|Tony Klug. |
SISO panel, J Street conference, Washington DC, 27 Feb 2017
I’m not sure I’m the best person to be making this presentation, as I’m still deeply in denial about recent developments in both your country, the US, and mine, the UK. One can only hope that our anticipations for 2017 turn out to be as faulty as our anticipations were for 2016.
This may not be quite as bizarre a thought as it might seem. Getting the big things wrong – or at least not getting them right – has been one of the hallmarks of contemporary expert analysts. Who, for example, foresaw the unheralded Arab-Israel war of 1973? Or the staggering Sadat initiative four years later? Or the abrupt outbreak of the first or second Palestinian intifadas? Or the ground-breaking Oslo accords? Or the enforced evacuation of all Israeli settlers from Gaza by a right-wing government? Or the decisive Hamas election victory in 2006? Or, more widely, the mass Arab uprisings, the brutal tearing apart of Syria, the strange re-emergence of Russia as a major player in the region?
In sum, we have an almost perfect record of failing to anticipate nearly every seminal development. For this is the Middle East, where the only thing we can expect with certainty is the unexpected. This is one reason for not being wholly pessimistic about what lies in store.
But this is not to say that nothing can be foreseen. After half a century, Israel’s “occupation-chickens” are coming home to roost – creeping isolation, growing challenges to the state’s legitimacy, rising anti-Jewish feeling, spreading accusations of apartheid, to say nothing of the blossoming of religious zealotry and radical nationalism. In the wake of the celebrated military victory of 1967, a number of Israeli voices rose above the exultant mood of the time to warn of the perils of triumphalism, hubris and complacency.
As an outsider, but a closely engaged outsider, I remember all this very well. Following an extensive period of research in Israel, the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan and Lebanon in the early 1970’s, a much earlier version of yours truly offered a few observations himself which, in his innocent youth, he regarded as self-evident. I hope you will forgive me if I quote from a passage in his/my pamphlet, published in January 1977, when there were probably fewer than 5,000 Jewish settlers on the West Bank, compared to more than a hundred times that number today. This is a condensed form of the passage:
`While Israel continues to rule over the West Bank, there are bound to be ever more frequent and more intensive acts of resistance by a population that is feeling encroached upon by a spreading pattern of Jewish colonization and whose yearning for independence is no less than was that of the Palestinian Jews in the early months of 1948. As long as Israel continues to govern that territory, she will have little choice but to retaliate in an increasingly oppressive fashion just to keep order. The moral appeal of Israel`s case will consequently suffer and this will further erode her level of international support, although probably not amongst organized opinion within the Jewish diaspora. This sharpening polarization is bound to contribute to an upsurge in overt antisemitism.`
In response to this passage, I was told by an assortment of outraged Israeli and Jewish readers that I simply did not get it. First, it was said, Israel would soon be returning the territory, or the bulk of it, to Arab rule -- meaning to Jordan. Second, it was not independence the Palestinians wanted but good governance and that is what they were getting from Israeli rule.
Third, bar the initial period following the 1967 war, there was very little Palestinian resistance and there was no reason to believe this would change -- indeed, it took another ten years for the first intifada to break out. The population was enjoying a standard of living well above its previous imaginings (which was true). They were, it was claimed, better off in almost every respect than Arabs living in Arab countries.
Fourth, the expanding Jewish settlements allegedly had very little impact on the local Arab population and, where they did, it was almost entirely beneficial, for example in providing jobs. Fifth, international support for Israel was rock-solid and growing. Finally, latent anti-Jewish feeling has always resided in some segments of civil society -- lamentably true -- and its manifestations have nothing to do with the way Israel behaves -- demonstrably false.
Despite my apparently being wrong on every count, the future played out pretty much as mapped out in the pamphlet. For me, this was seriously depressing, particularly because it wasn’t meant as a prediction. I was sure at the time, as were the vast majority of Israelis too, that Israel, in its own best interest, would be certain to end its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the near future.
I don’t expect to be around to shamelessly quote myself again in another forty years but, as passions continue to rise, it is surely as plain as can be that if Israel does not end the occupation sharply, and if organized Jewish opinion in other countries appears openly to back it, there will indeed almost certainly be a further surge in anti-Jewish sentiment, potentially unleashing more sinister impulses. This is not, of course, to justify such dismal future developments, but it is not rocket science to see what lies ahead under these circumstances.
What all this points to, I fear, is that Israel’s never-ending occupation of the land and lives of another people is not just seriously endangering Israel – not to mention deepening the despair of the Palestinians -- but it is also making the situation of Jews around the world increasingly precarious. That makes it personal.
But there is an even more profound personal dimension, one that goes to the very heart of what it means to be Jewish. I was asked recently what originally attracted me to the human rights and peace worlds. Almost without thinking, and to the visible surprise of the questioner, I answered “the rabbis of the orthodox Jewish school I attended”.
I was not, I confess, the greatest student of Jewish studies but I was very taken by some of the passages that we were taught from the Hebrew Bible, the Torah; passages like:
“Justice, justice, shalt thou pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20). Why, the sages asked, repeat “justice”. Was it a typo? Did the scribe have a stutter? Came the answer, “justice must be pursued with justice”. It is not enough for justice to be the goal; it must be the means too. Astonishing for now, let alone for then!
