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by Sally Gottesman OUR SEVEN-MONTH SABBATICAL in Israel is drawing to a close, and instead of composing an op-ed piece for mass publication (as Rachel, my partner, did for the Times of Israel), I am writing something more intimate. I am extremely fearful for Israel’s future, but I don’t believe saying this in the mass-media will motivate anyone to do anything except nod or shake their head — and my desire is for readers to be inspired to take action. I love Israel: I have been here nearly 50 times, I speak Hebrew, I have Israeli family and close friends. I am certain that the Israel I know and love will cease to exist in my lifetime if a diplomatic solution — ending the occupation and creating two states for two peoples — does not happen. This war has only strengthened my certainty that Israel cannot survive if it maintains the occupation. There. I have said it. The Israel I know and love will cease to exist in my own lifetime. As I heard someone say this spring, “It will be a trauma for the Jewish people like the destruction of the Second Temple.” This will happen in our lifetime to all of us — Jews in Israel and America — if we don’t act in whatever capacity we can. Starting now. Urgently. Why am I writing about the occupation now, when bombs are falling on Israel and Gaza, when more than 1,800 Palestinians and 64 Israeli soldiers are dead? The war has everyone I know, including me, tense and incredibly sad. Why don’t I tell you about how I cried last Shabbat at shul when a father with his three young children asked for an aliyah and a blessing because he was home from Gaza for Shabbat with his family... and tonight I wonder if he is home again? Or maybe I should tell you about Ruhama, the always-smiling nursery school teacher who taught two of our children, whose son was killed in Gaza this week? I have tried to write this letter again and again. But I always stop writing. My excuses: 1) I have too much to share, for I have spent many hours these past months — and especially weeks — discussing “the situation.” 2) It is depressing and difficult to write on this subject. 3) I fear only a handful of you will heed my pleas. 4) I want to go swimming. I need to take a dress to be fixed. 5) You can read almost everything I am going to say in others’ words, day after day in Israeli and American publications. Yet I need to write to you because I need to do more to ensure Israel’s future and the future of a Jewish people and Judaism that my children and grandchildren will want to engage with. And I am compelled to do this because Israel is an amazing country. A miracle of development: there are roads, hospitals, culture, and technology, all of which I have been blessed to enjoy these months. A religious mecca, I have been able to attend remarkable progressive shuls — from Orthodox, Reform, Renewal, and self-described “Israeli” — all within blocks of our home. I have prayed with my friend, a nun, at her convent. I have cooked food with a Druze woman and asked her about her beliefs. I have discussed faith with a Muslim friend. I channel my grandfather when I take vast pleasure in reading signs in Hebrew and I marvel at the fact that political discussions — from far left to far right — take place in this language. In these seven months, our family has slept in the desert in the rain, stood silent for two minutes as movement came to a halt on Yom HaZikaron (Remembrance Day), and explored a land — and its playgrounds — that generations before us only dreamed about. Most of all though, I have been with striving and loving people who want a better life for themselves, their neighbors, and their children. I am asking you to read this letter, feel the urgency, think about where you stand, and if you are open to even a piece of what I have to say, to do something to help bring about a diplomatic solution to end the inevitable escalation by extremists on both sides, and war every few years. I am afraid that if Israel continues to oppress another people with no end in sight, refuses to agree to a diplomatic solution, and allows racist, Messianic, Israeli nationalism to set the county’s course, then Israel’s soul, its people — and its existence as a democratic country — are in grave danger. And Jews throughout the world will ask “What is the point of Judaism if this is the behavior of a Jewish country?” All the money in the world spent on Jewish education won’t matter because many, many Jews won’t want to be part of the Jewish people any more. You can now skip to the actions I recommend at the bottom of this letter, or proceed to read my observations from the past seven months. HOPELESSNESS The overwhelming majority of Israelis I talk with feel hopeless about the political situation. On a good day, a minority of them feel “almost hopeless.” (My Hebrew, although not as well-accented as my kids’, is good enough to have a conversation with any Hebrew speaker I meet.) Israeli Jews know that there must be radical change if Israel is to continue to exist as a democratic country — or perhaps as a country at all — but it is emotionally difficult for people here to think about, let alone know what to do. As one friend said to me, “I don’t know how to bring about what I hope for, given this government and the political situation... o I feel helpless as well.” I recently began telling people who solicit my support for Jewish education and social service projects here that I appreciate what they are doing, but I am putting my tzedakah money into ending the occupation. Everyone who has responded has said something like this email: “Thanks Sally for your quick e-mail and for what you do for Am Yisrael. I must confess that I do understand and agree that ending the occupation is the MOST important thing for Israel. If we continue the occupation it will destroy us. My heart is so heavy these days and I pray for peace and sanity among the Israeli leaders every day, as specially now when we see the awful price all involved are paying and the ramped racism and growing hatred.” RACISM The Israelis I know feel imprisoned by the hard-core ideological settlers and their hold on this government — including some who themselves live in settlements. The rightwing agenda, which is at its core anti-democratic, a “Jews-only” belief system, rules the roost. This agenda is not hidden: Naftali Bennet, who is one of the most popular and powerful members of the Knesset, leads a political party called “The Jewish Home,” whose agenda Americans would call racist. Israelis tend to use the word “nationalist” to describe the same thing. Whatever you call it, this party and those to its right seek to make Israel the home of the Jews and no one else. More and more frequently, I see the bumper sticker: “Jews Love Jews.” This is not a message promoting in-marriage. Rather, it means “Israeli Arabs be damned.” Mainstream radio, which I listen to as I drive my kids around Jerusalem, is horrific in how people talk about the Arab community within Israel, let alone those under occupation. “Mavet l’aravim” [Death to Arabs] is scratched into the windows of buses that I have taken and is chanted openly in the streets during demonstrations, when tensions flare and mobs look for Arabs to assault. Love of Jews goes only so far, apparently, because “Mavet l’smolonim” — “Death to leftists” — has also become a chant and a real threat. The threat of internal violence is more palpable in Jerusalem than Hamas’ rockets. A few examples:
- I am friends with a Palestinian woman who lives in East Jerusalem, near the American Colony Hotel. I met her because our children went to the American school together. You’d probably find her familiar — she’s lived in the U.S., speaks perfect English, and her husband works in private equity. She doesn’t wear a veil, and she fasts for Ramadan but doesn’t pray. Last year her family’s cars were torched outside their home. With the violence in Jerusalem, she is afraid every time she leaves her home. Since the murder of Mohammed abu Khdeir she has been afraid to let her sons — a lovely boy entering 1st grade (Alice’s friend), and another entering 4th grade — out of their house to play.
