By Rabbi Josh Weinberg
July 23, 2021 – י”ד באב תשפ”א
While much of this week’s attention has gone to Ben and Jerry, and where their ice cream will and will not be sold, a far more significant and alarming issue is brewing that we cannot ignore. In a recent poll by the Jewish Electorate Institute, over 25% of American Jewish voters agreed that Israel is an Apartheid state, another 22% were unsure. Much of the poll did not produce earth-shattering results, however, we, as Jews and Zionists, should be paying very close attention to the additional 9% who felt that Israel does not have a right to exist and another 22% who accuse Israel of genocide(!)
For some, these statistics are earth-shattering and shocking. For others, these are metrics that confirm the growing sense that the critics of Israel have crossed a line in their criticism of Israel, and for myself, I feel like we’re just talking about two entirely different places.
Why do the accusations of Apartheid, genocide, and Israel’s right to exist unleash a particularly painful sting for those of us in the progressive Zionist camp? For several reasons.
For starters, the use of those terms is not only about naming Israel’s behaviors. An objective observer could consider Israel’s 54-year military rule over more than 2.5 million Palestinians to be wrong. An objective individual could conclude that the military administration must come to an end without delving into provocative and sensitive attacks. An objective observer of international and foreign affairs might look around at other conflict areas, even in the Middle East, and not rank the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even among the top ten most dire issues. For example, Saudi Arabia’s entanglement in Yemen has caused a devastating humanitarian crisis resulting in tens of thousands of Yemenis being killed while pushing the country to the brink of famine. The decade-long conflict in Syria which has left over half a million dead might also come to mind. Read that again – over 500,000 souls were murdered or have gone missing in Syria. Yet, 22% of American Jews accuse Israel of genocide without so much as a word about some of these much more devastating examples of actual genocide. I’m not saying this to divert attention away from Israel or Israel’s critics, but there is something deeply wrong with how some of our people approach our people’s problems relative to problems elsewhere in the world. (Not to mention that the sale of ice cream over the Green Line is occupying a disproportional amount of attention in comparison with deep life and death crises.)
According to data published by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), since 2008 there have been 5,951 Palestinian fatalities and an incredibly high (127,657) number of Palestinian injuries. These numbers are nothing short of tragic. However, they are also nothing near genocide.
The usage of terms like Apartheid and Genocide is intentional, of course. They are floated both to resonate with and to be categorized with other familiar and far more tragic stories. And they are designed to touch a Jewish nerve.
The accusation of Apartheid, the Afrikaans term meaning “separation,” cannot be mentioned without direct correlation to the racist and unjust policy of South Africa that officially ended in 1994. The goal in using this term relative to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank to the largely uninformed international progressive community is to inflame international outrage by a human rights organization most liberals and progressives trust (such as Human Rights Watch), and then make a comparison digestible to liberal and well-meaning people.
If by “Apartheid,” one means that Israel is like apartheid South Africa with one race subjugating another race, then Israel is NOT an Apartheid state. Jews of color are part of every facet of life in Israel. In addition, Palestinians who live within the 1948 borders of Israel are citizens of Israel. Though they face discrimination, Palestinian-Israelis vote, serve in the Knesset and judicial system, attend Israeli universities, work as physicians and nurses in Israeli hospitals, work in all facets of society, and have freedom of movement. The conflict in Israel-Palestine is simply not about race.
That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a huge problem. We do face a situation where Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza do not have basic freedoms including freedom of movement and self-determination. In protest of this, we do not call for the dissolution of the State of Israel, but rather we protest against the policies of the Israeli government and support human rights organizations and Israeli NGOs working to end the occupation.
The same is true for “genocide,” with a slight twist. The term “genocide” especially resonates with Jews as we were victims of the greatest genocidal program in modern history when Nazi Germany attempted to erase the Jewish people and Judaism from existence. The word “genocide” was first coined by Polish lawyer Raphäel Lemkin in 1943 in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. Lemkin developed the term partly in response to the Nazi policies of systematic murder of Jewish people during the Holocaust and in response to previous instances in history of targeted actions aimed at the destruction of a specific group of people. The insidious accusation of genocide here is to turn the tables on the Jews. It is simply a cabal and a farce designed to deconstruct the Zionist project which aimed to establish a sovereign entity for the Jewish people. The accusation of genocide is an attempt to claim that when Jews have power they behave as do other nationalistic and barbaric peoples. It would be better, they claim, for us Jews to be relegated to the powerlessness that we had long since grown accustomed to. Let us not be bothered or concerned by the quotidian calls for actual genocide of the Jewish people by its neighbors, the Iranian regime, and others. Must we only be alarmed when Jews kill? It is a “man bites dog” story, to use journalistic parlance. After all, we read this week the second set of the 10 Commandments, which prohibits murder, but does not prohibit engaging in warfare or killing in self-defense (a lengthy discussion topic for another time).
The irony here is that those who preach tolerance and nuance as sacred values of the progressive camp fail to exhibit both. Those in the progressive camp might say: when it comes to such abhorrent manifestations of abuse of power such as Apartheid and genocide why should we progressives be expected to be tolerant and nuanced? I say that progressives need to be tolerant and nuanced in their determination of actual Apartheid and/or genocide. But so many have jumped on the bandwagon of Israel-bashing, they don’t bother to seek out anything beyond the surface-level accusations. If progressives level accusations, and ‘I am a progressive,’ then ‘I’ can safely trust those accusations to represent the “truth.” This un-nuanced approach provides affirmation for a worldview that seems reticent to accept the idea of Jewish sovereignty, power, and a majority Jewish State.
Let us not make the mistake of saying that because Israel is not an Apartheid State, nor does it commit genocide, that we can now be free to desist from dealing with its problems and injustices. As committed Jews – committed both to Judaism and to the evolving story of Jewish nationalism and its complex manifestation over the past 73 years as the only Jewish Nation-State in the world – we aim to speak out against those who seek to delegitimize Israel in the eyes of the world and to participate in the deep introspection and critique of Israel’s behavior and policies that are unjust. We Reform Zionists are committed to supporting the causes and organizations working on the ground promoting a Shared Society between Israeli Jew and Israeli Arab citizens, a Two-State arrangement that brings justice and national sovereignty to Palestinians, and steps resulting in a secure eventual End of Conflict resolution for both Israelis and Palestinians.
Anything less is unacceptable.