The first time I landed in Israel in 1993, an unexpected feeling swept over me: I felt at home. Although I had never been anywhere near the Middle East, the knowledge that I was not an exception in the crowd, but was surrounded by fellow Jews made a strange place comfortable. I didn’t wonder how people felt about Jews or what they would think of my unusually scattered family history. I didn’t have to explain myself, I could just be myself. I didn’t look Jewish, I looked like I belonged.
That feeling is gone. On my most recent visit to Israel in 2015, I spent time with Palestinians on the West Bank and learned about their treatment by the Israeli government. I have been reading about the most recent Israeli policies. I am deeply distressed about what official Israel now stands for.
In the past few months, encouraged by the election of Donald Trump, the Israeli government under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has moved to significantly expand Jewish settlement on Palestinian land. Netanyahu’s government is pushing for the first new settlement in over 20 years, as well as approving many illegal settlements that had pushed beyond the borders of existing settlements. Even Trump, who proclaimed himself a great friend of the current right-wing government, advised Netanyahu in February against expanding settlements. This appears to have had as little effect as the UN resolutions condemning settlements as against international law.
The Israeli government has become more active in limiting the rights of those who criticize its actions on the West Bank. In February, an investigator from Human Rights Watch was prevented from entering Israel. Human Rights Watch has been critical of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, but also of the human rights record of the Palestinian Authority.
Breaking the Silence is an organization of Israeli military veterans who are critical of military actions in the occupied territories. By publishing soldiers’ testimonies, the organization seeks to inform Israelis about “abuse towards Palestinians, looting, and destruction of property”. Netanyahu has attacked Breaking the Silence as not supportive of the battle against terror. After some less formal attempts to keep members of Breaking the Silence from speaking in schools, the government now supports a law banning them from educational institutions.
The Education Minister issued new guidelines to schools about invited speakers, which includes this language: “Entry is forbidden to external groups and speakers whose ... discourse harms the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. Moreover, entry will be forbidden to speakers ... whose activities undermine the legitimacy of state bodies (such as the Israel Defense Forces and the courts).” That language could be applied to any critics of the military occupation, and is directed especially at Breaking the Silence. Someone who says that Israel’s policies are undemocratic could be barred from schools.
In early March, the Israeli legislature, the Knesset, passed a law which bars foreigners who support a political boycott of Israel from entering the country. The idea of boycotting Israel because of its occupation of Palestinian land and its treatment of Palestinians has spread in recent years across the world. Called BDS for boycott, divestment, sanctions, the movement, begun in 2005, “works to end international support for Israel's oppression of Palestinians and pressure Israel to comply with international law.” The new law applies not only to foreign nationals who have made public statements in support of such a boycott, but also to those who work for an organization which advocates the boycott. It applies to those who advocate a boycott of products produced in any Israeli-controlled territory. That broad definition includes the World Council of Churches, which urges only for a boycott of goods produced in the settlements.
I do not support BDS. While I believe that boycotting an entire nation because of its politics can be justified, as was true for the apartheid regime in South Africa in the 1980s, I do not think that Israeli policies have reached that level. That is my personal political judgment. But if I decide to sign one of the many calls to support BDS which I have seen, I could be barred from entering Israel.
I recognize that both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unreasonably try to coerce support and punish opinions they don’t like. Last week, Eddie Izzard, a British comedian who ran 27 marathons in 27 days in 2016 in tribute to Nelson Mandela’s 27 years in prison, was rejected by the organizers of the Palestine Marathon because he performed in Tel Aviv the day before.
One of Israel’s major arguments against those who are critical of these policies is that it is better than its neighbors. That may be true, but it’s not enough for me. No matter how badly a nation behaves, it can always point to another nation as worse. There is nothing new about any of the policies I discuss here. There is no bright red line which a nation obviously crosses on its way from democracy to repression.
But I have read too much and seen too much myself on the West Bank. That feeling of coming home in Israel in 1993 was delicious. It’s gone. Israel cannot be a home for me as long as the Israeli state practices discrimination, censorship and occupation.
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, April 4, 2017