(Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post on March 24, 2015 at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bob-herbst/israel-cannot-reform-itself-and-needs-some-tough-love_b_6918806.html.)
There is a silver lining in the black cloud of the recent Israeli election. The pretense at the base of Israel’s pious public pronouncements about its desire for peace with the Palestinians has been stripped away. Netanyahu revealed himself as unalterably opposed to the end of the occupation of the West Bank, to the creation of a viable state for the Palestinians, and thus to a lasting peace and just end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Despite all the talk we have heard for the last decade and more about Israel’s lacking a Palestinian partner for peace, it turns out to be the Palestinians who don’t have an Israeli partner really willing to make peace. And Netanyahu’s rant in the closing days of the campaign about the Arabs flocking to the polls “in droves” to vote betrayed an ugly racism truly disgusting to behold in the political leader of the Jewish state who purports to represent Jewry worldwide.
Even worse was the Israeli public’s response to these horrific appeals to their fears and basest instincts — giving Netanyahu and his right-wing government-to-be a clear mandate. It is now clear that his supporters, both secular and fundamentalist, constitute the majority opinion in Israel — in favor of continuing the occupation, continuing to build the settlements that are illegal under international law, continuing to change the facts on the ground to make a viable Palestinian state an impossibility, continuing to discriminate against Israeli Arabs inside the Green Line and to oppress Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. The motive is also obvious: to make Palestinian lives so miserable that they will up and leave, thus completing the project of cleansing historic Palestine of its indigenous people, thereby eliminating the demographic threat to a predominantly-Jewish Israel forever.
In short, it is now clear that Israel cannot reform itself. As the Executive Director of B’Tselem, The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, said this week, the ongoing occupation, which will reach its 50th year during Netanyahu’s new term in office, constitutes “military rule that denies basic rights to millions of people, settlement expansion, and… the expropriation of Palestinian lands and the dispossession of its owners, … unjust military courts, and a permit regime controlling most aspects of Palestinian life.”
And as he further notes, this denial of basic human rights of millions of Palestinians by the Jewish state “persists largely because it is allowed, bearable, and cheap.” It is “expensive and cruel to the Palestinians, but fairly convenient for Israelis.”
We American Jews have not just tolerated this oppression of another people for generations now. We have facilitated and supported it with our money and our political muscle. Our mainstream institutions of Jewish life have emphasized Jewish solidarity and support for Israel notwithstanding the ever-deepening right-wing and oppressive cast to Israeli politics. AIPAC has waged a misleading public relations and lobbying campaign truly breathtaking in its scope, success and power, obscuring the truth, and incidentally making Netanyahu appear to be the most popular politician in America.
Virtually all of the American rabbinate has kept silent in the face of this obvious moral and religious stain — this shonda — on the Jewish people, we who for centuries were the victims of oppression and who sadly have become oppressors ourselves. This silence on the greatest Jewish moral issue of our time helps explain why most human beings do not act or speak out against deeds known to be wrong but committed by their own national, tribal or religious communities. Conversely, it teaches how much courage it took for the Righteous Gentiles to act when push came to shove and Jewish lives were on the line.
The time has now come for American and Diaspora Jews the world over to open their hearts and mouths, to speak out, and to act. And the time has come for American Christians as well, many of whom have kept silent because of guilt over Christian anti-Semitism and fear that criticism of the Jewish state will be attacked as such. But as the Presbyterians recently decided in joining the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions [“BDS”] movement after a decade of debate, criticizing Israeli oppression of Palestinians is not anti-Semitic, it is a religious imperative and, properly done, may be understood as an act of Christian love for both Jews and Palestinians.
It is time to administer some tough love, to persuade the Israeli people and their government that the occupation must come to an end, to raise its cost to Israelis, to make it less “bearable,” and to state firmly that it is not “allowable” and shall no longer be “cheap.” We know from the South African experience that when a nation is not disposed to rid itself of the stain of discrimination and oppression, outside pressure in the form of BDS can assist it in doing so. Israel badly needs that help, from Jews and Christians here and abroad, now.