CORRECTION: The print version of this story gave an incorrect figure regarding the Kach Party. Rabbi Meir Kahane was its only member to be elected to the Knesset.
Effi Eitam, a leader of the joint Knesset faction aligned with Orthodox Zionists worldwide, drew swift condemnation this week from secular American Jewish organizations because of his call “to expel the great majority of the Arabs” from the West Bank and “sweep the Israeli Arabs from the political system.” But for the most part, his ideological allies in the United States have remained silent.
Eitam made the remarks in an interview Monday on Israeli Army Radio, during which he also reportedly described Arab Knesset members as “a fifth column, a league of traitors of the first rank.” The comments strongly resembled the platform of the late Rabbi Meir Kahane, who was the Kach Party’s only representative in the Knesset before it was barred as a racist movement.
The statements came as three Arab Knesset members traveled to Damascus to meet with Syrian President Bashar Assad. In recent days, several Israeli Arab lawmakers also have voiced support for the efforts of Syria and Hezbollah to fight Israel, with one lawmaker praising efforts to abduct Israeli soldiers.
A reserve brigadier general and one of the army’s highest-ranking Orthodox officers ever, Eitam is the former head of the National Religious Party, the flagship of the worldwide religious Zionist movement embraced by the Modern Orthodox in America. His remarks have drawn a hailstorm of criticism in the past few days. The leader of the leftwing Meretz party, Yossi Beilin, calling upon the attorney general to prosecute Eitam for incitement to racism, a crime in Israel.
The Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Congress both released statements slamming Eitam. In contrast, none of the American Orthodox organizations in Eitam’s theological camp — the Rabbinical Zionists of America, the Rabbinical Council of America, the Orthodox Union — issued statements condemning his remarks or calling on the NRP to break from the joint faction that he leads.
In response to inquiries from the Forward, several Orthodox leaders in America did address Eitam’s remarks.
The president of the Religious Zionists of America, Rabbi Yosef Blau, told the Forward that “Effie Eitam has always been of an extreme position within the broad movement” of the Orthodox Zionist camp. Blau said that Eitam’s position “represents one pole… to the best of my personal understanding, this view of his is not the mainstream view, and not of most religious Zionists.” Blau also downplayed Eitam’s association with the NRP, asserting that Eitam had become a member of the party only through a political compromise with the National Union faction.
After leaving the army, Eitam became chairman of the NRP but left in 2005 over disengagement. He then crossed over to the more radical National Union. The alignment of the two factions in this year’s election put him near the top of a much larger vehicle with 11 seats in the Knesset.
Blau said that Eitam should not be judged by this one incident, since his remarks could have been the result of a heated outburst within the “context of a group of Arab Knesset members going to Syria, at a time when Syria has self-defined itself as an enemy of Israel.”
“I’m not prepared to say, ‘Throw this one out of the Knesset, throw that one out of the Knesset’ every time someone says something,” Blau said.
Rabbi Norman Lamm, the chancellor of Yeshiva University, also offered critcism, while cautioning against a rush to sanction Eitam.
“I can understand what drives General Eitam, but I do not at all concur with his conclusions,” said Lamm, who occupied the top spot on the NRP-aligned list in the most recent World Zionist elections.
“Israel prides itself as being the only true democracy in the Middle East, and that is an asset, as well as a moral obligation, that I would not want to forfeit,” Lamm said. “At the same time, I would not go to the other extreme, and charge him with racism, because what bothers him are national groups that are presumably disloyal to the state, not ethnic or religious groups. It is therefore wrong in my opinion to persecute and prosecute General Eitam — but it is important to dissociate ourselves from this dangerous policy.”
Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, a top Modern Orthodox pulpit rabbi, was more accepting of Eitam’s remarks.
“I think he points to a very serious problem for the State of Israel, and I don’t know what the solution to that problem is,” Lookstein said. The rabbi leads Kehilath Jeshurun, a posh congregation on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “I think you have a very large percentage of the citizens of Israel who are not loyal to the state but rather to the sworn enemies of the state, but I don’t know how to solve that problem.”
Asked to respond to Eitam’s remarks, Lookstein said, “I don’t think it would be helpful for me to take a position on what Effie Eitam said.”
Rabbi Basil Herring of the Rabbinical Council of America said he could not provide a complete reply until he’d consulted his board. “What I can certainly tell you now,” he said, “is that we will not endorse those statements.”
The ADL and the AJCongress went much further in condemning the remarks. “Calls by public figures to ban minorities and expel them from their homes are abhorrent,” the ADL said in a statement released to the media. The organization added: “These are irresponsible statements advocating collective measures that the ADL totally rejects.”
The ADL also stated that “Eitam’s remarks do nothing to further Israel’s quest to live peacefully among its neighbors and are an insult to its loyal Arab Israeli citizens.”
A similar sentiment was voiced by the president of the AJCongress, Jack Rosen, in a statement that said: “If, God forbid, it were ever implemented, Eitam’s strategy would lead to Israel’s complete isolation and force it to sacrifice its democratic character.… Eitam’s proposal to sacrifice Israel’s democratic character to ensure Jewish security is the mirror image of the claim by Israeli Arab radicals that Israel must sacrifice its Jewish character to earn its democratic one. We do not share either view.”