Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Gate.
In my first few weeks at the University of Chicago, I have had the privilege of working with the University’s branch of IfNotNow. IfNotNow is a national organization comprised of American Jews who are fighting to end Jewish American support for Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. Coming from a community in Maryland where there is never an “appropriate time” to discuss the dark side of Israeli politics, I feel blessed to have a group of Jewish students with whom I share a common passion.
I do not support Israel as a Jewish state. I see Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a pitiful excuse for a leader. I am exhausted with those who enter conversations about Israel’s wrongdoings simply to declare that “it’s complicated” and then expect—or even demand—that their comments end those conversations. To many Zionist and right-leaning Jews, these opinions designate me as anti-Semitic. I wonder, though: do I really hate myself simply because I do not believe in a state exclusively of, by, and for Jews?
I am proud of my Jewishness. I frequently reflect on my faith and culture, and am deeply committed to the ethical teachings of Judaism. If one were to ask me to describe myself, “Jewish” is among the first words that come to mind. Yet, if I do not wholly support an inherently anti-democratic practice that marginalizes millions and intensifies conflict, some question my love of the Jewish religion and people.
It would seem more consistent to say that those who support the militaristic, quasi-authoritarian, and deeply racist state of Israel, which operates under the guise of Judaism, disgrace the ideals of humanism, love, and understanding upon which the Jewish faith was founded. Those who portray criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic trivialize Jewish suffering throughout history. We have a duty, as Jews, to embrace others.
It is time to break the silence on Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. Every Jewish American—and every American, for that matter—should be horrified that our government is giving over $3 billion annually to fund the mass oppression and disenfranchisement of Palestinians—what can only be described as an atrocity. Israeli leaders have no regard for Palestinian lives and must be held accountable for their despicable behavior. Israel’s moral bankruptcy extends well beyond the occupation of Palestine, but I will focus on the occupation, as this stirs the most debate within the American Jewish community.
The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) are guilty of war crimes. Human Rights Watch collected testimony from border clashes in Gaza in May of 2018 and concluded that “Israeli forces shot [the witnesses] or people close to them with live ammunition. The victims include journalists, civil defense workers, and volunteers trying to evacuate the wounded, and a child running away from the fences.” They further confirmed with video evidence that snipers shot protestors as they fled. IDF commanders ignore international human rights standards on the use of lethal force against noncombatants.
The IDF’s deep ambivalence towards the injustices it commits is reflected in the overall tenor of the occupation. Israeli settlers consistently inflict violence against Palestinian civilians with the permission or active support of IDF. The Israeli courts make a mockery of justice in these cases. A human rights group in Israel, Yesh Din, published an analysis of a sample cases filed by Palestinians against Israeli settlers. They found that less than one in ten cases led to an indictment against the settlers accused of a crime. Of these cases, nearly half concluded that the settlers did commit the alleged offenses, but the judicial system either threw out the charges or simply did not attempt to punish them.
Many Americans respond to criticisms of Israel and the IDF by arguing that Hamas, a Palestinian terrorist and political organization with governing power in the Gaza Strip, is responsible for the conflict. It is true that Hamas brutally oppresses and exploits the Gazan people that it claims to represent and protect. Hamas is contemptible and its leaders should be brought to justice. But there is a crucial difference between Hamas and Israel. The United States does not provide expansive military aid to Hamas. While Hamas represents a serious risk to the safety and wellbeing of both the Palestinian and Israeli people, it is unacceptable for Israel to deny the Palestinian people political and human rights under the facade of security.
Israeli policy intentionally overextends beyond pure security concerns, and exacerbates the crisis by inflaming tensions. Israel’s decision to blockade Gaza in the early 1990s has massively increased long-term malnutrition, water shortages, and lack of proper health treatment available. Unsurprisingly, Gaza residents have responded by protesting against and clashing with Israeli soldiers. Israel is creating a breeding ground for Hamas—radicalization and recruitment are easiest when there is mass suffering and widespread anger. It is ironic that Israel takes actions that help Hamas to thrive and then uses Hamas’ growth to justify continuing its actions.
Some say Israel is the only democracy in a region of autocracies, and it is crucial for the United States to support Israel as a result. But what is a democracy, anyway? Is it a nation where 4.82 million people are policed by an unaccountable military? Is it a nation where the legislature declares self-determination to be only a right of its Jewish inhabitants, ignoring a 22 percent Arab constituency? Even ignoring the structural contradictions in Israeli “democracy,” Netanyahu has violated fundamental democratic norms of free press and independent courts. Democracy is a poor excuse to support Israel when it remains deeply counterfeit.
I understand the rationale that underpins Israeli settler colonialists’ motivations to consolidate Israel’s power. Jewish history is structured by cycles of tragedy that occur just as soon as Jewish communities feel that they have become safe through assimilation. German Jews on the eve of the Holocaust were among the wealthiest and most integrated of any sector of the global Jewish community. Many Jews, including myself, still believe that safety cannot be guaranteed in the Western world. The Jewish people do have a deep spiritual, historical, and cultural connection to Israel as our ancient homeland, and the concept of an exclusively Jewish state with overwhelming military power in that homeland is appealing.
But that sentiment is erroneous. After the Roman Diaspora, our contemporary neighbors in the Arab world developed their own rich traditions, tied to the land we had been forced to abandon by the Romans. Their cultural histories and sense of attachment to Palestine are equally as valid as our own. We cannot ignore the real suffering—material and cultural—that nearly five million Palestinians face due to Israel’s actions in pursuit of validating religious claims. Given equally valid claims to the land, Israel as a Jewish state simply does not make sense.
American Jewish liberation, as inhabitants of an open and free society, is intrinsically tied to that of all peoples, but especially to that of the Palestinian people. I reached that conclusion when I first began researching the human rights crisis in the Palestinian territories. But it also must happen at a community level. The goal of organizations like IfNotNow is to build consensus among American Jews that we can stand for the basic rights and dignity of the Palestinian people without abandoning our own Jewishness.
The name for IfNotNow comes from Rabbi Hillel, a Jewish spiritual leader who coined three questions that he thought together capture the timeless essence of Jewish social identity:
“If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
But if I am only for myself, what am I?
And if not now, when?”
The moral clarity demonstrated by IfNotNow on ending the occupation of Palestinian territories should be a model for the Jewish community’s path forward. Young Jewish Americans are now realizing that we cannot stand by Israel in its current state. Instead, we can, and must, stand up to Israel, and demand a state that embodies the true spirit of Judaism.
The image featured with this article is from IfNotNow UChicago. The original was taken by Livia Miller.