Support for Israel’s “neverending” occupation is changing the very nature of what it means to be Jewish. We used to be people devoted to justice: we played a prominent role in the civil rights movement. Now our reputation is becoming one of “infamy,” as the enablers of Israeli injustices. This new reputation is feeding the surge in anti-Semitism around the world and making the Jewish position in the west “precarious.” Therefore, Diaspora Jews have a responsibility to issue an ultimatum to Israel: End the occupation or grant Palestinians equal rights.
That was the thrust of the best speech I heard at the recent J Street conference– from Tony Klug, a special adviser on the Middle East to the Oxford Research Group. Klug was introduced by Jessica Montell, formerly of B’Tselem, on a panel about the responsibility of Diaspora Jews, and about a new partnership to Save Israel and Stop the Occupation (SISO). This is the body of Tony Klug’s speech; I cut his preamble. –Phil Weiss
After half a century, Israel’s occupation chickens are coming home to roost: creeping isolation, growing challenges to the state’s legitimacy, rising antisemitism, spreading accusations of apartheid, to say nothing of the blossoming of religious zealotry and radical nationalism.
In the wake of the celebrated military victory of 1967, a number of Israeli voices rose above the exultant mood of the time to warn of the perils of triumphalism, hubris and complacency. As an outsider, but a closely-engaged outsider, I remember all this very well. Following an extensive period of research in Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan and Lebanon in the early 1970’s, a much earlier version of yours truly offered a few observations himself, which in his innocent youth he regarded as self-evident. I hope you will forgive me if I quote the following condensed passage from his/my pamphlet published in January 1977 when there were probably fewer than 5000 Jewish settlers on the West Bank compared to more than 100 times that number today. This was the passage:
While Israel continues to rule over the West Bank, there are bound to be ever more frequent and more intensive acts of resistance by a population that is feeling encroached upon by a spreading pattern of Jewish colonization and whose yearning for independence is no less than was that of the Palestinian Jews in the early months of 1948. As long as Israel continues to govern that territory, she will have little choice but to retaliate in an increasingly oppressive fashion just to keep order. The moral appeal of Israel’s case will consequently suffer and this will further erode her level of international support, although probably not among organized opinion within the Jewish Diaspora. This sharpening polarization is bound to contribute to an upsurge in overt antisemitism.
In response to this passage I was told by an assortment of outraged Jewish and Israeli readers that I simply did not get it.
First it was said that Israel would soon be returning the territory or the bulk of it, to Arab rule. Meaning to Jordan.
Second it was not independence the Palestinians wanted but good governance and that is what they were getting from Israeli rule.
Third, barring the initial period following the 1967 war, there was very little Palestinian resistance, and there was no reason to believe this would change. Indeed, it took another ten years for the first intifada to break out. The population was enjoying a standard of living well above its previous imaginings, which was true. They were it was claimed better off in almost every respect than Arabs living in Arab countries.
Fourth, the expanding Israeli settlements allegedly had little impact on the local Arab population and where they did it was almost entirely beneficial, for example in providing jobs.
Fifth, international support for Israel was rock solid and growing.
Finally, latent anti-Jewish feeling has always resided in some segments of civil society. Lamentably true. And its manifestations have nothing to do with how Israel behaves. Demonstrably false.
Despite my apparently being wrong on every count, the future played out pretty much as mapped out in the pamphlet. For me this was seriously depressing. Particularly because it wasn’t meant as a prediction. I was sure at the time, as was the vast majority of Israelis too, that Israel in its own best interests would be certain to end its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the near future.
I don’t expect to be around to shamelessly quote myself again in another 40 years. But as passions continue to rise, it surely is as plain as can be, that if Israel does not end the occupation sharply, and if organized Jewish opinion in other countries appears openly to back it, there will indeed almost certainly be a further surge in anti-Jewish sentiment, potentially unleashing more sinister impulses.
This is not of course to justify such dismal future developments, but it’s not rocket science to see what lies ahead under these circumstances.
What all this points to I fear is that Israel’s neverending occupation of the land and lives of another people is not just seriously endangering Israel, not to mention deepening the despair of the Palestinians. But it is also making the situation of the Jews around the world increasingly precarious.
That makes it personal…. But there’s an even more profound personal dimension, one that goes to the very heart of what it means to be Jewish. I was asked recently what originally attracted to me to the human rights and peace worlds. I worked, by the way, for many years for Amnesty International. Almost without thinking, I answered, the rabbis of the orthodox Jewish school I attended, to the visible amazement of the guy who asked me the question.
I was not, I confess, the greatest student of Jewish studies. But I was very taken by some of the passages that we were taught from the Hebrew bible, the Torah.
Passages like, “Justice, Justice shall thou pursue.” Deuteronomy. Why, the sages asked, repeat justice? Was it a typo? Did the scribe have a stutter?
Came the answer: Justice must be pursued with justice. It is not enough for justice to be the goal. It must be the means too. Astonishing– for now, let alone then.
“Let my people go.” Exodus. A plea for freedom that inspired generations of oppressed peoples, most notably African-American slaves.
“God created humankind in his own image.” Genesis. An affirmation of the inherent equality of all people.
“Seek peace and pursue it.” Psalms.
“Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Leviticus.
“Love the stranger,” I am told, is commanded 36 times.