“Let my people go” (Exodus 9:1) – a plea for freedom that inspired generations of oppressed peoples, most notably African-American slaves.
“God created humankind in his own image” (Genesis 1:27) – an affirmation of the inherent equality of all people.
“Seek peace, and pursue it” (Psalms 34:14).
“Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18). Love the stranger, I am told, is commanded 36 times.
The legendary Rabbi Hillel is said to have summed up the entire Torah on one leg, with these words: `What is hateful to you, do not do to another – the rest is commentary”. On this, he put his foot down!
These time-honoured Jewish ideals -- justice, freedom, equality, peace, mutual respect -- have made an extraordinary contribution to human civilization. They lie at the very core of Jewish identity and are the glue that binds together Jews of many different persuasions in many different countries. Jews have proudly espoused these values historically for themselves and for others which, at least in part, explains why Jews have disproportionally been active in civil rights causes.
Many Jews and others have uncomfortably co-existed with the Israeli occupation for years by sheltering behind the idea that one day soon there will be a Palestinian state alongside Israel, in which Palestinians will be able to exercise their national, political and civil rights.
But we are entering a new epoch, for the current Israeli government has virtually blown the roof off of this sanctuary. We now face the naked reality of a state that declares itself, loudly and often, to be Jewish, and demands of others that it be recognized as Jewish, gearing itself to withholding fundamental human rights from millions of people indefinitely -- a standpoint that is in total defiance of quintessential Jewish principles. Indeed, one may ask, would such a blatantly inequitable policy be condoned by the self-appointed custodians of Jewish values if enacted by any other country?
If we are not prepared to speak out resolutely, we may be on the cusp of Jewish identity being redefined for us and, with it, the image and global standing of Jews worldwide.
Of course, Israel is doing its own reputation huge damage as well. Just as the policies of the current US administration are undermining the idea of America, so the policies of the current Israeli government are perverting the idea of Israel as captured in its Declaration of Independence
So what may be done?
To start with, supporters of Israel could openly clarify that their affection for the country, however deep, does not extend to supporting the occupation. They could consider adopting a slogan like “Love Israel, hate occupation”. And it is vital not to shy away from using the term “occupation”. Losing the language is the first step towards losing the argument.
But it’s not just the verbal distinctions that matter. In all our practical dealings we need to distinguish between Israel itself and the occupied territories, including the whole suicidal settlement project. This was the unequivocal message of UN Security Council Resolution 2334 last December. While explicitly endorsing Israel’s legitimacy in its pre-1967 borders, the resolution repudiated any alterations to, or changes made beyond, those borders.
That its closest allies, even after 50 years, voted in favour and its principal ally did not exercise a veto was a serious political and psychological blow to the Israeli government. It thought it had got away with it, when it plainly hadn’t. Nor will it.
But this is not enough.
From the inception of occupation, successive Israeli governments have cherry-picked the Geneva Convention to suit their purpose. When expropriating land and building settlements, they deny their rule is legally an occupation and therefore bound by the Convention. But in not extending equal rights to the West Bank’s Palestinian inhabitants, they shield behind the Convention’s prohibition against altering the political or legal status of an occupied people. This calculated ambiguity is a colossal Israeli bluff that it really is time to call. It either is or is not an occupation. The laws of occupation either apply or they don’t. Israel’s leaders should no longer be permitted to have it both ways.
To reclaim Jewish values and restore the Jewish reputation, we have to impress on our Israeli friends the need for Israel either to end the occupation without further procrastination and pretext, and work with the Palestinians to build their own state or, pending a future final settlement – whatever and whenever that might be -- grant equal rights in the meantime to everyone subject to Israeli jurisdiction.
We can accept either but -- whether as Jews or human-rights adherents - we cannot possibly accept neither. No longer can the inherently unequal, unjust, un-Jewish, discriminatory status quo be stomached as the automatic default alternative to an indefinitely postponed future agreement. It is our right and indeed obligation to insist that equal treatment should replace the status quo as the natural default alternative.
This proposal draws on an original idea that the Palestinian-American thinker Sam Bahour and I jointly developed three years ago as part of a broader policy proposal for the international community. It is an idea that, in essence, has already been taken up by SISO, Tikkun, and the Palestine Strategy Group, pointing to a potential for parallel campaigning for a common end, involving Israelis, Jews from other countries, Palestinians and their sympathizers, plus the wider international community, whether at the governmental or civil-society levels. This tantalizing prospect, even if improbable, underlines why it is so important to throw our weight behind the SISO project.
To be clear, this is not a proposal for one state, which has very little authentic support among either Israelis or Palestinians. It is more akin to the situation of the Scots in the United Kingdom, who enjoy equal rights with everyone else until a possible future “two-state solution” in the UK is enacted. Why should the Palestinians be treated differently?
By posing these sharp alternatives – recognize Palestine or grant equal rights -- it is hoped that a vigorous debate may be re-ignited within Israel, and new political currents sparked, which may return the two-state idea to the top of the Israeli political agenda — before it really is too late.
When all is said and done, the bottom line is that the conflict with the Palestinians has dominated and distorted the Jewish world for too long. It is time to bring it to an end and stop the infamy of a half-century of military occupation of another people, and allow us all to get back to the business of being ourselves.