I Stand With Israel's Threatened President Rivlin. Where Does Netanyahu Stand?

In this nightmare time, no one has to remind anyone here, that the monsters we've made are killing the Israel we love.

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
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Israeli President Reuven Rivlin visits four-year-old Ahmed Dawabsheh in hospital on the day of the deadly arson attack that killed Ahmed's brother and father, July 31, 2015.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin visits four-year-old Ahmed Dawabsheh in hospital on the day of the deadly arson attack that killed Ahmed's brother and father, July 31, 2015. Credit: Mark Neyman/GPO
Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

This is one of the nightmare times. A time when a monster in the West Bank can approach the members of a beautiful family asleep in their beds, and incinerate them.

A time when a monster in Jerusalem can encounter a wonderful, hopeful, inspiring, adored young person honoring friends on a Jewish holiday which celebrates love, and slash her to death.

A time when Israel's president can issue a statement of conciliation and consolation to grieving Palestinians in their own language – and be swamped with death threats from Jews.

A time when in the face of those threats, Israel's most publicly vocal prime minister in memory, suddenly has nothing to say.

A time when silence, failure to voice alarm and support – can speak louder than words. And do more damage.

No one knows better than Benjamin Netanyahu what a blend of incitement and death threats and standing on the sidelines can lead to.

No one has to remind the prime minister that the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin is less than three months away.

No one need show him the picture of a young Benjamin Netanyahu on a balcony overlooking Jerusalem's Zion Square in October, 1995, as vociferous hardline opponents of the late prime minister chanted "Rabin's a traitor" and "Death to Rabin," some of them holding leaflets of Rabin pictured wearing an officer's uniform of the Nazi SS.

At the beginning of this month, hours after the firebomb murder of 18-month-old Ali Saad Dawabsheh in the West Bank village of Duma, near Nablus, and the knife slaying of high school student Shira Banki, 16, during Jerusalem's Gay Pride Parade, President Reuven Rivlin made one of the more extraordinary speeches in Israel's history, addressing a rally of Jews and Arabs in that same Zion Square. It was a painfully emotional, broad-based protest against murder and violence.

It was, as well, an explicit indictment of Jewish terrorism, and of the leniency which Israeli officials have historically shown Jewish terrorists.

The same day, Rivlin posted a statement in Arabic and Hebrew on his Facebook page, stating that the murder of Ali Dawabsheh had "wounded the hearts of all of us."

يجب ألا نسمح للإرهاب بأن ينتصرللأسف الشديد، حتى الآن يبدو أنّنا تعاملنا مع ظاهرة الإرهاب اليهودي بتساهل.. طريقهم ليست ...

"More than I feel shame, I feel pain," the president wrote. "Pain at the murder of a small baby. Pain that members of my people have chosen the path of terrorism and lost their humanity."

The response to Rivlin's words was immediate. Alongside strong support, came rafts of threats and hate-mail, much of it phrased in the profanity and gutter Hebrew of supporters of La Familia, Lehava, and other Israeli groups associated with anti-Arab extreme-right racist mindsets.

That Rivlin is a lifelong stalwart of Netanyahu's Likud party and staunchly rightist in his politics, was cited only as more evidence of his "treason."

Referring to Rabin's assassin, one respondent to Rivlin's post wrote "I pray that another ‘Yigal Amir’ will rise to cleanse you and the Arabs from our Jewish country, and so I wish you ill health and any other suffering.”

Many of the commenters charged – falsely – that Rivlin had failed to condemn Palestinian terror attacks against Jews in the past. They also took him to task for assuming that Jews were responsible for the Duma arson – even though many of the same commenters routinely deny Palestinians any semblance of presumption of innocence.

Branding him an "Arab-licker" and other terms unsuitable to print, they also condemned the president for attending a ceremony in a Palestinian Israeli town marking a 1956 massacre of Arabs by Israeli soldiers, canceling a performance by a Jewish Israeli singer over racism in one of his songs, opposing the Jewish Nation-State Law, and congratulating an Arab-Jewish Israeli couple on their wedding day.

Before long, far-right extremists had posted doctored photos of both Rivlin and Netanyahu in Nazi uniform. Netanyahu, apparently grasping the shot across the bow for what it could mean, adjusted his talking points. He repeatedly indicated that Israelis were morally superior to Palestinians, arguing – falsely – that Israelis do not honor the terrorists on their own side, and that they pursue Jewish terrorists with the same means and intensity with which they hunt down Palestinians.

After the photo of Netanyahu-as-Hitler appeared on the web, the prime minister kept mum about the mounting tide of hate-mail against Rivlin. Perhaps as a result, extremists concentrated all their fire on the president and let Netanyahu be.

During the week following the death threats, for example, the Prime Minister's Office Facebook page posted no fewer than 11 well-produced items about the Iran deal, and another 10 on the subject of terrorism. There was no mention of the death threats against Rivlin, nor expression of support for the president.

This, despite inflammatory statements from within the prime minister's own Likud. "I think the president should be arrested for the grave things he said," wrote influential Be'er Yaakov Likud branch chief Shimi Tal. "Only a mentally ill person would address world media and say 'my people chose the path of terror.' He should be committed, urgently."

Significantly, among the few other public figures who weighed in on the incitement, was veteran settlement movement leader Daniella Weiss.

"I can deliver a message to Ruvi Rivlin – you can sleep peacefully at night," she told Israel Channel One television.

"Nobody's going to kill him. He's not important enough for somebody to kill him."

Nor, evidently, is President Rivlin important enough for the prime minister to publicly support and defend.

What matters to Netanyahu, clearly, is that he keep the support of a critical segment of his base – the exact Israelis to whom, in desperation, he turned on Election Day, warning that "Arabs are advancing to the polls in droves."

This is how the nightmare works. This is how our monsters thrive. In tolerating them, we shield them. In shielding them, we enable them. In enabling them, we embolden them. At some point, they turn into monsters.

And at some point, in a certain sense, so do we.

In this nightmare time, no one has to remind anyone here, that the monsters we've made are killing the Israel we love.

Yet we still have a choice. We can stand with Reuven Rivlin.

Or we can stand on the sidelines, cowering, along with Benjamin Netanyahu.

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