May 14, 2021
Like you, I have been watching the events in Israel and the occupied territories with fear, pain, and anger. First, I am mourning the deaths of those killed in Israel by Hamas rocket fire, including, as of this writing, a five-year-old boy, an Indian home health aid, and six other Israelis, including both Jews and Palestian citizens; the more than 100 Palestinians — including 28 children — killed in Gaza by Israeli airstrikes; and the Palestinian citizen of Israel killed seemingly by a vigilante in Lod earlier this week.
And my heart breaks watching the violence between Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel in the streets of Lod, Ramle, Akko, Haifa, and other “mixed” cities. The images and videos of attempted lynchings, of synagogues burning, and of destroyed businesses and homes are devastating.
Throughout this week, I have been in close contact with friends and colleagues in the human rights and civil society community in Israel, who have spent the last few weeks protesting on the street, and some of the last few days ducking into bomb shelters. This includes Palestinian citizens of Israel, who are attempting the impossible task of simultaneously fighting for equal rights within Israel, and protesting in solidarity with Palestinians living under occupation. Even yesterday, we saw Jewish and Palestinian Israelis stand together throughout the country calling for an end to the bloodshed.
Some within our Jewish community describe the current conflict as starting when Hamas launched rockets into Israel earlier this week. But we can’t start the story there.
Over the past several weeks, we saw protests in East Jerusalem over the attempt by Israeli settlers and the state that backs them to evict Palestinian residents from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, East Jerusalem, based on 19th century legal deeds. (While some have attempted to portray this as a real estate dispute, and as a just attempt to restore lost property to Jews, Palestinians have no parallel right to return to homes that they lost in 1948.) These protests, as well as protests against the closure of Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate, a popular hang-out area for Palestinian teenagers, were met with police violence, including stun grenades and rubber bullets. We also witnessed police violence against worshippers in the Al Aqsa mosque.
The shocking violence in the streets is the result of years and years of provocation by Prime Minister Netanyahu and others, who cast Palestinian citizens as a fifth column; passed the Nation-State Law, which enshrines legal inequality; and neglected Palestinian communities, who spent much of the past year protesting against the indifference by the Israeli government and police to intracommunal violence. In the past few days, Israeli Jewish extremist groups have organized on Telegram and WhatsApp to travel to mixed cities in order to carry out violent and destructive attacks against Palestinian citizens, their homes, and their businesses. In these same towns, Palestinian citizens have torched synagogues, seriously wounded Jews, and attacked Jewish homes and businesses. There is no justification for such violence, by either party. But it is not random — it is the direct effect of years of government policies and incitement.
Part of the background is also Netanyahu’s desperate attempt to hold onto power, during a week when a potential new governing coalition came close to ousting him. Hamas, too, is playing a power game with their rivals in the Palestinian Authority, after President Abbas canceled planned Palestinian elections.
The real background, of course, is the occupation that has lasted more than half a century, and that violates the human rights of Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza every single day. Like everyone else in the world, Palestinians have the right to citizenship in a country, to self-determination, to freedom of movement, and to safety and security. Those of us who want these things for Jews must support the same for Palestinians, and the reverse is true as well.
Shavuot celebrates Matan Torah — the giving of the Torah. It’s no accident that we received the Torah in the wilderness, on our way out of Mitzrayim (Egypt), and before we arrived in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel). In order to assume sovereignty in a land of our own, we need first to accept a moral legal code aimed at ensuring justice for everyone living in this land. The Torah warns of the danger of power: “When you have eaten your fill, and have built fine houses to live in…beware lest your heart grow haughty and you forget the Eternal your God — who freed you from the land of Egypt, the house of bondage…and you say to yourselves, ‘My own power and the might of my own hand have won this wealth for me.’” (Deuteronomy 8:12-20)
The establishment of Israel as a modern nation-state brought with it the obligations to follow international law — including the laws of occupation. And the Torah serves as an ever-present reminder not to let strength and success get in the way of making Eretz Yisrael a place that reflects the divine presence.
As American and Canadian Jews, we cannot ignore our own communities’ role in justifying decades of occupation, and the rise of right wing extremists. Too many of our organizations made their first statement on the weeks of violence and tension only when rockets from Gaza started flying toward Israeli towns, and ignored the experience of Palestinians both in East Jerusalem and in Gaza. Too often, we have given Netanyahu and other right wing politicians standing ovations in our own communities, even as they incite violence against their own citizens, woo Kahanists into the Knesset, and implement de facto annexation of the West Bank. And too often, we have invested our donor money in the status quo — whether in supposedly apolitical organizations like JNF-USA that contribute to the settlement project — or in outright extremist groups, as documented in my recent Haaretz article, written after a right-wing Jewish mob rioted through Jerusalem. Or we have thrown up our hands in exhaustion and diverted our money altogether from groups — both at home and in Israel — trying to make positive change there. By pulling back, we create a vacuum for right-wing donors laser-focused on turning Israel into their fantasy of a fundamentalist fortress.
To paraphrase an old slogan, if we’re not investing in solutions, we’re investing in the problem.
All of us who care about the future of Israel and Palestine, and of Israelis (Jewish, Palestinian & other) and Palestinians should be putting our money, advocacy energy, and organizing power into working to end occupation, investing in organizations both here and there that are doing so, and supporting the extraordinary activists on the ground who are devoting their lives to this work.
With wishes for a speedy end to violence, and a recommitment to building a better future.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,
Rabbi Jill Jacobs