Jewish establishment stays silent on Israeli plan to forcibly displace Bedouins

ActivismIsrael/PalestineUS Politics
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Jewish Voice for Peace members protest against the Prawer Plan in Boston. (Photo: JVP-Boston)

Jewish Voice for Peace members protest against the Prawer Plan in Boston. (Photo: JVP-Boston)

The heavy-hitters in the American Jewish community usually march in lockstep with the Israeli government. But many organizations that comprise the American Jewish establishment have gone silent over the Prawer Plan, the Israeli government’s initiative to uproot tens of thousands of Bedouin Arabs, relocate them to urban areas and build new Jewish areas on top of demolished villages.

The Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs have issued no statements on the Prawer Plan, in contrast to their numerous statements in support of Israel on the peace process and Iran. The major umbrella group representing American Jewish groups, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, has also not commented on the initiative. The silence has held even in the wake of major protests against the plan throughout Israel/Palestine, which thrust the issue into the mainstream and Jewish media in the U.S.

The Jewish Council on Public Affairs has had two phone briefings on the plan, though: one with Benny Begin, a government official responsible for pushing the plan forward, and another by members of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, which opposes the plan. The Jewish Federations of North America has held events on the Negev, where the Bedouin villages slated to be demolished are located, and their partners have funded a variety of initiatives for the region, including efforts to promote Bedouin employment. The Anti-Defamation League has condemned racism against Bedouin Arabs.

But despite past statements on Bedouins in the Negev, requests for comment on the Prawer Plan were not returned by any of the main Jewish organizations. Many left-leaning Jewish groups, though, have publicly criticized the Prawer Plan, which has been called the largest land grab by Israel since at least 1967. In June, the legislation passed its first reading in the Knesset over the objections of Bedouin leaders and Palestinian citizens of Israel.

“The mainstream Jewish community’s silence around this is a cowardly response to an issue that gets to the core of what does it mean for Israel to claim to be both a Jewish state and a democracy,” said Rabbi Alissa Wise, a co-director of organizing at Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), which has come out strongly against the Prawer Plan.  The group has called it an “appalling” plan for “transfer based on nothing more than ethnic identity is even under consideration.” Wise speculated that reason behind the non-response was that it’s “bad PR, and they don’t want to come out criticizing the Israeli government publicly–most of those organizations, that’s not something they’re comfortable doing.”

JVP has been at the forefront of efforts to encourage Jews to register their dissent on the Prawer Plan. They’ve mobilized their members to register their anti-Prawer protest with Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer and have demonstrated in Boston. Most recently, they’ve encouraged members to pressure the Reform Jewish group Religious Action Center (RAC) to speak to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about the Prawer Plan when he addresses the Union of Reform Judaism conference next week. The RAC, which is the political activist arm of the Union of Reform Judaism, came out against the Prawer Plan in June, though they had little to say about JVP’s calls to “hold Netanyahu accountable.”

“We welcome the feedback. We hope that all who wish to engage on issues of social justice are able to make their voices heard, and we appreciate their comments,” RAC spokesman Sean Thibault wrote in an e-mail.

Groups like the liberal Zionist Ameinu have also spoken up. And in November, Truah and Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel organized a letter signed by hundreds of Rabbinical leaders against the plan to uproot Bedouin. The letter criticized the Prawer initiative for “demolishing villages and dispossessing people of their land,” and also said that “implementing this plan will be a disaster for Israel’s public image.”

The liberal Zionist lobby group J Street, though, has issued no statement on the plan. “J Street has no response to the Prawer Plan, because it falls outside the scope of our work,” Jessica Rosenblum, a spokeswoman for the group, told me in an e-mail. “That said, many J Street supporters are concerned about the Prawer Plan and its implications for Israel’s democracy and they are expressing those concerns through their work with other organizations.”

Despite some liberal Zionist dissent, the Israeli government is pressing ahead on the Prawer Plan. The bill is expected to be taken up by the Knesset this winter for 2nd and 3rd readings on the plan. Once it gets final Knesset approval, the plan could be implemented. In the wake of the November 30th “Day of Rage” protests by Bedouins and their supporters throughout Israel and the occupied territories, Netanyahu vowed that the Prawer Plan will be put in place.

“Attempts by a loud and violent minority to deny a better future to a large and broad population are grave,” the prime minister said. “We will continue to advance the law for a better future for all residents of the Negev.”

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