Hard truths

In 1969 David Ben Gurion, the first prime minister of Israel, visited Cape Town. I remember his visit vividly. He met the leaders of Zionist youth groups.

At that meeting he was asked whether any Palestinians were expelled from Israel during the war of independence. He responded 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, he said. This was his version of the history of 1948 and I believed him.

I was then a young, idealist Zionist, committed to going on aliya (emigrating) 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 (counsellors) 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 victimised 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 in the past 40 years of the occupation of the Palestinian territories. 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 most Jews do not know and, more importantly, are determined not to know.

Shaul 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 two 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 of 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 in 1969 with Ben Gurion. I now know that the story he told about the history of 1948 is far more complicated than he admitted and that some Palestinians were expelled. Shaul’s sad story highlights how far Israel has strayed from our idealist vision. While it is true that Israel has become a vibrant cultural centre for the Jewish people and has provided a secure home for Jews from many different countries, it is also true that in the past 40 years the moral core of the Jewish state has been corrupted by the occupation.

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. A small group of privileged people rule over two million people. They have arrogated most of the land on the West Bank and most of its resources for their own use. They control the population by means of checkpoints and by special documents everyone has to carry. These are 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 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 courageously uphold 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, the Public Committee against Torture and other organisations. They are a minority in Israel, but they represent the Zionist and Jewish dream. One of the most important ways I express my love for and commitment to Israel is by supporting their work.

This year, on the 60th birthday of Israel, Jews 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 and the vibrant democracy that exists within the green line.

Yet every week, in my work as executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights, I talk to 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.

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 I was taught. It inspired the framers of Israel’s declaration of independence to envision a country 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 fulfilment of this dream. I still believe it is not just a dream.

Rabbi Brian Walt is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Mishkan Shalom in Philadelphia, US, and is the executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights, North America

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