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


“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.



This post is not about Israel but rather about a theme that transcends the day-to-day and is a reminder of what is most important and precious in life.

A few days ago I read a story in The New York Times that was simply beautiful. My wife, the author Joan Leegant, and I tried to figure out how the writer, Peter Mercurio, was able to construct such a moving story that was written in such a simple, straightforward style. We were unable to identify specific techniques other than it illustrated the gifts of a talented writer, one of those miracles of the creative consciousness where I think God is present. So read on….

The story of how Danny and I were married last July in a Manhattan courtroom, with our son, Kevin, beside us, began 12 years earlier, in a dark, damp subway station.

Danny called me that day, frantic. “I found a baby!” he shouted. “I called 911, but I don’t think they believed me. No one’s coming. I don’t want to leave the baby alone. Get down here and flag down a police car or something.” By nature Danny is a remarkably calm person, so when I felt his heart pounding through the phone line, I knew I had to run. 

I hope reading the rest of this tale will brighten your day. See: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/02/28/we-found-our-son-in-the-subway/

Blockbuster Scoop


Among the issues recently dominating the front pages of Israeli newspapers are the tortured negotiations to form a coalition that will govern the country while the growing riots and demonstrations on the West Bank might be the opening salvos of a new intifada as hope for freedom among Palestinians dwindles to zero.  These daily stories appear against the backdrop of Palestinian prisoners on hunger strikes, a recently arrested Palestinian who died while undergoing interrogation by the Shin Bet (amidst allegations of torture), more threats about Iran, Israeli forces on the move in the Negev demolishing Bedouin homes, and the racially-motivated beatings of Arabs by violent mobs on the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in the aftermath of Purim festivities, events that are no longer aberrations.

One item that caught my attention was a controversy around the pending deportation of 25 African refugees back to Eritrea. Eritrea is one of the most oppressive regimes in the world where there is a universal, lifelong conscription of young men into the army. Draft dodgers are severely punished with torture and often death. Their plight reminds me of the multitudes of Jewish men who fled Czarist Russia back in the 1800’s which is why many found their way to America and some even to Palestine at the time.

Needless to say, these Africans have not found a warm welcome in Israel as I have written about repeatedly. The new law passed last year criminalizes these asylum seekers with an automatic three-year prison sentence with unlimited extensions. There is no trial or appeal. Apparently these 25 refugees opted for “voluntary repatriation” when faced with the threat of indefinite imprisonment. Human rights groups were up in arms over the pressure brought to bear on these helpless people who would face a guaranteed brutal reception when they landed in Eritrea.  So this controversy was simmering in the background of all the other news.

But then the blockbuster story appeared yesterday. Splashed across the front pages of the Haaretz newspaper was the scoop that Israel has already “voluntarily deported” 1,000 asylum seekers back to Sudan. Many of these refugees fled genocide in Darfur and more recently from the Nuba Mountain region where the government has conducted a brutal campaign against the civilian population including aerial bombings, the destruction of entire villages, mass arrests of thousands, and a government initiated famine. (Click here and here for articles written last year by Nikolas Kristof in The New York Times about this genocidal war).

This deportation is a blatant violation of the UN Refugee Convention that Israel helped develop in the 1950’s in the aftermath of the Holocaust. As the UN Refugee Agency’s (UNHCR) representative stated, “…deporting Sudanese to Sudan would be the gravest violation possible of the convention that Israel has signed – a crime never before committed.” Although Israel claims the deportations were voluntary, the UNHCR stated there is no “freewill from inside a prison.”

Sudanese officials have consistently warned that it is a serious crime for any citizen to go to Israel and offenders would be punished. Let’s remember these people were already fleeing slaughter.

Trying to defend itself, Israel states that it is not deporting the refugees directly to Sudan but, by prior arrangement, they are being deported to a third country that, in turn, deports them to Sudan – as if this strategy will not quickly be discovered by the Sudanese authorities.

One Israeli human rights activist, Reut Michaeli, summed up this stunning news perfectly.

“The ease with which the State of Israel is willing to force people to return to a place where their lives are in danger…shows that we have become a society that sanctifies Jewish demography and gives it priority over humanistic Jewish values.

[Sudanese] who hear from [Israeli] government representatives that the law enables them to be held in prison forever without trial, and without their being able to apply for refugee status, despair. They are even willing to endanger their lives to gain a slim chance of freedom.”

Israeli officialdom has been mum about this development. Silence reigns from Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, and Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. Except that we know Netanyahu’s attitude given his government’s long record of incitement against the refugees.  Just a few weeks ago, in a Jerusalem speech to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, he repeatedly labeled all African asylum seekers in Israel “illegal job immigrants.” This while his government was sending 1,000 people back to their probable imprisonment and death in Sudan.  And, of course, those paragons of virtue in the audience gave him adulatory ovations, having forgotten they owed their own freedom to their ancestors who fled to America to escape similar bloody persecution or genocide.

