MK Ofir Akunis appeared to be letting the proverbial cat out of the bag when he told an Israeli television show on Sunday night that the late and not-so-great U.S. Senator Joe McCarthy “was right in every word he said.”
It was, you must admit, a fitting finale to what has been a tumultuous week in relations between Israel and the U.S., in general, and between Israel and American Jews, in particular. Here was a Likud MK, a deputy chairman of the Knesset and one of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s closest Likud allies, choosing to respond to criticism leveled by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton against the Israeli right’s anti-democratic initiatives by giving a kosher stamp of approval to who? To Joseph “I have here in my hand a list” McCarthy, one of the most discredited American politicians in history, and one whose memory is particularly abhorrent to American Jews.
With a few choice words that we shall generously ascribe to a momentary lapse in concentration, Akunis scored an own goal that was actually a hat-trick, or, if you prefer baseball parlance, stuck himself out with one pitch: he handed his political rivals a powerful petard with which to hoist his own controversial anti-NGO bill; he seemed to be providing proof, if any was lacking, for Clinton’s suggestion that something is rotting in the State of Israel; and he was capping a week of deep divisions between Israelis and American Jews by demonstrating that the two are not only miles away and oceans apart, but actually living on different planets - Israelis are from Venus, and American Jews are from Mars, or vice versa.
It’s true that Akunis later tried to correct himself by asserting that he had meant to say that McCarthy was “right” in the sense that Soviet spies indeed existed during the Cold War, but that is like claiming that Ahmadinejad is “right” because there is indeed a Zionist regime in Jerusalem. It remains unclear, however, whether Akunis also realizes that those Soviet spies who were operating in the U.S. were uncovered by other agencies, and not by McCarthy, and that it is the Wisconsin Senator’s name that came to be associated - let’s hope he’s listening - with “reckless, unsubstantiated accusations, as well as demagogic attacks on the character or patriotism of political adversaries” , if one may be forgiven for quoting Wikipedia.
And I assume – indeed, I hope – that Akunis has no idea of just how reviled McCarthy was by most American Jews, of the dark memories that he etched in the minds of an entire Jewish generation with his “reign of terror”: of the traumatic effect of the blacklists and the purges and the countless Jewish lives that were ruined by the unscrupulous red-baiting senator; of the thousands of “Communist” books, an inordinate number of which were written by Jews, that were removed from public libraries at McCarthy’s instigation; and of the relief felt by the Jews when McCarthy was finally disgraced and deposed and, yes, died an early death. “I hope you’ll forgive me, but I could dance on his grave,” says Virginia Snitow, former 1930’s communist turned 1960’s national Jewish women’s leader, in the very pertinent documentary film “Between Two Worlds” produced by her son, Alan, along with Deborah Kaufman (of which I shall write separately).
Akunis’ slip-of-the-mind should serve as a warning signal about the potentially devastating effect of what is being perceived – rightly, in my opinion, but even if wrongly – as Israel’s dangerous departure from its time-honored democratic norms, as it battles its own judiciary, imposes religious restrictions on women or finds legislative loopholes aimed at stifling dissent. It is no coincidence that the most widely-used cliché in any speech lauding the resilience of American-Israeli relations – including Prime Minister Netanyahu’s recent address to Congress - is “common values”, and that any erosion of this slogan by the increasingly zany measures concocted by Israel’s overzealous lawmakers and fundamentalist rabbis can thus be construed as endangering the very foundations of the American-Israel alliance. It is this strategic threat, to which so many Israeli lawmakers appear to be oblivious, that Clinton was addressing in her remarks to the Saban Forum.
And though American Jews could be observed jumping up and down this week in overblown overreaction to Israel’s admittedly ill-advised ads on returning Israeli expats, their reticence to speak out against the reactionary trends in Israel should not be construed as a sign of indifference, quite the contrary. Most Jewish leaders that I have spoken to in recent weeks appear to be in what I can only describe as a state of shock, unable to come to terms with what they perceive as a determined Israeli slide down a dangerous slippery slope, hoping, perhaps, that if they won’t talk about it, it will simply go away, like a bad dream.
But an Israeli MK who has the gall to say anything remotely positive about Joe McCarthy should quickly dispel them of such an illusion. Perhaps, then, this is the right time for Americans to respond to Akunis and others of his ilk by asking Israelis to consider whether they can see themselves between the lines of the following American masterpiece:
“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law. We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men -- not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.”
“This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy's methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home”.
“The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn't create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it -- and rather successfully. Cassius was right. "The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”
“Good night and good luck.”
Edward R. Murrow, See It Now, March 9, 1954
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