News Roundup

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I have run across several news items over the past few weeks while sitting at my computer here in Oklahoma that I want to share. They range from the hopeful to the creepy, and I think you’ll find them of interest.

Hope

In case you missed this, two weeks ago the Israeli Supreme Court unanimously struck down as unconstitutional the law requiring a three-year minimum prison sentence for African refugees entering Israel, the vast majority of whom are asylum seekers fleeing war or persecution. Coverage in The Times of Israel quoted two of the justices as follows:

Justice Miriam Naor, deputy president of the High Court, said the ruling could be Israel’s “finest hour,” because it would force the country to find “humane solutions… that match not only international law, but also the Jewish worldview.”

The ruling will create “a difficult task” that Israel will perhaps “have to face against its will,” Justice Uzi Fogelman said, but “we must remember that those who come to our shores… are entitled to the right to liberty and the right to dignity that the Basic Law grants to any person as a human being.”

The African refugee situation in Israel is a complicated issue with no easy solutions. However this ruling offers some optimism that Israeli citizens and their leaders might wake up from their xenophobic fog and recognize the deep roots for justice and respect for all people in the Jewish tradition, especially the poor, the helpless, and those being oppressed. Perhaps this ruling also provides a glimmer of hope regarding the 40,000 Bedouin Israeli citizens in the Negev who are threatened with the destruction of their ancestral villages by the government or the Palestinians on the West Bank still enduring oppression, violence and impoverishment under the yoke of the occupation.

Perspective

Gershom Gorenberg, author of The Unmaking of Israel (a must-read book for anyone who cares about the future of Israel), recently published a column on the Daily Beast about how the growing refugee crisis resulting from the Syrian civil war might offer some fresh perspectives for understanding the Palestinian refugee situation that resulted from the 1948 war. Gorenberg challenges the accepted narratives of both sides in the conflict – that Israel had a premeditated policy in 1948 to expel all the Palestinians or that the Arab countries kept the Palestinians cooped up in refugee camps to keep the struggle aflame. Instead he suggests that the Syrian civil war, where millions have fled the fighting, offers an opportunity to re-examine these accepted notions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Creepy

Transitioning to the United States, there is a well-funded campaign being launched on college campuses, Generation Opportunity, to convince college students not to enroll in health insurance plans that will soon be offered as part of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), even if it means they forgo health insurance coverage. As Evan Feinberg, President of Generation Opportunity told Yahoo News, “You [college students] might have to pay a fine, but that’s going to be cheaper for you and better for you.” It’s hard for me to fathom how it will be better for college students not to have health insurance if they have the misfortune of being diagnosed with a serious illness.

In any case, the campaign features some video ads (scroll down to view them) with some creepy images that the promoters hope will go viral. It is distressing to see another example of how, what should be reasoned political discourse, has degenerated into the gutter of misleading information and sound bites.

Stereotypes

And finally, I recently viewed this short, four minute video, originally produced by ABC in 2010 (there is a 15 second commercial at the beginning), of the reaction of bystanders to three individuals – a young white man, a young black man, and a young blond woman – all engaged in the same suspicious act.  Although this was not a scientific experiment and the methodology can easily be criticized, it does give one pause to consider the built-in biases that we may not be aware we have and to honestly ask ourselves how we might have reacted. It is a fascinating video and an interesting thought experiment.

Dispossession

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Yesterday, the Knesset passed legislation in its first reading (two more readings are necessary before it becomes law) to evict 40,000 Israeli Bedouin citizens from their homes and to destroy their villages.  I have written about this issue several times in the past, most recently last month, where you can learn more about this travesty.

This is just another step in what Gershom Gorenberg, in his book “The Unmaking of Israel”, describes as the infiltration of the West Bank settler ideology into Israel, creating in its wake a society infused with injustice, xenophobia, and racism.

Another recent example of this is a headline in today’s Haaretz describing the incarceration of the children of African refugees. As the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child reported, legislation passed last year by the Knesset “authorizes the extended detention of children who come here illegally [NOTE: African asylum seekers fleeing war, torture and genocide are barred from entering Israel “legally,” no matter how desperate their situation.] even if they have suffered exploitation, torture and trafficking… Some of the children were taken into custody in the middle of the night under extremely stressful circumstances [NOTE: This experience is a common occurrence for West Bank Palestinian children, many hundreds of whom are arrested each year in terrifying middle of the night army raids.].”

But back to the Bedouin. I will end this column by pasting in below a first-person account of yesterday’s Knesset debate written by Rabbi Arik Ascherman from Rabbis for Human Rights. As background, 43 Knesset members voted in favor of evicting the Bedouin and 40 voted against.

43 in Favor of Destroyed villages and a Destroyed Way of Life; 40 Against

 I don’t know whether we will be tried in this world or in another, or by history.  But if this isn’t stopped, we will be tried.  There will be no need for outside commentators or experts or facts or witnesses. It won’t be a matter of a hostile outside world.  Tonight’s Knesset transcript will be sufficient.  Every word spoken by those who rose to defend or decry this legislation will be a fiery witness for the prosecution.  Those in support revealed their true colors, while the words of those opposed ensure that we will not be able to say that we didn’t know or weren’t warned.  We will be tried according to our own words, and found guilty.