ASSAF, the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers, issued the following statement in Tel Aviv, “In deporting [people] to Sudan, Israel has crossed a red line and is not only violating its most basic obligation under international law, but demonstrating cruelty, hard-heartedness and indifference to the fate of human beings.”

Unchained at Last

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Although this blog is usually about Israel, I am highlighting a moving article in this past weekend’s Jewish Forward newspaper about a new USA-based organization, Unchained at Last, that helps women escape from arranged marriages that are abusive. This is a subgroup of battered or threatened women who face additional cultural constraints on escape. Click here to read the column.

The article tells the story of the founder of the organization, Fraidy Reiss, who grew up in an ultra-Orthodox world and how, after many years, she finally left her volatile husband, overcoming intense communal pressure to stay. Unchained at Last now helps women from other cultural milieus in similar situations where arranged marriages are common and divorce is discouraged, even in cases of abuse.

As the article states, the Good People Fund has provided the early financial support to start the organization and help it grow. Please forward this on to others who might be interested in learning about this issue or go to the Good People Fund Facebook page where you can share the article with your Facebook friends.  Thanks.


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Run, don’t walk, to see the academy-award nominated Israeli film “Gatekeepers,” slated for release in the USA today. Go with your friends to see it, especially those on the right or in the center – or those who may not be familiar with what has occurred in Israel these past decades.

The film consists of interviews with all six former directors of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, who are still alive. These men were responsible for intelligence gathering in the West Bank and Gaza, for fighting terrorism, for helping to put down the intifadas, and for enforcing the occupation. Their knowledge and insight are unequaled. They are not naïve about the threats that Israel faces but their comments are gripping.

The film addresses two main topics. The first deals with the moral quandaries of fighting terror and trying to save Israeli lives. They describe in excruciating detail the choices they had to make, understanding the line they were walking. Their statements are illustrated with archival footage of past events, including videos of rocket attacks on vehicles carrying terror suspects along with graphic images of the aftermath of terror attacks, which bring to life the dilemmas and challenges they faced.

But the emphasis of the latter part of the film is even more enlightening. Uniformly they castigate the political leadership of Israel for lacking strategic vision, for concentrating on short-term tactics without paying attention to the long-term ramifications. These men dealt with all the political leaders for decades, on both the right and the left, and they are unsparing in their criticism. They, who were charged with enforcing the occupation, oppose it and believe that Israel is headed for disaster.

There have been some excellent reviews of the film. I recommend this one from The American Prospect by Jerusalem-based Gershom Gorenberg, the leading historian of Israeli policies in the occupied territories and author of one of the best recent books about Israel “The Unmaking of Israel.” Gorenberg does a good job of putting the film into a larger political and historical context.

This weekend’s Daily Jewish Forward also reviewed the film but offered some fascinating additional background. (Click here to the read the full article.) The perspective of these former Shin Bet directors can best be summed up by these observations from J.J. Goldberg, the reviewer:

Yes, they say, we abused suspects and killed bystanders. Our job was to stop terrorists, and we did. But they insist Israel has another option. It can extricate itself from the endless cycle of terrorism and repression by negotiating peace with the Palestinians and ending its occupation of the West Bank.

It’s possible, they say. There is a partner on the other side that’s prepared for peaceful coexistence. Israel tells itself there’s no partner only because its leaders don’t want to give up the territories. They’re barreling toward disaster.

Again, these are not leftist Israel-haters talking. They’re the heads of Israel’s security service, the men tasked with penetrating the Palestinian mind, knowing what to expect and how to respond. That’s why it’s hard to watch. If you’ve spent a lifetime hearing that Israel desires only peace but its enemies are sworn to its destruction, this turns your world upside-down.

But the Forward reviewer goes beyond a typical review. He actually checked if the film accurately portrayed the opinions of these men or if the truth was left on the cutting room floor.

I phoned a couple of the security veterans who appear in the film. Did the film accurately reflect their views, I asked, or were they distorted by the filmmaker’s agenda?

“It completely reflects my views,” said Yaakov Peri, who headed the agency from 1988 to 1994. “We discuss these things among ourselves. We all agree.” Peri reminds me, as he’s told me before, that every ex-Mossad chief and most former army chiefs feel the same way.

But wouldn’t the film have been better if it concentrated on moral dilemmas and avoided politics? “If it had, there would have been no point to the film,” said Ami Ayalon, who headed the agency from 1995 to 2000.

