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Israel’s 50-Year Occupation Is Challenging Judaism’s Moral Integrity

Allan C. Brownfeld
Fall 2017

As the world marks 50 years of Israeli control of the West Bank and East  
Jerusalem and the construction of settlements housing approximately 700,000  
Israelis in violation of international law, many believe that the Israeli  
government intends that the occupation be permanent.  
On August 28, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attended an event  
celebrating the settlements deep in the West Bank. He assured Israelis that  
Jews are never leaving the area that was meant to be a Palestinian state.  
According to Ynet, Netanyahu declared: “This is the inheritance of our  
forefathers. This is our country. We came back here to stay forever. There  
will be no more uprooting of settlements in the Land of Israel.”  
It is clear that Israel’s current government has abandoned any effort to  
achieve a two-state solution. In a column entitled “Netanyahu’s No-State  
Solution Marches On,” columnist Roger Cohen writes in The New York Times  
(Sept. 9, 2017) : “Members of Netanyahu’s right-wing government outdo each  
other with obscene schemes for annexation of large areas of the West Bank,  
or the expulsion of Arabs from Israel proper. Attacks multiply on a free  
press, and pro-peace nongovernmental organizations and the ‘left’ in  
general. The Knesset voted this year to legalize settlement outposts on  
private Palestinian land in what was called the application of Israeli  
sovereignty … The no-state solution advances. This is unsurprising. No  
democracy can be immune to the damage that comes from running an  
undemocratic system of oppression for a half-century in territory under its  
control. Israel was conceived as a state of laws. It is not. It betrays its  
1948 founding charter.”  
Peace Process Ended with a Whimper  
Geoffrey Aronson, a scholar at the Middle East Institute, believes that the  
Middle East peace process “ended with a whimper in 2014. Today, there is  
less interest in a solution … than at any time since Israel’s creation  
almost 70 years ago … During the golden years after the Oslo agreement in  
1993, diplomats and politicians alike contented themselves with the lazy  
analytical argument that the parameters of a deal were self-evident. Since  
‘we all know what the endgame looks like,’ the goal was simply to establish  
a mechanism that would produce a peace treaty … conditioned by an agreed  
upon Israeli withdrawal from most (and as time passed, decreasing  
percentage) of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.”  
In Aronson’s view, “Such silliness passed for statecraft during the Bush and  
Obama years, and empowered a more determined and hard-headed set of  
diplomatic priorities. Donald Trump’s sympathies on Palestine are clearly  
with Israel’s revisionist right-wing. He and his aides have little idea and  
even less interest about how to approach — let alone solve — the conflict.  
As a consequence, Netanyahu has abandoned any pretense of interest in or  
commitment to the evacuation of West Bank territory in order to make room  
for the creation of a Palestinian state … Israel’s longest serving prime  
minister has resurrected an old-fashioned orientalist view of Israel’s  
international role as the long, militant, if civilizing, arm of the West. At  
the American ambassador’s residence in celebration of the 4th of July,  
Netanyahu declared: ‘Israel is also an aircraft carrier. It’s an aircraft  
carrier for Western civilization; for the civilization of freedom.’  
Netanyahu is not the first to declare such sympathies. His predecessor Ehud  
Barak famously described Israel as ‘a villa in the jungle.’ … Greater Israel  
as a valued defender and enforcer of the West … pushes the prospect of  
consequential Israeli territorial concessions in the West Bank off the  
In September, at a right-wing conference featuring members of the Knesset  
from the ruling government coalition, a plan was set forth to deprive  
Palestinians living in the West Bank of any political rights. According to  
Mondoweiss (Sept. 14, 2017), Bezalel Smotrich, an MK from the Jewish Home  
party, presented “The Decision Plan” to the conference: “It lays out a way  
for Israel to annex Palestinian territory and to coerce the population to  
live under Apartheid, explicitly relinquishing ‘national aspirations’ or be  
Two Options for Palestinians  
Under this plan, Palestinians would be given two options:  
(1) “Anyone who is willing and able to relinquish the fulfillment of  
his national aspirations will be able to stay here and live as an individual  
in the Jewish state.”  
