"The Lord shall return their deeds on their own heads, waste their seed and exterminate them, devastate them and vanish them from this world. It is forbidden to be merciful to them. You must send missiles to them and annihilate them. They are evil and damnable."
It is easy to imagine that these words were uttered by a Nazi leader in Germany some sixty years ago, or by a proponent of apartheid in South Africa just a few decades ago. In reality, however, these blatantly racist and inflammatory words were spoken just a few days ago by Israeli Rabbi Ovadia Yossef. He was, of course, speaking about Arabs--during a widely broadcast sermon marking Passover, no less.
In the past, fringe elements on both sides of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians have made such inflammatory remarks, but these have largely been ignored or dismissed as unrepresentative of mainstream thought on either side. What is particulary disconcerting in this instance, however, is the fact that Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (who has previously referred to Arabs as vipers) does not represent a fringe element of the political spectrum in Israel. Indeed, as former Chief Rabbi in Israel and founder and spiritual leader of the religious Shas partyIsraels third largest political partyhe is also an influential figure in Israeli political circles. Yosef has a devoted following of hundreds of thousands of Jews. His political party currently controls the Interior and Religious Affairs Ministries in the coalition government of hard-line Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Although these comments have received widespread coverage in the European media, they have drawn scant attention in our mainstream US press. In fact, a search of the websites of the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Chicago Tribune failed to reveal even a single reference to Yosefs remarks. A justifiable chorus of condemnation from government, religious, and media spokespersons around the world would have promptly greeted these comments had a prominent Christian or Muslim leader directed them against members of the Jewish faith.
However, when the targets of hate speech are Christian and Muslim Arabs, as in this case, and the perpetrator a well-known Israeli rabbi, there is an eerie silence on the part of our government, American Jewish leaders, and mainstream media outlets. American Muslims and Arabs wonder, Why the double standard? There is no way to justify a double standard that spares Israelis from criticism when their religious or political leaders incite their followers to commit genocide against a civilian population because of their ethnicity or religion. Indeed, Yosefs words hauntingly echo the Nazi-era rhetoric, which preceded the mass killings of Jews and others under Adolf Hitlers regime. The subsequent escalation of violence in the Gaza Strip this week--which included simultaneous attacks by Israeli tanks, helicopters, bulldozers, and naval gunships against refugee campsseems intended to fulfill Rabbi Yosefs prophecy of annihilation.
Where are the voices of Congress? Just last week, at the behest of the pro-Israel lobby, 87 Senators and 209 Congresspersons signed a completely one-sided letter blaming solely the Palestinians for the current cycle of violence and urging President George W. Bush to cut economic assistance to the Palestinians and close the PLO office in Washington, DC. A self-righteous Rep. Tom Lantos (CA), ranking Democrat on the House International Relations Committee, stated that for too long the United States has treated the Palestinian aggressive actions as if they were morally equivalent to the Israelis effort to defend themselves. Where is Lantos moral indignation at Rabbi Yosefs call for genocide against Arabs?
Also, the refusal or unwillingness of most American Jewish leaders to speak out at this time is disheartening. It too represents a double standard. These same organizations have been quick to point a finger at American Muslim and Arab-American leaders in the past, accusing them of not explicitly condemning terrorist attacks or inflammatory comments, and even accusing them in several instances of condoning violence. While this litmus test has been applied to American Muslim and Arab-American leaders, mainstream American Jewish organizations apparently do not believe it applies to them. This double standard only serves to damage already fragile attempts at improving interfaith relations between America's Muslims and Jews.
Rabbi Yosefs hate-filled and vitriolic invective about Arabs is unambiguous and horrifyingly direct. His words leave no room for misinterpretation or spin by pro-Israeli apologists among the media, US government, or American Jewish leaders. Words which demonize and dehumanize members of an entire faith or ethnicity--and which leave little doubt that they are meant to encourage genocide--must not go unchallenged. No matter who utters them. In cases such as this, silence can only be interpreted as complicity.