I take comfort in our public opinion poll, for which we will be lifting the embargo this morning, our time.  Our hope is that the majority of average Israelis, when the disinformation is stripped away, recognize the fairness in recognizing the historic claims of the Bedouin to a mere 5.4% of the Negev.

Most of the Arab MK’s tore the law up from the speaker’s platform. All expressed anger. Some pleaded not to push the Arab population to the wall, asking “What do you want from us?”

Jewish MK’s from Meretz and the Labor party spoke of the dangerous anti-democratic nature of the legislation, and said that the only way forward was to sit down with our fellow citizens as equals and come to agreement. Their pain and anger was also palpable, as they confronted the imploding of everything they believe in as Israelis and as Zionists.  They asked that the land issue be put aside and that the issue of development and infrastructure be put first. It will be easier to talk about thorny issues after some trust is created.  Michal Rozin said, “First, stop the cruel demolitions.” (She happened to witness demolitions on the day she was on tour with us and our coalition partners.) Almost everything we might have said was said.  Micky Rosenthal and others practically repeated the words of Theodore Bikel when he asked, “How can we do to others what was done to us.” (All MK’s received the Bikel video and our background/position paper)

It was theater of the absurd, as Speaker of the Knesset Yuli Edelstein repeatedly expressed his dismay at the violation of Knesset decorum, expelling Arab MK after Arab MK. While many of those opposed spoke of how this was a dark day for the Knesset and Israeli democracy, going beyond the pale of legitimate debate, Edelstein  displayed no empathy, and seemed impervious to the pain, desperation and dismay being expressed.  For him, those emotions were all theatrics, and this was just another Knesset debate that had to be conducted according to the rules. Amid my streaming tears, I reflected on how Chaim Herzog was seen as a hero for tearing the “Zionism is Racism” resolution in pieces while standing on the speaker’s platform at the UN.

The right wing spoke lies about criminal squatters and Orit Struck said bluntly, “It is our land. They don’t have rights.”

Then, there were the “Moderates.” Ruby Rivlin (Likud) and Meir Shetreet (Tnuah) spoke for passing the law and then continuing the negotiations. But they and Welfare Minister Meir Cohen (Yesh Atid)  made it perfectly clear that the Bedouin would have to change their way of life. They paternalistically maintained that little urban boxes with electricity and running water would be good for the Bedouin.  They glossed over the fact that plenty of Jewish Israelis enjoy electricity and running water in rural settings, and certainly didn’t breath a word about the fact that “Changing their way of life” included dispossession from their land.  The opposition pointed out that there was no necessary connection between the issue of where the Bedouin should live and their ownership of their lands. 

MK Issawi Freij (Meretz)  summed it up best.  This bill says, “We will give you water if you give us your lands.” 

Ya’akov once said to Esau, “I will give you food if you give me your birthright.”  He thought he was being clever, but the price was anger, enmity, and twenty years of exile and estrangement from his brother.

Not only will we be judged if we do not pull back from what we did this evening, but we will pay a terrible price. Please stand with us, and be our mirror.

Destroying the Lives of 40,000 Bedouin Israeli Citizens

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“I truly believe that history will judge all of us on how we act in the coming days. The enormity of the impending moral disaster is perhaps greater than any I have dealt with in the 18 years I have been working for Rabbis For Human Rights.”

Rabbi Arik Ascherman, Rabbis for Human Rights, May 5, 2013

The government of Israel wants to advance a bill in the Knesset that will forcibly expel 40,000 Bedouin, all citizens of Israel, from villages on their ancestral lands. In past centuries, the Ottoman Empire and the British Mandate recognized the land as belonging to these Bedouin. Israel, with new laws passed since the founding of the state, has unilaterally taken away these ownership rights and the government, echoed by the media, now publicly calls the Bedouin “squatters” as if they have no historical and legal connection to their homes.

The plan is to demolish the Bedouin villages and force residents into artificially created towns where there are no jobs, no hope, and crime and drugs are rampant. Experience has shown that their social structures will collapse when separated from their land and traditional way of life. Besides the moral implications, this is a dangerous strategic move for Israel — destroying the lives of 40,000 loyal (until now) Muslim citizens.

As background, I posted two columns about this last year.  Click here and here (scroll down a bit).

A Ministerial Committee is meeting Monday, May 6, to decide if the plan will be forwarded to the Knesset for approval. If you want to help stop this action, please sign this petition – and forward this on to others who might be interested in stopping this legislation. We only have 24 hours. Click here for a history of how this particular plan was developed.

I have pasted in below selections from a column by Rabbi Arik Ascherman from Rabbis for Human Rights which describes how this plan is a violation of the ethical and moral foundations of the Jewish tradition – and mirrors the policies that were used to oppress Jews in the past.

From the moment that I first understood our government’s intentions, I have not been able to get out of my head the final scene of “Fiddler on the Roof,” as the Jews of Anatevka are expelled from their homes. Watch it for yourselves, starting at 2 hours and 36 minutes.

