Seeing Israel as it is, but not keeping a distance

Hagai El Ad on Israel’s image among Jews in the UK

Sunday, 14 March, 2010 - 12:55
Tel Aviv, Israel

I was delighted to be one of close to 2,000 participants in Limmud. Speaking there as a guest of the New Israel Fund, this was my second time, and as before I was inspired by the conference’s diversity and energy and by the deep relationship of British Jewry with Israel. Throughout the week, I was a part of many discussions on Israel, and noticed some new reflections emerging.

While the relationship with Israel is undoubtedly strong, 2009 created some profound dilemmas for Jews: how best to express love and affinity for Israel and at the same time be true to Jewish and humanitarian values. There are many reasons to be proud of Israel’s achievements. And yet, certain Israeli policies have led many to experience Israel less as a source of pride and identification, and more as a source of disappointment or even embarrassment.

The traditional way of defending Israeli policies against critics seems to be giving way to a more nuanced approach based on whether policies correspond to the humanitarian values that are deeply rooted in Jewish tradition. As an Israeli who shares these values, I welcome this. It is inconsistent to struggle for human rights, social justice and equality in one’s own country, and to be doing this from a Jewish perspective while at the same time ignoring very disturbing trends in Israel. We should apply one set of values both there and here.

Why is this accelerating change happening? First, throughout 2009 there was a wave of discriminatory initiatives against Arab citizens of Israel, from the Nakba Law to the proposal to use only Hebrew transliteration in road signs in Arabic. Such policies simply cannot be reconciled with social justice nor with the halakhic values of respect for human dignity. One of the forces behind this alarming trend has been Israel’s Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, and his ultra-nationalist party. Though Lieberman’s racist policies have been met with fierce opposition by thousands of concerned Israelis, the silence of others has been deafening. Racism and anti-democratic initiatives have remained unchallenged and mainstreamed.

Second, Israel’s democratic core is being undermined by campaigns aimed at weakening the High Court of Justice and discrediting human rights activists; further radicalization of ultra-orthodox positions, from gender-segregated buses to the outrageous arrest of a woman at the Western Wall for wearing a prayer shawl; abuses against immigrant workers and asylum seekers and the unacceptable plan to expel their (very Israeli) children.

Third, the occupation, now in its 43rd year, has had disastrous effects. The war on Gaza and the continued siege policy have brought renewed attention to Palestinian suffering, as reflected in the Goldstone report. Many friends cannot understand Israel’s insistence on refusing to hold a serious, independent investigation into operation Cast Lead. If everything were fine, as the IDF claimed, why not enable a credible investigation in order to clear all suspicions?

After all, the report explicitly addresses not only the conduct of the IDF, but also the obviously illegal launching of Qassam rockets on civilian targets in Israel. It also clearly upholds Israel’s obvious right to defend itself. Why is the government ignoring the calls by Israeli human rights groups and international actors for an investigation?

There is a price for the discrepancy between what many British Jews regard as Jewish values and the various steps recently taken by Israel. For many of us, Jewish identity in the 21st century is anchored less in orthodox religious traditions and more in the values of equality and justice for all. It then becomes difficult to reconcile such a Jewish identity with an Israel that is an occupying state, non-egalitarian, extreme and indifferent to the world.

There are those who respond to this crisis with a wish to silence the debate, as though if only Israeli and international human rights organisations were to stop their activities and reports, the image of the state of Israel might miraculously be rehabilitated and the underlying problems would disappear. Sadly, many Israelis share this attitude.

Those who genuinely care about Israel should turn to matters of essence, not image. If a country operates in a democratic, egalitarian and just way, its image will take care of itself. There are no shortcuts.

We have an immense challenge. The Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam, mending the world, has always been an expression of universal values, not sectarian ones. It courageously speaks of all of humanity, not just some. It is time to have faith in and activism for Tikkun Olam in Israel.

So do not yearn for a perfect promised land that does not exist and do not scold those who point to its imperfections and strive to better them. Instead see Israel as it is; be informed, speak out, get involved, and be a close part of a struggle which is both universal and Jewish, for an Israel we can all be proud of.

Hagai El-Ad is the Executive Director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), Israel’s largest human rights organization. An edited version of the piece was originally published as a comment in Hebrew on nrg, the Israeli news website of Maariv, on January 5 2010. An edited English version was published in the Huffington Post on February 10 2010.

This article may be reproduced on condition that JNews is cited as its source.

commentary rss feed