Sunday, January 15, 2012

Some thoughts about 'Why should Jews care about the rights of Israeli Arabs?'

In his book about the life of Mahatma Gandhi, Louis Fisher (1950) writes,

"Hitler," Gandhi said, "killed five million Jews. It is the greatest crime of our time. But the Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs... It would have aroused the world and the people of Germany... As it is they succumbed anyway in their millions."

This is a very difficult quote to read, and it needs parsing out. I am guilty of previously not doing the work necessary to reach Gandhi’s intention and have taught this as a call for Jews to go, “as sheep to slaughter.” I think I have done my students a disservice.

Today I am reading this quote in the context of an article I read by Rabbi Sid Schwartz (JTA, 1/12/2012) titled Why should Jews care about the rights of Israeli Arabs? I can already imagine some of my readers jumping from their seats in anger and accusing me of equating between the Shoah and the treatment of Israeli Arabs. This knee-jerk reaction is one of the greatest threats to the Jewish people. Human and civil rights are core Jewish values, and the Shoah may have been one of the greatest violations of these rights, but we need to discuss all violations of these moral and ethical imperatives on the same spectrum. It does no good to stigmatize every comparison to the Shoah, just as it does harm to hyperbolize the comparisons, as was recently the case in ultra-orthodox demonstrations in Israel where demonstrators dressed their children as concentration camp prisoners.

One small tangent; my teacher Rabbi David Wolpe has suggested, quite overtly, that the Cambodian genocide was the worst of the twentieth century because the world new it was humanly possible and did nothing to prevent it.

Rabbi Schwartz suggests two basic reasons for Jewish care for Arab rights in Israel, their humanity and Israeli democracy. As Humans, Israeli Arabs, just like the Sudanese refugees or Taiwanese foreign workers in Israel are made in the image of God, according to Jewish tradition. For this reason alone, their basic rights and dignity should be upheld. But dignity is a broad term that is rarely unpacked in any semblance of a serious definition. Rabbi Schwartz speaks of the injustice of the fact that 20 percent of Israel’s population accounts for 1 percent of its gross domestic product. He also speaks of inequality in municipal and educational services and in employment opportunities. I know some of my readers will stop here and say that the Israeli Arabs don’t serve in the military, thus they don’t share in the burden of the state’s maintenance. In fact, more Arabs now serve in the IDF than ever. More importantly, ultra-orthodox and secular Jews who avoid the draft are not punished with the same lack of services found in the Arab sector.

When Rabbi Schwartz addresses the issue of democracy, he also provides several examples. He states that our independence, as written in Ben Gurion’s Proclamation, calls for equal rights of all residents.  

[I]t will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.

Ironically, this declaration of independence does not call for a democratic state, and I wonder if this has anything to do with the possible oxymoron of calling Israel a Jewish democracy. Interestingly, one of the greatest assertions of democracy of all times, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which includes the famous, “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth” also does not mention democracy.

Now to Gandhi’s quote, in my very round about way. Avishai Margolit, the Israeli philosopher, in explaining the difference between morals and ethics, says that ethics guide thick relations between human’s whose lives are interconnected, even Palestinians and Israelis. This is why we have an ethics of war. But Morals guide our behavior when the stakes are significantly lower. Morals, according to Margolit, guide our behavior, specifically, because the stakes are low or non-existent. We are morally compelled because without morals, we would not help strangers.

Why does Gandhi say, “Jews should have offered themselves to the butcher’s knife. They should have thrown themselves into the sea from cliffs... It would have aroused the world and the people of Germany.” because Gandhi believes in the power of morals to arouse the ire of regular human beings to pursue justice and dignity for one another, even when the stakes are low. Gandhi’s appeal is moral in the same way as Dr. Martin Luther King’s claim, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” We have morals because ignoring injustice is corrupting. Gandhi doesn’t want Jews to die. He wants their death to be meaningful. He believes that since they will be dying anyway, they might as well make it a sign for generations to come.

This understanding of Gandhi reminds me of the dispute between Ben Padat and Rabbi Akiva regarding a flask of water that can save one of two people’s lives. Rabbi Akiva believes that one should surely drink the water to save his own life because a life has no value if it ends. Ben Padat believes differently. He is concerned with what his life will mean if he chooses his own life over his friend’s. Ben Padat is concerned with the kind of person he will be if he gets to live at the expense of his friend. In a sense, Gandhi is like Ben Padat. His argument is that if you have to die anyways, you might as well make your life a sign of how terrible humans can treat one another. He doesn’t suggest that Jews fight their oppressors because he doesn’t believe in becoming like them. This is a difficult decision for any human. In my worst nightmares, I am forced to live with myself after having to be unfaithful to my ideals. It would be nice if I could live this standard in real life, but it is very difficult. Life is about compromise, but Ben Padat and Gandhi believe that death doesn’t have to be.