I imagine the residents of El-Araqib saying goodbye to the generations buried in their cemetery, and the residents of numerous villages giving one last longing look at their lands. I imagine the Bedouin soldier serving in the IDF returning his uniform after taking a furlough to help his family pack. At least as likely, I imagine 40,000 Bedouin battling the special police force to be created to enforce this plan, and eventually being forcibly herded into the “Pale of Settlement,” where they will be allowed to live. I see the hatred in young people’s eyes, rising incidents of skirmishes between Jews and Bedouin, and the headlines mourning declining investments and rising unemployment for Jew and Arab alike. As we are warned in this week’s Torah portion, “If you reject My Laws and spurn “My rules,….I will wreak misery upon you…” (Leviticus 26: 15-16)

The bottom line is that successive Israeli governments have desired for years to move the Negev Bedouin out of villages where they have lived before the creation of the state, or in some cases from villages into which Israel had forcibly moved them during the first years of the state. The goal has also been to take over their lands. Fear mongers have told the Israeli public that the Bedouin are criminals who will take over the Negev if they are not stopped. The truth is that, if the Bedouin were granted a fair opportunity to prove their land claims, and were they to win every claim, they would hold on to 5.4% of the Negev.

The Ministerial Committee on Legislation is scheduled to vote on Monday whether or not to send the latest plan to the Knesset to make it into law. Our ask is very simple. “Don’t approve this, or any other proposal that steals land and hope. Build a better future together with the Bedouin” Beyond the enormous moral implications almost impossible to grasp, there is self interest as well. The additional tension, strife and social problems will drive away investments, and discourage people from living in the Negev.

When Sheikh Sayekh al-Touri [from the demolished Bedouin village of Al-Arakib] watched that scene of the Jews of Anatevka being expelled from their homes. He exclaimed, “They did to the Jews just what the Jews are trying to do to us!” However, I was always taught that we are a people commanded to learn from our own oppression how NOT to treat others, and how NOT to repeat history, “For you were resident aliens in the land of Egypt.”

And so, I also have an alternative vision in my head. It is one of Jews and Bedouin working together for the good of theNegev. It is one in which we will merit the blessing of this week’s Torah portion,”You shall observe my laws and faithfully keep My rules, that you may live upon the land in security, the land shall yield is fruit and you shall eat your fill…”(Leviticus 23:18-19), because we will remember that even the Covenant between God and the Jewish people does not mean that the land belongs to Arab or Jew, “For the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with me.”(Leviticus 25:23) If we act fairly and justly to Jew and Bedouin alike, we will be truly living the Torah’s command:

“You shall proclaim freedom throughout the land for ALL its inhabitants.” (Leviticus 25:10)

Please act now. Your decision at this moment could influence whether Israel ignores the moral lessons of our own history and perpetuates strife, or whether Israel acts according to the precepts of justice and fairness at the heart of our Jewish tradition, and promotes a better future for both Jews and Bedouin in the Negev.

The West Bank in Israel

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Historian Gershom Gorenberg, in his book “The Unmaking of Israel,” devotes an entire chapter making the case that the ideology and practices of radical Jewish settlers and the government in the West Bank are spreading into Israel proper within the Green Line (the border before the 1967 Six-Day War). In this post I want to explore whether developments confirm this thesis, which, if true, has far-reaching implications for the country and its democratic future.

As an aside, Gorenberg’s book, published last fall, is one of the most important and engrossing books about Israel of the past year. It reads like a novel but is chock-full of in-depth research. As an Orthodox Jew living in Jerusalem, he is disturbed by what he sees as the destruction of the core values of Israel and Judaism. If someone like Gorenberg is so concerned, it behooves those on both the left and the right to pay close attention and to take a look at his book.

But let me return to the question of whether the right-wing West Bank ideology is spreading into Israel proper in a significant way. There are two minority groups in Israel that we can view as test cases of this.

Minority Group 1: The Bedouin in the Negev

The first group to consider are Israeli citizens in the Negev who happen to be Bedouin. Loyal to the state and often serving in the Israeli army, many have been forced off their ancestral lands and moved to crime-ridden and poverty-stricken towns. Since they could no longer practice their traditional lifestyle, the social fabric that kept their communities together unraveled.

Today, the government is implementing the Prawer Plan that will force another 30,000 of these Israeli citizens off their lands and into the townships, making way for Jewish National Fund (JNF) forests and Jewish-only settlements. The Bedouin have begun fighting back for their very lives. On March 15 I posted a column on how one such village, Al-Araqeeb, has become a symbol of resistance after being demolished repeatedly by the army and police. A few residents are still clinging to their land and now live among the headstones in the village cemetery, in the hope that the government won’t trespass on sacred ground.

A row of tiny saplings planted by the JNF to create forests on Bedouin land

The rationale for the Prawer Plan is a fear that demographic trends will lead to Jews becoming a minority in the Negev. In 2010, Prime Minister Netanyahu, while speaking about the Bedouin situation, issued this warning:

…a situation in which a demand for national rights will be made from some quarters inside Israel, for example in the Negev, should the area be left without a Jewish majority. Such things happened in the Balkans, and it is a real threat.

