In a sharply worded statement today, the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly “condemned” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for making divisive comments Tuesday when he urged Israelis in a video message to get out and vote because “Arab voters are going en masse to the polls” and thus threatening the country’s “rightwing government.”

The Rabbinical Assembly thus became the first major Jewish organization to strongly criticize Netanyahu for what many have termed racist comments.

“This statement, which indefensibly singled out the Arab citizens of Israel, is unacceptable and undermines the principles upon which the State of Israel was founded,” wrote Rabbi William Gershon and Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the organization’s president and executive vice president, respectively.

“Because we proudly and unreservedly continue our unflagging support for the State of Israel, its citizens and its values, we must condemn the prime minister’s statement, singling out Arab citizens for exercising their legitimate right to vote.”

The two then called upon “Jews around the world” to join with them in denouncing Netanyahu’s “divisive and undemocratic statement and we do so here."

Netanyahu defended his statement in an interview with MSNBC Thursday, saying:

“I’m very proud to be the prime minister of all of Israel’s citizens — Arabs and Jews alike. … I met a few days ago with many Arab supporters of Likud. I met them in the north of the country and I said I was concerned about massive foreign money … definitely millions from foreign funders – big NGOs [non-governmental organizations] … .

“I said they would try to get out votes for a specific party — an amalgamation of Islamists and other anti-Israel groups. And I said when that happens, make sure we get out our vote. I wasn’t trying to suppress a vote, I was trying to get something to counter a foreign-funded effort to get votes that are intended to topple my party — and I was calling on our voters to come out. And by the way, we got quite a few Arab voters for Likud — and I’m very proud of that.

“In any case, my governments have funded billions — billions — into the Arab communities to try to upgrade infrastructure — schools — and I will continue to do that … to have real integration of Arab citizens of Israel into the Israeli economy, hi-tech, society….”

In an interview with The Jewish Week, Rabbi Schonfeld was asked if there had been much discussion before issuing the statement because it was not released until today — two days after the video posting.

“I didn’t see it until Wednesday, and it takes some time to digest everything that has been happening in order to respond to something as serious as this,” she said. “We are denouncing the statement — not the man. … It was not a tough call [to issue the statement].”

“In the aftermath of the election, we call upon the Prime Minister to use his authority to unify all the citizens of the State of Israel, regardless of religion or ethnicity, as demanded by the guiding principles upon which Israel was founded and of democracy for which the State of Israel stands,” the two added.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, criticized the RA’s statement, calling it an “intemperate, inappropriate overreaction” to nothing more than “election overzealousness.”

“The prime minister did not express himself in any way that suggested Israeli Arabs shouldn’t vote or should be prevented from voting and exercising their political rights,” Foxman told The Jewish Week. “He was only expressing alarm that there were efforts to organize them [Israeli Arabs] to unseat him — and that is his political right. I would have used different language maybe, but it wasn’t racist and it didn’t violate their right to vote.”

The Israel Policy Forum, a non-profit organization that works to promote a two-state solution, issued a statement this afternoon saying the “statements made in recent days by Prime Minister Netanyahu in opposition to a two-state solution, as well as his election-day warning that large numbers of Arab voters posed a threat to his continued leadership are troubling and objectionable.”

The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism issued a statement Wednesday noting: "Netanyahu chose to use demographics as a wedge that threatens voter engagement. No public figure should lament fellow citizens exercising their right to vote freely, expressing themselves openly, and peacefully in accordance with the values of a democracy."

stewart@jewishweek.org