(2)”Anyone who is unwilling or unable to relinquish his national  
aspirations will receive assistance from us to emigrate to one of the Arab  
Haaretz correspondent Yotam Berger called this a “surrender-or-transfer  
ultimatum.” Earlier, Smotrich set forth his ideas in the Knesset. Writing in  
a +p972 Magazine article entitled “The Right’s Plan to beat Palestinians in  
submission,” Samah Salaime reported that, “It’s as racist as you think.”  
Open declarations of racism are increasing in Israel. Following reports that  
there is a de facto policy of racial segregation in maternity wards,  
Smotrich tweeted, “It’s natural that my wife wouldn’t want to lie down (in a  
bed) next to a woman who just gave birth to a baby who might want to murder  
her baby twenty years from now.” His wife Revital supported his view and  
told Israel’s Channel 10 that she had “kicked an Arab obstetrician out of  
the delivery room. I want Jewish hands to touch my baby, and I wasn’t  
comfortable lying in the same room with an Arab woman. I refuse to have an  
Arab midwife, because for me giving birth is a Jewish and pure moment.”  
Contempt for Palestinians  
Contempt for Palestinians and their rights is regularly expressed by those  
currently in power in Israel. Israel’s top diplomat, Deputy Foreign Minister  
Tzipi Hotavely (Likud), in her inauguration speech in May 2015, declared,  
“The land is ours. All of it is ours. We did not come here to apologize for  
that.” Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked (Jewish Home), stated that, “Zionism  
should not continue, and I say here it will not continue, to bow down to the  
system of individual rights interpreted in a universal way.”  
Haaretz (Sept. 10, 2017) columnist Roger Alpher published an article,  
“Israeli Minister Shaked Takes After Mussolini.” He wrote that she was  
literally a fascist, referring to a speech where Shaked said, “Zionism  
should not continue, and I say here, it will not continue to bow down to the  
system of individual rights …” In Alpher’s view, the minister’s announcement  
of a “moral and political revolution” aimed at strengthening national  
principles at the expense of universal individual rights was comparable to  
Mussolini’s “doctrine of fascism.” He cited Mussolini’s “revolutionary  
negation” of individualism and liberalism, in which the nation “was a  
superior, super-personal reality … a moral law, a tradition, a mission  
binding together generations past, present and future and all the  
Another Haaretz journalist, Gideon Levy, thanked Shaked for “telling the  
truth” and for “speaking honestly.” And that truth, Levy declared, is that,  
“Zionism contradicts human rights and thus is, indeed, an ultranationalist,  
colonialist and perhaps racist movement.” He notes that, “Zionism is  
Israel’s fundamentalist religion, its denial is prohibited in Israel. ‘Non-  
Zionist’ or ‘anti-Zionist’ aren’t insults, they are social expulsion orders.  
There’s nothing like it in any free society. But now that Shaked has exposed  
Zionism, put her hand to the flame and admitted the truth, we can finally  
think about Zionism more freely. We can admit that the Jews’ right to a  
state contradicted the Palestinians’ right to their land and that righteous  
Zionists gave birth to a terrible national wrong that has never been  
righted: that there are ways to resolve and atone for this contradiction ,  
but the Zionist Israelis won’t agree to them.”  
Minister of Education Naftali Bennett (Jewish Home) compared Palestinians to  
“shrapnel in the butt” and boasted of having killed “many Arabs.” Upon  
Donald Trump’s election, he said that, “The era of the Palestinian state is  
over.” He coined the term “auto anti-Semitism,” referring to Jews who  
express concern for the rights of Palestinians.  
Zionists Want the Land, But Not the People  
Commentator Jonathan Ofir points out that, “Zionists want the land, but not  
the people. The whole point is to get rid of whatever is left of Palestine  
by annexing it. The only problem is what to do with the Palestinian  
population.” He cites a statement from the late Israeli Minister and Chief  
of Staff Rafael Eitan, “When we have settled the land, all the Arabs will be  
able to do about it will be to scurry around like drugged cockroaches in a  
While Israeli settlers enjoy protection from the Israeli army and subsidies  
from the government, Israel keeps 3 million indigenous Palestinians in the  
West Bank under military rule with restrictions imposed on nearly every  
aspect of their lives. While Palestinians live under military law and cannot  
vote, settlers have the full rights of Israeli citizenship.  
