Yom Kippur is a day dedicated to self-examination and soul-searching, but Israel’s supreme court has declared that forbidden, at least in regards to one deeply troubling issue.
This past Monday, the court heard yet another petition concerning the sale of Israeli weapons to the world’s cruelest countries. The current petition, filed back in January, focused on “defense” exports to the military junta in Burma (Myanmar). Burmese forces are responsible for a military campaign over the past month which has forced nearly half a million human beings, mostly women and children, to leave their homes and run for their lives in order to escape a retributive “scorched earth” policy against Rohingya militants which has included the brutal killing of children and babies, and mass rapes of young women. These crimes against the members of the Rohingya tribe, which have been called “a text-book example of ethnic cleansing” by the UN, are actually nothing new. This Muslim minority has faced systemic discrimination and defamation for decades, with a group of Harvard researchers coming to the conclusion in a 2014 report that the government is guilty of war crimes, and of crimes against humanity in their actions against them, and with a 2016 UN report coming to a similar conclusion.
The human rights situation in the country has led to a complete weapons embargo against the government by the EU and the United States, even after the election of Nobel Peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi led some countries to roll back economic sanctions. In Israel, on the other hand, there is ample evidence that weapons exports continue. Although there is a firm-bordering-on-the-absurd policy that Israel never confirms nor denies its weapons exports to any particular country, that didn’t prevent the Burmese military’s commander in chief, Min Aung Hlaing, from publicizing his tours of the Israeli military industry on his Facebook page, and mentioning his order of patrol/attack boats. An Israeli weapons export company, whose pride in their achievements was apparently greater than their awareness of delicate global politics, also publicized pictures on their website showing Burmese Special Forces being trained in the use of their CornerShot patent, which they note is “in use” in Myanmar (these details have since been removed from the website).
But in Monday’s Supreme court case, despite the clear evidence of Israeli involvement, on the one hand, and the clearly egregious human rights violations occurring in Burma, on the other hand, the state maintained its stubborn policy, refusing to relate publicly to the details of weapons exports to any specific state, and insisting that it will only share this information with the court in a confidential setting, behind closed doors. Behind those doors, the state then made the surprising, almost comical request that the entire case be made confidential, including the statements which had just been made in a public hearing, and reported in the press. Almost comical, because while officially denying that request, the court agreed that its final decision would be under a gag-order.
If the Ministry of Defense were able to prove that it no longer sells weapons to Myanmar (as some have tried to claim based on very partial reports of exports released by the Stockholm Peace Research Initiative), it is hard to understand the attempt to claim that publicizing this would cause harm to Israel’s security and diplomatic interests, as the state claims. Quite the opposite! More and more articles in the international press are highlighting Israel’s role in the ethnic cleansing of a Muslim minority, and are citing this as proof for the most damning claims against Israel’s treatment of its own minorities. Rebutting these accusations could only do good for Israel’s image in the world.
So it seems that the damage the state is concerned about would come from some kind of recognition of guilt, precisely what we are commanded to do during this period of the year as the first stage of repentance. If the court ruled either that weapons export licenses should be stopped, or that they can be maintained, this would constitute an official confirmation that Israel, indeed, allowed weapons to be sold up until now, despite human rights violations which have been ongoing for years. By placing its ruling under a gag-order, the Israeli Supreme court declares this admission of guilt forbidden, preventing the people of Israel from continuing with the next steps of repentance.
But of course, everyone knows that one can never ultimately succeed in hiding one’s sins, certainly not in the Facebook age. The state’s desperate attempts to do so conjure up absurd Orwellian and Soviet associations, and only make it all the more clear that there is something rotten being covered up. Thus, despite some critics’ claims that speaking out against Israel’s horrifying policies “gives” ammunition to those who attack the Jewish state, a diverse group of more than 50 leading rabbis and spiritual leaders sent a letter last week demanding Israel put an immediate stop to weapons exports to the country, and that it create legislation to ensure that such a grave violation of the vision and mission of the Jewish state will not be repeated. The group included such well known figures as Rabbi Benny Lau, Rabbi Shai Piron, Rabbi Michael Melchior, Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, Rabbi Meir Nehorai, and Rabbanit Rachel Keren.
Yom Kippur is upon us. The time has come for the Jewish people to join these leaders, and to demand of the Supreme court that it give us the right to fulfill our obligation to repent.