So the fear is of a threat of secession and civil war if Jews do not retain majority control in every geographic area of Israel. Disregarding for now whether this is a valid concern, in order to accomplish this goal Israel is using strategies that destroy the core foundations of a democracy wherein all citizens have equal rights.

The government has been using tactics that it refined in the West Bank to take over the Bedouin lands: unjust and twisted laws enabling the expropriation of property at the expense of one group to benefit another group, ignoring centuries-old tribal practices for recognizing land ownership that were accepted by the Ottoman and British authorities before 1948, accusing subgroups of being a threat, making life unbearable for residents so that they will voluntarily move, and horrific home demolition practices that impoverish families and force them out. As I wrote on March 15, the greatest irony was when a young Bedouin “who had served in the Israeli army, received his order to appear for his annual reserve duty on the same day he received from the government a demolition notice for his home. No firm date is given with these notices. The bulldozer will simply show up one day at this soldier’s door.”

Demolition of a building at Al-Araqeeb on July 27, 2010

Some have labeled the Bedouin situation in the Negev the “West Bank in Israel,” warning that embittered young Bedouins are becoming radicalized. Netanyahu may be fearful of a Balkans-type situation, but he is doing a good job recreating it with his repressive policies and xenophobic comments.

Even if Netanyahu’s fear is valid, the Bedouin villages threatened with destruction account for only 5 percent of the land in the Negev. There is plenty of other land available for Jewish towns in the wide-open expanses of the desert, and there is no need for the JNF to destroy the way of life of 30,000 Israeli citizens for some additional dunams of forest. This makes no sense unless it is viewed through the prism of the ideology of the West Bank settlement enterprise, where there are similar objectives of building Jewish settlements while forcing the local population out. This brings into focus Gorenberg’s thesis.

A demolished Al-Araqeeb house

Minority Group #2: African Refugees

There are approximately 50,000-60,000 African refugees in Israel today, mainly clustered in the poorer sections of Tel Aviv and Eilat. Most entered Israel illegally, and the numbers crossing the border have increased dramatically. Many, if not most, are asylum seekers fleeing war, torture, rape, and genocide. This is a complex subject with no easy answers, but the government’s repressive policies are deplorable, especially given the Jewish history of fleeing persecution.

Homeless African refugees sleeping in Levinsky Park in Tel Aviv

For months, while Nicholas Kristof has been writing columns in The New York Times about the Sudanese government bombing villages in the Nuba Mountains and the resulting mass starvation (a replay of Darfur),  Prime Minister Netanyahu and other government ministers have been accusing these same Africans, who are fleeing for their lives, of being migrant workers and an existential threat to the Jewish state. This culminated several weeks ago with a race riot in south Tel Aviv where refugees were attacked on the street and shops were destroyed by a violent mob of hundreds. The mayhem occurred immediately after Knesset members inflamed a crowd of 1,000 at an anti-African rally. This is how I described it in a blog post on May 25:

Deputy Speaker of the Knesset Danny Danon from the Likud shouted: “The infiltrators must be expelled from Israel! Expulsion now!” Miri Regev from the Likud declared, “The Sudanese are a cancer in our body.” Michael Ben Ari from the far-right National Union party exclaimed “There are rapists and harassers here. The time for talk is over.”

The violence was preceded by weeks of incitement from Government ministers. Interior Minister Eli Yishai has been making headlines almost every day with statements such as “We must put all these infiltrators behind bars in detention and holding centers, then send them home.” Deputy Knesset Speaker Danon wrote on Facebook that “Israel is at war” and the “Infiltrators are a national plague.” As Peter Beinart wrote in a column yesterday, “A reviled, powerless minority discussed in the language of war and disease? Where have my Jewish ears heard that before?”

Not much has changed since the riot. Eli Yishai of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, who heads the Interior Ministry that is responsible for immigration, has said that most Africans are engaged in criminal activity and few deserve asylum. On May 31st in an over-the-top interview in Maariv, he went further and claimed that many Israeli women have been raped by Africans but “do not complain out of fear of being stigmatized as having contracted AIDS.” Last week’s newspaper headlines blared “Prime Minister: 25,000 illegal African migrants should be deported as soon as possible.”

Unfortunately, this rhetoric is not new. In a post on March 10 I described how the Netanyahu government has been demonizing the refugees for several years, alleging that the influx of African refugees is a demographic threat to the existence of a Jewish state and defining them as labor migrants or infiltrators (a term previously used only for terrorists). This terminology has been picked up by the media, creating a sense of hysteria over the threat posed by these helpless people.

