If you care about Israel, and also think of yourself as committed to justice and human dignity, then this blog is addressed to you.
It seems to me that most Jews who care about Israel have their heads stuck in the sand when it comes to Israeli human rights violations. Everybody has a whole shpiel rehearsed about why the Palestinians are to blame for the ever-failing peace process and why the boycotters are anti-Semites or fools. But if you point out that the State of Israel is in fact engaging in serious and systematic violations of basic human rights that are not justified by self-defense, even liberal Jews say something like, “that does sound terrible, but I haven’t had time to look into it”, and then explain again why the Palestinians aren’t ready for an agreement.
But that’s not good enough. Even if the Palestinians are at fault for everything from the failure of the peace process to the high price of cottage cheese, that does not justify violating their basic human rights in ways not necessary for protecting Israelis.
Human rights discourse is problematic in countless ways. Human rights organizations are not shining paladins and their reports are not carved in stone. They can be biased, like the infamous U.N. Commission on Human Rights. Or just wrong. But in spite of their failings, human rights are the most successful attempt in the history of the human species to agree on basic legal norms to protect human beings everywhere. Most countries (including Israel) have agreed to all or part of international human rights law and they have become the lingua-franca of political legitimacy across the planet. I think that our most basic moral responsibility requires that we honestly apply human rights standards to ourselves.
Let’s take an example: building and use of land in East Jerusalem. While I am not an expert, the following claims (based largely on Israeli government statistics) seem credible to me. If you think that they are not, I’d honestly like to know why. But if you make your life easy by writing them off without investigation, I think that you are betraying your most basic moral responsibility as a Jew and a human being. My sources of information appear at the bottom of the page. (By the way, if you convince me that I’m wrong about something here, I promise to correct my mistake and to credit you for correcting me.)
Since Israel annexed East Jerusalem after the Six Day War, we have expropriated roughly one third of East Jerusalem land, much of it privately owned by Arabs, for the benefit of the “public”. But on that expropriated land we’ve built tens of thousands of housing units for Jews, and none for Arabs. Evidently, the “public” does not include the Arab minority. Can you imagine how you would feel if the country in which you lived used its sovereign power to systematically transfer property from Jews to non-Jews? It’s hard to imagine a more blatant abuse of state power. But that’s not the half of it.
We’ve also made it close to impossible for Arabs to build legally even on the land that we didn’t take from them. Due to a variety of discriminatory practices, from refusing to authorize plans for Arab areas to authorizing plans that largely prohibit building (as well as political and cultural factors that are not Israel’s fault*), Arab Jerusalemites can rarely obtain building permits. And when they do receive them, they are allowed far less building than in Jewish areas. But get this: when Jews buy land in an Arab area, like Nof Tsion in Jabel Mukaber (near East Talpiot), then suddenly the rules change in that area, for the Jews. The Jewish compound receives authorization to build many new units, while the neighboring Arabs are stuck just like before.
Since legal building is largely impossible for Arabs in Jerusalem, and their children need a place to live, they build “illegally”. I put “illegally” in quotes because really it is our discriminatory policies that should be regarded as illegal. But we go on to levy heavy fines, and even order home demolitions, destroying the lives of many Arab families. The real sin of these families is not that they built “illegally” but that they are not Jews. A recent development in this area is truly Kafkaesque: the security fence has cut tens of thousands of Jerusalem Arabs off from the city. They receive almost no municipal services or police protection. And yet we continue to issue them fines and demolition orders for “illegal” building! Can you honestly tell me that this looks like justice to you?
Building and land are just one example of how we violate the rights of Jerusalem Arabs. (I’ll touch on more examples in future blogs.) The success of Zionism has returned us to the stage of history and to state power. But in East Jerusalem, and other places, we have severely and systematically abused that power. It’s time we recognize that while many “human rights” attacks on Israel are in fact a cover for anti-Israeli racism, some of them are telling the truth.
Admitting the truth about these violations does not mean that Israel is the bad guy in the Arab-Israel conflict. Israeli human rights violations are only one chapter in a larger story in which we have also been the victims of racist, fundamentalist and even genocidal aggression perpetrated against us by major segments of the Arab-Muslim world. And there are lots of worse human rights violations than ours happening in other places. Admitting the truth does not justify demonizing Israel or calling for our destruction. But it means recognizing that we are badly off course and mired in injustice. Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat has made some efforts in the right direction (and some in the wrong), but the overall picture has remained the same.