“The six of us reached our opinions from different personal backgrounds and different political outlooks, but we’ve all reached the same conclusion,” Ayalon said. “Many Israelis and American Jews want to deny it, but this is our professional opinion. We’re at the edge of an abyss, and if Israeli-Palestinian peace doesn’t progress, it’s the end of Zionism.”

Like I said, run to see this film. Tell your friends to go. These men have credibility that few can equal. Maybe it will help lead to change.

This column was previously published on The Times of Israel.

A Man, a Woman, and a Baby

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From Maimonides:

Our sages commanded us to visit the non-Jewish sick and to bury the non-Jewish dead along with the Jewish dead, and support the non-Jewish poor along with the Jewish poor for the sake of peace. As it says, “God is good to all and God’s mercies extend over all God’s works” (Psalms 145:9), and “[The Torah’s] ways are pleasant and all its paths are peace” (Proverbs 3:17). —Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 10:12

Our beat-up car weaved around potholes in the dusty road. We were in what’s known as “Shchunat Ha’argazim,” a neighborhood named after the wooden shipping crates used long ago by poor immigrants for housing in this neglected corner of Tel Aviv. The houses aren’t shipping crates anymore but most aren’t much better; crumbling stone structures and metal huts. It’s hard to believe that this dilapidated enclave is within sight of the sleek office towers and glass-enclosed condos that make up so much of the city’s skyline.

My companion, Gideon, turned onto a dirt drive and parked next to a corrugated metal wall broken up by a row of prison-like steel doors. As we got out of the car, a big white dog ran up to us, barking furiously, protecting his territory. With the angry dog close on our heels, we carefully made our way to one of the heavy doors and knocked. We waited. The door opened tentatively: a small, young black woman holding a baby. She broke into a huge smile when she saw Gideon.

I followed as Gideon briskly walked through a covered courtyard hung with laundry, a two-burner gas stove resting on a rickety table, and entered the apartment, a single room jammed with beds, a sink and tiny counter in the corner. A man who had been lying down got up to give Gideon a hug, then Gideon turned to the baby in the woman’s arms, cooing and tickling its chubby little belly. Though I’d been warned, I was still stunned by the man’s appearance. His body was covered in thick brown scar tissue. His legs were raw, with what looked like open wounds.

This mother and father are African refugees from Eritrea whose Jerusalem apartment was firebombed seven months ago as part of a wave of violence directed at refugees, one outcome of an incitement campaign spearheaded by leading politicians. Attacked with Molotov cocktails, the mother, Marvit, pregnant at the time, and the father, Tsagai, a soft-spoken man who worked in construction, became human torches, suffering third degree burns over much of their bodies. After the conflagration they were left with nothing—impoverished, their minimal belongings destroyed, homeless, critically injured and in grave pain, with few sources of help. When Gideon heard the news of the bombing on the radio, he drove from Tel Aviv to Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem to offer help. He subsequently found them housing in Tel Aviv and continues to find ways to pay their rent, ferries them to doctor visits, and is their steady source of food and moral support.

Now, returning to Israel after a half-year absence, I had come with Gideon to meet them in their tiny one-room apartment. Tsagai, in chronic pain, is unable to work. Marvit, who gave birth to a healthy baby boy four months ago when she was recuperating, was not injured as badly as her husband but her arms and legs are a patchwork of scars.

The African refugee situation in Israel is complicated but there are more humane policies and strategies the government could have chosen to pursue. Nevertheless, as I wrote in a blog post last year, these people who have fled genocide, war, rape and torture, have been demonized in the same way that Jews were for centuries. Senior ministers in the government and Knesset members have engaged in a campaign, unprecedented in its ferocity, calling these asylum seekers a “cancer,” a “national plague,” “rapists,” and an “existential threat” to the nation. As one appalled commentator wrote, “A reviled, powerless minority discussed in the language of war and disease. Where have my Jewish ears heard this before?”

The perpetrators of the attack on Marvit and Tsagi have never been caught. Even if they were, it is doubtful that they would have been prosecuted. Recently, the person arrested for throwing a Molotov cocktail at a Palestinian car last year, severely burning an entire family with children, was released without charges. The same goes for the perpetrators of “Price Tag” attacks throughout the West Bank, and the Jewish settlers who routinely attack Palestinians. Few are arrested or prosecuted.

But back to Gideon. He is an Israeli who believes the Jewish state should be different, that we have a moral mandate to help those in need. He spends much of each day collecting food and bringing it to shelters and the homeless, especially populations the rest of society shuns.

Gideon’s activities are supported by the Good People Fund which raises money to finance the work of people like him in Israel and the USA. The fund helps these “good people” in their work of Tikun Olam, repairing the world as they seek out those in need, feeding the poor, and relieving suffering. Typically, they run small non-profits that operate under-the-radar with just volunteers or very small staffs.

