Some hard truths: a personal reflection
By Rabbi Brian Walt (in Tikkun)
IN 1969, DAVID BEN GURION, THE FIRST PRIME MINISTER OF ISRAEL, VISITED CAPE TOWN. HE was by far the most important Israeli visitor to our small town. I remember his visit vividly. He met with the leaders of the Zionist youth
groups. At that meeting he was asked by one of the counselors whether any Palestinians were expelled from Israel during the War of Independence. He responded passionately and angrily that no Palestinians were expelled in 1948 and that the Zionist leadership encouraged them to stay. They chose to leave because the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem told them that they would get two houses once they had driven the Jews into the sea. This was his version of the history of 1948 and I believed him.
I was then a young idealistic Zionist, committed to going on aliyah to Israel, to participate in the grand Zionist vision of building a society based on Jewish socialist values. All those in the room that day, madrichim (counselors) of the various Zionist youth movements, were committed to building a society in Israel that would be the antithesis of the
Apartheid society in which we had been raised. Our shared dream was of a country where we, as Jews who had been victimized for so many years, would show the world how to wield power justly and with compassion. As Haim Weizman, the first President of Israel said, the Jewish state would be judged by how it treated the Palestinians. I was confident then that we would pass the test. It was inconceivable to me that Israel, the land where we would create a safe space for our people after so many years of suffering, would cause suffering to another people.
I grieve that this is exactly what has happened in Israel, especially over the past forty years of Occupation. A few weeks ago I had the privilege of sitting with Yehuda Shaul, one of the founders of Shovrim Shtika, a courageous group of Israeli soldiers who tell of the realities of Occupation: realities that most Israelis and American Jews do not know, and more importantly, are determined not to know. Yehuda spoke of his confusion and pain serving Israel as a soldier in Hebron, guarding the lives of settlers who often provoke and attack Palestinians. He could not respond to prevent the aggression, because his mission was just to protect the Jews, not the Palestinian residents. His personal story of how he and the soldiers of his company committed acts of violence on a daily basis was shocking.
These acts, he explained, are the inevitable reality of any Occupation where an army rules over 2 million people. Yet he also acknowledged his own personal responsibility, his own teshuva (repentance) for acts he routinely committed that caused suffering. All that the soldiers who founded Shovrim Shtika want is for the leaders and people of Israel to acknowledge what its soldiers are asked to do, and have to do, on their behalf on the West Bank.
I thought back to that meeting earlier in my life with Ben Gurion. I now know that the story he told about the history of 1948 is far more complicated than he admitted then, and that some Palestinians were expelled. Yehuda’s sad story highlights how far Israel has strayed from our idealistic vision. While it is true that Israel has become a vibrant cultural center for the Jewish people and has provided a secure home for Jews from many different countries, it is also true that over the past forty years, the moral core of the Jewish state has been corrupted by the Occupation.
While the stark way in which Yehuda described his experience was shocking, I have seen some of the realities of the West Bank, on visits to Israel to support the work of my colleagues in Rabbis for Human Rights and other groups dedicated to maintaining the moral vision of Israel. When I visit the West Bank, as a person who grew up in South Africa, it feels shockingly familiar. There is one small group of privileged people who rule over 2 million people, who have arrogated most of the land on the West Bank and most of the resources for their own use. It controls the population by means of checkpoints and requiring special documents that everyone has to carry. All these are so frighteningly familiar and so different from the vision of Zionism and Judaism.
When I go with my Israeli colleagues in Rabbis for Human Rights to replant uprooted trees on the West Bank, I feel ashamed. We are there replanting trees uprooted by religious settlers acting in the name of Judaism. This is nothing less than Hilul Hashem–the desecration of God’s name. I feel closest to Israel today when I connect with those Israelis who are courageously upholding the vision of a just society: my colleagues in Rabbis for Human Rights, the soldiers in Shovrim Shtika, the women in Machsom Watch, the human rights advocates of B’tselem or of the Public Committee against Torture and other organizations. While they are a minority in Israel they represent the Zionist and Jewish dream. One of the most important ways in which I express my love and commitment for Israel is by supporting their work.
Yet, every week in my work as executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights I talk with rabbis who struggle with the pressure on them to toe the line, not to question, not to raise open discussion about moral issues relating to Israel and Israeli policy. The subservience of the American Jewish community to Israel stifles Judaism in the United States. If we want Jews to re-engage with Israel we must open the discussion to all Jews: Zionists, non-Zionists, anti-Zionists, and the majority of Jews who care about Israel and Judaism and just want an honest and open discussion.
This year on the sixtieth birthday of Israel we do have much to celebrate: the creation of a vibrant Jewish culture in Israel, the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language, the creation of a safe home for Jews from so many countries and a vibrant democracy that exists within the green line. But, there are some very difficult truths that we need to confront.
Ahad Haam, the Zionist thinker, argued that the goal of the Jewish people is to be a people in the image of God, a community that embodies the godly values of justice, compassion and equity. This vision animated the Zionism that I was taught and it is the vision that inspired the framers of Israel’s Declaration of Independence to envision a country that is based on “justice, freedom and equality as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.” My love of Israel is expressed in support for all Israelis who are working towards the fulfillment of this dream. I still believe it is not just a dream.
Rabbi Brian Walt grew up in Cape Town. He is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia, PA and currently serves as the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America.