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Hungry for change: A new issue for new elections

It is my moral responsibility as a citizen in a democratic country that sells weapons to mass murderers like Burma

On Sunday, beginning with a protest in Jerusalem on Jerusalem day, I joined Elie Joseph’s ongoing hunger strike to protest Israeli weapons sales to murderous regimes. It’s the most important issue of the coming elections you’ve never heard of and no one talks about. Let me try to explain why.

This isn’t a step I take lightly. I am a father of 5 young children. And I like to eat. But for too long, I have lived in dissonance between the severity of this problem, and my reaction to it. And now that I have a window of opportunity in my life to respond in a way that is more proportional (though actually, still insufficient), I feel compelled to take advantage of it.

“If things are really as bad as you say they are,” said a friend to me a number of months ago, “then you should be out in the streets, you should be doing everything in your power to stop it.” He was absolutely right, except for one thing. It’s probably not as bad as I say. It’s probably far worse. What I have learned in the last three years of activism about Israeli weapons sales to murderous regimes is horrifying, and because of Israel’s official policy of zero transparency regarding weapons exports, it may just be the tip of the iceberg.

One example from yesterday. While officially, Israel claims that it stopped selling weapons to the Burmese government, which is still in the process of committing what the UN called “a textbook case of ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya minority, a delegation from the Burmese military was seen yesterday at the main Israeli weapons exposition of the year, in Tel Aviv, and their interest didn’t seem purely theoretical. Even the official denial of weapons sales to the country only came months after the genocide started in earnest, in August of 2017, and years after reports of gross human rights violations.

The United States Holocaust Museum’s Genocide Watch project released a report in May 2015 with the following conclusion: “We left Burma deeply concerned that so many preconditions for genocide are already in place…the Rohingya may once again become the target of mass atrocities, including genocide.” But this didn’t stop Israel from hosting Senior General Min Aung Hiang for an official visit that included meetings with President Rivlin, and tours of Israeli weapons factories.

Apparently, the Holocaust Museum knew a thing or two about the early warning signs of genocide, for indeed, after a test balloon operation in October 2016 in which they killed hundreds of Rohingya and were met with indifference, the Burmese military embarked on a campaign whose explicit goal was to “cleanse” the country of the Rohingya, burning down hundreds of villages, and forcing 80% of the population of the Rohingya to flee their homes and seek refuge. Modest estimates put the death toll over 10,000 in a month long operation.

So I look in the mirror and I ask myself a simple question. What is the moral responsibility of a citizen in a democratic country in which it is legal, and even encouraged, to sell weapons to mass murderers? The blessing, and the responsibility, of living in a democracy is the people’s ability to influence policy. The flipside of that responsibility is that, if there is a policy in place for which the people do not demand change, they are implicated and responsible for it. Three years of activism on this topic- of studying the evidence, and speaking with politicians and with senior officials in the security establishment- have convinced me that there is only one thing that can possibly begin to change this situation, and that is massive public pressure on the government to pass a law, along the lines of similar laws that exist in the United States and the European Union, which will forbid weapons sales to human rights violators.

The unexpected return of election season is an opportunity that must not be missed. Israeli support and training of human rights violators is the most acute test of the question that lies at the very core of this election season. Will this country by guided, first and foremost, by moral vision, or will realpolitik trump moral considerations at every turn? Who can be bothered by a little corruption, or a lot of corruption, or the manipulation of the press, or the undermining of the justice system, if our safety is at stake? If realpolitik can justify support of genocide abroad, we must not be surprised when it is enlisted to justify lesser moral ills at home, all in the interest of safety and security.

I don’t know how long my hunger strike will last. I’ve never done this before. I’m basically just a regular guy, with a family, a job, and the desire not to wake up every morning as an enabler of human rights violators, and not to allow myself to go on as if it’s “business as usual” as long as that is the case. But I don’t expect, or need, masses of people to join us in this hunger strike for that to change (though that would be encouraging and powerful). All we need is for every citizen of this country who resonates with that simple desire, and I firmly believe that is most of us, to make a straightforward demand of the political party they plan on voting for. Make legislation on this issue one of your basic conditions for entering the government.

I’m hungry for change. Do you care?

About the Author
Avidan Freedman is the rabbi of the Shalom Hartman Institute's Hevruta program, an educator Hartman Boys High School in Jerusalem, and an activist against Israeli weapons sales to human rights violators.