Judaism that Devalues Arab Lives is no Longer Judaism*
By Steve Koppman
We’re all thankful for a truce in Gaza as long as it lasts. Five hundred children have been killed in the last few weeks. A similar number of Palestinians have been killed in this round as Israelis killed by Arab terrorism in the history of the State of Israel.
A traditional Jewish response to this would be: “He who destroys a human life is as if he had destroyed the whole world.”
My own rabbi said a few weeks ago in this forum he was “done apologizing” for Israel, in a view that seemed to articulate the position of what is sometimes called “the organized Jewish community.” He described Israel’s strikes on Gaza as “surgical” and “defensive” and said he was “done trying to apologetically explain Jewish morality.”
For five years in our synagogue like many others, a special prayer was made for Gil’ad Shalit — an Israeli soldier kidnapped by Hamas — every Shabbes. But never in my experience was there mention of the five to ten thousand Arabs held over that period in Israeli prisons, sometimes indefinitely, without trial or charge. What happens, I wondered, when our kids learn “the rest of the story”? What are we telling them? Only Jewish lives matter?
One of the Jewish Torah ‘s three commands to “love” is to love “the Other.”
A Judaism that treasures Jewish lives and devalues Arab lives is no longer Judaism.
The U.S. Jewish community has largely had its political identity hijacked by an influential minority, including many community leaders and rabbis, who see its essential role as advocating for Israel no matter what it does, bolstering U.S. government support and billions annually in U.S. aid. Though research has demonstrated most American Jews oppose Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians, the well-organized and vocal minority that supports them has commandeered our public and political identity.
This support is largely free of moral content. It’s what sociologists have called “amoral familism.” Israel’s actions are not subject to moral examination but presumed to define morality. Past crimes against us are forever used subliminally to justify new crimes by us. Israel’s insistence on”security” and more land trumps Arab people’s demand for basic rights and self-determination as it has for decades. The “organized community” and American aid help maintain Israeli intransigence against what’s seen as an uncaring and always at least potentially anti-Semitic world.
But blockade and occupation are recognized acts of war most of us would support resistance to anywhere else in the world. The West Bank has been occupied for almost 50 years, its residents subject to arbitrary arrest, control over movement, land seizure and home destruction. Nearly two million Gazans have been blockaded for more than seven years — malnourished, economy strangled, health ruined — in collective punishment.
Election of a Palestinian government was sabotaged by Israel’s refusal to deal with it and mass arrest of the winners. Israel likes to call itself the Middle East’s “only democracy” while effectively ruling nearly five million — and growing — unrepresented Palestinians.
It is unclear what choice Palestinians have beyond active resistance and meekly accepting permanent subjugation in their own land. The recent “Kerry Round” of failed peace talks made this newly clear.
Sadat went to Jerusalem. The Arab League accepted Israel. Remember the Oslo accords? But for Israel, it’s always as if it’s 1967. If not 1944.
But what about the children we actually blow apart in 2014? An Israeli child was killed last week. What if it were 500 Jewish children? American children?
Israel and its American supporters have long reversed the worldwide moral posture of the Jewish people, a disaster for American Judaism as we try to pass on an ethos radically compromised by the need to continually rationalize permanent oppression of another people by our own.
The synagogue is continually debased by regular prayers for the welfare and triumph of the occupying army, whose central mission has become subjugating Palestinians in perpetuity — policies few if any Jews would countenance practiced by any other state against any other people.
The founding event of the Jewish people was the greatest slave revolt in history. As a young Jew growing up in New York long ago, I knew every fight for freedom was mine. Jews supported human equality, the rights of all, with a reliability and enthusiasm that inspired people of other groups. What we looked down on most in our sub-culture was looking down on people.
Young Jews grow up today in a radically different world in which they are encouraged by the organized community to rationalize permanent suppression (and when they resist — “self-defense” killing) of Palestinian Arabs.
The “organized community” believes the explosion of intermarriage among non-Orthodox U.S. Jews from about 15% in 1967 — when Israel became a confirmed occupier — to over 70 percent today< is pure coincidence. But anyone who’s thought about it, or known young American Jews, knows better.
We are living through an effort to re-define Judaism into, “The belief system that supports the Israeli state,” that dishonors the Jewish message of freedom, hope and resistance to tyranny that echoes through history.
Confronting today’s Israel and demanding it change is not a rejection of Judaism but the most profound manifestation of it. Jews should not be fighting the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanction) movement that struggles to hold Israel accountable. We should be leading it. It is our people that are disgraced by Israel’s policies and the heartless, mindless cheerleading of AIPAC and its supporters.
The central narrative of the Old Testament is of a people freed from slavery that wins, then loses its land through losing touch with who it is, its ideals and its God, betting instead on the wrong deities and the wrong empires — in the language of the modern, the wrong values.
As the Maccabees, the Hebrew rebels against ancient Rome, the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto, all demeaned by oppressors as terrorists, said or would have said: Live with dignity or die trying.