After some three years living at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Jerusalem and many conversations with Israelis and Palestinians, I find it difficult to avoid a pessimistic response to their question, “Is anybody listening?” Simply put, nobody is listening, at least nobody who has political clout. This is a difficult conclusion, one I cannot easily live with. It pains me, both for the sake of Israel and my many Israeli friends, as well as for the sake of my Palestinian sisters and brothers. Justice and peace might well kiss, as the psalmist points out, but there are almost no signs of such an embrace here in the Holy Land.
Numerous examples of this deafness have surfaced over the last several months, but for me they reached their apex when Israeli forces raided the offices of the International Solidarity Movement in Beit Sahour adjacent to Bethlehem. There was hardly a ripple of complaint from the international community. I.S.M. represents a group of internationals who, by their presence in the West Bank and Gaza, seek to reduce the level of violence and destruction aimed at Palestinians by the Israeli Defense Force. In mid-March, Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old American peace activist with I.S.M., was crushed to death by an Israeli bulldozer as she tried to halt the demolition of a Palestinian home in Rafah, southern Gaza. The Israeli government cleared the operator of the bulldozer from any responsibility. The response of the American government has been muted.
Two weeks later, Brian Avery, another American I.S.M. volunteer, had half his face blown away by an I.D.F. soldier who was firing at close range from an Israeli tank. The Israeli explanation is that Brian was caught in crossfire between the I.D.F. and Palestinian “gunmen.” This is contradicted by an I.S.M. volunteer who was with Brian at the time. The American government has lodged no serious challenge to the Israeli version. Ten days afterward, Tom Hurndall, a British volunteer with I.S.M., was shot in the back of the head by an Israeli sniper in Rafah as he tried to pull two children away from the line of fire. Since then, Tom has been declared brain dead, but at this writing he still remains on life-support equipment. The three incidents of violence against I.S.M. seem to be programmed steps aimed at delegitimizing I.S.M. in the eyes of Israelis and of the world. More recently, Israel has made similar moves directed against the Christian Peacemaker Team, a pacifist community in Hebron sponsored by the Mennonite Church.
Jewish voices in both Israel and the United States have strenuously objected to these and similar actions of the Israeli government. It is important for Americans to be aware of these Jewish voices that have been speaking out consistently for peace, justice and reconciliation, even if no one is listening.
Gideon Levy is a regular op-ed contributor to the Israeli daily Ha’aretz. His is a voice of ceaseless concern for the abusive treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. He keeps reminding his fellow Israelis of “the curfew, closure, poverty and suffering” that are the daily plight of their Palestinian neighbors. He is appalled at Israeli indifference. As he pointed out in a recent column, “The Israelis’ ignoring of the Palestinians’ suffering is reaching dimensions that are difficult to comprehend.” Palestinians are remembered “only when they come to spread death. The only Palestinian still talked about is the suicide bomber; the only children mentioned are ‘terrorist children.’ Not poverty-struck children, not orphaned children, not children whose homes were demolished before their very eyes, and not children whose fathers were taken, humiliated, in the dead of night, to detention without trial, and did not return sometimes for months and years.” Israeli doctors who work for Physicians for Human Rights have been shocked by the medical neglect of Palestinians and the widespread malnutrition among their children. None of this, Levy writes, “is getting seared into the Israeli public consciousness, because hardly anyone reports it and nobody is interested.”
Lev Grinberg, a noted political sociologist, wrote in the Hebrew paper Ma’ariv last year about the new voice that, one hopes, may inundate Israel, the voice of Jewish conscience. It is a voice that is already “inside us,” reminding us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. This is the voice that “can link Jews, Christians and Muslims brought up on the sacred principle that all human beings are created in God’s image.” It is a voice that receives its “most salient expression” in those members of the military who have refused to serve in the occupied territories.
One such conscientious objector is Jonathan (Yoni) Ben-Artzi. As a pacifist, he asked for an alternative to military service, hoping to tutor children in underprivileged schools. When Yoni was called up by the military on August 8, 2002, he refused to put on a uniform and was immediately incarcerated for a one-month term. Yoni insisted he was being jailed because of his pacifist beliefs. “I will go to prison proudly, knowing that this is the least I can do to improve the face of this country.” He remains in military prison, having been resentenced seven times for this same “crime.” Seventeen other C.O.’s have since joined him. In February the Army decided that Yoni and others like him should be tried by military court-martial. Yoni appealed to the president of the Supreme Court, Aharon Barak, for his trial to be held in civil court. When the hearing was held in April of this year, Barak concurred with the Army in favor of court- martial.
In a scathing letter to Justice Barak, Yoni’s father, Matania Ben-Artzi, denounced the justice’s posture as a defender of human rights. Human rights, he argued, “have been severely eroded” in Barak’s tenure. “Targeted killings that took the lives of hundreds of innocent bystanders, cruel closures that wreaked havoc among millions of Palestinians...inhumane destruction of the livelihood of tens of thousands of families—all these have been repeatedly legitimized by your court.” Finally, when Yoni and his young friends came before the court and demonstrated their humanity, “you did not see it fit to protect their rights.”
When Justice Barak was invited to speak at Israel’s weeklong celebration of human rights, Matania and his wife Ophra passed out leaflets calling the festival “hypocritical and sanctimonious.” They appealed to their fellow Israelis to recognize that during this same week: “Millions of people are subjected to a cruel and brutal occupation.... More than seven thousand people are locked up in detention camps, deprived of minimal humane conditions.... The ewe-lamb of the poor is robbed by an evil, war-seeking hand.... And you [Barak] threw in jail clear-eyed and pure-hearted boys whose only sin was that they followed their conscience.” The prophetic voice is still alive in Israel. As in biblical times, however, no one in authority seems to be listening.
