J Street Slams Netanyahu for ‘Disgraceful, Racist Rhetoric’ Against Israeli Arabs in Equality Controversy

Liberal American-Jewish organizations call out prime minister for telling Israeli TV star Rotem Sela that Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people alone

File photo: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting at his Jerusalem office, March 10, 2019.
Gali Tibbon/AP

NEW YORK — Liberal and left-wing American-Jewish groups called out Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for “incitement” and “racism” on Monday, after he said the State of Israel belongs to the Jewish people alone.

He had been responding to a comment by Israeli TV star Rotem Sela on her Instagram account Saturday night, related to a TV interview featuring Culture Minister Miri Regev. In it, Regev warned that if Netanyahu’s main rival, Benny Gantz, gets elected on April 9, he’ll form a government with Arabs.

Sela had called out Regev and the TV host interviewing her, Rina Matzliah, asking, “When the hell will someone in this government convey to the public that Israel is a state for all its citizens? And every person was born equal. Arabs, too, God help us, are human beings.”

>> A state for some of its citizens | Editorial

In response, Netanyahu wrote: “Dear Rotem, an important correction: Israel is not a state of all its citizens. According to the Nation-State Law that we passed, Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people — and it alone. As you wrote, there’s no problem with the Arab citizens of Israel — they have the same rights as us all and the Likud government has invested in the Arab sector more than any other government.”

The liberal organization J Street said it was “alarmed by the escalating campaign of incitement against Arab citizens of Israel that is now being carried out by Prime Minister Netanyahu and other right-wing Israeli politicians.

“The disgraceful, racist rhetoric of Netanyahu and his allies is endangering Arab-Israelis and fundamentally undermining Israel’s commitment to democracy,” it said in a statement Monday. “As part of the ongoing effort to rally their right-wing base and win Israel’s upcoming election, Netanyahu and the Likud are stigmatizing Arab-Israeli participation in Israeli politics as fundamentally dangerous and illegitimate.”

The prime minister’s rhetoric, it added, makes explicit that “while the Israeli right continues to tout Israel as ‘the only democracy in the Middle East,’ it envisions the country as an ethnostate in which Arab-Israelis are officially treated as second-class citizens.”

The new controversy, along with Netanyahu’s role in a right-wing party's recent election pact with the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party, “fundamentally endanger Israel’s future as a democracy — and contradict the shared values at the heart of the US-Israel relationship,” J Street wrote.

With Netanyahu set to speak at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington in two weeks’ time, J Street urged U.S. elected officials and pro-Israel leaders to “denounce his destructive conduct and ideology.”

The anti-occupation organization IfNotNow, meanwhile, told Haaretz that “Netanyahu’s racism is not new nor is it surprising, but he clearly has let the veil slip.

“After welcoming Kahanists into his coalition, all he got was a slap on the wrist,” the group said. “He knows that with his buddy Trump in the White House and American Jewish leaders singularly focused on tearing down Ilhan Omar, there are no meaningful consequences from his racism.”

IfNotNow said Netanyahu won’t face consequences this time, either, adding that “AIPAC is still going to give him a standing ovation for his keynote, and every other Jewish organization will continue to meet with him and give him political cover.”

Libby Lenkinski, vice president for public engagement at the New Israel Fund, told Haaretz: “When someone tells you who they are, believe them. When a politician tells us clearly that their vision and their plan is for a country that doesn’t respect all citizens or treat them equally, we have to take that very seriously.

“Israelis are already standing up and saying no to this vision — and no matter what happens in the upcoming elections, we will be there to support them. Today, tomorrow, April 10, and every day after it, we will be here to say: We want to live together, we want to live as equals, we want to live in a democracy. That is it. Every day.”

Susie Gelman, board chair at the Israel Policy Forum, said Netanyahu's remarks "fly in the face of the founding principles of the Jewish state and are just the most recent indictation that he will stop at nothing to win re-election and save his hide, politically and legally," adding that Netanyahu's attacks on Sela "a cynical and objectionable campaign ploy."

"Dismissing 20 percent of Israel's citizens as less than equal cannot be a position that squares with the most basic values in any democracy," Gelman added.

Hawaiian Sen. Brian Schatz was the first Democratic Jewish lawmaker to publicly criticize Netanyahu, taking to Twitter Sunday to label his comments “morally repugnant and diplomatically unwise.”

Israeli actress Gal Gadot, best known for starring in the “Wonder Woman” movies, was the first high-profile Israeli to support Sela — who is best known in the United States for the romantic comedy “The Baker and the Beauty” on Amazon Prime.

After Sela’s initial post generated a flood of violent and threatening responses, Gadot backed her on her own Instagram account, which boasts of 28.2 million followers: “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” the actress wrote in Hebrew.

“This isn’t a matter of right or left, Jewish or Arab, secular or religious. It’s a matter of dialogue, of discussing peace and equality and our tolerance toward one another. The responsibility for sowing hope and light for a better future for our children is ours. Rotem, sister, you are an inspiration to us all.”

Various other major American-Jewish organizations approached by Haaretz declined to comment, citing the political nature of the story.