Given Interior Minister Yishai’s attitudes, it is not surprising that the government has set up an ineffective system to screen refugees (PDF) for valid asylum claims. For example, those fleeing from the Sudan and Eritrea (an extremely repressive government that is ranked below North Korea on some measures), who make up 85% of refugees entering Israel today, are not allowed to apply for asylum. In contrast, 97% and 99% of Eritrean refugees are granted asylum in the United States and Canada, respectively. Africans from other war-torn and repressive countries can apply, but as I wrote in a March 4 column describing Israel’s flawed asylum procedures, in 2008 and 2009, of the 3,200 asylum applications submitted, only three were approved. In 2011, the results were even worse: 3,692 asylum applications were rejected and only one was approved. (NOTE: These statistics also included some asylum applications from non-African nationalities.)

The government’s response to the refugee challenge is to build massive prisons in the Negev desert where new refugees – men, women and children — will be incarcerated for up to three years. Last week saw the announcement of plans for additional facilities that will include tent prisons, where tens of thousands will be incarcerated. This week, a new bill backed by the government was discussed in the Knesset that would impose five-year prison terms on anyone employing, transporting, or providing housing to refugees. If Israel begins forcibly repatriating refugees to their repressive home countries, as Netanyahu has threatened, many will face prison, torture, or death.

The government could choose a more humane approach that is consistent with the 1951 United Nations Convention dealing with refugees, which the first government of Israel helped develop as a result of the Holocaust. There are alternative policy choices that could be made, but instead the government has chosen repression and incitement while ignoring traditional Jewish humanitarian values. For some perspective, it is interesting to read two recent op-ed columns by Rabbi Aaron Leibowitz and Rabbi Donniel Hartman.

(Full disclosure: I have a personal interest in this brewing humanitarian crisis. This past winter I helped organize a breakfast program for refugees in Tel Aviv to provide a morning meal to those who would otherwise go hungry all day. In three months we have served over 30,000 meals. The Good People Fund, an American non-profit that raises money to relieve hunger, poverty and human suffering in Israel and America, has funded this program and continues to solicit donations to keep it going. An article describing the breakfast project in this past weekend’s New Jersey Jewish Standard quoted Naomi Eisenberger, Executive Director of the Good People Fund: “We’re doing this on a month-to-month basis, as long as our funds hold out. Our attitude is that we have to leave politics aside. These are hungry people and they’re totally and completely helpless. Someone has to feed them. You can’t let them starve in the middle of Tel Aviv.”)

Breakfast being served to refugees in Tel Aviv’s Levinsky Park. The US-based Good People Fund (www.goodpeoplefund.org) is raising money to serve this meal on a daily basis.

The West Bank in Israel

So how do the Bedouin and the African refugee situations exemplify Gorenberg’s thesis about the West Bank ideology penetrating Israel within the Green Line? The incitement against these two groups comes from the same desire – for many a religious mandate – for Jews to redeem the entire Land of Israel and ensure Jewish majority control. In the process, the rights of non-Jewish minorities are considered less important and inevitably leads to abuse. As Gorenberg details in his book, many yeshivot now teach that the commandment to settle the land takes priority over other ethical and moral commandments in Judaism.

One very public example of this occurred before the 2009 invasion of Gaza (Operation Cast Lead) when the Army’s chief rabbi distributed a booklet to soldiers that included the following:

We are commanded by the Torah to build our state in it [the Land of Israel] and forbidden by the Torah to give up even one millimeter of it to the Gentiles, in the form of any kind of impure and foolish distortions about autonomy, enclave or any other national weaknesses. We shall not leave it under the control of another people, not even one finger of it, not even a piece of a fingernail.

The booklet goes on describe the Palestinians as being identical to the ancient Philistine enemy, and exhorts soldiers to show no mercy toward militants and civilians alike.

Yesh Din, an Israeli human rights NGO, wrote in a letter at the time to the Defense Minister that the booklet “contradicts the basic principles of the laws of war…and also contradicts the principles of Jewish morality in the name of which the Chief Military Rabbi is supposedly speaking.” Gorenberg, commenting on this and related episodes, wrote that Army Chief Rabbi Avihai Ronski, who founded a yeshiva in an illegal settlement, was “legitimizing the religious right’s anti-humanistic attitudes and its claim to be the voice of Judaism.”

Many claim that the treatment of the Bedouin and the refugees is simply racism. Even Jews from Ethiopia, who are black, have experienced serious discrimination in Israel based on their color – and as described in this article, some are struggling with their identity because of the Tel Aviv race riot.

However, I think it is more complicated than that. Professor Shaul Magid, who writes a blog on The Times of Israel, has a more insightful perspective now that Jews find themselves as a majority ruling a country:

Some have written that the attacks against migrants in south Tel Aviv are an example of racism. While racism exists in Israel as it exists everywhere, I am not convinced this is the root of the problem. The problem, as I see it, is “otherness.” More precisely, how does an oppressed people became a true majority and refashion its identity so that otherness is not by definition a threat? In this sense, the Arabs have made it too easy for the Jews in Israel to be a majority and yet not identify as such. Holocaust imagery is still used to justify Israel’s behavior, as if a country with one of the most powerful militaries in the world and the backing of the only true superpower can be equated with the emaciated living corpses of Auschwitz. The comparison is nothing less than grotesque. It is arguably the case that the victim has no ethical obligation other than to survive. But the majority is not the victim, at least not in that way. This is not to say that majorities can’t be threatened. They surely can. But majorities, unlike besieged victims, do have ethical obligations toward minorities in their midst.