Dan Ephron, author of Killing a King: The Assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and  
the Remaking of Israel, describes it this way: “… it includes separate legal  
systems — Israeli law for settlers and much harsher military law for  
Palestinians — and separate courts that mete out wildly unequal penalties …  
On Israel’s Independence Day in May, the government’s Central Bureau of  
Statistics published a report with updated population figures … A map in the  
report depicted the West Bank as just one more region of Israel, labeling it  
‘Judea and Samaria District.’ The population figure, 8.68 million, included  
settlers who live in the West Bank. But it left out their neighbors, the  
The Israeli government is promoting the idea that the occupied territories  
are really part of Israel. The Green Line, the border which separates Israel  
proper from the occupied areas, no longer appears on schoolbook maps or  
newspaper weather charts. In an article, “How Israel Won the War and  
Defeated the Palestinian Dream,” Newsweek (Aug. 29, 2017) writes: “By many  
estimates, Palestinians are now the majority between the river and the sea.  
A civil rights struggle would have unmistakable echoes of the fight against  
apartheid. And a single state would likely never have a Jewish majority — an  
argument the Israeli center-left uses to push for a two-state solution …  
Liberal American rabbis who visit Jerusalem fret openly that their younger  
congregants no longer feel an attachment to Israel the way their parents  
Subjugation of Palestinians  
The Economist (May 20, 2017) declares: “… the never-ending subjugation of  
Palestinians will erode Israel’s standing abroad and erode its democracy at  
home. Its politics are turning towards ethno-religious chauvinism … The  
government objected even to a novel about a Jewish-Arab love affair … To  
save democracy and prevent a slide to racism or even apartheid, it has to  
give up the occupied lands.”  
Israel’s abandonment of the two-state solution, argues Daniel Levy in The  
National Interest, leaves the field to those who advocate a single state,  
some of whom call for the expulsion of Palestinians, and others who seek  
equal rights for Palestinians: “If the logical endgame of the Netanyahu  
paradigm is expulsion, then the logical alternative to partition will be  
equality. National liberation may be a hard sell in the 21st century.  
Equality over expulsion not so much. The damage Netanyahu has done to the  
partition paradigm is increasingly irreversible.”  
It is Levy’s view that Netanyahu could not have solidified the occupation  
and destroyed the two-state solution without establishment American Jewish  
organizations supporting him: “The very fact that these supposedly most  
liberal of Jewish communal groups have gone to the mats on narrow parochial  
concerns while failing to speak out on the ongoing denial of the most basic  
rights of the Palestinians can be notched as another win for Netanyahu.”  
In June, Israel’s government backtracked on a decision to create a space at  
the Western Wall in Jerusalem where men and women could pray together and  
non-Orthodox rituals could be practiced. American Jewish leaders expressed  
outrage. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said:  
“We are not going to accept this. It is so insulting. I know there will be a  
series of responses. The decision delegitimizes the overwhelming majority of  
Jews on the planet.” Jane Eisner, editor of The Forward, wrote: “Netanyahu  
has turned his back on pluralistic Jews and that fundamentally changes the  
relationship between Israelis and the Diaspora.”  
Blind Support for Israeli Policies  
Eisner admits that the Jewish establishment has almost blindly supported  
Israeli policies and only laments that Israel has reneged on establishing  
religious freedom for non-Orthodox Jews in return: “Israel asked Diaspora  
Jews to ignore the half-century occupation of the Palestinians, to spend  
millions trying to defeat the Iran nuclear deal, to lobby for billions of  
American taxpayer dollars for Israel’s military and to send more billions of  
dollars its way to pay for every sort of charitable fund imaginable. And in  
return, the American Jewish leadership … asked that non-Orthodox Jews be  
recognized as Jews, too …”  
More than 600 Conservative rabbis wrote a letter to Prime Minister Netanyahu  
expressing “dismay, anger and a sense of betrayal” over the official  
discrimination against non-Orthodox Jews. The letter speaks of Israel being  
a democracy, but only for Jews: “The time has come for Israel to embrace  
Jewish pluralism as a positive value to ensure the Jewishness of the Jewish  
state and its democratic values.”  