There are numerous Israeli journalists—Amira Hass, Uri Avnery and Gila Svirsky among them—who courageously call for compassion, justice and reconciliation in dealings with Palestinians. There are Israeli groups—like Gush Shalom, Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions, Women in Black, Coalition of Women for Peace and Rabbis for Human Rights—that are working for an end to the occupation. These Israeli voices find their counterpart among many American Jews who consider themselves pro-Israel but anti-occupation. These are Jews who sharply criticize the Sharon government and add to that criticism an even sharper attack on the policies of the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee. Supported in its agenda by thousands of Christian evangelicals, Aipac has been persistent in its unconditional support for whatever actions the Israeli government and hardline political elements deem vital for its security. Aipac also represents a powerful lobbying force in Washington. American politicians seem almost fearful of listening to voices critical of Aipac. Yet the voices are there.
Within the last year ads appeared in The New York Times and elsewhere sponsored by Jewish Voices Against the Occupation, originating in the San Francisco Bay area. “We are outraged and saddened by Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestinian lands and its suppression of Palestinians’ right to sovereign statehood....” Jewish Voices call upon the Israeli government to accept an international peacekeeping force in the occupied territories and to halt settlement expansion as a first step toward their evacuation. They ask Washington to suspend military aid to Israel until it ends the occupation. They deplore the suicide attacks by Palestinians against Israeli civilians but also censure Israel’s oppressive security policies. In a crisp summary of their criticism they insist: “The settlements must go. The occupation must end. There can be no peace without justice.”
A year ago a group of American Jews formed Brit Tzedek v’Shalom (Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace). The alliance seeks to provide an alternative voice for those Jews who are concerned with the well-being of the State of Israel yet critical of the policies and actions of the Sharon government. One of its foundational headlines reads: “New Jewish Coalition Wants to Take on Aipac.” It argues that most American Jews are “at the very least uncomfortable” with the policies of the current Israeli government and oppose Aipac’s “Likud-dominated message,” which supports the policies of the Israeli government almost in lockstep.
Among the goals of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom are the establishment of a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel, with Jerusalem as the capital of both states, a just resolution of the refugee problem that takes into account the needs and hopes of both peoples, and an end to the use of both state-initiated violence and terrorism for the sake of political goals. As Americans they want Washington to pursue policies that “are consistent with the requirements of a just peace for Israel and the Palestinian people.” In May the alliance began a campaign entitled “A Call to Bring the Settlers Home to Israel.” It contends that most settlers would return to pre-1967 Israeli borders if given proper financial assistance. Marcia Freedman, president of the alliance, maintains that by assisting the settlers to return, the United States could here and now change the situation on the ground and break the political logjam that has persisted for years.
The alliance wants to speak “in a clearly Jewish, pro-Israel voice” and to create a safe and supportive environment for all the Jewish voices who condemn the policies of the Sharon government. It hopes to become a powerful Jewish voice both in the United States and in the world community.
The best known and most widely publicized “anti-Aipac” voice among American Jews belongs to the Tikkun Community and its charismatic leader, Rabbi Michael Lerner. Tikkun’s “politics of meaning,” with its emphasis on love and caring, has led it to a vigorous stance that is both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian and yet critical of Israeli and Palestinian authorities. Both sides have created the present impasse, and both sides must repent “for the pain and cruelty they have delivered to the other.” Tikkun is currently seeking to petition Congress to urge the president to move toward an immediate end to violence through an international peacekeeping force, “genuinely unbiased and neutral,” that would separate and provide protection for Israelis and Palestinians.
The Tikkun Community wants to provide “an alternative to Aipac and the pro-Ariel Sharon lobby,” convinced that Aipac’s unconditional support for Sharon’s policies undermines the deeply religious and human values imbedded in Jewish tradition. It wants to send a message to Congress that most Americans support a peace fair to both sides. Yet its prospects of succeeding are not bright. An op-ed in Ha’aretz on May 14 remarked that when confronted by Sharon, President Bush’s plans for the highly publicized road map move from “determination to wimpiness.” In an interview with The Jerusalem Post a day earlier, Sharon pointed out that with regard to settlements “there is no pressure from anyone—it is only pressure from the Jews on themselves.”
There are numerous other groups of American Jews who adamantly oppose Aipac and the policies of the Israeli government. Let me cite one final example. On Mother’s Day, Cindy Corrie gave a talk about “The Daughter I Can’t Hear From.” She spoke about Rachel and the support she had received following Rachel’s death. One such message of support came from a group of 35 Jews in North Carolina. “We mourn Rachel’s death, as we mourn the death of every Palestinian and Israeli man, woman and child. We are a group of Jews who believe that the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is unjust, immoral, and completely contradictory to the best interests not only of the Palestinian people but of Israel and the Jewish people. We work to help people, both Jewish and non-Jewish, to find their voice, to speak up and speak out, to understand that criticism of the Israeli government and its inhumane policies is not only important, but absolutely critical to our future.”
These are the voices I hear almost daily. They are the voices of the committed and the concerned, yearning for justice, for reconciliation, for an end to violence. I am confident that they will continue to speak out. But is anyone listening?