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RHR2010: Israel, Exceptionalism, Human Rights and the Road Ahead, Part 1

I'm blogging from Human Rights Under Fire: A Jewish Call to Action, Rabbis for Human Rights - North America's third conference on Judaism and human rights.

The final session of the conference is a plenary session: Israel, Exceptionalism, Human Rights and the Road Ahead. The session has two parts. In Part 1, our speakers are Peter Beinart, Author; Rabbi Ellen Lippmann, RHR-NA Co-Chair; and Jane Eisner, The Forward.

"It's a great honor to be here," says Peter Beinart. After his piece in the New York Review of Books (The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment) came out, someone asked "have there been a lot of angry words, ad hominem attacks, that kind of thing?" and his response was, "you mean, outside of my own family?" The room laughs.

He tells a story about watching a video of a Palestinian man being arrested for trying to connect his village with a water source at a nearby settlements. Settlements often have swimming pools and lush irrigation; studies show that water use among Palestinians is dangerously low, and many Palestinian villages are not connected to any water system. This man later told Ha'aretz that in his village there was not enough water for the Palestinian children to brush their teeth. In the video, women and children were screaming and crying; a boy was trying, through the thicket of adults, to reach his father who was being taken away. The boy was yelling to his father, "Baba, baba!" And that, it turns out, is the word that Beinart's own son uses for him, so it hit home.

Beinart was hanging out at that time with his four-year-old son, a budding Zionist who has an Israeli flag in his room and "has become very anti-Egyptian as a result of the Pesach story." When, Beinart, is it appropriate for him to share stories like this one with his son?

Evidently the IDF had been thinking too about how to explain the story of the man being taken away in chains; so they put out a story saying that the family of the man had put him up to it, and had put the son up to it, so that it would garner international attention. What that says, Beinart tells us, is "this person is not like you. Divorce yourself from the emotional power of this scene; you can't relate to these people in any way." That is what the American Jewish establishment has been trying to do with young American Jews for a while now. We have tried to desensitize our children to the realities of what Occupation means. And this effort, Beinart says, has failed -- not only because of our moral obligations to the Palestinians, but it has also failed to produce among young American Jews a strain of liberal Zionism.

The leaders of the American Jewish establishment feared that if they exposed young American Jews to the reality of the Occupation, it would extinguish the shimmers of Zionism emerging in their lives... but I think that [pretending the Occupasion isn't there] has failed to produce young Zionists. And it has failed at...teaching my son to celebrate the principles of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, and...[i]t has failed to create people who are passionately committed to those principles.

At the top of the pyramid of the American Jewish community there are AIPAC, Federation, the ADL. Demographically, it's dominated by people who came to their Zionism between the 6-day war and the bitter days after the Yom Kippur war culminating in the 1975 "Zionism = Racism" resolution. For the people who run those major Jewish organizations in the US, this is what forged their Zionism. Back when the settler population was negligible and the culture and politics of Occupation were less central to Israel than they are today; before the Russian immigration which has given us Avigdor Leiberman and Yisrael Beiteinu. These American Jewish organizations want to reflect the Zionism that they knew when they were younger, when Israel was more embattled and when Occupation was less central to Israeli politics and culture.

Also, Beinart argues, those who run the American Jewish establishment as we have known it tend to be more secular. Zionism may replace religious practice in their lives. They say, "We support Israel because we're Jews and it's a Jewish state;" they don't use the language of Israel's own declaration of independence, the language of liberal democracy, and they don't imagine that loving Israel might put you at odds with Israel's own government. When that question comes up, they shut down.

"We say constantly that Israel is a democracy," Beinart argues, "and yes, it is, within its 1967 borders -- a vibrant and resilient one. But it is not a democracy in the West Bank." And when there are so many Jews in the West Bank that we can no longer talk of giving back the West Bank, then Israel will truly be an apartheid state... and that's a term that Barak and Olmert have used.

Netanyahu's government includes people from Yisrael Beiteinu; it includes people who have publicly said that it's immoral for Jews and Arab to live under the same roof. Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of that party, has recently said that a relationship between a Jew and a Gentile can be compared with a relationship between a man and a donkey. "Looking at the polling data that comes out of Israel about the rights of its own Arab citizens -- you find, with enormous consistency, that large majorities of Israeli Jews (56% of Israeli Jews and 82% of religious Israeli Jews recently said) say that they don't believe Arabs should be able to be in Knesset."

"If I believed that this was all there was to Israel, I would not have put up an Israeli flag in my son and daughter's room," Beinart says. Israel is a miracle. It has created a vibrant, liberal democracy, with vibrant independent press, independent universities, independent human rights organizations. "We should celebrate that! But precisey because we see it as an extraordinary acocmplishment of which we are enormously proud, we should not stand by while people attempt to undermine it from within,"he says. There is a profound strggle between people who love Israel for those values and institutions, and people who want Israel to be something radically different. "This Israeli government tried earlier this year to pass a law which would have made it radically more difficult for [American organizations] to operate there." Moshe Alon last year called Peace Now a virus. When these issues come on the table, the American Jewish establishment changes the subject.