According to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the letter was delivered to the  
Israeli Consul in New York, Dani Dayan, by two Conservative rabbis. It said,  
in part, “The status quo is no longer tenable or tolerable.” Mondoweiss  
(Sept. 13, 2017) provided this assessment: “Usually those words, ‘the status  
quo is untenable,’ refer to Israel’s occupation and treatment of  
Palestinians. Not for these rabbis. They promise to continue to talk up  
Israel from their pulpits but, ‘We will speak about Israel as an ideal as  
portrayed in our liturgy and as reality. We will encourage our community to  
purchase Israel bonds, to visit, to make Aliyah.’ This letter is a reminder  
of how four-square the American Jewish establishment stands with Zionism and  
has for 80 years, and the double standard on human rights for Jews and non-  
Jews that is today obvious to anyone who considers the American Jewish  
stance towards Israel.”  
Moral Integrity In Question  
Judaism’s moral integrity is called into question by the outrage expressed  
by the Jewish establishment at Israel’s denial of equal rights to non-  
Orthodox Jews, but total silence when it comes to the treatment of the  
Palestinians and Israel’s 50-year occupation.  
Rabbi Brant Rosen, who serves Tedek Chicago Congregation and also serves as  
Midwest Regional Director of the American Friends Service Committee, wrote  
an article in The Forward (July 2, 2017) with the headline, “The Real Wall  
Problem: When Will Diaspora Jews Fight for Palestinians?”  
Rabbi Rosen notes that, “While Israel’s oppressive occupation now marks its  
50th year and the cause of a just peace remains more remote than ever, our  
Jewish leaders are still more concerned about the rights of Jews than the  
rights of all who live in the land … We will willingly violate our own  
values for you. Just give liberal Jews rights and we’ll remain silent on  
your unchecked militarism and oppression of the Palestinian people. The  
silence is all the more egregious given the humanitarian crisis Israel is  
currently inflicting on the people of Gaza. Now, 11 years into its crushing  
blockade, the government announced this past month that it would start  
cutting electricity to the Gaza Strip, a move that could cause 21-hour  
blackouts just as the heat of the summer is gearing up. Surgeries have  
already been canceled … Medical equipment is rapidly degrading due to  
constant fluctuations in electrical currents. The effect of the Israeli  
blockade upon children is particularly tragic.”  
He concludes: “Almost 50% of Gaza’s population is 14 or younger. According  
to UNICEF, the 2014 war took a heavy toll on children: ‘More than 500 were  
killed, 3,374 were injured … nearly one third of whom suffered permanent  
disability, and more than 1,500 were orphaned. Hundreds of thousands were  
left in trauma.’ I can’t help but ask: where is the moral outrage in liberal  
Jewish establishments over these cruel human abuses? While I certainly  
believe in the cause of religious freedom, I find it stunning that so many  
liberal-minded members of the Jewish community are more concerned with  
Jewish rights in a Jewish state than the basic human rights of non-Jewish  
children who live under its control. Such are the sorrows of Jewish  
political nationalism — even the more ‘liberal’ among us seem only to be  
able to express their tolerance selectively.”  
Violation of Jewish Moral and Ethical Values  
While establishment Jewish leaders and organizations remain silent about  
Israel’s occupation and the treatment of Palestinians, more and more Jewish  
voices are heard challenging what they believe are serious violations not  
only of human rights and international law but of Jewish moral and ethical  
values. These range from J Street to T’ruah to Jewish Voice for Peace to  
IfNotNow and a host of others.  
Writing in Tikkun (May 16, 2017), Rabbi Michael Lerner states that, “I now  
believe that the best way to reach a two-state solution is to advocate for a  
short term solution: inclusion of all of the Palestinian people inside the  
West Bank and Gaza in the democratic process of those who rule over them.  