- This week I visited the B’Tselem office. B’Tselem, which means “in the image” (referring to the fact that we are all made in God’s image), is an internationally-regarded organization that documents human rights violations in the Territories. (Rachel interned here in 1996, and she and I first met 15 years ago when Hagai El-ad, now B’Tselem’s executive director, was speaking in NYC.) There are guards at the office doors because of threats to Hagai and the rest of the staff.
- A knowledgeable source told me yesterday that Knesset members on the left have been told to “take precautions,” because of credible threats against them from other Jews.
- Sunday evening, the Hand-in-Hand bilingual school (where Jewish and Palestinian children study together) will be holding a walk from the school down the rakevet (railway) path near our home to demonstrate their friendship. Two friends were discussing the walk tonight. They both agreed it could be dangerous to attend because of violence from the right but were considering going anyway. Down the block from my home…
- Molad: The Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy. An important research institute dedicated to the fundamental political and social issues in Israel. (Their new English website will be up soon.)
- Shacharit: A “think and do” tank with the goal of presenting fresh thinking on Israeli society, and to offer an alternative to the current quagmire, an alternative that Shacharit calls “a politics of the common good.”
- Mitvim: The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies (see above where I give a link to their report)
- Rabbis for Human Rights (RHR): The only rabbinic organization in Israel explicitly dedicated to human right in Israel and the Occupied Territories. This organization does important work on several fronts. One small reason I like RHR: All over Israel in the past days, large banners have gone up saying something like “Chase your enemies and don’t stop until you get them all.” Today at shul, I saw Arik Asherman, the executive director of RHR, and he told me that tonight they are going to go around the country placing banners next to them, also quoting the Bible, about fear being the enemy.
- Physicians for Human Rights: I have an Israeli friend who volunteers for PHR and she says their work is excellent. Their goal is the advancement and defense of health-related human rights for all the residents of Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory. This includes residents who lack documents or who are not recognized by the state.
- ACRI: The Association for Civil Rights in Israel: ACRI, like the ACLU, deals with the entire spectrum of rights and civil liberties issues in Israel and the Occupied Territories. ACRI has continually brought precedent setting litigation to the Supreme Court since it was established in 1972 thus making a real and lasting difference to life in Israel.
- B’Tselem: Founded in 1989 by prominent Knesset members, academics, and journalists, B’Tselem endeavors to document and education the Israeli public and policymakers about human rights violations in the Occupied Territories, combat the phenomenon of denial prevalent among the Israeli public, and help to create a human rights culture in Israel. B’Tselem is extremely well respected for its work.
- Hand-in-Hand: The Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel: Five schools in Israel where Jewish and Arab children study together and learn one another’s language and culture. Hand-in-Hand demonstrates there is another way for Jewish and Palestinians to be together.
- J Street is an important political organization for pro-Israel, pro-peace activists. J Street — which is criticized from the right and left — is especially good if you are interested in and want to be active in the American political scene. (I also traveled in Israel and Palestine with J Street this year and thought their work was excellent).
- Americans for Peace Now (APN), which works in the USA and also helps to fund the critical work of Peace Now’s Settlement Watch, Partners for Progressive Israel (formerly Meretz USA), Just Vision, which does excellent media work about non-violence as a tool for building a peaceful future Israel and Palestine, and Ameinu, supporting the progressive movement in Israel, are all organizations to investigate if you want to be active in America. These organizations support their important counterparts in Israel and provide high-quality information via meetings and conference calls to their supporters in the States.
- To the left of them is Jewish Voice for Peace, whose work is more grassroots and less focused on Congress. They got a lot of attention this year for helping facilitate the Presbyterian Church’s boycott of settlement-made goods.
The Hindu Nationalists Using the Pro-Israel Playbook
Inspired by Jewish groups that cast criticism of Israel as antisemitism, Hindu American organizations are advancing a concept of “Hinduphobia” that puts India beyond reproach.
The Trap of Palestinian Participation
An open letter considers the impossible choice facing Palestinians: Participate as a token in conversations premised on their oppression, or be branded rejectionists.