Israel needs us.
I do not refer to support of its government in the United States Congress. We have AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents for that. (We also need a strong J Street.) And Israel doesn’t need your money, although there are many very worthy organizations there that you should continue to support.
No, Israel needs our help in another area. It needs our help in living up fully to the principles upon which it was founded, as its Declaration of Independence tell us: “The State of Israel will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisioned by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex…”.
Jews the world over are justifiably proud of the moral principles that form the basis of Israel’s existence as an independent, democratic Jewish state. We are proud that in the face of having to fight for its very existence against great odds, Israel has remained a strong democracy, the only real democracy in the Middle East. Israel has free elections, though we may not like the idea of religious political parties being king-makers in the political system. Israel’s Knesset includes Palestinian members and the judicial system is independent. All good.
The above principles hold true, to an extent, for Israel’s Palestinian/Arab citizens, although they are not treated equally in many sectors. Israeli Arabs’ median income in 2013 was $47,000; it was $75,000 for Jews. Infant mortality is nearly twice as high in the Arab sector. There is segregation/separation in housing and education, and generally the quality of both is much poorer in the Arab/Palestinian sector.
Further, there is unequal allocation of government funding for infrastructure development, land allotted for construction, and cultural and educational institutions. Arab municipalities are poorly funded by government; they are the poorest in the country.
This is the reality in Israel proper, where Palestinian citizens of Israel are guaranteed equal rights in all areas of life, with the exception of military service for Israeli Arabs of Islamic faith. In the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip conditions are much worse for Palestinians living under military control. The main criticism of the settlement project by many Israelis and Palestinians is that its ultimate purpose is the expansion of the territory of Israel and the elimination of the possibility of a viable Palestinian state. The location of settlements and the roads that connect them to each other and to Israel proper make movement of Palestinian residents and goods very difficult. In the words of a Palestinian writer, Fida Jiryis: “…what is happening far exceeds an occupation; it’s a structural systematic dispossession of Palestinians just like that of 1948, only at a slower, yet equally ruthless pace. As more Palestinian land is lost and Palestinians are pushed into tighter and tighter ghettos, choked by a horrendous separation wall snaking through their lands and cutting them off from their families, fields, schools and work, as they are forbidden from using many roads…Israel has already created facts on the ground that make the realization of a truly independent and viable Palestinian state impossible. “
“The worst damage that occupation does,” Israeli activist Gerson Gorenberg writes, “may be to Israel’s democracy. Across a border not marked on maps, our government rules over millions of people who cannot vote. With this moral aberration accepted as normal, it was easier to pass an election law in 2014 that aimed (unsuccessfully) at keeping parties backed by Israel’s Arab citizens out of parliament.”
It should be noted that there are numerous non-governmental organizations working for change in Israel and in the occupied West Bank:
• The New Israel Fund supports a variety of NGOs in the areas of civil rights, religious freedom, and social justice. Its ultimate vision is of a democratic, just and equal Israel. NIF works to promote equality for Palestinian-Israelis and to expand their participation in Israel’s democratic institutions.
• B’tselem (“In the Image”) believes that the only way to achieve human rights, democracy, liberty, and equality is to end the occupation of the West Bank. Because five million people living under the control of Israeli military authority do not participate in the political process that determines their future, B’tselem believes that Israel cannot be called a true democracy. Israel treats the West Bank as if it were its sovereign territory, building settlements and exploiting natural resources for its own needs
• The Association for Civil Rights addresses the entire spectrum of rights and civil liberties issues and human rights education.
• Rabbis for Human Rights’ mission is to inform the Israeli public about human rights violations and to pressure state institutions to redress injustices. RHR gives expression to the traditional Jewish responsibility for the welfare of the stranger, the different, and the weak; the convert, the widow, and the orphan.
• Breaking the Silence was established in 2004 by veterans of the Israel Defense Forces to give military personnel a means to recount their experience in the occupied territories confidentially. These accounts are published to enable the Israeli public to learn about conditions in those areas. The organization has been under heavy criticism from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other government officials. Supporters, including retired senior Israeli security and military figures, say that BtS tries to sensitize Israelis to the effects of the occupation and “helps maintain the required vigilance about the most sensitive human issues” in a democratic society.
• Tag Meir (“Light tag”) is a coalition that responds to violent “price tag” attacks by extremist settlers against Palestinians, Arab citizens, and Christian and Muslim holy sites, and sponsors events to combat racism in Israeli society.
• Yisrael Hofsheet (Free Israel) is a grassroots movement that promotes freedom of religion and Jewish pluralism in Israel. Issues include freedom of marriage (breaking the government-supported rabbinate’s control over marriage and divorce) and the lack of public transportation on Shabbat.
• Yesh Din (“There is Law”) has volunteers who work toward “structural, long-term improvement in human rights in the occupied Palestinian territory.” It sees the occupation as the main source of human rights violation of the Palestinian population and seeks to end it. Yesh Din documents human rights violations, conducts legal advocacy, and raises public awareness of these violations.
• Women in Black was created in 1988, in response to serious violations of human rights by Israeli soldiers in the occupied territories. A group of women began to hold a vigil every Friday in central Jerusalem, wearing black clothing; they were in mourning for all victims of the conflict.
These are only a few examples of organizations working to advance the ideals and principles upon which the State of Israel was created. We should be proud that they are supported by Israeli citizens, Jewish and Arab, and by Jews and non-Jews throughout the world who are committed to a strong, democratic Israel that upholds the human rights of its citizens and of those who live under its control.
In September 2016, hundreds of Israeli public figures, including seven high-ranking IDF officers, former ambassadors, the authors David Grossman and Amos Oz, and other leading figures in Israeli society urged world Jewry to challenge Israeli policy toward Palestinians.
“We call upon Jews around the world to join with Israeli partners for coordinated action to end the occupation and build a new future, for the sake of the State of Israel and the generations to come,” they wrote in a statement. “The prolonged occupation is inherently oppressive for Palestinians and fuels mutual bloodshed. It undermines the moral and democratic fabric of the State of Israel and hurts its standing in the community of nations.”
You can see the full statement, “diaspora Jews Join Israelis in a Partnership to End the Occupation,” at siso.org.il. It concludes with these words: “…join us in speaking out and taking action to end the occupation — for the sake of Israel, for the sake of the Palestinians, and for the sake of the universal and Jewish values we hold dear.”
This statement and the work of the organizations listed above and many others represent real opportunities for diaspora Jews to join with our Israeli counterparts to promote the Jewish and human values that we share, as well as the vision of a just, humane, democratic Israel.
Rabbi Aryeh Meir of Teaneck is on the faculty of the Academy for Jewish Religion and is chairperson of the Teaneck Environmental Commission.