The discussion to date around the Amnesty report has largely ignored the well researched and almost entirely accurate facts, and is stuck on the use of the term “apartheid.” Particularly in the Jewish community, this is a non-starter, and people will unfortunately never come to grips with the report itself. That is precisely why I try to avoid using such terms. I have dedicated my life to working for an Israel living up to our highest Jewish values. The facts laid out in the report are a crucial guideline to what we must change in order to achieve that goal. I don’t want to get sidetracked by debates about a word, or by the differences between the definition of apartheid according to international law and our popular definition based on South African apartheid. The Amnesty logo is a candle surrounded by barbed wire, reflecting the belief of Amnesty founder Peter Benenson that “It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness.”
Coincidentally, or not, the report came out last week, when our Torah portion was Terumah, containing the command to build the seven branched Menorah for the Tabernacle. As I will discuss, Torah commentators believed that the light of the menorah is a light of morality. Better that we light the light of justice and morality, than curse the word “apartheid.”
We must all read this report as non-defensively as possible. As painful as it may be for those of us who love and identify with Israel, and aware as we are that some will gleefully exploit it to delegitimize Israel’s very existence, we who are committed to an Israel living up to our highest Jewish values cannot hide our heads in the sand. I myself have not yet read the section on international law’s definition of apartheid, or the concluding recommendations, but have skimmed through the heart of the report documenting Israel’s policies and actions. As somebody who has dealt professionally with most of the issues covered, I found very little to call into question factually.
It accurately documents efforts from the founding of Israel until today to ensure that Israeli Jews have more rights, freedoms, and access to land and resources than either non-Jewish Israeli citizens or Palestinians in the Occupied Territories. Both inside Israel and in the Occupied Territories Israel’s laws and legal system are intentionally designed to dispossess non-Jews and concentrate where they are to live. Entire villages existing before the State are not recognized as existing, and subject to ongoing efforts to eliminate them, not to mention that they do not even have the right to natural growth. We must work through our pain, anger, embarrassment, disbelief and defensiveness, and redouble our efforts on behalf of the Israel we believe in. As the report points out, a just and moral Israel is what we aspired to in our Declaration of Independence. Israel “Will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or gender…”
Whatever we think of the apartheid label, we should all agree that the proper response to the facts presented is to change them in accordance with our dreams and values, not to ignore or deny them.
Although some will use it in this way, the report is not intended to deny Israel’s right to exist. Amnesty states at the outset:
“Amnesty International recognizes that Jews, like Palestinians, claim a right to self-determination, and does not challenge Israel’s desire to be a home for Jews. Similarly, it does not consider that Israel labelling itself a “Jewish state” in itself indicates an intention to oppress and dominate.
However, Amnesty International’s report shows that successive Israeli governments have considered Palestinians a demographic threat, and imposed measures to control and decrease their presence and access to land in Israel and the OPT. These demographic aims are well illustrated by official plans to “Judaize” areas of Israel and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, which continue to put thousands of Palestinians at risk of forcible transfer.”
Yes, there were some facts that I also need to investigate further. I was under the impression that the ongoing use of torture has been more restricted since the 1999 High Court decision than the report indicates. It certainly exists. The Israeli High Court even threw out some of the evidence against the nevertheless convicted Jewish terrorist Amiram Ben Hillel for the firebombing murder of a Palestinian family, because it was obtained through torture. I am not sure that I would define the number of Palestinians killed because of overly lenient rules of engagement as intentional and systematic killings. However, whether I am correct or not on those issues, the report generally and sadly reflects our reality, both regarding the Occupied Territories and inside Israel.
Arguably, the report concentrates on the negative, and mostly ignores what is positive in terms of the situation inside Israel proper. However, the same would be true in terms of other Amnesty reports, including the shorter annual reports on the Palestinians. This approach doesn’t make it anti-Semitic, as some have charged.
The branches of Menorah we are to create for the Tabernacle, are to be “so mounted as to give the light on its front side” (Exodus 25:37). The medieval Biblical commentator Sforno (1475-1550) writes:
“This means that the lights on both the right of the center shaft and those on the left were to be arranged so that the respective flames would focus in the direction of the middle. There ought to be the intellectual light of knowledge, and also the practical light of deeds, that should together point to the upper light to serve God… This is what we also learn about the Menorah in Numbers 8:2-4. Seeing as all the lights are focused into one in the Menorah which is all of one piece in order to teach unity, we will see light because it emanates from the great light.”
Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch (1808-1888) continues with this theme, writing even more explicitly that the purpose of our intellect is to unite with the spiritual, so that we practice good and morality. The Menorah is made of unchanging metal, but in the form of a constantly developing tree, symbolizing the unchanging need for spiritual growth. On both the individual and the national level, the light represents the spirit that is “the force that is the impetus for moral intent and moral action.” Intellect and action must always be united, “Our intellect rouses us to action.” Six branches emanate from the middle branch, representing God, and their light returns to unite with and serve God’s Light. The fact that the Menorah was to be made of gold, but other metals could be used if gold was not available, teaches that even with all our imperfections as individuals and as a people, and even when external conditions are not favorable, we must do the best we can to remain true to our commanded mission, “Even in times of distress, of “copper and iron”(Deuteronomy 28:23), Israel must remain dedicated to the spiritual mission that it is commanded to fulfil.” Just as each shaft represents a developing branch with a light at the top, we must seek to live our lives growing towards the light. The light is both the Source of development and life and joy and spiritual growth, and what we strive to achieve and serve.
The Amnesty candle also represents the hope created when we unite to shine light wherever it is needed. The Menorah teaches us that the short term pain caused by what the light reveals can and must help us grow and develop, leading us to the joy of moral action in the service of God and those created in God’s Image.
Last week we were commanded to build the Menorah. Three Torah portions later we will create it. May it be so in our day as well.