What I am suggesting is that the mentality of the victim — the identity of the besieged minority — still functions as a pillar of Israeli self-fashioning, and this, I believe, underlies the tragic episode of the migrants. The “other,” any “other,” is a threat by definition, even when she is basically powerless…. what a majority produces when it identifies and acts as a victimized minority is tyranny.

I agree with Magid’s assessment – and this applies as well to the Palestinians. For 45 years they have lived under an occupation that includes policies — practiced on a mass scale — of home demolitions, property theft, economic deprivation, and incarceration without any semblance of due process. I am not referring to policies instituted for security purposes, which are valid, but rather policies that have no reason other than “redeeming the land” and forcing Palestinians out. These practices mostly occur under the radar and are rarely, if ever, covered in the overseas Jewish press. The same goes for the non-security-related violence that is endemic to the occupation – and is rapidly increasing – and the day-to-day harassment and intimidation that occurs.

And now these policies, and the ideology behind them, are being applied to the Bedouin and the refugees, in different ways for each group. The difference between the West Bank and Israel within the Green Line is indeed getting blurry.

Interestingly, Gershom Gorenberg hardly deals with the abusive aspects of the occupation in his book. Rather, he concentrates on the establishment and spread of ideology. One example he uses is right-wing West Bank settlers who are purposefully settling in mixed Arab-Jewish cities in Israel, bringing their ideology with them and creating conflict in areas where formerly co-existence reigned. His thesis is that this will spread to other segments of Israeli society, which it seems is already occurring.

In summation, Gorenberg uses the following allegory to describe what is happening to the country he loves:

In “God of Vengeance,” Sholom Asch’s classic Yiddish play, a character in an unnamed Eastern European town a century ago runs a brothel in his basement while trying to bring up his daughter as a chaste Jewish girl on the floor above. To protect her purity, he places a Torah scroll in his home. He has a matchmaker find a pious groom for her. His plan fails. A wooden floor cannot keep the two realms of his life apart. Reverence for a sacred scroll cannot ward off corruption when people ignore the words written on it.

Let us read Asch’s drama as an allegory for what happens when a fragile democracy tries to maintain an undemocratic regime next door in occupied territory. A border, especially one not even shown on maps, cannot seal off the rot. Nor can politicians’ declarations of reverence for liberal values.

In recent years, the corrosive effects of the occupation on Israel have been glaring, especially the vocal, shameless efforts of the political right to treat Israeli Arabs as enemies of the state rather than as fellow citizens…. Unchecked, the offensive against democracy has grown wider. The political right uses charges of treason to attack critics of policy in the occupied territories, and seeks legislation to curb dissent and the rights of Arab citizens and to bypass the Supreme Court.

And finally, Gorenberg quotes philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz, who in 1967 joined a small chorus of prophetic voices, including David Ben Gurion’s, that warned of the grave dangers the occupation posed to Israeli society.

Only months after Israel conquered the West Bank, philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz warned that continuing the occupation would “undermine the social structure we have created and cause the corruption of individuals, both Jew and Arab.” Leibowitz’s warning has proved all too prophetic.

This column was previously published on The Times of Israel

The Negev: A Bedouin Village versus a JNF Forest

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There was a clear blue sky after many days of rain when we drove to Al-Arakib near Be’er Sheva down in the Negev. The air was cool but the sun was strong. All around us the desert was in bloom as we turned onto the dirt road, passed a small cemetery on the left and pulled up before a large three-sided Bedouin tent. In the distance I could see groves of trees on higher ground. But the surroundings around the tent were barren, just sandy ground and rocks. I was soon to find out why.

To read the rest of this post, go to http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-negev-a-bedouin-village-versus-a-jnf-forest

A Tale of Two Cities

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“The day Jerusalem was liberated was the day that the city heaved a sigh of relief and began to spread its wings, for the benefit of its Arab and Jewish residents alike….We will never again allow Jerusalem to become a separated, bleak and divided city.“ Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

When Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke those words at the Jerusalem Day ceremony in 2010, he was already too late. Unbeknownst to his audience, Jerusalem had already become bleak and divided.

This is a tale of two cities, one rich with parks, well cared for neighborhoods and tourist attractions; the other impoverished and deprived of even basic services. And as for a united Jerusalem spreading its wings for the good of Jews and Arabs alike, well, you decide below on the efficacy of that claim.

As background, as I covered in a post on January 16, A Virtual Tour of East Jerusalem (I urge you to “take the tour” if you haven’t done so already), Israel annexed in 1967 all of what had been East Jerusalem plus 28 nearby villages and incorporated them into the municipality of Jerusalem.

Fast Forward to 2012:

Let’s see how the Palestinian population has fared 45 years later when compared to Jewish West Jerusalem.

Population: There are 303,000 Palestinian residents in East Jerusalem, one-third of the population, out of a total of 835,000 people in the Jerusalem municipality (2009 data).

