Monday, June 18, 2018

Israel: The Last of the Righteous Ones


It seems inevitable that a stateless people like the Jews, who lived for almost 2,000 years at the whim of those who possessed the land in which the Jews resided, would promote universal principles of social justice and human rights.  In fact, many notable Jews were participants in establishing these principles, to the extent they exist in interactions between nations, both in written documents and in actual implementation.  But the Jews are no longer a stateless people.  Since the formation of Israel, Jews have a nation and minorities within it who live at the whim of Jewish masters.  Do the principles so dear to earlier generations of Jews carry over into the running of a state, or are Jews no better than people of any other state when they are in power?  David Shulman addresses this question in an article in the New York Review of Books: The Last of the Tzaddiks.  A Tzaddik translates as “a righteous one”

Shulman is a rather remarkable academic scholar who was born in the United States in 1949 and moved to Israel in 1967 to begin his college education.  He has lived in Israel from the Six-Day War until the present and served a tour in the Israeli military during the invasion of Lebanon in 1982.  He is Professor Emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and was awarded the Israel Prize for Religious Studies in 2016.  Although his academic credentials are quite impressive, he is probably best known now as a peace activist who has been trying to protect Palestinians from official and unofficial predations by the Israelis.  From his Wikipedia page we have this quote attributed to him.

“This conflict is not a war of the sons of light with the sons of darkness; both sides are dark, both are given to organized violence and terror, and both resort constantly to self-righteous justification and a litany of victimization, the bread-and-butter of ethnic conflict. My concern is with the darkness on my side.”

Shulman’s article begins with this description of his early background.

“In the somewhat exotic Jewish home in Iowa where I grew up, it was axiomatic that there was an intimate link between Judaism and universal human rights. Like nearly all Eastern European Jewish families in America, my parents and grandparents were Roosevelt Democrats, to the point of fanaticism. They thought that the Jews had invented the very idea, and also the practice, of social justice; that having started our history as slaves in Egypt, we were always on the side of the underdog and the oppressed; that the core of Judaism as a religious culture was precisely this commitment to human rights, and that all the rest—the 613 commandments, the rituals, the theological assertions—was no more than a superstructure built upon a strong ethical foundation. For me, this comfortable illusion was shattered only when I moved to Israel at the age of eighteen.”

The ideals of an earlier time were carried over in producing a Declaration of Independence for Israel.

“….the ethical goals set forth in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, which promised that the new state would be based on ‘freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel’ and that it would ‘ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex’.”

The issue to be confronted is that none of those promises have been kept.

“[We have] a Jewish nation-state in Palestine that now, seventy years later, discriminates against its own Arab minority within the Green Line (the pre-1967 border) and savagely persecutes millions of Palestinians in the occupied territories.”

After the war in 1967, Israel had occupied the West Bank and Gaza Strip.  According to the terms that ended that war those regions were intended to form the basis of a Palestinian state adjacent to the Israeli state.  But Israel has continued to occupy those regions and it has become clear that their plan is to make them uninhabitable by the Palestinians so that they must leave—eventually.  There are so many Israeli settlements, checkpoints, and barriers now that it would be impossible to ever return it to a condition where it could form a Palestinian state.

Religion has been critical to the lives and experiences of Jews through the ages.  Unfortunately, sacred texts for a religion that describes Jews as God’s chosen people are likely to be uncertain sources in which to search for guidance on social justice and universal rights.  Shulman acknowledges that.

“Take, for example, the famous Talmudic ruling that a Jew is allowed to desecrate the Sabbath in order to save a human life. I and many others have often found comfort in this rule. However, as Adi Ophir and Ishay Rosen-Zvi have shown, in the premodern sources it applies only to saving a Jewish life; it can be stretched to include the life of a non-Jew only if there is a danger that by not saving that life the Jews may face reprisals from their non-Jewish neighbors (mi-shum eivah).  So much for universal ethics. Opinions still vary as to whether Leviticus 19:18, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself,’ is similarly limited to one’s Jewish neighbor, as the earlier part of the verse suggests (‘thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people’). I have had occasion to witness bitter debates on this text between Israeli peace activists and religious Israeli settlers on the West Bank. You can guess which interpretation the latter prefer.”

The most orthodox of the religious have been the most adamant about securing all Palestinian land for greater Israel.  It is difficult to negotiate with a person who claims “God gave this land to me.”  In fact, religious texts have been used in the past to justify mass murders of Palestinians.