Gideon’s next objective is to raise the $625 monthly rent that will be needed over the next year for Marvit and Tzagai ($7,500 in total). Until now, the rent has been paid by the Good People Fund and by ASSAF, an organization that provides counseling and asylum assistance to African refugees. But existing funds are running out and Gideon does not know where he will find February’s rent – and the rent after that.

Although my blog is usually political in nature, sometimes I encounter situations that cry out for attention. This is one of those. I hope readers can help by making a donation on the Good People Fund website. You can designate your gift for a special purpose (Gideon’s work, African refugees, hunger, etc.) or you can make a general donation for the fund to distribute where the need is greatest. Marvit and Tsagai’s family is not the only dire situation that the fund hears about. Much of its work is directed at helping individuals or families who have their own uniquely distressing circumstances.

Please forward the link to this blog post to others who might be interested in helping.

This column was previously published on The Times of Israel.

The Palestinian Security Services and a Third Intifada?

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One of the only success stories of the relationship between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Israeli government has been the American-backed Palestinian National Security Services, a uniformed security force of the Palestinian Authority. Since 2005 at a base in Jordan, the US government has spent hundreds of million of dollars training thousands of officers who were then stationed throughout Area A, the parts of the West Bank under exclusive Palestinian control. (Click here and scroll down a bit for descriptions of Areas A, B, and C.)

In partnership with the Palestinian Civil Police, the Israeli army and the Shin Bet, the security service has thwarted terrorist attacks, uncovered weapons labs and arrested suspects, disbanded armed gangs, and contained demonstrations against both the Palestinian Authority and Israeli policies. Despite criticism of some of its tactics and goals, it has restored a sense of law and order to the major Palestinian cities, where not too long ago anarchy reigned, and close coordination with Israeli authorities have helped create a sense of safety and calm in Israel.

But recent policies by the Israeli government threaten this security cooperation.  In a post on the Daily Beast titled “The Future Of Palestinian-Israeli Security Cooperation,” columnist Dan Fleshler alleges that Palestinian-Israeli security cooperation is on the verge of falling apart.

Palestinian Authority security forces, trained in Jordan with American assistance, have been protecting Israeli lives and ignoring derisive claims that they are collaborators not because they want to collect salaries; instead, they want to build an institution necessary for statehood and to allay Israeli fears about relinquishing the West Bank. Ghaith al-Omari, a former Palestinian Authority advisor, told me that the work of the security services “was predicated on a path leading to liberation and a new state. Soon, very soon, if it is clear that is not happening, they will feel like suckers enforcing the occupation, and this security regime—like the Palestinian Authority itself—could dissolve.”

In the Oscar-nominated Israeli documentary, Gatekeepers, – a must-see film slated for a February 1st release in the USA – a former director of the Shin Bet states that he was  given the same warning by a senior level Palestinian official.

Ynetnews.com reported in December that “The IDF and the Palestinian security forces in the West Bank have been enjoying a relatively good operational relationship over the past few years, but military sources told Ynet Tuesday that cracks have been appearing in the security relations’ proverbial veneer.”

Although cooperation mostly continues for now, the article went on to report what is happening in the face of rising demonstrations in the West bank.

Sources on both sides agreed that the Palestinian security forces are stepping up their vigilance vis-à-vis rioters in the need to restore order to the Palestinian street – and not necessarily their desire to cooperate with Israel.

The Palestinian leadership is livid with Israel over the government’s decision to suspend the transfer of levies to Ramallah, as a significant part of the taxes Israel collects on behalf of the PA fund its security forces. The suspension, prompted by the UN’s status upgrade, has resulted in delayed wages.

“If the troops think that they’re not going to get paid, we’ll have a serious problem on our hand. It will affect everything, including the security collaboration,” a Palestinian source told Ynet.”

An Israeli official expressed the same concern, adding that the PA is in dire financial straits.

It is not only Israel that is withholding funds. The US Congress has prevented the transfer of $450 million in budgeted US aid. That would close the $400 million fiscal gap that the Palestinian Authority faces as it runs out of money to pay for salaries and basic services.  In a rational world withholding these funds would seem absurd given that only Hamas would gain from the demise of the Palestinian Authority. But it seems that Congress has its own political logic.

In my first blog column last week since returning to Israel, I posted comments by a senior level IDF commander on the West Bank and a former director of the Shin Bet who both stated that a third intifada was about to start, or already had. So far these are mostly demonstrations protesting arrests, theft of Palestinian lands, or settler attacks. The Israeli army often reacts violently – last week 53 Palestinians were injured in these clashes. How much worse will that be if the Palestinian security services are no longer willing or able to cooperate with Israel? What will happen if the situation on the West Bank continues to deteriorate to the point where the populace reaches the point of desperation, where it feels it has nothing to lose?