In Israel, treating Arab Israelis with the dignity they deserve as fellow citizens is not nearly as difficult as people make it out to be. The mistreatment is about racism and misrepresented as self defense or “me first.” Many Israeli Jews try to apply the teaching of Hillel, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me.” But this approach is dishonest. The best way for Jews in Israel to be for themselves is to be for their weakest minorities. The absence of this form of democratic vigilance is what has led to the huge decay in Israeli democracy from the misogynistic behavior of the ultra-orthodox to the anti-immigrant and refugee fervor that has swept much of the nation. In the words of the great German pastor, Martin Niemöller,

First they came for the communists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.
Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn't speak out because I was Protestant.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

If we Israelis and Jews don’t start understanding King’s decree that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” And that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, [must] not perish from the earth” we will simply lose our value as a unique nation with the mission of being a vehicle for God’s blessing. This would be worse than any existential threat that would force us to steal the flask and drink the water without concern for what we might become.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Ruminations on BDS, despite the risk of marginalization by my people.

Even the mention of BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) can get a guy in trouble in my community. Cecilie Surasky, a leader in the group Jewish Voice for Peace was bumped from a national Jewish Heroes competition for her belief that this was the best way to get Israel to reach a final status agreement with the Palestinians. Cecilie was polling very strong at the time she was censured. Clearly someone with power didn’t appreciate the heroisms of Cecillie’s work. I wonder if the same would have happened if she were a very righteous Jews for Jesus or a halacha abiding haredi who makes his wife sit in the back of the public bus and spits on what he deems immodestly dressed young girls.
My teacher, Donniel Hartman, wrote an interesting dissertation that was turned into the book The Boundaries of Judaism, in which he explores the making of borders in Jewish society. The meta point of the book is that Jews have always negotiated these borders and even tolerated many deviant behaviors within their realm. The rabbi where I work, Harold Schulweis, even suggested that these boundaries include Jews who believe in Jesus. I suppose that I am less generous that some. I would certainly protect a Jew for Jesus if he were attacked by neo-Nazis for being a Jew, but I don’t know that I would love to bring him into my religious community. The same applies even stronger to settlers who attack Israeli soldiers or members of the Israeli Knesset that give away state secrets to assist settlers in their vigilantism. I suppose I would defend them from anti-Semites, but I certainly do not want to build a society with them.
I have some friends in Israel who will not do their reserve duty in the occupied territories because they do not want to defend the settlers or support the occupation. In general, I have more respect for those among them who spend their time in military prison, because they want to uphold the system but not participate personally, than those who find a way out of the service to strictly meet their personal needs. Faced with the possibility that my son will have to defend settlers, I am not so sure I want him drafted into the IDF, which is a possibility.
On the other hand, I firmly believe in democracy. As Churchill said so bluntly, “It is the worst form of government except for all the others that have been tried.” So what does it mean to be a democratic Jew and an Israeli? And how does this tie to BDS?
I have zigzagged between Israel and America my whole life. My birthday is February second, which is ideal for a person who lives in my two worlds. In American, where the month comes before the day, I write 02/02, and in Israel, where the date starts with the specific day, I also write 02/02. In this I am fortunate. I am also fortunate to have an alternative when I am not comfortable participating in my country’s decisions. Being American is easier for me than being Israeli because I didn’t choose it. My parents brought me into the world here. If this country enters an unjust war or elects a president I disagree with, it doesn’t feel like a reflection on me. When Israel makes choices I have great difficulty with, I feel uncomfortable with my decision to become a citizen.

Regarding BDS, Boycott, Divest and Sanctions, this is an outsider movement. Even if Jews support it, the effort is to use external power against Israel to force it to end the occupation. The good thing is that this is a non-violent effort, although it is not completely resistant to scrutiny. Attacking companies that benefit from the occupation, like the contractors that build in the West Bank or the financial institutions that bankroll them is one thing. What about companies that grow food in this disputed land and hire Palestinian labor. Isn’t there some violence in attacking a person’s source of income. I am not a pacifist. Sometimes violence is an appropriate response. I disagree with Ghandi, who said Jews should have quietly submitted to Nazi genocide. I also don’t think that BDS is a smart tactic.

