and that legitimate requests by refugees to remain in Israel based on fear of persecution in their home countries will be considered humanely and with due process.” Good for the JCPA for condemning not only the violence but also recent calls by government ministers for mass detention or deportation of migrants.

The Anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman, to his credit, condemned the “inflammatory rhetoric being expressed by some politicians, some of which has veered into racism,” thus acknowledging the role of Knesset members, including those from Likud, in inciting Wednesday’s violence. But the ADL’s statement also contained this bizarre equivalency: “We are seriously concerned about the growing tensions in Israel over the issue of African migrants, and reports of lawlessness and violence committed by and directed against the migrants. We call on all parties to work to calm the tensions.” Lawlessness and violence committed by African migrants? Yes, there have been reports of rape by African refugees, and newspaper reports certainly suggest that Jewish demonstrators feel the migrants have made their neighborhood less safe. But reading the ADL statement, one might assume that what happened Wednesday night was a brawl between Jewish and African gangs, not an anti-African riot incited by Knesset members against a largely defenseless population. Imagine if an American border town responded to claims of criminality by illegal immigrants by holding a rally where Members of Congress called Mexican immigrants a “cancer” and a “plague,” after which local residents rampaged through town beating immigrants and trashing their shops. Would the ADL condemn the “lawlessness and violence” on both sides and call on “all parties to work to calm the tensions?” I doubt it.

Still, at least the ADL said something. AIPAC didn’t even do that. Nor did the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which not only didn’t make a statement, but didn’t even include the riot in the digest of Israel-related news prepared for it daily. Groups like the ADL have to balance their defense of Jewish interests with a stated commitment to universal principles like human rights. AIPAC and the Presidents’ Conference don’t have to worry about that. Their relationship to human rights is entirely instrumental: It represents a useful vocabulary through which to defend Israeli policy but never a yardstick against which Israeli behavior can publicly be found wanting. The mainstream American Jewish community is essentially divided between organizations that try, awkwardly, to balance Israel advocacy and democratic values and those that only cite the latter to further the former. And the organizations with no substantive commitment to democratic values wield far more power.