Simply put: one person, one vote … If Israel is not prepared to end the  
blockade of Gaza and help Palestinians create an economically and  
politically viable state of their own, then it must give all Palestinians a  
vote in the Knesset elections, since de facto all Palestinians are living  
under the control of the Israeli state … Although we claim to be for  
democracy, we are supporting the denial of democracy for the Palestinian  
Beyond this, Lerner calls upon Israel to, “End the occupation and the daily  
violence against Palestinians that is an intrinsic part of almost every  
attempt by one nation to dominate another by force. Acknowledge Israel’s  
role in creating the Palestinian refugee problem … Stop calling Israel a  
‘democracy’ when it rules over two million Palestinian and does not give  
them the right to vote in Israeli elections or otherwise participate in  
shaping the decisions that impact their lives. Stop the building of illegal  
Jewish settlements on Palestinian land and stop the displacement of any more  
Palestinians. Accept the validity of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334  
which ‘reaffirms that the establishment by Israel of settlements in  
Palestinian territory occupied since 1967, including East Jerusalem, has no  
legal validity and constitutes a flagrant violation under international law  
and a major obstacle to the achievement of a two-state solution and a just,  
lasting and comprehensive peace.’”  
Voices of Jewish Dismay Are Growing  
The voices of Jewish dismay with Israel’s continuing violation of Jewish  
moral values is growing. It can be seen in the pages of Kingdom of Olives  
and Ash, an anthology about the occupation edited by husband and wife Jewish  
novelists Ayelet Waldman and Michael Chabon. It has been rendered in the  
film Norman, and in the plays Oslo, If I Forget, and To The End of the Land.  
Samuel G. Freedman, a contributing editor of the Forward, notes that, “Every  
one of these works shares a common aesthetic: a profound melancholy, an  
arching regret, at the peacemaking chances missed. That moment comes at the  
end of Joseph Cedar’s Norman when, in a kind of dreamy, fantasized  
sequence, the character of a politician clearly based on Ehud Olmert strikes  
a peace deal with the Palestinians and is awarded what seems to be a Nobel  
Prize. In Steven Levenson’s If I Forget, an American Jewish family in the  
early 2000s argues our Middle East politics in the depressed hangover from  
the failure of the peace process. Levenson dared to make a sympathetic  
character — not uncomplicated, but sympathetic — out of an anti-Zionist  
professor seemingly based in Norman Finkelstein.”  
Marcel Ophuls, now 89, is the French Jewish film-maker best known for The  
Sorrow and the Pity, his nearly 5-hour 1969 examination of Nazi  
collaboration in France. Ophuls has always been concerned by the question of  
how ordinary people succumb to madness. For him, that question remains as  
urgent in 2017 as it was in 1933, the year Hitler came to power. His latest  
project is a film about Israel and Gaza, tentatively titled Let My People  
Go. As he puts it, “The thought of Jews bombarding what in my mind is  
nothing more than a huge concentration camp seems to me unbelievable — and  
that is Gaza.”  
Richard Falk, professor emeritus on international law at Princeton who, in  
2008, was appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council, to a 6-year term as  
U.N. Special Rapporter on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian  
territories occupied since 1967,” points out that the peace process has come  
to an end. Dr. Falk, who is Jewish, points out that, “Israeli internal  
politics have been drifting further and further to the right and seem on the  
verge of producing a consensus that will favor a unilaterally imposed  
solution that will leave Palestinians squeezed either into barren Bantustans  
on the West Bank or incorporated into an Israeli one-state solution, in  
which the best that they can hope for is to be treated decently as second-  
class citizens in a self-proclaimed Israeli democracy. Beyond this, even  
these diminished democratic elements in the Israeli reality would be  
threatened by the prospects of a Palestinian majority, leading many  
prominent Israelis to throw their democratic pretensions under the bus of  
ethnic privilege.”  