The time has come for Jews to learn the facts, to take a stand for what’s right, and to put an end to this dismal discriminatory chapter in the history of our third return to Zion – the Holy Land, and to Jerusalem – “the city of justice, the faithful city” (Isaiah 1:25).
My goal in this blog is to open up loving and respectful discussion of the human rights situation in Israel in general and East Jerusalem in particular. It is part of a larger agenda of approaching Jewish public discourse as holy space. I very much appreciate the majority of comments, which have been intelligent and respectful. Thank you! For the rest, please be advised that I already know that I am a self-hating kapo suffering from Stockholm syndrome that should be thrown to the wolves. I’d like to think that I am recovering….
I think that the story of Israeli discrimination against Jerusalem Arabs has been clearly documented. A good place to start is Chesin, Melamed and Hutman: Separate And Unequal – The Inside Story of Israeli Rule in East Jerusalem. Cheshin and Melamed were the advisors on Arab affairs to Jerusalem mayors Kollek and Olmert for many years. Their story is corroborated by many reports by professional Israeli human rights researchers at ACRI, Bimkom, Ir Amim, B’tselem, as well as by many international human rights organizations. Below you’ll find links to some of these reports (in English, when possible).
If you think that this story isn’t true, I’m honestly interested in understanding why not. Do you think that all the human rights organizations are a-priori against us? I think that’s wrong, and the easy way out. But to be fair, you’ll find support for that position here (and I admit that they make a few good points).
For an overview of the status of Palestinians in Jerusalem that is shorter than Separate and Unequal (and free), look here.
I claimed: “To begin with, we have expropriated roughly one third of East Jerusalem, much of it privately owned by Arabs, for the benefit of the “public”. But on that land we built tens of thousands of housing units for Jews, and none for Arabs.
Many sources document this claim. For an overview, look here. For more detail (and references to many additional sources), look here (pg. 39-52) and here (pg. 13-15) . It’s clear from the referenced materials that the neighborhoods built on expropriated land, like Gilo and Pisgat Ze’ev, were intended for Jews and are in fact almost completely populated with Jews. The reasons that Arabs (with some exceptions) don’t live in Jewish areas are legal, cultural, political and economic. For more information on this last point, see here and here, but also here.
“We’ve also made it close to impossible for Arabs to build legally even on the land that we didn’t take from them. A variety of discriminatory practices, from refusing to authorize plans for Arab areas to authorizing plans that largely prohibit building, Arab Jerusalemites can rarely obtain building permits. And when they do receive them, they are allowed far less building than in Jewish areas.”
These claims are established here (pg. 52-61) and here (pg. 15-42). I am not arguing that all illegal building by Arabs is a result of legitimate need. Like Jews, some Arabs are just criminals or have other illegtimate motivations. For a report emphasizing this point, look here.*
“But get this: when Jews buy land in an Arab area, like Nof Tsion in Jabel Mukaber (near East Talpiot), then suddenly the rules change in that area, for the Jews. The Jewish compound receives authorization to build many new units, while the neighboring Arabs are stuck just like before.”
The example of Nof Tsion in the larger context of Jewish settlement in Arab areas of Jerusalem is discussed here (for more documentation, click on the reports in the side bar to the right of the introductory essay).
“But we go on to levy heavy fines, and even order home demolitions, destroying the lives of many Arab families.”
“A recent development in this area is truly Kafkaesque: the security fence has cut tens of thousands of Jerusalem Arabs off from the city. They receive almost no municipal services or police protection. And yet we continue to issue them fines and demolition orders for “illegal” building!”
Jerusalem mayor Nir Barkat has made some efforts in the right direction (and some in the wrong), but the overall picture has remained the same.
Corrections are marked with *.
I added the statement “(as well as political and cultural factors that are not Israel’s fault*)” to my description of illegal Arab building. The human rights reports upon which I’m basing my position (linked above) make it clear that in addition to policies intended to limit Arab building, there are also political and cultural factors that are not necessarily Israel’s fault. I don’t think that these factors reduce our responsibility for our human rights violations, but the new formulation is more balanced.
Based on helpful comments and links (to JCPA and CAMERA) by Max Samarov and Robin Stamler, I added a link to those materials in the notes on illegal building and clarified that my claim is not that all illegal Arab building is a result of legitimate need (see above).