The Yiddish term “shlemazel” has been broadcast into tens of millions of American homes during the last three decades, via the popular 1970s comedy hit “Laverne & Shirley” — apparently without incident.
But when Israel’s vice premier, Shimon Peres, dismissed a massive right-wing anti-disengagement demonstration as a “rally of shlemazels” last week, he was reproached by American Jewish organizations across the political and religious spectrum. Peres, the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize co-winner, also drew criticism for arguing that it is easy to get 120,000 religious Jews to leave their homes, but it would have been an achievement to attract 120,000 secular people, according to the Jerusalem Post.
A former prime minister and leader of the Labor Party, Peres was swiftly criticized by the Orthodox Union, America’s largest Orthodox organization, and by the Zionist Organization of America, which fiercely and consistently has opposed any territorial concessions to the Palestinians.
In response to questions from the Forward, several left-wing and centrist organizations also criticized Peres, albeit in more measured tones. At the same time, these groups emphasized what they described as a deep distinction between unfortunate insults, like the one employed by Peres, and incendiary rhetoric from settler leaders and other right-wing critics that undermines the Israeli government.
“I think it was uncivil language, and I think [Peres] should have more regard for the deep-rooted feelings of those who will be uprooted,” said Rabbi Marla Feldman, director of the Commission on Social Action for the Union for Reform Judaism. But she quickly added, “It does not rise to the level of the inflammatory rhetoric that has been coming from elements within the settler community, and even some government leaders. There is a difference between denigrating individuals and suggesting the democratically elected government of Israel is not legitimate, which crosses the line.”
The political debate over the Gaza disengagement plan of Israeli Prime Minister Sharon has turned ugly in recent months, and Orthodox and right-wing groups have been criticized for not doing more to speak out against what detractors described as incitement against Israeli leaders.
The O.U. did pass a general statement last fall, calling for civility on all sides of the debate. But Orthodox and hawkish critics of Peres have not issued any similar, direct condemnations of leading figures in Israel’s right-wing religious and political camps.
During the past few weeks, Sharon’s critics, including prominent rabbis in the settlement movement, have called for Israeli soldiers to disobey military orders to implement the Gaza withdrawal; some ultra-Orthodox rabbis have proclaimed that Jewish law forbids giving up an inch of holy land; Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu, former chief rabbi of Israel and leading religious authority in the Orthodox Zionist camp, reportedly argued last week that the tsunami that wracked Southeast Asia was retribution for supporting the disengagement plan, and some right-wing opponents of Sharon’s plan reportedly have pledged to continue comparing the initiative to the Holocaust.
In addition to the harsh attacks on Sharon and his disengagement plan, influential Orthodox rabbis in Israel have frequently used derogatory language to describe the Reform and Conservative movements, as well as secular Israelis — generally without drawing criticism from religious and political right-wing groups in the American Jewish community.
“It’s such an emotionally laden time, and it’s gonna get worse,” said Martin Raffel, associate executive director of the Jewish Council of Public Affairs. “Most certainly the tensions will be felt in Israel, and that as always will reverberate in our community.”
Raffel recently convened an informal meeting of American Jewish officials to discuss the boundaries for acceptable civil discourse. The meeting included representatives from the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox synagogue movements, as well as several organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee and American Jewish Congress.
Raffel said the consensus reached at his informal meeting is that “whether one is a supporter or opponent of disengagement, there is a responsibility for all to respect Israel’s democratic process, the rule of law, and condemn any effort to try to get soldiers not to fulfill their orders.”