A deputy minister appears before high school students about to be recruited into the Israel Defense Forces and says to them, “If there were a button that could make all the Arabs disappear from here and send them on an express train to Switzerland… I would press that button. There is however no such button and it seems that we are destined to live together on this land one way or the other.” if it had been Rabbi Meir Kahane resurrected from the dead, the damage would be relatively limited, because the rabbi, who came from America, was considered to be an extremist. But here we are talking about someone whose friends describe him as the “salt of the earth.”
Deputy Minister Matan Kahana had an illustrious career in the IDF: a commando in Sayeret Matkal (an elite special-ops force), a fighter pilot, a lieutenant colonel, and on top of all that he received the Knight of Quality Government award. Someone of that stature has an enormous influence over his young audience.
How many of the students made the connection between the deputy minister’s vision and the trains that led an entire people – children, women and the elderly – to another place? His comments didn’t cause any shock or tremors. He didn’t see anything wrong with what he said and sufficed with an apology that his choice of words was “inappropriate.”
Many years ago, when I was asked to head the Shin Bet security agency after the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, we tried to understand the process that leads to political murder. The trauma taught us all that words kill. Leaders step up to address an audience that follows their every word – an audience made up of young people seeking a guide to point them in the right direction, to a path that will give meaning to their lives. When a charismatic figure like Deputy Minister Kahana describes his vision and talks about “the button,” the distance between his dream and a young person pressing that button grows ever shorter. A young man will feel that if he presses the button, he will have fulfilled the dream of a whole people and certainly that of an admired educational figure.
This is the sentiment that has been left by Deputy Minister Kahana’s words. Therefore, what troubles me today even more than his mad vision is the silence of our leaders. And the way in which his words were received by the political establishment as being quite natural. The president didn’t think that a red line had been crossed. The prime ministers didn’t admonish him. The ministers didn’t condemn what he had said. His words didn’t lead to a debate in the government or the Knesset.
The worst nightmare is that Kahana is not alone. Rabbi Kahane’s vision has been reincarnated as that of the fighter pilot Kahana. It is now the dream of many in Israeli society. A dream that at the push of a button erases our identity as formulated by the Declaration of Independence and ignores the commitments that we are a signatory to. Namely, “development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants… based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel… complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”
Too few in Israel see the horror that awaits us down the road. Pushing the button that erases the rights of minorities in Israel will lead us to the next button – the button that makes the Arabs disappear on an “express train to Switzerland.”
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Who is supposed to deal with the danger inherent in words? With the lesson that was not learned after Rabin’s murder? The justice system, it seems, was not designed for this mission. Criminal law makes the offense of incitement almost impossible to prove in court. It is the duty of Israel’s leaders from right and left, religious and secular, to take up this mission. The media stage is open to them, and they must repeat again and again to the public that follows them, and especially to the younger generation that violence toward a person or group is illegitimate no matter what the ideological purpose that it is intended to serve. Back then, they didn’t understand the murderous power of words, but today they must understand that their lofty status carries a heavy responsibility.
Leaders with the kind of influence wielded by Deputy Minister Kahana can put the brakes on this terrible deterioration. But Kahana does not pick his words and instead shares with his students his vision of a world where pushing a button will make millions of men, women, children and the elderly disappear. He refuses to understand that there are students who will interpret what he says as a license to fulfill his vision.