The Israel Policy Forum (IPF) held a conference call  in December with Colonel P.J. Dermer  and Steven White, former advisers to the American-backed training program of the  Palestinian National Security Services. They recently returned from a trip to the region where they met with senior level Palestinian and Israeli officials. I have pasted in below some of their comments but first I offer a few caveats. These are American officials so their perspective is American centric. Also, the situation is changing daily on the West Bank and recent developments – Palestinian statehood recognition by the UN, the massive Israeli response of constructing 9,000 additional housing units over the Green Line, the deteriorating economic situation, and the continuing settler and IDF violence against Palestinians and their property  – may have consequences that are hard to foresee. Let’s keep in mind that the first intifada in the 1980’s was a spontaneous uprising, catching leaders and observers on all sides by surprise.

Colonel P.J. Dermer: Good security cooperation cannot carry the day, cannot make peace, cannot be the deciding factor, and we’re starting to see the results of where you have great security cooperation over the last few years now run head-on into a moribund diplomatic and political peace process.

Steven White: But let me just say I think setting the stage, and I think P.J. [Colonel Dermer] would agree with me that the overarching theme, if you will, that we took away from our trip was the absolute hunger for American leadership on this issue. We heard from officials on the ground from both Israelis, including senior IDF, senior Ministry of Defense, Shin Bet, and senior political officers within the Palestinian security services, and then some old friends from the Quartet and the U.N., [that American leadership] is lacking.

There is no American influence on the ground as we speak. And that’s not myself or P.J. just talking. That’s directly what we heard from our interlocutors…. I came away with a distinct feeling that they enjoyed talking with us because they felt it was the first time that they were talking to Americans in a long time who actually understood the breadth of the problem and thus, you know, the realities of what they were having to deal with day in, day out, on the ground.

 You know, with respect to the third intifada question, I personally do not think that we are right now on the verge of the outbreak of a third intifada.

But I have a to caveat that. The caveat is that, quite literally, when you look at the economic situation in the West Bank, the lack of a political horizon, the lack of U.S. diplomatic engagement, you know, the state of affairs within the Israeli body politic, upcoming elections, the aftermath of Operation Pillar of Cloud– Pillar of Defense, whatever you would like to call it, you know, and the slight uptick now on the dignity factor vis-à-vis Hamas in Gaza — all of the embers for the eruption of a third intifada are there. Everything is in place for one to erupt.

But it hasn’t yet. So, the question, I think, before us, but even more so, before our administration, is, you know, do we act now while these embers are embering, you know, to try and stop it before it happens, do we try and stop it after it erupts, or are we just going to sit back and let it burn?

…. we need to stem the bleeding on the economic situation in the West Bank. It’s probably the most dire now that I’ve ever seen it.

…my personal opinion is that basically the Obama Administration decided to pull chocks on this problem set after the reaction it got from both Congress and the Senate, and also Bibi Netanyahu in the White House in May of 2011. Then we heard from a senior official in a closed forum that that was exactly the case, that the president had basically said, he gave it a good shot but people weren’t interested. So, he was basically walking away, punting the ball to the Quartet and that he would focus on his reelection.

Obviously, you’ve seen what’s happened with Congress. Up to now they’ve continued supporting security financially, but they shut off a good bit of money that was related to basically the Palestinian people on the West Bank.

So, I think we’ve all got to ask ourselves a question: Are we better off with a functioning Palestinian Authority in the West Bank that says it believes in the two-state solution or are we willing to let it die? And that’s a question that I’ve not seen Congress legitimately ask itself. And it’s not one that I’ve seen the administration vocally ask.

IPF Interviewer: Well, P.J., do you agree with this? Do you think the economic is front and center? 

Colonel P.J. Dermer: To a degree, yes. I mean, let me add it to your question and tie it in to the question about intifada. I mean, it’s worse, in a way, because the PA is, again, not functioning. Fayyad [Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad] intended with this great, grand gesture announcement about three years ago now, and for myriad reasons — you know most of them — it is affecting the status of play in the Palestinian security services, because they are feeling the pinch for salaries, budgets, logistics, operating capabilities, i.e., they can’t put all their vehicles on the road, they can’t refuel all their vehicles in a timely manner right now, according to some of the commanders we talked to.

So, in a sense of the Palestinian Authority not being able to operate economically, that is now delving down into the issue of how the Palestinian security services operate.