Poverty: 65% of Palestinian families live under the poverty line as compared to 31% of Jewish families. (This is 2008 data. Economic conditions in East Jerusalem have gotten much worse since then so these figures have deteriorated further.)

Children:  74% of Palestinian children live under the poverty line compared to 45% of Jewish children. (Also 2008 data)

Schools: Average class size is 32 students in East Jerusalem versus 24 students in West Jerusalem. School buildings are neglected, often run down. The Jerusalem municipality’s own statistics listed 50% of East Jerusalem’s classrooms to be sub-standard in 2009 (704 out of 1,360) including 221 that were deemed unfit.

In addition, due to an estimated shortage of 1,000 classrooms in the municipal schools there, an estimated 11,000 Palestinian children (12% of school age children) did not attend school for the 2009-2010 school year due to lack of space. Tens of thousands of others were forced to attend private schools, which posed a severe financial burden on the mostly impoverished population. In 2008, the per-student budget allocation for elementary school children in Jewish West Jerusalem was 400% higher that in East Jerusalem: 2,372 NIS (New Israel Shekels) per Jewish student versus 577 NIS per Palestinian student.

Given all of this, it is not surprising that there is a 50% drop out rate for Palestinian children compared to 7.4% in the Jewish sector.

Several recent court rulings have ordered the Jerusalem municipality to build more classrooms and to increase the East Jerusalem school budget. How these rulings will be implemented is a question that will unfold over time.

Pre-school: There are roughly 15,000 three and four year olds in East Jerusalem. Despite the importance of early education on child development, 90% of them are not enrolled in a pre-school educational program. This is not for a lack of interest. There are only 2 municipal pre-schools in East Jerusalem compared to 56 in West Jerusalem.

Land: One-third of the land in East Jerusalem has been expropriated by the Israeli government from Arab owners since 1967.

Housing: As of 5 years ago, over 50,000 housing units for Jewish residents has been built on this expropriated land. That number is larger today. No housing has been built for Palestinian residents.

Housing density for existing homes in East Jerusalem is almost double what it is for Jewish residents: on average, 1.9 people per room versus 1 person per room. It is nearly impossible for Palestinians to obtain building permits to construct new houses or to repair existing ones due to discriminatory policies. The result is massive illegal construction without safety inspections and the constant threat of demolition by the government.

View of East Jerusalem neighborhood

Municipal Services: There are minimal municipal services provided to East Jerusalem residents. A simple walk through neighborhoods will reveal decrepit roads and sidewalks, and few public parks or playgrounds. Hundreds of streets are not provided with trash collection services that results in trash piling up everywhere.

Street scene in East Jerusalem

Water connections: 160,000 Palestinian residents, over half the population, have no legal connection to the water network. Either they jury-rig connections to the water mains or they use stored water in containers.

Sewage: Estimates state that East Jerusalem is in need of 50 kilometers of new main sewage lines. Entire neighborhoods still use cesspools, not ideal for densely packed urban neighborhoods, and existing sewage facilities are antiquated and poorly maintained. It is not unusual for sewers to overflow and for sewage water to run above ground close to homes.

NOTE: These last few items pose a risk to public health from infectious disease but they continue to be ignored by municipal authorities.

Postal service: 10 post offices serve Palestinian areas compared to 42 in West Jerusalem. Mail delivery is only partial and sporadic making commerce more difficult.

In addition, Palestinian residents face the ongoing menace of home demolitions and eviction, especially in the neighborhoods directly abutting the Old City where the government works closely with several ideological NGOs to evict Palestinians and replace them with Jewish settlers (For details, see my posts of January 2 and January 10).

Home in East Jerusalem shortly after being demolished. Note pile of rubble in the background.

The construction of the Separation Wall, as noted in previous posts, has disrupted the flow of commerce by severing neighborhood from neighborhood and all of East Jerusalem from the nearby commercial centers of Ramallah, Bethlehem, and the rest of the West Bank. This has caused massive economic dislocation and impoverishment.

Separation wall in Jerusalem. Note how it splits this neighborhood in two, severing all connections.

The data above is just a sampling of the comparisons between Palestinian East Jerusalem and Jewish West Jerusalem. For those interested in more details, you can read a full report that was produced by The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, an organization that fights for the rights of all Israelis. (For more details, see http://www.scribd.com/doc/31806771/Report-May10-ACRI-Human-Rights-in-East-Jerusalem-Facts-and-Figures Scroll down to page 38 for English). A preface to the report sums it up as follows:

“Israel’s policy for the past four decades has taken concrete form as discrimination in planning and construction, expropriation of land, and minimal investment in physical infrastructure and government and municipal services. As a result, East Jerusalem residents suffer severe distress, and their conditions are worsening.”

“Life in East Jerusalem can be described as a continuing cycle of neglect, discrimination, poverty, and shortages. These, compounded by construction of the Separation Barrier cutting Jerusalem off from the West Bank, have led to the social and economic collapse of this part of the city. A large majority of East Jerusalem residents do not receive, and cannot afford to buy, the most basic services.