The state is firmly in the hands of right-wing extremists, and religion is no place to turn for help, that leaves only the courts to turn to for an activist who seeks justice for the Palestinians in the occupied territories.  The nonmilitary courts do take into consideration the principles imbedded in their Declaration of Independence, but they are also subject to political pressures as well.  Many dedicated individuals have waged long legal battles fighting for rights of those oppressed.  But it was the courts themselves that acquiesced to the illegal taking of Palestinian lands for settlements.  Shulman details one of the legal victories won.

“At a conservative estimate, many thousands of Palestinian arrestees were tortured, often severely, over the two or three decades before 1999.”

“The High Court postponed serious consideration of this issue for years, until it was forced by public pressure and activist litigation to confront it. Under the enlightened leadership of Aharon Barak, the court ruled, on moral grounds articulated in international law, that torture was illegal under most circumstances. That ‘most’ was part of a significant loophole that allowed the security services to have an internal consultation when there was a perceived need for physical pressure on suspects. Torture has significantly diminished in Israel in recent years, but it has not disappeared, as a recent report published by the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel (PCATI) makes clear.”

The most effective methods of activists involve going out in the fields and shielding Palestinians from harm.  There are a number of organizations set up to do just that.

“These groups accompany Palestinian farmers and shepherds to their fields and grazing grounds and protect them from the predations of Israeli settlers and soldiers; they provide a restraining presence at the innumerable checkpoints and roadblocks manned by soldiers; they publicize routine criminal acts by military units operating in the territories; they offer emergency medical care to Palestinians unable to reach clinics and hospitals in the West Bank or in Israel; and, with particular emphasis, they are part of the unending legal battle for Palestinian lands, residency rights, and personal security, as well as a host of other pressing human rights issues.”

While the general populace goes about their lives in acquiescence to the methods being used by their political leaders, somewhere there resides within them that age-old outrage at injustice.

“Sometimes, however, protest erupts in unexpected ways. The Israeli government has recently begun deporting asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea. Close to 40,000 were scheduled for deportation or, if they refused to go, for open-ended incarceration in miserable conditions. The Israeli government was ready to pay the governments of Rwanda and Uganda to take these people, as later became clear. Very real, possibly life-threatening dangers awaited the deportees in these countries, including possible confiscation of their identity papers, the theft of their possessions, physical abuse, imprisonment, extortion, and the threat of being forcibly repatriated to their countries of origin (both South Sudan and Eritrea are engulfed in nightmarish violence). Most of these refugees have been in Israel for close to ten years; Hebrew is now their primary language; their children go to Israeli schools; for all intents and purposes apart from citizenship, these people are Israelis.”

“An unprecedented wave of popular protest brought many thousands of Israelis to the streets. El Al pilots and flight crews refused to fly the deportees to their deaths. Doctors, academics, lawyers, and many ordinary citizens, including Holocaust survivors and their relatives, spoke out. Some synagogues joined the struggle. Many stressed the unthinkable cognitive dissonance that arises from watching a Jewish state, founded by refugees from lethal oppression, sending tens of thousands of desperate African refugees to an unknown and precarious fate.”

Shulman takes encouragement from the fact that the government plan collapsed under pressure from courts and public opinion.  However, the political leaders continue to plot means by which individual rights can be taken away.

“Meanwhile, the government, driven by its extremist coalition partner the Jewish Home, is furthering a bill aimed at bypassing the High Court altogether by allowing a simple majority of sixty-one members of the Knesset to override the court’s rulings, particularly in cases involving basic human rights. This move is the most far-reaching attack ever made on the fundamental structure of Israeli democracy. If the bill passes, it will enshrine a tyranny of the majority and undermine the very concept of inalienable rights.”

Shulman is unwilling to give up on the notion that social justice and universal rights are deeply imbedded in Jewish culture.  He seems to believe that the righteous ones may still win the fight for justice in Israel.  However, he points out that most Israelis do not fall in the activist category.

“Most ordinary, decent Israelis acquiesce passively to the horrors of the occupation (a sizable minority actively supports the settlement enterprise).”

That is reminiscent of comments made about German citizens during the 1930s.  What Israeli leaders are pursuing are essentially a Generalplan Ost to provide desired Lebensraum and a final solution to dispose of a defenseless minority.

That ought to generate some “cognitive dissonance” among the Israelis.


The interested reader might find the following article informative:



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