Monday, July 10, 2006

Israel Has Crossed A Moral Boundary

Outrage at the new human rights violations by the IDF in Gaza is shared by those who would see Israel's religious state replaced by a more inclusive democracy, as well as those who, like Michael Lerner (below), love and support Israel as a homeland and refuge for Jews. Regardless of one's position, it is clear that the passions aroused by this conflict have made Israel/Palestine one of the most dangerous places in the world. As Juan Cole points out, fifty thousand Turks demonstrated on Sunday, and 3000 went into the streets in Cairo, despite the government crackdown. Cole says, "if it weren't for authoritarian governments in the region, hundreds of thousands of people would be on the streets demonstrating as we speak. Since they can't demonstrate, they turn to Islamist politics and sometimes terrorism. Ironically, a sense of justice denied and outrage over human rights violations can actually turn people toward an acceptance of extreme measures."

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Israel has Crossed a Moral Boundary
Rabbi Michael Lerner

In 2003 I was prevented from speaking at a large demonstration protesting the impending war in Iraq because I was deemed too pro-Zionist by one of the sponsoring organizations. My sin then, as now, is that I believe that both sides have acted with insensitivity and have been oblivious to the needs of the other, and both sides need to repent.

I still believe that now, and as late as last week was calling on the tens of thousands of readers of to insist to the Palestinians that they would be far more effective if they were to adopt the non-violent strategies of Gandhi, King, and Mandela rather than to imagine themselves capable of militarily defeating Israel. And just as I’ve critiqued the state terrorism against civilians that the IDF brings to the West Bank occupation, so I’ve always critiqued the terrorism of some sectors of the Palestinian population.

But this week it’s impossible as a Jew and as an American to not notice that a new human rights violation by Israel has taken place which manages to surpass many of its previous violations in cruelty and in the outrage it has generated.

Anyone has ever faced the crippling heat of the desert-like conditions of southern Israel or the Gaza strip knows the desperation for water that comes each summer. So when Israel bombed and destroyed the electricity system for 1.2 million Gazans and thereby made all electric pumps inoperable, they inflicted a collective punishment on the entire Gazan population.

The alleged justification was a desire to punish Palestinians for electing a Hamas government, and more immediately to retrieve a soldier who had been “kidnapped” (the quotes because this was not a civilian but a soldier in uniform, so if Israel sees itself as at war with Hamas, then the only possible description is that their soldier was captured by the other side). The Hamas government, however, has publicly urged the “kidnappers” whom it does not control to free the captured soldier.

Moreover, the outrage in Israel about this “kidnap” reflects a huge level of systematic denial going on in the consciousness of Israelis and many who support its policies—because virtually every human rights group including the various Israeli human rights organizations has chronicled tens of thousands of acts of "kidnap" of this sort by the IDF against Palestinian civilians, who are then kept in detention for as long as six months without a trial, often facing brutal torture, and then released without ever having been charged with any crime. Of course, and I thank God for this because I care for the well being of the people of Israel , and as a Jew I am deeply tied to the success and safety of this particular Jewish society, the Palestinians have never been able to punish hundreds of thousands or millions of Israelis collectively for these systematic violations of human rights. To the extent that they do so through acts of terror, I condemn those acts.

This is a defining moment in our relationship with Israel for all Americans of whatever faith. Just as we need to make clear to our own government that its human rights violations in Guantanamo and Iraq are unacceptable, so we need to communicate to the Israeli people that the mass punishment of a million people for the acts of a few is as unacceptable when it comes from a democratic society as when it comes from the willful oppression of entrenched authoritarian dictators. Even if, God forbid, the captured soldier is murdered by the lunatics who captured him, it is only they and their conscious sponsors who should be punished, not random Palestinians, unless you think it equally appropriate to some day punish the entire American public for the three million Vietnamese killed by American action in Vietnam or for the horrendous acts which continue in Guantanamo and Iraq even today.

Unfortunately, we can’t count on our U.S. government to convey this sentiment without qualifying its concerns in ways that essentially communicate that Israel can do whatever it wants and we won’t interfere.

So the onus is upon us as ordinary citizens to act and act decisively. We need to communicate our concerns to legislators and media. We need to organize demonstrations in front of the offices of our elected officials, and also outside Israeli consulates and those Jewish institutions which continue to use their influence to support Israeli policy even at this moment (there are a few which have spoken out in critique, but very very few). And we need to write to those in power in Israel, starting with Prime Minister Olmert, telling them that even those of us who love Israel and will never let it be destroyed find this particular action unconscionable, demand that Israel immediately rebuild the electricity system, and that Israel stop trying to impose its will with military might but instead sit down with the Palestinians and negotiate a lasting peace.

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun magazine, the largest circulation liberal/progressive Jewish magazine in the world. He is rabbi of Beyt Tikkun synagogue in San Francisco, national chair of The Network of Spiritual Progressives , and the author of ten books, most recently a 2006 national best-seller The Left Hand of God: Taking Back our Country from the Religious Right

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