It seems to me that the facts on the ground in East Jerusalem belie the claim that Jerusalem is indivisible. East and West Jerusalem are like two separate worlds, one a modern urban environment, a magnet for visitors, and the other a neglected and impoverished backwater. The demand for a unified city which has been made into a roadblock for peace, the city that tourists are shown with reverence, is a Potemkin Village hiding the truth.

Update on recent Bedouin Home Demolitions:

Two days ago I linked to a late breaking story about a middle of the night demolition of several Bedouin homes. Unfortunately, more details have emerged that make the situation more distressing. In all, six houses were destroyed making many more families homeless than was originally reported. See this update to read what the experience was actually like: http://972mag.com/idf-commits-price-tag-attack-against-activists-resisting-home-demolitions/33866/

Salim Shawamreh's house before it was demolished. See the link above for the view afterwards.

Profoundly disconcerting in the above link was when one of the Israeli soldiers yelled at Rabbi Arik Aschermann, director of Rabbis For Human Rights in Israel who had rushed to the scene, to take off his skullcap because “he was a disgrace to Judaism.” This while the soldiers were escorting a bulldozer from house to house, demolishing them without any advance notice. In the dead of night, entire families – men, women, children and babies, bewildered and disoriented – were evicted into the cold winter rain with no shelter and just the clothes on their backs.

Tzedek tzedek tirdof. (Justice, justice shall you pursue.) Deuteronomy 16:20

A Personal Note to Readers

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I want to thank you for following this blog.  On average there are well over 100 people who are reading the posts. This is especially gratifying since I began it only one month ago.

As you may have surmised, I am writing the blog mainly because I am worried about the future of Israel, both for its survival and what kind of country it is becoming.
Right now many Israelis share this concern and feel the land they love is being distorted into something unrecognizable.

Last fall a friend who made aliyah 40 years ago posted a column on her blog that was addressed to Sara, a young Israeli who was brutally attacked and beaten by settlers including off-duty police during a violent incident on the West Bank. Our friend used strong language but this only reflected her grave concerns.

In your report you say that before this night you could not imagine fascism. You are not alone, Sara. Most of the people in Israel cannot imagine fascism. Most of the Jews in Germany and Holland, even in the early 1940’s, could not imagine fascism. It’s hard to connect the dots—a law here, a ruling there; broken window here, graffiti there; silence here, apathy there—until it’s too late and the dots become a wall with no exit.  We fail to put the pieces together because we cannot bear to imagine the home we love becoming a fascist state…. As long as the violence against Palestinians took place in the occupied territories, we didn’t see, we didn’t hear, we didn’t know. We could continue to delude ourselves in our quiet lives that we lived in a democratic country.” (To read this heartfelt post, see http://writeinisrael.com/2011/10/09/practice-imagining-fascism/)

Like our friend, I want Israel to remain a country with all the safeguards of a true democracy and one that lives up to the ethical ideals embodied in the Jewish tradition.

Sadly these yearnings are endangered today. Nonetheless I remain optimistic and I believe that America has a critical role to play. But American politicians will not exert the influence they have to convince Israel to change its policies until the American Jewish community alters its perspective. My experience is that the preponderance of American Jews view Israel through a nostalgic lens but have little knowledge of the modern state. I am convinced most Jews would be upset to learn what is actually going on here and would demand a change from their community leaders if they did know.

Which brings me to this blog. The reason I am writing it is to do just that – to inform as many people as possible about what is happening in Israel in the hopes that my efforts, in addition to others who are doing similar work, will begin to change perceptions.

So, as you read future posts, I hope you will forward on the columns that you feel would be of particular interest to your friends, relatives and other contacts. You can do this via email to individuals or community lists, Facebook, Twitter, or other social media. It’s also not too late to do it with prior posts as well.  I realize we all hesitate to do this – no one wants to impose on others and be a bother – and I felt the same when I first launched this blog last month with a series of emails to our friends and family.  But if we don’t actively spread the word we won’t have an Israel that embodies the universal ideals on which it was founded.

For my part, I promise to continue to do research, to dig for more information, and to go out and report on things I see with my own eyes. I will try to keep my commentary and opinions from seeping in too much – although sometimes that is hard to do when I encounter something particularly disturbing – but I will try to let the facts speak for themselves while attempting to provide some measure of balance.

I hope this request is not too chutzpadik and I apologize if I have overstepped the etiquette of blogging.

Regards from the shores of the Mediterranean,

Allen

PS: As I was about to press “publish” to send this note to you I received an email alert from Rabbi’s for Human Rights that three Bedouin homes in the West Bank were demolished between 11:00 p.m. and 4:30 a.m. last night, displacing 20 family members including young children into the cold desert night environment. The bulldozers were accompanied by a contingent of heavily armed soldiers. Their crime was lack of a building permit – which in the Catch-22 of the occupation is nearly impossible to obtain. You can read details of this incident at The Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions at http://www.icahd.org/?p=8107 .

This is just one example of the many events that seldom get reported. I hope to write about these situations in a more systematic way so that readers will understand how widespread these practices are and the strategic objectives behind them.

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