“Jewish Selfishness”  
Israel is “a failure,” the Zionist dream has “curdled into Jewish  
selfishness,” states Rabbi David Gordis, a former executive at the American  
Jewish Committee, former president of Hebrew College and a former Vice  
President of the Jewish Theological Seminary. “After a life and career  
devoted to the Jewish community and to Israel, I conclude that in every  
important way, Israel has failed to realize its promise for me … Israel is  
distorted by a fanatic, obscurantist and fundamentalist religion which  
encourages the worst behavior rather than the best.”  
Rabbi Gordis, now a Senior Scholar at the State University of New York at  
Albany, argues that Israel’s 50-year occupation violates basic Jewish  
values: “Present day Israel has discarded the rational, the universal, and  
the visionary. These values have been subordinated to cruel and oppressive  
occupation … Most depressing of all, is that I see no way out, no way  
forward which will reverse the current reality. Right wing control in Israel  
is stronger and more entrenched than ever. The establishment leadership in  
the American Jewish community is silent in the face of this dismal situation  
… Israel has failed to realize its promise for me. A noble experiment, but a  
Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev decries “the deafening silence of most  
American Jews in response to the waves of chauvinistic anti-democratic  
legislation and incitement in which Israel is increasingly drowning. The  
authoritarian campaign includes legislative assaults on free speech,  
incitement against dissenters, the withholding of government funds for  
regulatory measures against and greater government control over television  
and other media, compulsory changes to school curricula, reinforced Orthodox  
hegemony over religious affairs, and repeated attacks on the Arab minority.”  
While Israel proclaims itself a “Jewish state,” more and more Jewish voices  
are being heard in Israel, the U.S. and throughout the world saying that its  
treatment of Palestinians violates Judaism’s humane ethical tradition. Prof.  
David Shulman of Hebrew University declared: “No matter how we look at it,  
unless our minds have been poisoned by the ideologies of the religious  
right, the occupation is a crime. It is first of all based on the permanent  
disenfranchisement of a huge population … in the end, it is the ongoing  
moral failure of the country as a whole that is most consequential, most  
dangerous, and most unacceptable. This failure weighs … heavily on our  
humanity. We are, so we claim, the children of the prophets. Once, they say,  
we were slaves in Egypt. We know all that can be known about slavery,  
suffering, prejudice, ghettos, hate, expulsion, exile. I find it astonishing  
that we, of all people, have reinvented apartheid in the West Bank.”  
What It Means To Be Jewish  
Speaking to the J Street annual conference in Washington in February, 2017,  
Tony Klug, a special adviser on the Middle East at the Oxford Research  
Group, said that support for Israel’s “never-ending” occupation is changing  
the nature of what it means to be Jewish. “We used to be people devoted to  
justice,” he said. “Now we have become enablers of Israel’s injustices.”  
Klug told J Street that, “If Israel does not end the occupation sharply, and  
if organized Jewish opinion in other countries appears openly to back it,  
there will indeed almost certainly be a further surge in anti-Jewish  
sentiment … Israel’s never-ending occupation of the land and lives of  
another people, is not just seriously endangering Israel, not to mention  
deepening the despair of the Palestinians. But it is also making the  
situation of the Jews around the world increasingly precarious … Time  
honored Jewish ideals — justice, freedom, equality, peace, mutual respect —  
have made an extraordinary contribution to human civilization. They lie at  
the very heart of Jewish identity … We now face the major reality of a state  
that describes itself loudly and often to be Jewish as … withholding  
fundamental human rights from millions of people indefinitely. A standpoint  
that is in total defiance of quintessential Jewish principles … When all is  
said and done, the bottom line is that the conflict with the Palestinians  
has dominated and distorted the Jewish world for too long. It is time to  
bring it to an end and stop the infamy of a half century of military  
occupation of another people and allow us all to get back to the business of  
being ourselves.”  
If American Jewish organizations persist in embracing Israel’s 50-year  
occupation and in promoting the Zionist idea of Jewish “ethnicity,” rather  
than Judaism’s genuine essence as a universal, prophetic religion, and if  
they continue to make Israel rather than God and the moral values set forth  
by the Prophets “central” to their idea of Jewish identity, their future  
seems precarious at best. Judaism’s moral integrity is under attack. Let us  
hope that its defenders will prevail. •

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© 2010 The American Council For Judaism.