Rabbis against balance

You can abuse people, and you can also abuse values. Take two great Jewish values: self-criticism and caring for the stranger. How would one abuse such values? By lifting them up at the expense of other great Jewish values — such as fairness and balance.

A striking example can be seen in a Jewish activist video so one-sided that it makes Israel look like, well, an evil empire.

Produced by Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) and starring Theodore Bikel, the video compares Israel’s Prawer Plan to address Bedouin settlement in the Negev to the forced expulsion of Jews by the anti-Semitic tsarist regime in Russia. (See the video at the bottom of this page)

Just as the nasty Russians told the Jews in “Fiddler on the Roof,” “You have three days to leave,” Bikel suggests that Israel is inflicting the same injustice on 40,000 Bedouins. A melodramatic score, weeping Bedouins and shots of Israeli army helicopters punctuate the drama.

What makes the analogy to tsarist Russia even more problematic is how RHR tries to downplay the comparison with this fine-print disclaimer on its Web site:

“NOTE: For the avoidance of misunderstandings, this video clip, does not, God forbid, intend to claim that the Bedouin suffer from pogroms or to compare Israel to Czarist Russia. The comparison is between two types of policy: expulsion of Jewish villages and towns from vast areas of Russia to an area known as the Pale of Settlement, compared to the planned expulsion of Bedouin villages to an area called the Siyag region. We find significant similarity between these two policies, and would be happy to find out and admit that we were wrong if we are shown meaningful differences in fact. Thus far, no visitor has successfully done so.”

Besides the obvious problem that the great majority of viewers will never see this disclaimer (it’s neither on the video nor on YouTube), there’s another problem: It’s disingenuous. The fine print can claim that “God forbid we should ever compare Israel to Czarist Russia,” but that’s exactly what the video does. 

As Haviv Rettig Gur of the Times of Israel writes, “Theodore Bikel … explained to viewers that the Prawer Plan is morally identical to one of the great acts of ethnic cleansing in history, the forced expulsion of Jews to the Pale of Settlement by the Russian czar.”

What’s worse, Gur adds, is when Bikel asks in the video — in the name of the oppressed Jews of tsarist Russia who are his stand-ins for the Bedouins — what will happen if they refuse to leave.

“We know the consequences of refusal …” Bikel answers in an ominous tone.

Well, “In 19th-century Russia,” Gur reminds us, “the consequences were state-sanctioned incitement and widespread killing and rape. The film leaves unstated what the consequences might be in Israel.”

Clearly, the powers that be at RHR knew they were treading on very delicate ground with this analogy, which may be why they try to divert attention in their disclaimer to something more innocent, as in, “Really, we’re only comparing policies.” 

The sad result of the extreme and offensive rhetoric of the Bikel video is that it throws a bomb but doesn’t enlighten.

As Gur writes, for example, “One cannot discover from the Rabbis for Human Rights video that almost half of the Bedouin being moved — roughly 15,000 — actually asked to be moved, even appealing to courts to get the state to grant them a new planned town in a separate location because the site where they had encamped was too close to the chemical works of Ramat Hovav, Israel’s main hazardous waste disposal facility.”

Even sadder, the overwrought rhetoric draws attention away from some genuine concerns with the Prawer Plan, and there are plenty. Israel has neglected the problem for far too long and is now trying, however clumsily, to make the best of a tough situation. 

As Shlomi Eldar outlines in an oped (p. 10), Israel has undermined its case with its patronizing attitude toward its Bedouin citizens, which has only served to taint the atmosphere.

RHR could have brought up its concerns in a reasoned and balanced way. Instead, it chose the tactics of the extremists it often rails against: It threw a bomb and got plenty of attention.

A “reasoned and balanced” video would surely have lacked the drama of the tsarist comparison, but Israel shouldn’t pay the price for that. When the reputation of a country is at stake — a country already under attack by a mostly biased and hypocritical world — accuracy and balance should trump drama.

By oversimplifying a complex problem and making incendiary comparisons, a well-meaning Jewish activist group has fueled the anti-Israel fire and undermined its own credibility and its own good works.

If the hearts of the Rabbis for Human Rights are in the right place, and I have no doubt that they are, then their mouths need to catch up.

Yes, criticism and justice are great human rights and great Jewish values — but so are fairness and balance.

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.