Well, in their eyes, it’s to keep law and order but not necessarily for the state of Israel. They have their own issues to worry about. If they can’t perform their functions as they’re supposed to, as a burgeoning nation state, then what is the exact role of the Palestinian security service?

They do have a good reputation in the West Bank. That’s a positive development in U.S. history, but at the end of the day, they’re not there to fight Palestinians. They’re there to keep basic law and order. And this is a burgeoning dilemma, with or without the economic situation, but with the economic situation pressing on them, it adds to the dilemma in the West Bank.

The general populace, though, I will argue, still remains pretty apathetic because they don’t see where it’s getting them. You know, two intifadas (inaudible) for them. There’s nowhere else to go. 

Steven White: I met with a former– well, still current IDF, but now he’s in the Ministry of Defense, who had always played his cards very close to the bone when it came to discussing the actions of his government vis-a-vis the actions of the IDF or the Defense Ministry or the Shin Bet.

This time, it was wholly different, and he began the conversation with, well, it appears my government’s doing everything it can to put a bullet through the head of [Palestinian President] Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority without any thought whatsoever as to what follows.

The security officials, along with past guys like myself and others, are arguing that, you know– I’m sorry, let me put it another way: We asked a senior IDF general, you know, just what was it that we accomplished, really, from 2007 to probably 2010? 

And his answer was, “My job was to tactically set the ground where my government, the government of Israel, could negotiate with the Palestinians without a knife against its neck. He continued that I consider that I successfully delivered that. With American help, with Palestinian help, we delivered that. But unfortunately, my government has not chosen to take the strategic, long-term view or to build upon that,” end of quote.

 …. if you look back to 2008, and the operation in Gaza then, the West Bank was relatively a yawn. The IDF pulled out two brigades from the West Bank to send to Gaza. 

 The economic situation on the ground was beginning to thrive. There was a political horizon. People were at the negotiations table, you know? And the response in the West Bank to what was happening in Gaza was virtually nothing.

 You look at what happened now– the economics are in the toilet. There is no political process. There is no political horizon. And is it any wonder that people would roll themselves back to the dignity thing with regard to the supposed great victories that Hamas won for the dignity of the Palestinian people, when everything else is missing to counteract that argument?

For the full interview transcript, go to http://www.israelpolicyforum.org/interview/pj-dermer-and-steven-white-west-bank-security-situation

Back in Tel Aviv

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It’s been a long six-month absence since I last wrote on this blog. Last week I returned to Tel Aviv just in time for a massive storm: almost hurricane-strength winds and lots of rain. Highways were flooded and closed causing massive traffic jams, snow has blanketed the north and Jerusalem, and schools are closed. For this I could have stayed in the Northeast where the sun is shining and it is warmer than here!

In the meantime, much in this land has changed in the last six months but much has stayed the same.

Palestine was recognized as a state by the United Nations, sort-of, and Israel’s right- wing government retaliated by approving 9,000 additional housing units over the green line and moving forward on the site planning for the E-1 area which juts out into the West Bank.  The fulfillment of these actions will be the final nail in the coffin of a two-state solution. By completely cutting off Palestinian East Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank, this new construction will remove the possibility of any part of Jerusalem being a Palestinian capital while the building in E-1 will permanently split the West Bank into two separate, non-contiguous cantonments.

As elections in Israel approach on January 22, the right-wing parties have moved much farther to the right, purging moderates and advancing extremist elements, much as the Republican Party in the US has done. The difference is that, in the US, the Democratic Party remains strong and a force to reckon with. In Israel, the left is fragmented, weak, and under assault. The center and left parties have made halting and late moves towards a unified front. It probably is too little, too late. The irony is that polls continue to show a large majority of Israeli Jews, including significant numbers who vote for right-wing parties, strongly favor a two-state solution. But the right-wing narrative of fear and extreme nationalism, and the hesitation of too many leading left-wing leaders to challenge this narrative and offer a credible alternative, seems to be carrying the day for the far right.

In the meantime, the oppression of Palestinians in the West Bank and of Israeli Bedouin continues.  The latest UN report for the two weeks at the end of December listed the following statistics on violence in the West Bank:

–       63 Palestinians were injured by Israeli forces during clashes and demonstrations, including nine children in the village of Tubas. The majority were injured with rubber-coated metal bullets (2 Israeli soldiers were also injured).
–       Israeli authorities demolished over 20 Palestinian structures in East Jerusalem and the West bank, making 15 people including children homeless. The demolitions were due to lack of building permits which Palestinians are unable to obtain even for needed structural repairs to their homes, farms or businesses. In addition, multiple vehicles were seized and fields were plowed under.
–       Settlers continued their violent rampages with 15 incidents:

  •         They attacked and injured 3 Palestinians (One settler was injured by Palestinians in a rock throwing incident.).
  •         They vandalized or destroyed 230 olive trees (8,600 trees were destroyed or damaged in 2012).
  •         They burned one Palestinian home and four vehicles.
  •         They damaged 11 other vehicles by stoning or slashing tires.

