August 20th, 2014
The Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip called “Protective Edge” will eventually come to an end. But the destruction wrought upon Gaza and its people has been monstrous – according to one calculation, explosives equal to the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima – and it will be a source of great suffering for years and decades to come.
With the fatalities being borne overwhelmingly by the Palestinian side, it seems inappropriate to speak of Jewish losses. However, it is important to note a passing that will have repercussions for both Israelis and Palestinians in the future. For in addition to the 2,000 dead Palestinians and 60 dead Israelis, the assault has produced another casualty: the pretense that diasporic Jewish leaders are any more liberal than their Israeli counterparts.
In a recent article for Religion Dispatches, I chronicled how horrific language by Israeli political and religious officials, including calls to ethnically cleanse the Land of Israel and commit genocide against Palestinians, has recently been adopted by leading Jewish American public figures, secular and religious. Notably, the president of the New York Board of Rabbis, David-Seth Kirshner, justified the non-combatant death toll in Gaza, telling a crowd of 10,000 people that Palestinians who voted for Hamas are not civilians.
While mainstream Jewish leaders like Kirshner have embraced the far-rights rhetoric, there have long been alternative groups who have spoken out against racism and in favor of human rights for all inhabitants of the land, whether Israeli, Arabs, Africans or others. Even as it broke from Rabbis For Human Rights, its parent organization, the North American group T’ruah continued to claim to be one of these forces, comprised of rabbis calling for racial and social justice.
While T’ruah has expressed support for human rights in the past, it seems to have been swept up in the recent wave of ultra-nationalism surging through Jewish communities in Israel and abroad. Earlier this week at the Times Of Israel – which has already demonstrated its willingness to publish dog-whistles for the genocide of non-Jews – T’ruah’s Senior Rabbinic Educator in Israel, Rabbi Gideon Sylvester, penned a blog laying bare a most dangerous ideology.
In true Times of Israel tradition, Sylvester floats a reprehensible suggestion, but falls short of advocating for it outright, giving him plausible deniability. In his piece, called “When legitimate criticism becomes treachery“, Sylvester suggests that Ha’aretz columnist Gideon Levy may be a “moser or Jewish traitor… the most detested figure of all”. In the not-so-distant past, Jewish courts have punished these so-called “snitches” with mutilation and death.
Levy’s crime, according to Sylvester, is that he told a TV team from the U.K. that Israel’s assault on Gaza “inevitably led to an unacceptable number of civilian casualties” and that “in this war, Israelis did not even bother to question what our army was doing”. Levy’s analysis was born out by Tel Aviv University poll results published this week: a full 97% of Jewish Israelis rated the army’s recent actions in Gaza as “very good or moderately good.”
In his final paragraph, Sylvester summarizes his point: “Indiscriminate criticism of our country [Israel] in a hostile media is a luxury we cannot afford, at least until our people in the South of Israel, South America and everywhere else can live their Jewish lives openly and without fear.” In other words, as long as there is any anti-Jewish racism anywhere in the world, Israel cannot abide whistleblowers who expose its crimes, even crimes against humanity.
The thing about racism is that it is unlikely to ever be completely extinguished. This is the case for hatred towards all minority groups, not only Jews. No matter how much effort a society devotes to combating racism, there will always be people who prejudge and discriminate on the basis of group membership. So according to Sylvester’s logic, calling out the Israeli government for its crimes must be delayed indefinitely, permanently, until a utopian era when no anti-Semitism exists anywhere.
In short, non-Jews do not deserve to be treated fairly in Israel as long as even one Jew, anywhere in the world, is treated unfairly.
Suffice it to say that unless we start listening to Israel’s whistleblowers, rather than accusing them of race-treason, Israel will not enter any Messianic age – in fact, just the opposite will happen. As I wrote last month in Muftah, and as Chemi Shalev wrote yesterday in Ha’aretz, American Jewish “leaders” have long chosen to ignore pervasive evidence of a vast increase in Israeli state-sponsored racism which continues to grow, surpassing previously-unimaginable levels.
A precious few Jewish citizens of Israel are risking employment opportunities and their social standing to demonstrate against the assault on Gaza, the siege on the Strip, and the entire system of racial and religious-based discrimination that is at the root of the conflict. Many more Palestinians, in Israel and in the West Bank, are risking much more to demonstrate the same. More than ever, they need Jewish voices from outside to stand in solidarity for freedom and equality.
But as ultra-Zionist groupthink engulfs even those who once called themselves Rabbis for Human Rights, the last vestiges of the Israeli left have been betrayed by their former friends. Instead of bolstering the voices of human rights advocates, so-called American liberal groups like T’ruah have joined their conservative counterparts in a McCarthyist campaign to crush dissent.
On the same day Sylvester published his screed, an Israeli government lawmaker ridiculed the low turnout at a recent anti-war rally in Tel Aviv, saying “the Left has become an endangered species.” If his assessment is accurate, it is in no small part thanks to the American Jewish groups who responded to the progressive camp’s plea for help by piling logs on the fire.