Are We the New Jews of Silence?
Gidon D. Remba
Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle
February 22, 2007
“We were the Jews of Silence, the Jews enjoying security, the Jews of the Western world . . .What torments me most is . . . the silence of the Jews I live among today,” wrote Elie Wiesel a generation ago in a “Letter to a Young Jew in the U.S.S.R.” Today, there is another silence among the Jews of America: the silence that the few would impose on the many. It brooks no criticism of Israel, always the righteous victim of Arab enmity. Enforcing quiet—supporting Israel right or wrong—is essential to preserving Israel’s status quo, a condition which, as we all know, is truly the best of all possible worlds.
And what if the status quo is, in fact, toxic to Israel? What if it is a poison eating away at the foundations of the state, fouling its Jewish and democratic values and corrupting the young who are its future, some of whom must venture into the West Bank to suppress and control the Palestinian population? Counter-insurgency and the occupation of villages and cities are ugly, but they are necessary evils in the face of a barbarous and genocidal war against the Jews and the Jewish state.
But what if it is not all for the sake of Israel’s security? What if our brave Jewish fighters sometimes serve the interests of Jewish settlers who encroach on Palestinian land, steal their olive trees, build wildcat Jewish outposts in violation of Israeli law and then bar the Palestinians by force from their property? To make matters worse, what if they manage to co-opt sympathetic government agencies, and the Jewish state itself now becomes complicit in their piracy? And what if, in the course of duty, our soldiers do many things to ordinary Palestinians which they themselves cannot justify as necessary to protect the lives of Israel’s citizens?
Consider the case of Hebron, the biblical city where the patriarchs and matriarchs are thought to be buried in the Cave of the Machpela. 500 Israeli settlers now live in Hebron in “H2,” a four-square mile area which represents just 20% of the city where more than 170,000 Palestinians dwell. 35,000 Palestinians used to live in H2 under Israeli control. But no more. Many have left their homes because it has become unbearable for them to stay. All of Israel was shocked— shocked!—recently by a video aired on Israel TV which showed a Hebron settler cursing, harassing and throwing stones at a Palestinian family in their own home, while nearby Israeli soldiers refused to intervene.
This shameful but not atypical episode finally embarrassed Prime Minister Ehud Olmert into ordering an investigation of Palestinian charges of frequent settler assaults and the studied indifference of Israeli security authorities. But will this inquiry restore the displaced tens of thousands of Palestinians to their Hebron homes? Surely not. And will the Jewish world raise a hue and cry at this injustice? Think again. If you accused Israel of “ethnic cleansing” you’d be branded an Israel hater, perhaps even an anti-Semite. But what are we who turn a blind eye to the forced removal of countless Palestinian families after harassment by fanatical Israeli settlers under IDF protection? Are all Palestinians guilty—children too—for the crimes of a few?
“The problem of settlers abusing Palestinians in the Hebron area is a persistent one and is well known to the police,” reported the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz last month about the frequent rock-throwing, window breaking, violent ambushes of Palestinian schoolgirls, destructive rampages in Palestinian homes, and other outrages. The Israel Police acknowledge that “the Abu Ayisha family has been escorted by police on numerous occasions to protect them from abuse.” Yosef Lapid, who now chairs the Council of Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Authority, told Israel Radio: “We Jewish citizens of Israel wave a reprimanding finger at most [of the world, and] worse still, I tolerated this silently as Justice Minister too.” We, the Jews of America, clamor to defend Israel from harsh broadsides like those of President Jimmy Carter, who contends that Israel is practicing apartheid in the West Bank. But we turn away from the awful misdeeds that Israel permits its citizens and institutions to perpetrate which are the very source of such hyperbolic condemnations. We keep silent.
After Kiryat Arba settler Baruch Goldstein massacred 29 Muslims in prayer, and wounded many others in the Cave of the Machpela on Purim in 1994, the IDF closed down Shuhada Street, Hebron’s main thoroughfare, for Palestinian movement, eventually shuttering all shops and barring all vehicles. The closure continues to this day. Even Palestinian ambulances cannot enter to render emergency medical aid to Palestinian women, men and children who have the misfortune of living in the part of Hebron the settlers have “liberated.” Most Palestinian neighborhoods in H2 resemble what various Israeli observers have called “a ghost town,” with “hundreds of abandoned homes, like after a war, dozens of destroyed stores, burned or shuttered, their gates welded closed by the settlers, and an all-pervasive, deadly silence.”
This stark tale—and the grand Israeli West Bank tragedy—has been powerfully chronicled by legendary Israel TV News anchor Chaim Yavin in an English-subtitled Hebrew film called “The Land of the Settlers,” available on DVD through Americans for Peace Now. The Israel Television Academy recently recognized the film as the best documentary series for 2006. “Ultimately, they have succeeded,” laments Gideon Levy in Ha’aretz. “The settlers' violence has proved itself, and Hebron is becoming more Judaized. To be more precise, Hebron is becoming emptier. Five-hundred violent residents have demonstrated that they have the power to expel tens of thousands of their neighbors thanks to the sponsorship the state has extended to them.” Is this our Judaism? Is this our Israel?
