WHY SINGLE ISRAEL OUT? This is a question often posed to those of us, Jews and non-Jews, who oppose Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and advocate for Palestinian rights. After all, Israel is, as they say, the “only democracy in the region.” Of course, calling Israel a democracy glosses over the roughly 2.7 million Palestinians under Israel’s direct control in the West Bank who have no civil rights, much less the right to vote, as well as the 1.8 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, where Israel continues to exercise “effective control.” Arab Israeli citizens, who do have the right to vote, still suffer systemic discrimination. Israel is a flawed democracy.
Still, as occupying powers go, it’s hardly the most brutal in the world. How about China’s abysmal record in Tibet? Or Turkey’s oppression of the Kurds? Why should Israel be held to a higher set of expectations than Beijing or Ankara? Why the double standard?
One answer, needless to say, is that even a flawed democracy should be held to a higher standard than are authoritarian regimes.
Of course, the question “Why this cause and not some other one?” could be posed to anyone involved in any protest or any advocacy action at any time. Why did some Americans get so passionately involved in the American Civil Rights movement? After all, many minorities around the world have suffered and continue to suffer much worse conditions than African Americans did in the 1960s. Why did many Jews and others focus on the plight of Soviet Jews in the 1970s rather than on the much worse plight of Iraqi Kurds?
I have a friend, a fellow Jew, who argues that Jews in the diaspora have no responsibility for Israel’s actions, and that in North America, we should focus on the injustices visited on the aboriginal population, toward whom we bear some actual and ongoing obligation. But such a viewpoint implies that one can focus on only one injustice at a time. It also ignores the growing awareness that oppressed peoples share a commonality and that their struggles intersect.
THE REASONS for one’s involvement in any human rights struggle are varied and often highly subjective. Many White Americans who became involved in the Civil Rights struggle felt a personal responsibility for the persistence of racist laws and legal segregation in the U.S., years after slavery had ended. Similarly, many diaspora Jews feel a personal responsibility for the abuse that Palestinians suffer daily under an occupation which has lasted now for fifty years and is enforced by a state that claims to speak for all Jews.
But why would non-Jews take up the Palestinian cause? Progressive Jews who are critical of Israel sometimes find anti-Israel sentiments on the left a little too enthusiastic, and suspect an underlying anti-Semitism. There are doubtless pockets of anti-Semitism on the left, especially the European left, that find voice in virulent opposition to Israel.
Still, much of the anti-Israel animus on the left probably has more to do with anti-Americanism than with anti-Semitism. The United States is, after all, Israel’s staunchest ally and regularly vetoes UN resolutions critical of Israel. Serious criticism of Israel in the U.S. Congress is rare, an undeniable sign of the success of the American pro-Israel lobby. The left’s criticism of Israel is more than overshadowed by the rhetoric of the pro-Israel forces. Most of the Western press usually presents the Israeli-Palestinian conflict exclusively from Israel’s perspective. The pro-Israel bias of the New York Times has been well documented. So successful has this pro-Israel media bias been that, according to one survey, nearly half of adult American internet users believe that Israel is under Palestinian occupation.
Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders broke the taboo on criticism of Israel in mainstream American politics by expressing sympathy for Palestinians. One might think Sanders’ orientation signals a shift in uncritical support for Israel. But since then, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer has called anti-Zionism a form of anti-Semitism and has cosponsored a bill, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which would make it a federal crime to support the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, which aims to put international pressure on Israel to end the occupation.
Many progressive Americans justifiably object to their government essentially underwriting Israel’s occupation by providing billions of dollars in aid, much of which subsidizes the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the relentless expropriation of Palestinian land. Others may focus on the plight of the Palestinians because it is a cause on which one might hope to see actual progress. One can envision changing the slavishly pro-Israel stance of the American government much more easily than, say, having an impact on China’s support for North Korea.
But, aside from widespread support on the left for the Palestinian struggle, is there really a double standard applied to Israel? Journalist Larry Derfner has argued convincingly that there is indeed a double standard – but that it works in Israel’s favour. Derfner points out that countries such as Congo, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan and Zimbabwe all face American and EU arms embargoes, whereas Israel consistently receives $3 billion a year in military aid from the U.S. Israel has not suffered significantly from international sanctions or condemnations of its policies.
ACTIVE OPPOSITION to the occupation in Israel itself is weak and overwhelmingly secular. The liberal Zionist organization Rabbis for Human Rights, which attempts to protect Palestinians from attacks by fanatical settlers, is minuscule. Liberal currents of Judaism in Israel face increasing pressure from the ultra-Orthodox and are preoccupied with strictly religious issues, such as the right of Jewish women to pray at the Western Wall. Such concerns are largely disconnected from the political realities of the occupation.
A book by the American-Israeli philosopher David Hartman, The God Who Hates Lies: Confronting and Rethinking Jewish Tradition (2011), reflects this disconnect. Hartman was ordained an Orthodox rabbi at Yeshiva University in 1953 and moved to Israel in 1971. Once in Israel, he became disillusioned with the inflexibility of Orthodoxy and ultimately founded the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem in 1976. The Institute’s stated goal is to foster diverse voices within the Jewish tradition.
Hartman’s book is a critique of Orthodox halakhic (legal) rigidity and its negative effects on Israeli society and on individual Jews. He deals with the denigrating attitudes toward non-Jews and toward non-Orthodox conversions, and with the various disabilities visited on women and converts, all of which derive warrant from the Talmud and other Jewish texts.
Hartman attempts to demonstrate how the tradition can be reinterpreted to bring it more in line with contemporary moral standards, a tacit admission, perhaps, that the tradition itself is not the primary source of morality.
What struck me most in Hartman’s book is the complete absence of any mention of the occupation, the Palestinians, or Israel’s Arab minority. After all, Israeli society is growing ever more racist toward the Arab minority, and Palestinians in the West Bank suffer violence on a daily basis at the hands of military forces that impose the occupation. Those forces are increasingly made up of youth who grew up among fanatical Jewish settlers who draw on the dark side of the tradition that Hartman abhors.
Hartman quotes Yeshayahu Leibowitz, an Orthodox Jewish philosopher and fierce critic of Israeli policy, about his Zionism (Leibowitz was simply tired of being ruled by the goyim), but his book fails to mention Leibowitz’s moral revulsion at the occupation and at the treatment of the Palestinians. Unlike Leibowitz, Hartman assigns religious significance to the State of Israel and even ends with a reflection on Israel as “a light unto the nations,” again with no mention of the moral problems of occupying another people. I couldn’t help but wonder whether the God who hates lies doesn’t also hate moral blind spots.
When it comes to the question of critiquing Israel’s occupation and oppression of the Palestinians, the problem, it seems, is more the hypocrisy of some of Israel’s advocates than the double standard applied by some of its detractors.
Alan Rutkowski lives in Victoria, British Columbia, and is a founding member of the Canadian Jewish dialogue group, If Not Now, When? His views do not represent an official position of that group.