In a recent op-ed in the Jewish weekly, The Forward, Jewish Voice for Peace was described as being “beyond the pale” because we “support divestment and … urge Congress to heed Carter’s words.” Interestingly, JVP receives a huge amount of support from the great many Jews all across the country and around the world who believe we not only embody the spirit of tikkun olam (repairing the world), but are also working more than most for the best interests of both Israelis and Palestinians.
Be that as it may, let’s examine this rather arbitrary line that the writer of that op-ed, Rabbi Ira Youdovin, draws.
Let’s start with Jimmy Carter. The hysteria surrounding that book has, at least in public discourse, badly obscured the substance. Carter makes an eloquent and clear case that the suffering of Palestinians is intolerable and must end and that it is unrealistic for Israelis to believe they can ever be safe from attacks while that suffering is going on. This is hardly controversial to anyone paying attention to the realities on the ground.
Yet Youdovin’s formulation goes like this: “Jimmy Carter’s use of the term “apartheid” in his book title is a jarring example of how well-meaning Christians decontextualize facts on the ground, and then make unfair judgments of what they perceive to be Israeli human rights abuses against Palestinians.”
He doesn’t explain how Carter de-contextualized those facts. Not surprising as it would be difficult to do so since Carter repeatedly throughout his book condemns attacks on Israelis and says that violent Palestinian actions are both immoral and counter-productive. Carter also explicitly connects such acts of violence to harsher Israeli policies. Agree with those things or don’t, but they are clear indications that Carter was not “de-contextualizing” anything.
But more notable is the phrase “what they perceive to be Israeli human right abuses.” Can we not once and for all get past this sort of thing and discuss the conflict with some honesty? The 2005 State Department Human Rights report on the Occupied Territories listed many human rights violations by both Israel and the Palestinians. The World Bank has documented the severe economic and concomitant human impact of the Separation Wall on Palestinians. B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights organization has a long list of human rights abuses committed by Israel. So do Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the UN. All of these groups also report on extensive human rights violations by the Palestinian Authority and other Palestinian groups, against both Palestinians and Israelis.
If one wants to argue that many countries have worse human rights records, fine, make that argument. If one wants to argue that Israel’s human rights record is being exaggerated, fine, let’s talk about that. But can we please stop the nonsense about “perceived” human rights violations? Virtually every country in the world has at least some human rights issues, and Israel is involved not only in a long-term conflict, but has been in occupation over another people for almost 40 years. Forget the land issues for the moment, the simple fact is that Israel rules over a territory where over 4 million Palestinians live and they do not have basic guarantees of civil and human rights nor do they have representation in the government which ultimately rules them (and, no, that is NOT the Palestinian Authority; the final authority, even under the best of circumstances in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem is Israel). It is not possible for that condition to exist without serious human rights violations.
The tens of thousands of Palestinians whose homes have been demolished because of building violations or because Israel simply decided they wanted that land for a military outpost, a settlement or a bypass road are not merely “perceiving” human rights abuses. Palestinians who have been used as human shields, or who have been tortured by the Shin Bet, or who have lost loved ones in Israeli military operations (which have killed a great many civilians) are not merely “perceiving” human rights abuses. Indeed, neither are Israelis who have lost loved ones in suicide bombings or shooting attacks. There are no innocents here except the civilians who keep getting injured and killed. Let’s stop trying to make one side or the other out to be such.
Back to Carter, JVP most certainly has urged Congress to heed his words, for they are the only path to an American policy that can help, rather than hinder the cause of bringing about a resolution to this vexing conflict. Carter does not urge an abandonment of Israel. On the contrary, his book is filled with concern about Israel’s well-being and its future, a future he does not believe will contain peace if Israel continues on its present course. Most of Carter’s vehement critics have clearly not read the book; this is reflected in the criticisms of it they offer.
Carter used the word “apartheid” and sent everyone into a tizzy. I argue elsewhere on this site that I don’t think the word is very useful precisely because it has that effect on people and shuts down conversation before the realities on the ground can be explored. That’s a matter of opinion on strategy and tactics. But “apartheid” as a term has been expanded out of its original context of South Africa to legally be defined as “inhumane acts… committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups…” Israel rules over all of the West Bank, but the laws for Jews and Palestinians are completely different and clearly set up for one group to be dominant over the other. “Apartheid” is thus a defensible word, whether or not it is a wise one to use. Its use is most certainly not ipso facto anti-Semitic or even anti-Israel. It is one way of describing the different rules under which Jews and Palestinians live in the same place under the same government.
Carter’s point was that the US must engage in peacemaking and not be reluctant to pressure either Israelis or Palestinians to make the compromises needed to reach an agreement. That was a position that served him well at Camp David and led to the greatest achievement for Israeli security ever, removing Egypt from the military equation. The man who did that is now being called an anti-Semite. Amazing.
But Carter is neither wrong nor alone in pointing out the suicidal path Israel is on. Its security can never be won by oppression. It can never be won through collective punishment. This conflict has been going on in various forms for 100 years. For the past 50, more or less, it has been clear that Israel has an enormous military advantage, yet Israelis feel as insecure as ever. Military strength has proven not to be the answer, nor are walls, nor is creating facts on the ground with settlements and bypass roads. Carter pointed to the alternative: equal rights and independence for all and honest negotiations on outstanding issues. Does JVP support that? You bet. And so do most Jews. Rabbi Youdovin, it is not we who are “beyond the pale” it is those who would defend Israel by denying the clear realities. Until all of us who have a stake in this issue — be they Jewish, Christian, Muslim or any other religious background; be they American, Israeli, Palestinian, Lebanese or any other nationality — are willing to approach it honestly and to see where the actions of everyone involved have to change, we are abandoning hope.
JVP will not abandon hope. We will continue to press for an American policy that can produce the just peace that is needed if both Israelis and Palestinians are to have a better future. We will continue to work for that better future with the understanding that it cannot possibly come to only one side of this conflict, but must come to both. I fervently believe that many more Jews believe in those principles than believe that Israel’s human rights abuses are merely “perceived.”
In part 2 of this essay, I will address the second point Rabbi Youdovin made about us, divestment.