A Jewish Tradition of Justice

American Jews must try to stop the violence in the Middle East.

To be Jewish means to be committed to the creation of a just world, not only for Jews but for everyone. We have internalized a cultural heritage committed to the ideal of social justice. Israel's long military occupation of lands lived in by millions of Palestinian people has been a tragedy for both Palestinians and Jews. Apart from the physical brutality of the occupation carried out in the name of the Jewish people has been the humiliation of the fundamental dignity of the Palestinian people.

Four generations of Palestinians have now grown up in refugee camps in impoverished and spiritually degrading conditions under the boot of a foreign army, deprived by Jews of the very right to self-determination that defines Jewish identity.

Against this simple and stark background, the claim today that the violence in the Middle East is the fault of Yasser Arafat or any other person or group is absurd. It is the result of the injustice of a Jewish occupation that Jews in and outside of Israel must rectify -- or risk the destruction of the spiritual core of our identity as a people.

This is, of course, not to say that the occupation is a justification for Palestinian violence. The suicide bombings that have killed hundreds of Israelis, torn apart families and deeply frightened the Israeli people are an unjustifiable catastrophe, and as Jews we feel an identification with the suffering caused by these bombings with special intensity. A part of some of us even feels that if the present military invasion stops these almost daily bombings even temporarily, at least some good will come of it - and we feel this even though it shames us to want to see our people protected by the brutalization of another people.

But it is time for such short-sighted thinking to stop. In the decade prior to the start of the occupation in 1967, 37 Israeli civilians were killed in conflicts with Israel's neighbors; in the last month alone, 120 Israeli civilians have been killed. The occupation of Palestinian lands cannot be justified in the name of security -- Israel is the fourth largest military power on Earth, confronting a largely unarmed and helpless population. Israel will never be secure so long as it subjects generations of Palestinians to a humiliation that leads them to commit suicide to try to recover, through counterviolence, their collective sense of dignity. Israeli security can only come from the achievement of justice for both Jews and Palestinians, and that can only come from ending the occupation and recognizing the equal dignity of the Palestinian people through the creation and recognition of an independent Palestinian state.

American Jews bear a special responsibility to exert the pressure that can bring this about. All Jews are affected by our common history as victims of hatred and persecution. All of us carry inside the traumatic memory of the Holocaust, the knowledge that ordinary people were willing to participate in the murder of 6 million of us simply because we were Jewish. To some extent, this has made us attached, and even addicted, to what the great Judaic scholar Zygmunt Bauman has called "hereditary victimhood." But the majority of Israeli Jews has become even more addicted to this victimhood than the rest of us, masking an internalized legacy of humiliation with a kind of desperate and prideful nationalism that does not dare see its own inner frailty and pain and fear and that appears to be justified by the actual dangers that threaten the Israeli people. It is this need to see themselves as history's permanent and perpetual victims that blinds Israelis to the fact that it is now the cause of their own insecurity.

The violence and injustice of the occupation is now the most serious threat to Israeli security, inflaming the rage not only of the Palestinian people but of the Arab world, most of whose governments have now clearly indicated that they want to live in peace with Israel.

American Jews bear a special responsibility for liberating Israel from this self-destructive cycle because the United States is Israel's principal supplier of military and economic aid.

The appearance that American Jews in overwhelming numbers support the actions of Israel has had the effect of silencing large numbers of Jews who oppose these actions, as well as the many non-Jews who have been made to feel guilty by the fact of the Holocaust and so do not speak out against the occupation.

American Jews must act as the true conscience of the Jewish people, and on behalf of the spiritual core of Jewish identity, by voicing our opposition to the occupation and its terrible consequences.

American Jews must be willing not only to sign declarations, not only to engage in demonstrations or civil disobedience, but also to clearly and openly disagree with other Jewish family members, with members of synagogues and other Jewish communities we may be a part of, and with official spokespersons for major Jewish organizations, all of whom are likely to be sharply critical of our dissenting views. We must take our stand knowing in our hearts that we are right and that we speak not against, but for both Israel and the Jewish people.

Peter Gabel is a law professor at the New College of California and associate editor of Tikkun magazine. This commentary was originally written as a declaration, signed by over 300 Bay Area Jews, which was presented to the Israeli consul in San Francisco.


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