Time to break the silence: An open letter to American Jews

The American Jewish establishment, from the Federations to synagogues, must take a look in the mirror and decide whether this is the Israel it identifies with. If it isn’t, it should speak up. Urgently. 

Organizer Simone Zimmerman speaks to some 250 IfNotNow activists at a Tisha B’Av action in New York City, where participants read the names of Israelis and Palestinians who died in 2014 Gaza war. (Photo by Gili Getz)
Organizer Simone Zimmerman speaks to some 250 IfNotNow activists at a Tisha B’Av action in New York City, where participants read the names of Israelis and Palestinians who died in 2014 Gaza war. (Photo by Gili Getz)

Dear American Jewish community,

I should start off with a full disclosure: I am only tangentially a part of you. I have been living in Israel for the past five years, and before that I was an Israeli-American living in the Bay Area (with a brief stint in Los Angeles), where us Israelis viewed ourselves as a semi-autonomous cultural group. For the most part, we were not associated with the Reform or Conservative movements. We went to pray once a year during Yom Kippur, and our Passover seders were always much more about food and togetherness than sussing out some overarching lessons from the Hagada. In fact, at times we even looked down at our American co-religionists. We were mostly Asheknazi and middle class — we had a relationship with our version of Israel that others just couldn’t understand. Like a secret we would only share with those who really get it.

It took me years to get off my high horse — to understand that American Jewish culture is a rich, varied, and beautiful thing. In fact, I finally understood that after living in Israel, where I often feel much more like an American Jew than Israeli. That is why I feel like I can write to you today.

For American Jews who haven’t been paying attention — or have simply decided to ignore what has been happening — I will politely sum it up in three words: things are bad. For Palestinians, things have been bad for much, much longer. It has been nearly five decades since the beginning of the military regime in the occupied territories. Five decades of lording over millions of Palestinians with no end in sight, and almost 70 years after we made sure that Palestinians who were expelled or fled during the 1948 War would not return to their homeland. But I can’t make you care about Palestinians. I know that so much of your identity today is bound up in Israel. My hope is that perhaps through caring about those who seek to defend human rights in the country you care so much about, you will also grow to care about those whose rights they are trying to defend.

The past few weeks in Israel have felt like watershed moment after watershed moment for Israelis who care about human rights. Attacks on human rights organizations from far-right, proto-fascist groups have become the new mainstream. These kinds of attacks, of course, aren’t new. Organizations like the New Israel Fund have been the target of campaigns of incitement for years. Somehow, however, it always felt like the Right’s hateful rhetoric against the Israeli Left would blow over.

Right-wing nationalists from Im Tirzu protest as Palestinian students commemorate the Nakba outside Tel Aviv University, May 11, 2014. (Activestills.org)
Right-wing nationalists from Im Tirzu protest as Palestinian students commemorate the Nakba outside Tel Aviv University, May 11, 2014. (Activestills.org)

But it hasn’t. What started a few weeks ago with a hateful campaign against Breaking the Silence — which tried to host an event at a pub in Be’er Sheva — continued with a vicious video clip that personally identified and targeted left-wing activists, culminated in the arrest of a prominent left-wing activist, who was arrested at Ben Gurion Airport Monday, despite there being no legal barrier to his leaving the country prior to his arrest. The man, whose identity is under gag order, is being held on suspicion of being in contact with a foreign agent.

Meanwhile Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, the person appointed to uphold, well, justice, has been outright attacking against human rights organizations, going so far as to promote a bill that would require NGOs that receive 50 percent or more of their funding from foreign governments to detail those sources of funding in any public reports or documents, and to wear special tags when attending legislative sessions in the Knesset.

There is context to all of this. The recent wave of violence, which has claimed the lives of at least 145 Palestinians and 24 Israelis has become the backdrop for incendiary and often inciting remarks by Israel’s top political echelon against both the Left and Palestinian citizens. Following the murderous attack on a pub in central Tel Aviv, Israeli police raided and wrecked the homes of dozens of Arab students living in Tel Aviv University’s dorms. At the same time, Netanyahu gave a speech in which he called into question the loyalty of Israel’s Palestinian citizens — 20 percent of the population — simply because they are Arab.

It seems, furthermore, that something even more sinister has been happening over the past few months. As Ofri Illany recently pointed out in Haaretz, the Shin Bet, Israel’s security services, have started to play a more prominent role in the country’s day-to-day politics. Palestinians on both sides of the Green Line know the agency well. Following the creation of the state, the Shin Bet dedicated much of its time and resources to creating a network of collaborators inside Arab society, often using blackmail and threats to keep Arab citizens — the vast majority of whom lived under military law until 1966 — in line. Following the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967, the organization took its tactics over the Green Line.

Following the Duma murders last July, the Shin Bet rounded up Jewish suspects and allegedly tortured them, a practice that until recently has been reserved for Palestinians. This, Ilany writes, has coincided with rise of the Shin Bet from an organization whose existence once went unspoken, to one that is turning on its own. We are heading toward a reality in which torture and shadowy government security agencies are becoming part and parcel of the mainstream.

Hilltop youth settlers protest the torture of Jewish minors by the Shin Bet, central Tel Aviv, December 23, 2015. (photo: Edo Konrad)
Hilltop youth settlers protest the torture of Jewish minors by the Shin Bet, central Tel Aviv, December 23, 2015. (photo: Edo Konrad)

American Jews who are reading this must understand why this is all happening now. The struggle to end the occupation is slowly becoming internationalized. No longer is the conflict being viewed as a political dispute over land between neighbors, but rather as a civil rights struggle against a military occupation. And there is nothing the Israeli Right, center, and even parts of the Left fear more than an end to the occupation. International pressure, whether in the form of diplomatic power moves, boycotts, or sanctions, have brought the attacks on those who wish for a peaceful, just solution to the conflict to a fever pitch.

In a sense, all of this was inevitable. But your silence isn’t. Condemnations by the Anti-Defamation League aren’t enough. Groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, J Street and IfNotNow are pushing the boundaries of acceptable discourse to include new voices. But they cannot do it alone. The American Jewish establishment, from the Federations to synagogues, must take a look in the mirror and decide whether this is the Israel it identifies with. If it isn’t, it should speak up. Urgently.

Yours truly,
Edo Konrad

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