But the American Jewish establishment is not replicating itself. Our children do not have the same kind of Zionist attachment that our parents do. Something dramatically different is happening. In the Orthodox population, old-school Zionism is alive and well... but in parts of the American Orthodox world today, the Zionism is a Zionism of the land, without much concern for the rights and dignity of the people, non-Jewish and Jewish, who live on the land. There are truly frightening attitudes toward Palestinians and Muslims.

In New York there is the Israel Day parade. In 2007, and again in 2008, one of the featured speakers at the Israel Day concert in Central Park argued that Palestinians should be expelled from parts of Israel and the West Bank. At 2009 and again in 2010, one of the sponsoring families dedicated their sponsorship to the memory of Rabbi Kahane -- and you can se this if you look at the poster for the concert, because that text appears on the poster! The challenge here is to find leaders who, in the words of R' Abraham Joshua Heschel when he heard about the massacres at Deir Yassin, said, "I am so overcome with grief at what has been done in Zionism's name that I cannot teach today." He went home to do teshuvah instead. And that was in 1948. That's the kind of leadership we need in the Orthodox community today.

But the large mass of non-Orthodox younger American Jews -- among this group, Zionism is in collapse. A recent survey has found that only 16% of young Amrican Jews call themselves Zionists. And "their understanding of what it means to be Jewish is inextricably bound up with notions of human rights, universal values, non-racism -- that's what it means for them to be Jewish -- but they have never been offered a Zionism which allows them to reconcile those values with support for the state of Israel," Beinart says. Instead they are given a Disneyfied vision of Israel besieged by internal enemies, a shining light unto the nations! But this generation has access to more informatin than any generation before; they have a keen sense for authenticity; and they can tell that what they are being fed is not real. They are sent on Birthright trips which do not engage with the realities of Israel, and it produces a kind of existential shrug. They just don't care.

We would do so much better if we sent them to the West Bank as well. If we said, it is okay to grapple with the hard, ugly painful things. We would produce a generation which had difficult questions, maybe some anger, but they would have a connction with something real... they would be genuinely committed and attached to Israel. And then we could say to them, you don't like what you see the Israeli government doing? This is your birthright; fight for it. Create a different kind of Israel. You can hate the policies of the Israeli government and you can love Israel and you can express that love by struggling against the things you don't like.

It's Chanukah, Beinart notes. We should be talking about the tough parts of the Chanukah story: what the Hasmoneans became. Why Jewish sovereignty ended in that land. We need to recognize that we are capable of being victims and we are capable of being victimizers; we need to learn from our history in order to ensure that we don't go down that path again.

Rabbi Ellen Lippmann is up next. "I am grateful to you for shaking up the established Jewish world with your critique," she tells Beinart. "We need as many openings to discussion as we can have."

She reads to us from her congregation's mission statement:

Kolot Chayeinu is a Jewish congregation and we recognize our connection to Jews everywhere. As such, we are committed to working to support and improve the Jewish world and Judaism, engaging in dialogue and debate about issues and ideas that have an impact on Jews and Judaism and about visions for the Jewish future...

We believe that Jews have an obligation to grapple with the many issues and emotions connected to our historic attachment to Israel and the current political situation in Israel and Palestine. While we join Jews everywhere in facing Jerusalem while we pray, we have no consensus on political solutions nor their philosophical underpinnings.

This, she notes, is not exactly typical in the American Jewish establishment.

She tells a story about a mourner in her congregation who refused to come to shul to say kaddish because she said "I don't want to be connected with anything Jewish, because of Israel." This is an example of the kind of thing Beinart was writing about: young people who are disconnected from Israel because of the failures of the American Jewish establishment.

She also tells us that a month ago she spoke to a group of college students who had come to protest actions against the flotilla. "These young people are not distanced from Israel," she says. "The young people who disrupted Netanyahu's speech at the GA -- they are not disengaged; they are deeply engaged!" Some young Jews are distancing from Israel; some are not. Some are embracing Israel while leaving their liberal AMerican values here; some embrace it with more fervor than they give to anything else that they do; and either way, she says, "Israel is exceptional."

Lippman went to Israel and Palestine on the recent RHR-NA human rights mission. "The hardest thing for me was to stand in Hebron, to walk in a street in Hebron which is divided by a cement barrier which divided a street, Jews, Americans, whoever walking on one side and Palestinians walking on the other side." Her voice shakes. (I understand some of her anguish; I had a tough time when I went to Hebron a few years ago.) "Hebron is a horror," she says. "That day was the first time I thought, 'we learned a lot from the Nazis.'" A shudder runs around the room. Until that day, she tells us, she had always criticized Israel out of love; since that day, the love has been harder to reach.