The legendary Rabbi Hillel summed up the entire Torah on one leg with these words: “What is hateful to you, do not do to another. Everything else is commentary.” On this, he put his foot down.
These time-honored Jewish ideals– justice, freedom, equality, peace, mutual respect– have made an extraordinary contribution to human civilization. They lie at the very core of Jewish identity and are the glue that binds together Jews of many different persuasions and many different countries.
Jews have proudly espoused these values historically for themselves and for others, which at least in part explains why Jews have disproportionately been active in civil rights causes.
Many Jews and others have uncomfortably coexisted with the Israeli occupation for years by sheltering behind the idea that one day soon there will be a Palestinian state alongside Israel in which Palestinians will be able to exercise their national, political, and civil rights.
But we are entering a new epoch. The current Israeli government has virtually blown the roof off of this sanctuary. We now face the major reality of a state that declares itself loudly and often to be Jewish, and demands of others that it be recognized as Jewish, gearing itself to withholding fundamental human rights from millions of people indefinitely. A standpoint that is in total defiance of quintessential Jewish principles.
Indeed one may ask, Would such a blatantly-inequitable policy be condoned by the self-appointed custodians of Jewish values if enacted by any other country?
If we are not prepared to speak out resolutely, we may be on the cusp of Jewish identity being redefined for us and with it the image and global standing of Jews worldwide. Of course Israel is doing its own reputation huge damage as well. Just as the policies of the current US administration are destructive of the idea of America, so the policies of the current Israeli government are perverting the idea of Israel, as captured in its Declaration of Independence.
So what may be done?
To start with, supporters of Israel could openly clarify that their affection for the country however deep does not extend to supporting the occupation. They could consider adopting a slogan like, “Love Israel, hate occupation.”
And it is vital not to shy away from using the term occupation. Losing the language is the first step toward losing the argument. It is not just the verbal distinctions that matter. In all our practical dealings, we need to distinguish between Israel itself and the occupied territories, including the whole suicidal settlement project.
This was the unequivocal message of UN Security Council Resolution 2334 last December. While explicitly endorsing Israel’s legitimacy in its pre-1967 borders, the resolution repudiated any alterations to or changes made beyond those borders. That its closest allies even after 50 years voted in favor and its principal ally did not exercise a veto was a serious political and psychological blow to the Israel government. It thought it had got away with it, when it plainly hadn’t. Nor will it.
But this is not enough. From the inception of occupation, successive Israeli governments have cherry-picked the Geneva Convention to suit their purpose. When expropriating land and building settlements, they deny their role is in law an occupation and therefore bound by the Geneva Convention. But in not extending equal rights to the West Bank’s Palestinian inhabitants, they shield behind the Convention’s prohibition against altering the political or legal status of an occupied people. This calculated ambiguity is a colossal Israeli bluff that it really is time to call. It either is or is not an occupation. The laws of occupation either apply or they don’t. Israel should no longer be permitted to have it both ways.
To reclaim Jewish values and restore the Jewish reputation we have to impress on our Israeli friends the need for Israel either to end the occupation without further procrastination and pretext and work with the Palestinians to build their own state or, pending a future final settlement, whatever that might be, grant equal rights in the meantime to everyone subject to Israeli jurisdiction.
We can accept either. But whether as Jews or as human right adherents we cannot possibly accept neither. No longer can the inherently unequal, unjust, un-Jewish discriminatory status quo be stomached as the automatic default alternative to an indefinitely-postponed future agreement, it is our right and indeed obligation to insist that equal treatment should replace the status quo as the natural default alternative.
This proposal draws on an original idea that the Palestinian-American thinker Sam Bahour and I jointly developed three years ago, as part of a broader policy proposal for the international community. It is an idea that in essence has already been taken up by SISO, Tikkun, and the Palestine Strategy Group, with whom I work, pointing to potential for parallel campaigning for a common end, involving Israelis, Jews from other countries, Palestinians and their sympathizers, plus the wider community, whether at the governmental or civil society levels.
This tantalizing prospect, even if improbable, underlines why it is so important to throw our weight behind the SISO project. To be clear, this is not a proposal for one state which has very little authentic support among either Israelis or Palestinians. It is more akin to the situation of Scots in the United Kingdom who enjoy equal rights with everyone else until a possible future two state solution in the UK is enacted. Why should it be different for the Palestinians?
By posing these sharp alternatives– recognize Palestine or grant equal rights– it is hoped that a vigorous debate may be reignited within Israel and a new political current sparked which may return the two state idea to the top of the Israeli political agenda before it really is too late.
When all is said and done, the bottom line is that the conflict with the Palestinians has dominated and distorted the Jewish world for too long.
It is time to bring it to an end and stop the infamy of a half century of military occupation of another people and allow us all to get back to the business of being ourselves.
Afterword from Weiss: Klug’s statements about Israel’s actions fostering global anti-Semitism echo Nathan Glazer’s predictions of 40 years ago, and the views of Roderick Balfour and Rev. Bruce Shipman in the New York Times letters section (and Shipman paid with his job at Yale for that idea). Klug’s statements about an exceptionalist Jewish identity perfectly reflect my own pride in my background, and hopes. My younger Jewish partners do not have those feelings– which speaks volumes.