On Isaac Herzog’s remarks: Racial purity is reprehensible in any language

David Sheen — Middle East Eye July 7, 2018

Long before Donald Trump became US president, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had stopped pretending to care whether the mostly liberal community of American Jews would keep backing his hawkish policies. Having secured the unflappable support of hardcore Republicans – especially far-right fundamentalist Christians – Netanyahu calculated that he needn’t bother paying lip service to political progressives any longer, even if they’re Jewish.

A year into Trump’s presidency, Netanyahu began explaining why he’s willing to write off liberal US Jews: He believes that within a generation or two, they will no longer exist.

Netanyahu’s office denied the accuracy of a news report that suggested this last year, but publisher Makor Rishon – an Israeli newspaper owned by US casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, a political patron of both Netanyahu and Trump – noted that Netanyahu had “repeated this assessment several times in private talks and that Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, has been heard making similar projections”.

Twisted logic

It should come as no surprise that Israeli government factions to the right of Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party also agree with his fatal assessment regarding the world’s next-largest community of Jews. Mere hours after 2016 US presidential election, Israeli minister and Shas party leader Aryeh Deri also hailed Trump’s victory as a sure sign of the decline of liberal Jewry.

Netanyahu and coalition partner Deri agree on the reason for their purported impending doom: non-Orthodox American Jews are as likely to be in a romantic relationship with a Gentile as they are with a Jew. According to this twisted logic, inter-religious relationships are nothing more than a “disease”. In July, Deri took to Twitter to lambaste the Reform movement for “contending that mixed marriages are not a disease and that we must not see marriages between a Jew and a Gentile as [sic] failure”.

While Israel’s right and far-right see the supposed ebbing influence of liberal Jewry as a blessing, Israeli centrists like former Labor party leader Isaac Herzog view it with some concern. Regardless of his own religious inclinations, Herzog has depended upon some of those very liberal US Jews for financial support in internal Israeli elections, so he must take care not to offend their sensibilities, much less cheer on their extinction.

To the leaders of liberal US Jews, Herzog’s 4.5-year stint as Israel’s opposition leader qualifies him to chair the Jewish Agency, the parastatal body he was recently elected to lead. The organisation is often referred to as the government of the global Jewish community, and its chair as the “prime minister of the Jewish people”.

In fact, Herzog’s parliamentary record reveals that, on key issues, the differences between him and Netanyahu are barely perceptible. But his competition for the Jewish Agency role was not exactly fierce. A month before the vote, his main rival, Netanyahu minister Yuval Steinitz, openly blasted Israel’s EU allies, saying that the European Union could “go to a thousand hells”.

Anti-miscegenation talking points

Still, on the very day he was appointed to the coveted Jewish Agency position, Herzog revealed that his views on inter-marriage are not very different from Netanyahu, Deri, or even, for that matter, Bentzi Gopstein. The latter leads Lehava, an anti-miscegenation gang that patrols Israeli cities and mentally and physically harasses mixed-race couples.

In an interview with Israeli TV, Herzog adopted anti-miscegenation talking points. Identifying the issues he intends to tackle as incoming Jewish Agency chair, Herzog listed marriages between Jews and non-Jews as his first order of business. “I encountered something that I termed an actual plague. I saw my friends’ children married or coupled with non-Jewish partners,” Herzog said, later adding: “There must be a campaign, a solution. We have to rack our brains to figure out how to solve this great challenge.”

Reporting on Herzog’s comments by Middle East Eye and others created a bit of buzz in the days that followed. Some outside observers were shocked that an ostensibly liberal leader would incite against intermarried couples and use what amounts to eliminationist language to describe them.

After a few days, Herzog finally responded to the furore, insisting to the influential US Jewish news site Jewish Daily Forward that he had done no wrong. In an interview with editor-in-chief Jane Eisner, Herzog maintained that his Hebrew had been misinterpreted: “The discourse on interfaith relations is different in Israel, he said. He was using magefa [Ed: plague] as a slang word: ‘I didn’t mean it in any negative terms’.”

It is absolutely astounding that to dismiss criticism of his comments, Herzog invented an easily disprovable falsehood: that he did not mean the word “plague” as an insult. But there is no Hebrew translator in the world – human or machine – who will say the word magefa means anything other than a plague. The word has no non-negative context, no meaning other than an infectious disease.

Contemptuous comments

Herzog could have taken responsibility for his contemptuous comments and said sorry to mixed families. He could have owned his error and issued a public apology, embracing inter-religious couples as valued members of their societies whose life decisions – and life partners – must be accepted and respected in any country that claims to be a democracy.

But instead of retracting his racist remarks and trying to atone for them, Herzog blatantly lied in an attempt to whitewash them.

If there was any lingering doubt over his intended slight, Herzog cleared it up right after the interview, when he traveled to pay tribute to some of the most racist rabbis in Israel’s history. At the grave of former Sephardi Chief Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Herzog received a blessing from his son, Yitzhak Yosef, the current chief rabbi. According to Israeli media, Herzog thanked Yosef for the blessing he received, which included calling upon him to “defend the Jewish people from miscegenation”.

Israeli Leader of the opposition Isaac Herzog attends the annual Herzliya Conference on June 22, 2017 in the central Israeli city of Herzliya. / AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ

Israeli Leader of the opposition Isaac Herzog attends the annual Herzliya Conference on June 22, 2017 in the central Israeli city of Herzliya. / AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ

It’s unfortunate that Herzog sees Jewish-Gentile families as a plague for which he hopes to find a solution. Sadly, this is a consensus position that unites Israel’s far-right with its radical centre.

But while Herzog’s comments were horrid, the attempt to cover them up is even more mendacious.

Unreliable media

At the Forward, Eisner provided a platform for Herzog to explain away his comments, and did not even bother to ask any Hebrew speaker whether his alibi was at all plausible. Eisner just published Herzog’s obvious falsehood and then proceeded to fawn all over him for not being a carbon copy of Netanyahu, and for descending from Zionism’s founding families, the Israeli equivalent of royalty.

As I wrote last week in Middle East Eye, Herzog’s revered grandfather, for whom he was named, was the chief rabbi who established the Lehava of yesteryear, the anti-miscegenation posse of 1930s-era Palestine.

In her op-ed, Eisner totally ignores Israel’s ongoing war on inter-racial families, and refers to those who criticised Herzog’s comments as “hysterical”.

But if the opposition leader of a Christian-or-Muslim-majority state was filmed calling Jews “an actual plague” that required “a solution”, we can safely assume that the first instinct of any reputable Jewish journal would be to interrogate those comments, not to carry water for them.

By contrast, Israeli media have been a bit more honest about the whole affair. The far-right Channel 7 published a piece entitled “Herzog, the right man in the right place,” which carried the sub-headline: “His seeing mass miscegenation in the diaspora as a horrible plague that threatens to annihilate us qualifies him to head the Jewish Agency.”

Even as Israel gallops towards Gomorrah, spiralling towards the unthinkable at increasing speed, liberal Zionists will tie themselves into knots to avoid admitting to Israeli bias and bigotry. They cannot be relied upon to report accurately on Israeli society, and they cannot be trusted to tell the truth about its rampant racism.

As for Herzog himself, he has shown himself to be nothing but a big zero. And I definitely mean that as a negative term.

David Sheen is an independent journalist and filmmaker born in Canada, now reporting from Israel-Palestine. His work focuses primarily on racial tensions and religious extremism. In 2017, Sheen was named a human rights defender for his reporting by the Ireland-based Front Line Defenders. His website is www.davidsheen.com and he tweets from @davidsheen.

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