It’s time for Jewish dissenters to challenge Israeli policies

Palestinians demonstrate with candles, Palestinian and Lebanese flags in the streets of Birzeit near the West Bank city of Ramallah against the Israeli raid into Lebanon and Gaza, August 14, 2006. (MaanImages/Mushir Abdelrahman)


I grew up Jewish in Beirut. Although I left nearly 40 years ago, my memories of Lebanon — vibrant and multicultural — have stayed with me. And so, my wife and I had started talking about taking a trip there.

I would show her the neighborhood where I grew up, the beaches where I swam in the warm Mediterranean waters and the small mountain hotel we loved to stay at in the summer. I would also show her my school, where Jewish, Christian and Muslim children learned and grew together.

After the past few weeks, we may never be able to take this trip. Israeli bombings have killed more than 700 Lebanese civilians. Hundreds of thousands — more than one-fifth of the population — have become refugees, uprooted from their homes. Lebanon’s civilian infrastructure has been systematically destroyed.

We, as Americans, bear a special responsibility for this carnage. If Washington would withhold its unconditional military, economic and diplomatic support for Israel, the Israeli government would waste no time in starting genuine negotiations. Current U.S.-backed cease-fire proposals are so unfair to Lebanon that the Lebanese government has already indicated it cannot accept the terms, which do not even include a full Israeli withdrawal.

This one-sided U.S. policy is the result of a combination of factors, but it thrives on the myth that all American Jews stand uncritically behind the Israeli government.

Many believe that American Jews unanimously and unconditionally support the Israeli government. That what we learned from the Holocaust is to shoot first and ask questions later. That our commitment to justice and equal rights is a quaint feature of our past.

There is a saying “two Jews, three opinions.” Now we are told “1 million Jews, one opinion.”

In fact, our community is profoundly divided:

Hundreds, if not thousands, of Jews all over the country have demonstrated to demand an end to the bombing of Gaza and Lebanon. In one of these demonstrations, 17 Jewish protesters were arrested in an act of civil disobedience.

In the past few days, thousands of Jews have signed a petition demanding that the United States intervene to stop the wanton killing of Lebanese civilians by the Israeli war machine.

Jewish organizations that sponsor such demonstrations and petitions, such as Jewish Voice for Peace (on whose board I serve), are experiencing exponential growth. Jews are looking for ways to express their outrage at the actions of the Israeli government, and of the blind support accorded by the Jewish establishment in this country.

We are appalled by the Hezbollah rocket attacks on Israeli cities, just as we were the earlier attacks by Israel on Lebanese cities. We mourn the loss of Israeli, Palestinian and Lebanese lives equally. We are outraged by the destruction of Lebanese airports, roads and bridges, the bombing of homes and private cars, the killing of children, and the other horrors visited by the Israelis on their neighbors.

It is this kind of past Israeli behavior that gave birth to both Hamas and Hezbollah, organizations that have strengthened immeasurably in recent weeks. Israeli intransigence has made Israel a pariah state, and is the biggest enemy of all the people of the Middle East — Arabs and Israelis alike.

Jewish American leaders work tirelessly to promote the myth of Jewish consensus. Their tactics include refusing to rent space to dissenters, threatening funding cuts when Jewish institutions question Israel’s actions and canceling meetings when they suspect debate might occur. Their most ubiquitous weapon is the hurtful charge of anti-Semitism, hurled at both dissenting Jews and Gentiles.

Many Jews question Israel’s policies, but are afraid to speak out in their congregations or even to their families. But the time has come for Jewish dissidents to challenge the policies of the Israeli government. In the short run these policies kill Arabs, mostly innocent civilians; in the long run, they can result only in disaster for Israelis and Jews worldwide. Our silence in this time of crisis is complicity. We need to help bring about the peace that would one day make my visit to Beirut — and the visit of all Jews — possible.

Henri Picciotto of Berkeley is a mathematics educator and chairman of the board of Jewish Voice for Peace. This article was first published in the San Jose Mercury News.

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