BDS supporters generalize about their target. Ben Gurion University is run by a sympathizer for BDS, yet his institution is the target of the boycott. Bar Ilan University is generally not a friend to leftist causes. Its most famous student was the assassin who killed our prime minister at a peace rally in Tel Aviv, which was followed by the university putting his face on the cover of their annual report. The difference between me and those who believe in BDS is that I believe in my cause and my ability to change things for the better without resulting to force. I believe in honest, open intelligent discourse and the capacity of my fellow human beings to pursue the just and merciful path.

My friend Ed asked me to come hear a Palestinian author speak about his book on BDS. I was a bit nervous about the stigma that the community would try to put on me for going, but, instructed by my Jewish values, I went. The Talmud tells us why we normally follow in Hillel’s ways when Shammai’s were also “the words of a living God.” The Bat Kol, the heavenly voice said that we follow Hillel because of his modesty and because he represents the other sides argument before his own. I needed to hear the BDS argument from the Palestinian writer and from Cecilie Surasky of Jewish Voice for Peace before I could continue to contend that BDS is ultimately not a good method for achieving a lasting peace.

The day before the lunch, I reflected on my participation in the divestment movement in South Africa. Clearly, black South Africans were calling for support of the boycott. The main difference was that my support had no ethical stakes in the matter. The Israeli philosopher, Avishai Margalit, defines the difference between ethics and morals by the type of engagement. He says that ethics are guided by thick relations while morals are guided by thin relations. Whatever happened in South Africa was going to stay in South Africa. My relationship to Apartheid was thin, which made it a moral issue for me. This is like Martin Luther King’s claim in the Letter for the Alabama Jail that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” But my relationship to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is thick. We need ethics to guide the interaction between our two nations. Ethics is an internal discussion between the parties to the conflict and within the individual parties. BDS is an appeal to go outside to accomplish change. Sometimes it is necessary, but not until all efforts to come to internal agreement have been exhausted. This is why I remain in Peace Now, a movement that aggressively tries to facilitate internal Israeli and Jewish discussion by researching and exposing violations of standards we set for ourselves.
The new candidate/party for the Israeli Knesset, Yair Lapid, writes about two Israel’s. In my Israel and his, we strive for a country that tries to manifest the goals articulates in Israel’s most beautiful political proclamation, its Declaration of Independence. “It will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel…”

The most troubling thing I heard at the luncheon, however, was not from the Palestinian author. It was from Cecilie Surasky, who told me about the terrible violence in the territories and Israel against Palestinians. Mind you, there should be no place for institutionalized, cultural or personal violence against any human being, but the way Ms. Surasky reported it to me, she was being relativistic. Israeli violence, in her mind, is unbearable and the top priority for Jews to say no. I agree that violence perpetrated by my people is what I need to stop first. It is also the violence I have most control over. But there was something very unsettling about a Jew being more critical of Israeli Jewish violence which is relatively less than the violence perpetrated in Syria by a leader against his own people or the violence in Sudan.

I think it is great that Cecilie Surasky and Jewish Voice for Peace stands up to the occupation. I think it is very sad that they and their Palestinian counterparts in BDS have given up on discourse, and I am very worried about the introduction of relativism into the argument. I could have (and now I am) explained that the Palestinian speaker got his MA at my alma mater, Tel Aviv University, which is a very enlightened institution. And that there are many of these points of Light in Israel and they need to be nourished, not starved through academic boycotts. I didn’t want to go there, but Cecilie Surasky’s relativism opens this ugly pandora’s box.

During the writing of my dissertation, I went to Ramallah many times; an illegal act for Israeli Jews. When I would come back, my friends would ask me why my Palestinian friends don’t speak up against Hamas or speak out against attacks on civilians. I have never had a good answer for this. Both Cecilie and the Palestinian author said that I was blaming the victim. I am not so sure. If Jewish Voice for Peace is so ready to take responsibility to end Jewish and Israeli behavior in the territories why not expect that of everyone. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

I’m glad I went to lunch and didn’t fear the wrath of my community for legitimizing fringe forms of Jewish dissent, but after listening and acquiring the knowledge to present the other side, I am still not sold. BDS is not a good Jewish response to the occupation. It may be valid, and I would never censure Jewish Voice for Peace, but this is not a strategy that believes in the good of humans or the power of reason to overcome injustice.