"Israel is not the worst human rights abuser in the world," Lippmann says. "But it is our human rights abuser." We are Jews, and it is a Jewish state; it is ours. Israel is exceptional because it bills itself as a western-style democracy, so it calls us to judge it by the standards of its own declaration of independence, which says "the State of Israel will ensure complete equaity of social and political rights to all of its inhabitants." The US too strays far from its declaration of independence. We who connect to Israel and criticize and protest its actions, she says, do so not despite our Judaism but because of it.

Torah commands us to do justice, to do what's just and right, to see everyone in the world as created in the divine image. Those of us who do the work of human rights do so precisely because of our Jewish values. RHR's Zionism arises out of those values -- a Zionism which recognizes Palestinians as people worthy of dignity who, like us, deserve peace.

We have always thought that Jewish values mean a belief in open debate, Lippmann says, "and the Jewish community is deathly afraid of open debate when it comes to Israel." Artists, scholars, students, and rabbis who have told the truth as they saw it have been scorned and vilified and sometimes physically attacked, and that is not okay. She tells us about attending the protests against the settlers in Sheikh Jarrah, and what a powerful experience that was. She quotes a slogan from those protests: ein kedusha b'ir kvusha, "there is no holiness in an occupied city." Kedusha is a word which speaks deeply to our religious sensibilities. "For us, it's a religious motivation that underlies our acts in and about Israel."

She offers a question for Beinart: if the very bases of democracy are being eroded in Israel, what does it matter if American Jewish kids aren't relating to Israel? And what do you think on the question of boycott, divestment, and sanctions as a strategy?

"Young people by their nature re-open difficult, painful questions," Beinart says. "There's an old line that the children remember what the parents want to forget. And maybe what our children are remembering is that there wasn't always a consensus on the Zionist state." It is extraordinarily self-defeating to think that we have all the time in the world to try to get to a 2-state solution, he says; if we do that, we will wind up with "radical alienation from Israel, support for BDS, and support for a [single] binational state."

"My view on BDS would be, if you want BDS to succeed and do become mainstream, then Israel should do exactly what it is doing today." The reality is, you can't defend some of Israel's recent policies; you can't cover them up because we can read the Israeli press! Beinart himself is not a supporter of BDS, because he believes that to sanction all of Israel is to ignore the reality of how wonderful it is that Israel is a democracy within its 1967 borders. "What we need to do is draw a clear line between democratic Israel, and non-democratic Israel," he says.

Though Beinart doesn't want to penalize all the people of Israel, he does believe that he, as someone who is opposed to BDS, will be fighting a losing battle unless Israel changes many of its policies. If Israel continues on the path it's on now -- with the loyalty oath and the Occupation and so on -- then BDS is going to become increasingly viable as a choice for American Jews to support and even promote.

Moderator Jane Eisner asks: Peter, you say it's the American Jewish establishment that's responsible for the slow death of Zionism among American Jewish youth. "But do you really think that college students are disengaging because of something that Abe Foxman said? I think that equally responsible are parents, rabbis, educators -- those who have direct influence in shaping their children's attitudes."

True, Beinart says; many parents, teachers, and rabbis have tried to take the safe route, to avoid the painful conversations about Israel. "But those people who do want to confront those difficult realities, who want to have that conversation, who want to study for the Jewish basis to oppose Occupation...there are resources which take people to Israel, but never take them to the West Bank! A huge amount of money goes to build Holocaust memorials in every American city; much less money goes toward creating educated, Jewishly-literate young people," Beinart says. He's interested in creating a love of Israel which is critically engaged -- call it Zionism or don't call it Zionism, but it's what he's interested in, and that's not what he sees the American Jewish establishment doing. "We need to give a hechsher," Beinart says, to those who are trying to do that holy work.

Eisner asks Lippmann about the Sheikh Jarrah rallies: are they making a difference? Do they matter?

In response, Lippmann talks about the many silent Jews who agree that Israel is doing something problematic but are afraid to speak. They fear they don't know enough, they fear reprisal, and people are isolated on this issue. But then again, even if only a small group speaks up, it's important that they speak up. The media should be covering that too.

Beinart adds that there are cycles in the lives of nations. "If you asked in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 how many Americans would be willing to rally against torture, it was very few," he says. "But there are people who do difficult work at difficult times! Think of what it meant to be on the American Left during the McCarthy era. There's a need to be keeping the fire alive, so that at some point... another wave will come." This has been a dark period for the Israeli left, he says, but the Sheikh Jarrah protests are beginning to capture a lot of attention in Israel. Even people like Tzipi Livni are beginning to move to a different position as a result. "We have to hope that the Israelis keep alive that left so they can gain support from mainstream peopl who come to it, maybe because they see the darkness at the end of the road if they don't change course."

An enormous line of people has lined up at the microphone to ask questions, though the session is meant to end in ten minutes! (I'm not going to blog the Q and A -- I'm going to polish up this post so I can move on to part 2 in ten minutes...)