I had an inspiring day in New York yesterday, I went to see two leaders of the left in Israel. The message was in the end the same: the oppression is over there, but the political problem is the Israel lobby, recalcitrant Jewish attitudes in the U.S., now what are you going to do about that?
The first speaker was Hagai El-Ad, the director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. He was at the New Israel Fund on 7th Avenue. As El-Ad sat waiting for the small event to begin (internet journalists), he checked a text on what had taken place during the Sheikh Jarrah demonstration against Palestinian evictions in East Jerusalem that day.
El-Ad had come to the U.S. to try to convey to Americans the civil crisis inside Israel, from ramped-up threats on Palestinian liberty to a crackdown on groups that advocate for them. ACRI is among the Israeli NGOs that have been implicitly threatened by the Netanyahu government for taking foreign funds as they allegedly seek to undermine Israel’s legitimacy. ACRI won’t stop its work. The booklet El-Ad passed out has many photographs of Palestinians in it, including amid the rubble of their homes.
Americans faced a crisis of civil rights in your country in the wake of the Iraq war but at least you had a constitution, El-Ad said, Israel doesn’t. “Playing this game of shaking the remaining democratic foundations is much much more dangerous” in Israel.
He was most moving on the issue of Palestinian freedom. Recently he was arrested during the Sheikh Jarrah demonstration. A Palestinian friend made a “loving remark” to him. “’What you’re facing now, in the intensified clapdown, that more and more Jews are facing, is something that many Palestinian Israelis have faced for many years.’ It’s agonizing to agree with, but I think it’s very true. Even under these circumstances, we don’t forget the privileges we have, that I have as a Jewish citizen of Israel. And to think very clearly about the responsibility that puts on our shoulders.”
I was pleased to hear this statement in a room of privileged Jews in the U.S.
Our community is incredibly powerful, yet we cultivate a consciousness of isolation and persecution that rationalizes the white-knuckled guardian role of the Israel lobby. The U.S. Jewish community has enormous influence over Israel, El-Ad said, it can change the conversation there. But he has trouble breaking through here.
“Where do [Ameircan Jews] channel their support?” he said by way of challenge. “I myself and many others, it’s almost painful to be aware of often how difficult it is to have an open discussion about these issues in this country. These conversations can happen in an opener way in Israel than the United States and that is not just disappointing, it’s damaging.”
Further challenge: the Jewish community’s responsibility is “to get involved, to become more informed about what is happening, and to speak out.” It is urgent, he said, because Israel is headed in such a bad direction. “If you consider yourself friends then this is the time to speak out, time to get involved in a meaningful way.”
I pressed El-Ad to say who has disappointed him. He was a cool Israeli. Wouldn’t say.
Last night a more leftwing crowd gathered in the basement of the Judson Memorial Church on Washington Square, and Michael Ratner introduced the great Jeff Halper of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. I’d never heard Halper speak before, never seen him; and all I can say is that I had missed one of the great moral performances of our time, and when I left the church I understood why this man has been nominated for the Nobel Prize. A lifetime commitment in the face of opposition from his own society, to fight the occupation and build connections between Jews and Palestinians as a form of “political resistance,” toward the day that Jews and Palestinians must build a society together—Halper is the definition of prophetic inspiration.
To his points. The occupation is stronger than ever, and it is an occupation because Israel wants the land and feels that it can get away with taking more and more. Security has nothing to do with a wall that goes deep into Palestine, with settlement blocs that take up huge portions of the West Bank. I am supposed to know this stuff; but I was stunned to consider how enveloping are the easternmost Jewish colonies all through the Jordan Valley. The Israelis have reduced the Palestinian population to four cantons, two in the northern West Bank, one in the southern West Bank and Jerusalem, and one in Gaza. As many as 30,000 houses have been demolished in the occupied territories, 7000 in Gaza last year. Halper’s group rebuilds houses; it has rebuilt 1600 over many years. And 2 million Palestinian fruit and olive trees have been destroyed inside the occupation.
The two most hideous political structures of the 1980s, the Berlin wall and South African apartheid, are today combined in Palestine; and the Israeli wall is longer and higher than Berlin’s.
And what do Israel’s leaders plan to do with the 5 million Palestinians? “The liberal model is apartheid.”
Israelis will go along with this because it has been inculcated in them that Palestinians are their permanent enemies and you can’t trust Arabs. And they want to know nothing about the occupation. The far right of course talks about expulsion, and as for Netanyahu, apartheid is too liberal for him too, he seems to envision a kind of reservation. “We can pacify the Palestinians … to a point where they can’t resist," Halper mindreads the P.M. They’ve succeeded on the West Bank, now they will do so in Gaza.
Israeli expansion comes down to pigginess. It doesn’t matter that the Arab states and the Palestinians accepted the two state solution long ago, the Israelis thought they could get more, so they took more. The critical factor is the United States. I believe Obama gets it, Halper said. General Petraeus’s comments are indicative of that, so is Biden’s statement that the status quo is "unsustainable." The special relationship is hurting the United States.
“But the buzz in Israel is that Obama will have more trouble with Nancy Pelosi than he will with Netanyahu” if he takes on Israel. Israelis are confident that they have the Congress and that is all they need. 337 signatures in the Hosue and 76 in the Senate, taking Netanyahu’s side against Obama. Halper has visited the Congress many times and congressmen tell them they have little choice.
“Barney Frank said it best. He said, ‘I’m with you 100 percent [presumably on settlements/occupation]. If you bring me the names of 5000 Jews in my district that support you, tomorrow morning I change my vote… If you can’t do that…. I’m not going to commit political suicide for the sake of the Palestinians… “ Because, Halper continued quoting Frank, people in his district don’t care enough about the issue for him to stick his neck out.
I just need to unpack that statement. Let’s be clear that no one in these districts really cares about Palestinian dispossession except Jews, and they are for it overwhelmingly. But Jews are small portions of most congressional districts, though yes they are a big factor in Frank’s district (and my birthplace), Brookline. Why is it political suicide? Jews are simply too important on these issues–in financial contributions, in media/opinion, in activism, to go against them. This is very much like what Rep. Bob Filner said last year at J Street when he said that he voted against the lobby in his San Diego district once and lost $250,000 a cycle in his giving. Most members wouldn’t want to sacrifice that; and most members don’t have anyone who really cares about the issue in their district–and meanwhile, the stakes, as Filner said, are even nuclear war.
Halper left us with hope. BDS (a verboten topic at the New Israel Fund, where Hagai El-Ad spoke) is making a difference, Jimmy Carter made a big difference by getting the word apartheid out there, Walt and Mearsheimer made a difference and so did Israel’s conduct in Lebanon and Gaza. We are in a slow incline of growing awareness. Israel’s policies are becoming delegitimized in the international community and when it is finally isolated, it will stop its disgraceful behavior. Like other oppressors, it has “feet of clay.” It shouldn’t take another 40 years, he said, but he would not offer predictions. He’s 64 and looks the prophet, with his big beard and barrel chest. I hope he sees the day.