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Progressive Jewish forces around the world need to unite

Daniel Bar-Tal
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Published: 3 June 2017

Last updated: 4 March 2024

The present situation, in which a liberal Jew in Sydney can read or hear about building of new settlements, and feel frustration and concern because that violates her values and hopes for Israel, but be unaware that there are Jews in Toronto, Rome, London and Johannesburg having similar feelings about the same news, is unacceptable.

There is a need to form a wide coalition among liberal Jews across the world who share similar values and hopes for Israel in order to empower us and to create more effective resistance to objectionable policies being implemented by the Israeli government – ten is more than one, and thousands are more than hundreds. Yes - we can produce another vector in the struggle to change undemocratic and immoral Israeli government policies by uniting Jewish liberal forces. The alternative is silence, or sporadic, fragmented and weak voices.

To meet that very need, in September 2006, 500 of Israel’s most well-respected scientists, artists and public intellectuals issued a call from Israelis to the Jews of the world. The signatories include Israel's best-loved literary figures and artists; 48 winners of Israel's most prestigious awards (the Israel Prize and the EMET Prize); seven high-ranking IDF officers; 20 former Israeli Ambassadors, Ministers, senior government officials and Members of Knesset; and 160 professors in Israeli universities.

With backing of concerned Jews from around the world, we founded SISO, an Israel-Diaspora partnership and movement to Save Israel and Stop the Occupation. Based on the principle "let's plant thousands of trees", SISO calls on every community, sector, NGO, institution or organisation to organise and to create events and projects with the goal of eventually ending the occupation, which has continued now for half a century.

SISO was established because the ongoing occupation of the West Bank, the continuous expansion of Jewish settlements, and the siege of the Gaza Strip violate basic human and collective rights of the Palestinians, and weaken the democratic and moral fabric of Israeli society. The Israeli government has forged ahead with its expansionist policies. In carrying out these policies, the government is not only violating international law, but also at times also Israeli law, thus seriously undermining the very foundation of Israeli democracy. Moreover, and of decisive importance, the continuing occupation leads to more bloodshed and cycles of violence and thus undermines physical security and economic prosperity.

If not halted, such policies will soon render a two-state solution impossible.

The new law passed this year by the Knesset, euphemistically called the Regularisation Law, is in fact an ‘Expropriation Law’, since it legalises government expropriation of privately owned Palestinian land. It is a ‘Theft Law’ – since it retrospectively allows settlers to continue living on land that doesn’t belong to them. It denies the Palestinian owners the right to claim the land or take possession of it “until there is a diplomatic resolution of the status of the territories.” It is an example of the anti-democratic and oppressive direction in which the ruling Israeli coalition is leading us all.

Talking with hundreds of Jews around the world I find they generally fall into three different categories.
There are those who ideologically support the present direction of Israel’s government and do not see any problem with it — I understand their position though I believe that they are wrong.

And there are those who see the current direction of the Israeli government as leading to disaster and are ready to voice their objections without fear, sometimes paying a price for that in their own communities – I respect their courage.

And then there are those who concern me most for present purposes, those who recognise the wrongdoing and dangers — the deviations from right action – but keep silent and justify their silence by various means, despite the strong dissonance that must often occasion.

Their silence is a blow to the memory of Emil Zola who split the French community and risked his life accusing the French government and the highest levels of the French Army of obstruction of justice and antisemitism by having wrongfully convicted Alfred Dreyfus to life imprisonment on Devil's Island.

I also know that many of the silent people relieve themselves from their duty and responsibility because they accept the prevailing argument that because they do not live in Israel they do not have the right to criticise the government of Israel. Let me address this argument seriously in order to refute it.

A significant segment of world Jewry supports the policies of the Israeli government with words originally used by US Senator Carl Shurz in 1871 –‘My country, right or wrong’. But they seem unaware, or omit to mention, that Shurz went on to say –‘if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right’. A call to support Israel right or wrong violates every principle of morality.

Get involved, because Israel is a major source of the Jewish identity; get involved because it is Jewish-democratic state that represents Jewish culture and heritage; get involved because Israel was founded as a shelter for persecuted Jews around the world; get involved because Israel reflects the dream of many Jews to have a Jewish state that will shine with lights of justice and morality. But those are not reasons for blind patriotism or support and the Israeli government has no right to ask for that. If Israel is right, it should be kept right; and if Israel is wrong, it has to be set right.

Diaspora Jews have a right and duty to speak especially, but not only, because Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu often declares that the state of Israel is representing world Jewry. On 11 February 2015, for example, he said to Likud French-speaking supporters in Jerusalem: “I went to Paris not just as the prime minister of Israel but as a representative of the entire Jewish people.” Does what he says and does represent you?

Jews around the world have the right, and they also have a responsibility and duty, to express openly their opinions about Israel and policies of its government. We should not blindly support, or remain silent about, polices that not only have serious detrimental effects on the Palestinians, individually and collectively, but are also destructive of the moral, humanistic and democratic nature of Israel.

Another rationalisation that some in the third category of diaspora Jews use to justify their silence is that criticism of Israel encourages antisemtism. Maybe so, in the case of those whose antisemitism in fact needs no encouragement. But being willing to criticise Israeli policies when they are wrong more often shows to the international community that Jews do not practise double standards, that as they criticize wrongdoing elsewhere in the world, they are prepared also when necessary to say what they think is wrong with policies of the Israeli government. Such principled conduct also strengthens the moral standing of Jews who take upon themselves the mission of "tikkun olam” in the tradition of the Prophets. They have struggled against immoral, repressive and antidemocratic acts everywhere, and have raised their voices against the discrimination against Jews in other countries.

We in SISO do not disregard the real threats to Israel that exist – we are not blind—but hundreds of Israeli military and security experts have warned that current policies of the Israeli government are diminishing Israel’s security, not strengthening it. And I know also, as a political psychologist, that feelings of security and perceptions of threat are subjective reactions, affected and often deliberately instigated by leaders who have an interest in maintaining a fearful society, unwilling to think critically and easy to rule.

We feel strongly that merely holding another conference or circulating another petition is not enough. There are undoubtedly many hundreds of thousands who care enough about Israel and the Jewish people to transform their thoughts and feelings into a massive movement that must be heard and seen. This will unite Jews of the world, those who profess humanistic values, in a legitimate and moral demand to end Israel's devastating occupation, so harmful to Palestinians, but very harmful also to Jews. It is time to put aside the paralysis of despair, escapism and indifference. We need to follow in the footprints of people like Theodor Herzl and Martin Luther King, who knew how to turn their dreams into collective action. Like those giants, we also want to realise our dream: to ensure security, freedom, equality and peace for the Jewish generations to come and for all other citizens of Israel, as the founding fathers promised in the Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel – that the state of Israel "will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations."

It is the responsibility of each of us to speak out and take action, as an expression of our identity and conscience; we must not remain mere bystanders. Ultimately, history will judge each of us by our action or inaction. If each of us lends a hand to move a stone, together we will move the mountain. Yes, we must, and we can!

This The Jewish Independent article may be republished with this acknowledgement: ‘Reprinted with permission from www.thejewishindependent.com.au


A state of insecurity
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How politicians perpetuate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

50 years after the Six-Day War – why is this year different for some in Israeli civil society?

‘End the occupation for Israel’s sake’
Hundreds of Israeli intellectuals to world Jewry: ‘End occupation for Israel’s sake’

About the author

Daniel Bar-Tal

Daniel Bar-Tal is an Israeli academic, author, and Professor Emeritus at the School of Education of Tel Aviv University. He is an expert in the fields of political and social psychology.


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