As usual, violent settlers were seldom prosecuted. It is like open hunting season.

Lest you think the Palestinian residents ate taking all this violence lying down, Ynetnews.com reported that an IDF commander on the West Bank claimed that the third Intifada has already begun: “The Defense establishment has been careful not to overstate the significance of the recent – and growing – wave of unrest sweeping the West Bank, but according to IDF Ezion Sector Commander Colonel Yaniv Alalufm the third intifada has already begun.”

‘We’re no longer on the verge of a third intifada – it’s already here. We anticipate many more (clashes) from now on,’ he said.“

Click here to read the full story.

This perspective was reinforced by Yaakov Perry, a former head of the Shin Bet, who stated, “Are we on the edge of a third intifada? It is a real possibility because of the amount of despair coupled with the [political] stalemate.”

On a more positive note, several days ago I received a public letter from Rabbi Arik Ascherman of Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR) about a victory that they and their Palestinian partners won over the settlers. The letter offers a glimpse into the Wild West atmosphere in parts of the West bank and how, occasionally, justice triumphs – if only temporarily. I have pasted in the letter below.

Dear Friends and Supporters,

I didn’t know myself how moved I was going to be last Wednesday to see Palestinian tractors from Jalud plowing their lands with the protection of the Israeli security forces.  It only happened when I stood there and realized that I had first been in this place in 2005.  On that day I came with farmers from adjacent Kusara, who were apparently renting some of the lands directly underneath the “Aish Kodesh” outpost belonging to Fawzi Ibrahim from Jalud.   Since that time, the settlers of Aish Kodesh have continuously expanded their “red lines,” beyond which Palestinians attempted to access their lands at their own peril.  Thanks to Palestinian refusal to give up hope, and RHR’s amazing Occupied Territories legal team, old wrongs have been righted. That is something worth being emotional over.

Aish Kodesh means “Holy fire.”  The settlers here are certainly full of fire, but I think that it is “Aish Zarah,” a “Foreign Fire” that God neither commands nor desires (Leviticus 10:1-2).  I have no doubt that these settlers truly believe that they are serving God. But, as someone who strongly dislikes stereotypes, and knows that not all settlers are the same, Aish Kodesh is one of the best places to find the stereotype of a religious, fanatic, and often violent settler.  Just as in the Biblical story of Nadav and Avihu, the settler’s possibly genuine but tragic belief that they are doing God’s Will has destructive consequences.

Back to 2005, I saw the farmers from Jalud peacefully plowing many of the same lands we plowed last week.  However, the farmers of Kusara had apparently crossed the invisible “red line.”  We had barely begun plowing, when settlers swarmed down the hill and attacked.  The Israeli security forces were protecting us, but suddenly turned against us.  Throwing stun grenades at our feet, they said we must leave, though promising that they would arrange another day for the Palestinian farmers to return.  That day never happened.

From year to year the “red lines” were expanded.  A few years ago I was accompanying a senior army officer who was also threatened by a settler who descended from Aish Kodesh. I see this settler from time to time, as he apparently has a “Land Development Company.”  In 2010, a settler from Aish Kodesh planted a vineyard just where stun grenades had been thrown at our feet.

Two months ago, RHR’s legal team got the Legal Advisor for the Occupied Territories to recognize Fawzi’s ownership of the land upon which the vineyard was planted, and an order keeping Israelis out was issued. Fawzi can’t repossess the vineyard yet, but there was no question regarding the rest of his land.  That land was also closed to Israelis. The only problem was that Fawzi needed army protection to actually return to his lands.  However, the army put him off time after time.  Fawzi had invested NIS10,000 in seeds to plant wheat and the investment would have been lost if he didn’t sow the wheat soon. Monday night the army cancelled again, and our lawyers got on the phone.  The army agreed that the work would go ahead as planned the next day. 

Click here for a a fuller description and pictures, but the bottom line is that things didn’t go so well.  Security forces battled settlers with tear gas and stun grenades, and arrested some of them.  However, they were no match for the determined settlers (mostly women with their babies and small children), who sat down in the fields while others attacked.  All the while they vented their anger at the Israeli forces for treating fellow Jews this way.  We also discovered that olive trees we had planted the previous week in nearby Kusara had been uprooted the previous evening, and that an elderly family living on the outskirts of Kusara was terrorized.  On Tuesday, a man travelling from Jalud to Kusara was pulled out of his car and beaten so badly that he had to be hospitalized.

