Last week UTJ MK Israel Eichler was thrown out of a meeting on the exclusion of women for inappropriate behavior. During the meeting he called Reform Jews anti-semites. He also threatened the Committee chairwoman Tzipi Hotoveli saying “she marked herself as an enemy of the Haredi Judaism” and that “Hotovely would pay for her actions.”. He was furious that Hotovely would even invite Reform Jews to a meeting and hear their research on the exclusion of women.
Being thrown out sent a message that fell on deaf ears. Later that day when the Israeli Movement for Reform Judaism (IMPJ) said it planned to file a complaint against Israel Eichler to the Knesset Ethics Committee, he scoffed, saying he has no need to worry about “such a far fetched complaint”.
People usually throw temper tantrums when they run out of reasonable words and arguments. However, there is a concerning pattern here.
This isn’t the first time this year he has been thrown out of a Knesset committee meeting. In January th Knesset was discussing an affordable housing bill and Livni objected to the plan proposed by Israel’s Minister of Construction, Attias, saying that the way the plan determined need virtually ensured that all of the people receiving housing would be haredim. Although her arguments were based on sociological data and current policy, MK Eichler was convinced that her only motive was hate. He shot back that she was “our enemy”.
Nor is this year the first time, he has made such comments. Israel Eichler has a long history of polemical and anti-anyone-but-Haredim remarks.
He views himself as a fighter to protect Haredim. Just before taking over Meir Porush’s Knesset chair in February, 2011, he told Kobi Nachshoni of Ynet that he wanted to negate the legitimacy of anti-Haredi discrimination which is spread and financed by sources in the USA and Europe and creates hatred. We will use all means to fight it, including discussing it in a Knesset investigative committee. All of our struggle will be to preserve Jewish culture and the soul of Israel, may it never be extinguished.
Of course, as is clear from his latest Knesset ouster, his definition of “Jewish” does not include fellow religious Reform and Conservative Jews. Nor does it include secular Jews whom he barely sees as human. He once described secular Jews as “a generation of people who look like beasts and behave like two-legged animals”
In fact, it turns out the entire state of Israel isn’t part of his definition of Jewish either. He has also abused Nazi symbolism to paint wider Israel as a genocidal force out to destroy his community of Jews. He has liked the media to a “crematoria” and secular Jews fighting to keep Ramat Aviv mall open on Shabbat as “Nazis”. Among some of the other statements about Israel he has made over the years:
- Israel is “an enemy state”
- Israel is “a historical national disaster”
- Israel is “an evil regime”
- “all talk of democracy is just lies and hypocrisy”
- “There is no further basis for us to be one people”.
Nor is this the first time he has shown a twisted standard. In a November, 2011 Knesset committee meeting on Kol BaRama, the Sephardic-Haredi Radio Station that refuses to include women in its broadcasting schedule, he insisted on freedom of the press. However, freedom in context did not mean the positive right to express a viewpoint. Rather it was the negative right to surpress the words of others, particularly women.
In a Democracy, Awareness, not Silence
Diaspora readers should not think that the existence of an Israel Eichler in the Knesset means that Israel itself is full of hate. Israel is a democracy so no matter how offensive Israel Eichler’s words are, he has a right to say them. Hiddush CEO Uri Regev stressed this point when Hiddush prepared a report listing all of Eichler’s hate speech and distributed it to members of the Knesset. Awareness, not silence, is how a democracy best deals with noxious speech:
It’s a good thing we live in a modern democracy, which allows us to express such extremist views against the state and democracy in public. However, it is important that we recognize the new MK’s attitude towards the state, Zionism, and anyone who isn’t ultra-Orthodox, and remember the hostile attitude of United Torah Judaism towards the government of which it is a member.
However, vocal protest is also part of the way democracy deals with hateful speech.
Protest is also Part of Democracy
Back in 1990 in the USA, when David Duke, a former Klu Klux Klan Grand Wizard well known for his racism and anti-antisemitism tried to run as a Republican for Senate, his own party repudiated him even though it meant losing the Senate seat to a Democrat. After a national outcry against Duke’s campaign, the party concluded that the bad reputation that came from being associated with such a hate monger-er would spill over into other elections and hurt the party as a whole.
Now Israeli politics is not US politics. However, it is still fair to ask: “Why hasn’t United Torah Judaism (UTJ) repudiated Israel Eichler?” Why did they even give him a Knesset seat in the first place? Why don’t they remove him? Why isn’t someone as hateful as Israel Eichler considered a political liability?
It was only last December that the Haredi community was fighting to distance its communal identity from the thugs in Beit Shemesh who attacked reporters, women, and little girls. It was only last December that Haredim fought to distance themselves from protesters in Kikar Shabbat who dressed up like Holocaust vicitms. Is Eichler really the face that Haredi Judaism, and in particular the UTJ, wants to present to the rest of Israel? Can we believe that the protesters in Kikar Shabbat are an abberation when the UTJ is silent about hate speech, including Eichler’s occasional use of Holocaust imagery for his own polemics?
And why isn’t there a public outcry demanding his resignation or at least a condemnation from UTJ? The IMPJ is planning to file a complaint to the ethics committee, but where are the other Israelis speaking out against hate speech?
When David Duke ran for office, black and white US citizens repulsed by his attitudes rose up. In Israel there are no shortage of columnists protesting that Israeli society must not take away a single exemption from the Haredim, because they are a minority and democracy must protect its minority. According to the Avi Chai/IDI study the Reform and Conservative movements are a minority that have the same size as the Haredim: Reform + Conservative is 8% and Haredi/Hardal is 9%. Eichler’s attitudes have been well known for years, but there is not one op-ed that we could find condemning objecting to his holding a seat of power, nor condemning UTJ for making it possible.
It is no good saying that protest is useless because “they” are all as prejudiced as Eichler. Last fall and winter Haredim rightly complained that it wasn’t fair to black ball an entire group by the misbehavior of a few. It is simply prejudice in return. However, if Haredim, and particular UTJ, truly want to claim that the Kikar Shabbat Holocaust mockers are an exception, then the larger society needs to say “Prove it! Show us you can find politicians who live by derek eretz and mutual respect”.
Granted, even if UTJ wanted to disown Eichler, they couldn’t remove him from the Knesset. Once the MK is seated, his seat belongs to him and not his party. Even if he is forced out of the party they can’t take away his seat. For example, when Chaim Amsellem had a falling out with Shas, he still held onto his seat and there was nothing Shas could do about it.
However, it is unlikely that UTJ even wants to remove Eichler. Shas was very vocal about its rejection of Chaim Amsellem, even if they couldn’t take away his seat. However, there hasn’t been a single public statement from UTJ repudiating any of Eichler’s temper tantrums this year.
The greater likelihood is that UTJ members and voters simply aren’t bothered by Eichler’s comments. Some UTJ voters actually share the hate. Others are simply being pragmatic and self-interested. UTJ has portrayed itself as the great defender of the Haredi lifestyle and social privileges. So long as UTJ continues to deliver the goods, its voters will overlook hate if it bothers them.
Either way implies a certain disdain towards non-Haredi Israelis. Either way, UTJ voters and members are saying that something is more important than Ahavat Israel if they are willing to have the likes of Eichler on their list. Those who dislike the hate and are merely voting UTJ are also saying self-interest justifies Sinat Chinam. Perhaps that is not their intent. None the less it is the practical meaning of their actions. If UTJ puts hate mongers on its party list, then voting for UTJ aids and abets hate.