Why seeking justice for the Palestinians is the Jewish cause

I was recently asked a question I’ve been asked many times before, mostly by fellow Jews: Why do I spend so much time seeking justice for the Palestinians instead of directing my efforts and passions toward fighting for some noble “Jewish” cause. Surely, my questioner said, and I fully agree, there are Jewish causes worth fighting for. By the same token, I agree that anyone can easily draw up a virtually endless list of worthy humanitarian causes that everyone, Jewish or not, should devote time and energies to assisting, such as finding a cure for AIDS, halting the repression of women throughout the world, and ending the wretched poverty that afflicts so much of the Third World.

Since it is impossible to be involved in every humanitarian cause, I choose to channel my efforts into fighting for a just solution of the Israel/Palestine conflict because I think that is where I can be the most useful. As a Jew, my opposition to Israeli policies carries more weight, for better or worse, simply because I am Jewish, just like the reportage of Gideon Levy or Amira Hass in Israel’s daily Ha’aretz again, for better or worse, carries more weight than the dispatches and analysis of non-Jewish reporters writing for Britain’s The Guardian. So both as a Jew and as an American whose tax dollars finance Israel’s illegal and brutal occupation, I bear greater moral responsibility in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Furthermore, given my own personal and family background, I cannot but be deeply concerned by and opposed to Israeli policies.

Both of my parents are survivors of the Nazi concentration camps. At least 70 members of of my mother’s extended family perished in Auschwitz, including her father who was shot to death by a Nazi officer for refusing to hand over his tallis and tefillin (Jewish prayer garments). My mother’s recounting of her experience of standing in line at the age of 17 stark naked with men and women (she came from a devoutly religious home) waiting to be judged to life or death by a Nazi doctor is indelibly seared in my memory. My father’s account of his long march from the slave labor camp in Yugoslavia to the Nazi German concentration camps in Dachau and Flussenberg, without having any bread or water for days on end, being beaten by the German SS, Hungarian gendarmes, and Croatian fascists to walk faster, leaves me with images I can never forget or escape. Out of 3,600 people who accompanied my father on that death march, only 200 survived.

At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I feel compelled to reveal that my parents’ suffering at the hands of the Nazis has left me feeling as though I’m forever breathing the air of the death camps. And, as a result of their suffering, I have immersed myself in the history of the Third Reich and the Nazi Judeocide for the past 25 years. While I would certainly not consider myself an expert on the subject, I do think I have a sound enough background to draw some sobering conclusions.

What has always haunted and intrigued me the most over the years was not so much the motives of the murderers and their hundreds of thousands of collaborators, but rather, the behavior of the ordinary Germans who watched as the Jews were being dragged from their homes and brutally rounded up and expelled from the country they loved. Perhaps Dr. Norman Finkelstein sums up it up best in his book A Nation on Trial, when he observes, “the near consensus in the scholarly literature is that most Germans looked on with malignant indifference.” And it is the eminent Holocaust historian Ian Kershaw who wrote: “The road to Auschwitz was built by hate but paved with indifference” (emphasis added).

It is also worth quoting from the speech Rabbi Joachim Prinz gave at the civil rights March on Washington in 1963. “When I was a rabbi of the Jewish community in Berlin under the Hitler regime I learned many things. The most important thing that I learned in my life and under tragic circumstances is that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problems. The most urgent, the most disgraceful and the most shameful problem is silence. A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remained silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder.”

How, you may wonder, does any of this relate to the Israel/Palestine conflict and my passionate support for a just settlement for both Israelis and Palestinians? Israel claims to be a Jewish state (legally, it calls itself “the sovereign state of the Jewish people”) and has, since its creation, made it abundantly clear that it “speaks” and “acts” on behalf of world Jewry. As a researcher, I follow the conflict very closely. My main source of information is not the New York Times or other American or foreign newspapers, but rather what Israeli journalists themselves report daily from the occupied territories. In addition, I read the human rights reports of B’Tselem, (an award-winning Israeli human rights organization), Physicians for Human Rights (Israel), Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. They have all concluded that Israel has repeatedly committed major violations of humanitarian and human rights law.