On Wednesday the army was better organized and Fawzi managed to plow and sow, despite the best efforts of the settlers.  In the morning, the Palestinians had also discovered several iron bars planted during the night, apparently to puncture tractor tires. All day long the settlers played cat and mouse with the security forces, and at one point tried to set the fields alight with burning tires.   

As we prepared to leave, it began to sink in that Aish Kodesh’s unchecked reign of terror and relentless expansion had been stopped and reversed. Ultimately, our work will determine to what degree there will be isolated settlements and outposts in the Shilo Valley surrounded by Palestinians exercising their rights to their lands, and to what degree it will be the Palestinians accessing isolated patches of their lands surrounded by the lands taken over by settlers.

I said “Thank you” to many of the security forces.  Quite a few seemed to share our good feeling. One, however, did not.  When I wished him a good day, he said, “I wish you a terrible day.”  I had also spoken with him and a friend of his the previous day, as they angrily said I was no rabbi, that I was helping the enemy, that all Arabs are terrorists, that all of the Land of Israel is ours, etc.  I tried on both days to acknowledge his anger.  Although I am not naïve, I asked whether oppressing people or doing justly was most likely to break the cycle of enmity.  I also offered to go over Jewish sources with him regarding the rights of non-Jews in the Land of Israel, and spoke of all of the work RHR does for the human rights of Jewish Israelis.  Yousef cut off our conversation, so I will never know whether I might have actually broken through. Sadly, that border police officer will probably continue to think that helping Palestinians is traitorous.

Many of you know that whenever we are accused of “Aiding the enemy” or being “Provocateurs,” I answer from last week’s Torah portion, the first chapters of the Book of Exodus. Pharaoh, like many before and after him throughout history, sees Moses and Aaron as provocateurs because they give the “Happy natives” strange ideas about rights.  Over the next few weeks, we will also see that things get worse for the Israelites before they get better.  Likewise, we all know that the uprootings and beatings of the last few days may be nothing compared to what lies ahead.  Settlers will do everything in their power to get those lands back. 

Some of the good feeling was further dampened when settlers rampaged in the village that night, sending one four year old boy to the hospital with head wounds.  You don’t need to understand Arabic to understand the look on his face and the terror in his voice when he was asked “Who did this to you?” and he answers “Il Yahoud”-the Jews.

On Shabbat Israelis again attacked Kusara. In retalitation, Palestinians from Kusara attempted to enter the settler vineyard on Fawzi’s land, and began breaking down the fence to the settlement itself.  There is no doubt that, after years of intimidation, tree destruction, an arson attack on a Kusara mosque, etc., the entire area is in danger of going up in flames.  We call on both Israelis and Palestinians to eschew violence.  

However, none of the above can take away our satisfaction realizing that some 120 inaccessible dunam have been sowed, and a modicum of justice achieved.

Finally, the extensive press coverage on this has focused on the skirmishes between settlers, security forces and Palestinians.  The settlers helped make this into a great story – Tree uprootings, violence, price tag, and blocking tractors. How often do we see security forces shooting tear gas and stun grenades at settlers?  At one point I said to some of the Palestinians, “Ninety nine point nine percent of the time it is the other way around.  Today, the army is battling the settlers.“

However, this is missing the real point.  When we tell the Exodus story to children they particularly focus on plagues and miracles.   As we get older, we understand that this is also a story about hope against all odds, God’s Providence, the triumph of justice, and liberation.  Perhaps we even ask whether the Egyptians had to suffer so, although they were the oppressors.  Some of us take heed of the midrash from Shir HaShirim Rabah that when the angels were singing after the miracle at the sea, God demands that they cease, “The works of my hands are drowning in the sea, and you are singing praises?” 

The real story from last week isn’t the battles that went on, or the terrible settlers that blocked and beat and sat on the ground with their babies and burned tires. There should be no great pleasure in the fact that settlers were tear gassed, and in some cases beaten or arrested. 

The real story here is that of partnership between RHR and determined Palestinians, who refused to give up hope that justice could be achieved. When the agadah asks what God has been busy with since the miracle at the sea (The answer is that God has been making matches), we are being taught that, with a bit of faith and determination, small miracles can happen.

 I am incredibly proud of RHR’s legal team that worked with our Palestinian partners to bring this about.  Thank you to the Ta’ayush volunteers who usually do not work in this region.  I was initially alone in the field on Tuesday, but you answered the call. I also note that these events took place as the Warschawski family was sitting shiva for Yehudit z”l, a tireless worker for justice and reconciliation, and the daughter of one of RHR’s founders, Rabbi Max Warschawski z”l. I am sure that Yehudit is smiling.



The West Bank in Israel


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

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