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Why do Jews who speak out on human rights stay silent over Israel?

Sharon Berger
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Published: 3 January 2020

Last updated: 4 March 2024

I LIVE IN ONE of the best countries in the world. It’s not perfect but it comes close. Yet, despite living in “the lucky country”, I sometimes feel ashamed of the things being done on my behalf by my fellow compatriots.

A few examples:

Recently, a shocking video of  workers at a Wes Australian farm exposed the treatment of animals  by untrained workers.  It was hard to watch as cows were physically abused and sickening to hear the tales of animals suffering needlessly to save on the cost of a bullet.

I am reading No Friend But the Mountains, the harrowing, exquisitely-written book by Iranian-Kurdish refugee Behrouz Boochani. It tells of his attempts to reach refuge and his consequent incarceration on Manus Island. He writes of the cruelty and deprivation that he and his fellow detainees faced over many years in Papua New Guinea, far from the eyes of the Australian public.

Both sides of government have supported this policy of stopping refugees from reaching the Australian mainland and have done their utmost to hide the human cost of this detainment policy.

Other stories include the almost 10-year gap in life expectancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous populations. And that in Australia there are eight suicides a day.
Jews should recognise that Israel is not always in the right, and it’s ok to talk about the country’s failings constructively, and work to improve them.

 

I could go on but the point is that although it’s upsetting when stories like these come to the surface, they identify areas of Australian society that need to change and how to improve them. While the government would prefer that some of the headlines disappeared, nobody questions the right to air these issues, and the important work of the media, whistleblowers and non-profits in informing the public about what is happening.

However, when it comes to criticism of people’s behaviour in Israel, there seem to be different  rules for many Israelis and Diaspora Jews. When footage of settlers vandalising and destroying Palestinian property is aired air, people are quick to either discredit  Palestinian claims,   blame the Palestinians and left-wing activists for provoking the violence, or  justify the acts as those of an extreme, marginal camp.

In October, for example,  settlers violently attacked Palestinians and left-wing activists during the olive harvest near the West Bank village of Burin. The Yitzhar settlement blamed the incident on “provocations caused by extreme-left activists.”  They claimed the Palestinians and activists had created a “security hazard”. This was their justification for their vigilantism, rather than calling the army to lawfully deal with the situation.

The lack of consequences for this behaviour encourages further violence against Palestinians and Palestinian property.

The inability of the army and police to find and arrest the perpetrators of these violent acts sends a strong message of indifference to the Palestinians over the damage and trauma that they have faced. The Israeli activist coalition group Tag Meir claimed earlier this month that there have been 60 attacks this year, averaging one every five or six days, by Israeli Jews on a Palestinian/Arab neighbourhood in the West Bank.

According to Tag Meir: “The nature of the attacks includes puncturing car tyres, spraying graffiti in Hebrew /Stars of David on cars and house walls, smashing windows, stone-throwing. ... In the vast majority of incidents, suspects were (neither) arrested nor prosecuted for any crime. Not a single indictment has been filed following any of these attacks.”

Sixty attacks in a year is not a fringe phenomenon. Yet few people want to talk about it or seem to even care. However, when Palestinians attack Jews in Israel, immense resources are rightly invested to find the culprits.

Likewise, when violent attacks are directed against Jews in Diaspora, the Jewish world is up in arms. I see the increasingly violent anti-Semitic attacks across the globe, and resurgences of hate sadden me immensely. But so too does the parallel targeting of innocent civilians by Israeli Jews, and the Israeli government’s inability, or unwillingness, to act.

When former Israeli soldiers share stories of abuse  they witnessed or perpetrated during their army service, there is widespread condemnation of them by right-wing leaders and organisations. They are portrayed as “foreign agents” or “traitors” in an effort to discredit their testimonies.
It’s understandable that many Jews would be reluctant to shine a light on Israel’s shortcomings. Many feel there are enough anti-Semites doing that work and they don’ t want to be seen in bed with them. But we do ourselves an injustice by not talking about the complexities that Israel faces.

Similarly, when human rights organisations like Betselem or Gisha speak in public forums such as the United Nations about the damage being inflicted by Israeli policies in the West Bank, and the human cost of these directives, they are demonised by government figures and right-wing groups like NGO Monitor or Im Tirtzu.

Israel faces disproportionate criticism by such international bodies, but it doesn’t mean Israeli human rights groups using these platforms to change realities in Gaza or the West Bank should be routinely condemned.

There are people in the world who continually highlight Israel’s shortcomings while neglecting to mention much worse situations in other parts of the world. This double standard  should be called out. Israel’s many successes and remarkable achievements should be celebrated.

Jews should recognise that Israel is not always in the right, and it’s ok to talk about the country’s failings constructively, and work to improve them.

Why is it acceptable to question the inhumanity of Australia’s refugee policy, but not discuss the 36,000 Sudanese and Eritreans stuck in indefinite legal limbo in Israel?

Why do so many Jewish people who value equality, democracy and human rights hesitate to stand up for these values when it comes to Israel?

We see many leading Australian Jews call out the Australian government for its inhumane treatment of refugees, yet many of these passionate advocates are silent when it comes to Israel. Similarly, many Australians Jews do amazing work for Indigenous populations, but are not willing to talk about the fate of Palestinians living under Israeli military control.

With the memory of the Holocaust ever present in this community, it’s understandable that many Jews would be reluctant to shine a light on Israel’s shortcomings. Many feel there are enough anti-Semites doing that work and they don’ t want to be seen in bed with them.

But I would argue that we do ourselves an injustice by not talking about the complexities that Israel faces today. While Israel has achieved extraordinary things in its young life, it is not, and probably never will, be perfect. That’s ok. Like any other country we should be able to work to improve what’s not right.

Photo: Rabbis for Human Rights activist Moshe Yehudai, who the NGO says was assaulted by a group of masked settlers in the northern West Bank in October (Rabbis for Human Rights)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the author

Sharon Berger

Sharon Berger is the Events & Partnerships Manager at TJI. Sharon is a former journalist for The Jerusalem Post, Reuters, the Economist Intelligence Unit and the Australian Jewish News.

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