Hebron may be among the most extreme cases, but it is emblematic of the larger problem pervading the West Bank. “For years there has been restraint in the face of the settlers' violence,” Brigadier General Ilan Paz, who headed Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank until 2005, told Ha’aretz. “All the [law] enforcement agencies, from the junior police officer to the senior judge, share in this… I cannot say that the rule of law exists in the territories.” Paz himself, who has killed numerous Palestinian terrorists in combat and performed much of his military service in the IDF’s elite Naval Commando unit, was often harassed by West Bank settlers who called him “a traitor and a leftist.” Why? Because he did his job and tried to enforce Israeli law on the settlers. Soldiers and police are under frequent “attack by [Jewish] extremists in Hebron. It’s terrible,” exclaimed Paz. “The IDF cannot feel proud in the face of what is happening” there.
Anyone who witnesses the daily spectacle of Hebron, as I did recently, cannot but conclude that it is only the Palestinians—tens of thousands of them, those who have been forced out and those who haven’t been—who are paying a heavy price for the welfare of 500 messianic Israeli settlers. It is never the settlers who must remain inside their homes, suffer restrictions or encumbrances to enable the Palestinian citizens of Hebron to live decently. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel has filed a suit maintaining that the burden of security should be shared more equitably between Palestinians and Israelis in Hebron. The Council for Peace and Security, a group of over one thousand former senior Israeli security, military and intelligence officials, has joined in the suit, offering a brief showing how security for the Jewish settlers can be reconciled with much greater respect for the rights of the Palestinians.
Were you an Israeli soldier who suffered the misfortune of assignment to Hebron or other parts of the Wild West Bank, you might well come to feel, as have innumerable patriotic Israeli soldiers—no refuseniks they—that you, your comrades in arms, and all of Israel are paying an incalculable moral price to sanction the ever-growing settlement project and military occupation of millions. If you ventured to educate American Jews about the ugly Israeli realities in the “disputed territory,” you too might be tarred as an anti-Israel traitor, an enemy of the Jews. Thus Caroline Glick of the Jerusalem Post and Jonathan Tobin of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent dismissed the brave Israeli soldiers from Shovrim Shtika, “Breaking the Silence,” and all those Zionist Jews who endorse them. Any pro-Israel group that hosted you would be subject to a fiery crusade by Morton’s McCarthyites to banish you from the Jewish fold. Klein’s gang, the “Zionist Organization of America,” indeed tried, and failed, to oust the Union of Progressive Zionists, a national network of student groups sponsored by the Labor Zionist group Ameinu and Meretz USA, from the Israel on Campus Coalition umbrella group.
Perhaps you are an Israeli soldier who has waged anti-terror operations in Gaza and fought tough battles in Lebanon. Maybe you were raised an Orthodox Jew, as was Yehuda Shaul, the guiding spirit behind Shovrim Shtika, whose group was embraced by then-IDF Chief of Staff Lt-General Moshe Ya’alon to help Israel’s armed forces examine their “combat values” in the occupied territories. And suppose you take seriously the Jewish tradition’s injunction to pursue justice, and the Levitical commandment “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Imagine if you took to heart what you learned in yeshiva when you studied Talmud Bavli, which teaches: “Whoever can stop the members of his household from committing a sin, but does not, is held responsible for the sins of his household. If he can stop the people of his city from sinning, but does not, he is held responsible for the sins of the people of his city. If he can stop the whole world from sinning, and does not, he is held responsible for the sins of the whole world.” (Shabbat 54b)
Perhaps you strive to be not only Israeli, not simply one who identifies as a Jewish nationalist with his people, but also to be a Jew, who lives by a sacred code of ethics. And just suppose you believe with all your heart and soul, as did Herzl and Ahad Ha’am, each in their way, that the meaning of a Jewish state must include this if it includes anything at all: the Jewish people who have gathered together in the Land of Israel must carry with them Judaism’s enlightened moral values.
If this is what you believe, then you can no longer hold still. You must take responsibility for your fellows, and for yourself, because our tradition teaches that kol Yisrael arevim zeh la zeh. And to take responsibility you have no choice but to speak out—in Israel, in the American Jewish community and wherever Jews congregate. Hebron, Migron, Ofra and countless other places have taught you that changing Israel’s status quo is the highest imperative if the Zionist project is to be saved—and renewed. But transforming Israel’s world is a Herculean task that the Jewish state cannot accomplish on its own. Most American Jews sit on the sidelines as cheerleaders and fundraisers, drawing Jewish pride from the Israel they imagine, oblivious to the steady moral decline of the world’s only Jewish republic. What torments me most is the silence of the Jews I live among today. They must not become the new Jews of silence. They must help spare the members of their household, Beit Yisrael, from sin.
Gidon D. Remba is co-author of the forthcoming The Great Rift: Arab-Israeli War and Peace in the New Middle East. His commentary is available at http://tough-dove-israel.blogspot.com/ He served as senior foreign press editor and translator in the Israel Prime Minister’s Office during the Egyptian-Israeli peace process from 1977-1978. His essays have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, the New York Times, the Nation, the Jerusalem Report, Ha’aretz, Tikkun, the Forward, the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, Chicago Jewish News, JUF News, and the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle.
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