For example, on April 3, 2002, when the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) launched a major military operation in the Jenin refugee camp, Human Rights Watch concluded that “during their incursion … Israeli forces committed serious violations of international humanitarian law, some amounting prima facie to war crimes.” There was major destruction of homes in Jenin, which “was aggravated by the inadequate warning given to civilian residents. Although warnings were issued… by the IDF, many civilians only learned of the risk as bulldozers began to crush their houses. Jamal Fayid, a thirty-seven year old paralyzed man, was killed when the IDF bulldozed his home on top of him, refusing to allow his relatives the time to remove him from the home… . Muhammud Abu Saba’a had to plead with an IDF bulldozer operator to stop demolishing his home while his family remained inside; when he returned to his half-demolished home, he was shot dead by an Israeli soldier.” (Human Rights Watch, Jenin: IDF Military Operations, May 2002).

In a fervent denunciation of these crimes, the former British shadow foreign secretary Gerald Kaufman, who is Jewish, said: “Sharon has ordered his troops to use methods of barbarism against the Palestinians … It is time to remind Sharon that the Star of David belongs to all Jews and not to his repulsive government. His actions are staining the Star of David with blood. The Jewish people, whose gifts to civilised discourse include Einstein… are now symbolised throughout the world by the blustering bully Ariel Sharon, a war criminal implicated in the murder of Palestinians in the Sabra-Shatila camp and now involved in killing Palestinians once again.” (The Guardian, 17 April 2002).

Thus, my response to the query “Why don’t you stick to a ‘Jewish’ cause” is that seeking justice for the Palestinians is, in fact, the Jewish cause, because that is where Jews can be most valuable. When major crimes are being committed in my name, if I want to be able to look at myself in the mirror in the morning, I don’t want to see the reflection of a Jew who displays “malignant indifference” while Sharon uses methods of “barbarism” against the Palestinians. Rather, I want to see the reflection of an ordinary decent Jew who reacts to Israeli crimes by saying loudly and clearly, “Stop! You do not speak or act in my name.”

Painful though it may be to face, the reality is that without the continued moral, spiritual and financial support of world Jewry, Israel would have been forced to quit the occupied territories a long time ago. Although U.S. diplomatic, economic and military support for Israel enables the brutal occupation to continue, if the majority of world Jewry would denounce Israeli crimes, Israeli troops and policymakers would not have been able to continue pursuing their shameful practices. What does give me hope now is that, though still a minority, a significant number of Jews are beginning to express discomfort with Israeli policies and are no longer blindly supporting them.

While it goes without saying that I fully agree that Palestinian suicide bombings are, as Human Rights Watch wrote in its October 2002 report Erased in a Moment: Suicide Bombing Attacks Against Israeli Civilians, “crimes against humanity” and “war crimes,” that does not diminish the far greater and daily crimes Israel has been committing against the Palestinian people since the foundation of the state in 1948, which saw the destruction of over 400 Palestinian villages and the flight of over 700,000 refugees, and even more so since the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza began in 1967. It is thus our collective responsibility as Jews not to behave as “morally indifferent” Germans did in the 1930s and 40’s or to remain “silent onlookers.” It is times to say, once and for all, to Sharon and his government, “Stop, we will no longer allow you to ‘stain the Star of David with blood’.”

Shifra Eva Stern is a researcher and editor of an unpublished dossier on “Israel’s Operation ‘Grapes of Wrath’ and the Qana Massacre” (April 1996). After reading the dossier and interviewing Ms. Stern, Robert Fisk wrote in the British daily The Independent: “Ms. Stern’s sense of outrage is as brave as it is lonely; although many American Jews are troubled by the behavior of Israel’s right-wing government and the bloody adventures in which Israel has been involved in Lebanon over the past 20 years, most will not take kindly to Eva Stern’s concern for the truth to be told” (Saturday, 14 June 1997).