Jewish Values, Human Rights and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

by Maskil on 26 Aug 2008

Jewish Rabbis And Foreign Volunteers Protect Palestinian Olive Harvest

Last week I attended a talk by Rabbi Brian Walt (Rabbis for Human Rights – North America (RHR-NA)) on the subject of Jewish Values, Human Rights and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

This is not intended to be a comprehensive report on the talk and the discussion which followed. Something along those lines will no doubt be provided in due course on behalf of the SAUPJ by the attractive and talented Darryl Egnal, who was also present. Rather, these are just my impressions and reactions; those of someone who started out far to the right of positions that may be taken by RHR-NA!

I couldn’t contribute my questions to the discussion, as it was continued over the optional dinner, which I didn’t attend. These are issues I’ve been grappling with for some time, without having formulated a clear position yet. For that reason, I can’t draw a line between what Rabbi Walt had to say, and my own questions and views. In no particular order:

What is the basis of Judaism’s ethics? That we were all created in God’s image, or that we are enjoined not to do what is hateful to us? Either one leads us quite shockingly far from where (especially Orthodox) Judaism (at least as observed in Israel) is right now.

The fact that we even have an organisation called Rabbis for Human Rights is a serious indictment of Judaism and Jewish society. It implies (correctly) that we have rabbis indifferent to human rights, to say nothing of rabbis AGAINST human rights!

Israel’s acts and omissions (particularly since the Six-Day War) serve to remind us that it’s easy to have clean hands when you’re powerless. Prior to 1948, Jews were able to assume the moral high ground with regard to the treatment of The Other. With the benefit of experience, we can now see that victimhood and powerlessness are not the same as moral superiority. Power over others’ lives is the real test, one which Israel appears to be failing, quite dismally. Welcome to the human condition.

Having said that, let me immediately add that the existence of Israel as a secure Jewish State (hopefully along democratic, secular and Western lines) is an absolute red line for me (and no, not one of Olmert’s blurry red lines). I cannot and will not visualize a Jewish world without an Israel in something like its present form.

We should be able to discuss and debate every position and viewpoint regarding the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (short of talking about dismantling Israel) without resorting to accusations of anti-Semitism or Jewish self-hatred. At the same time, however, we must acknowledge that some of Israel’s opponents (physical or spiritual) are actually driven by just those motivations.

So, how do we express principled opposition to certain of Israel’s policies (or, sometimes of even more concern, her lack of policies) without crossing the line from critic to enemy? How do we remain members of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition (Her Majesty in this case being Israel itself)? (It should be noted, however, that those on the right are generally not accused of disloyalty even when espousing the most radical views.)

Some questions are even more fundamental. For instance, I still don’t see any evidence of a genuine desire for peace on the part of either the Palestinian Arabs or the larger Arab/Muslim world that surrounds Israel.

How does one protect (or at least respect) the human rights of enemy combatants and civilians or even our own minorities, while not falling prey to the delusion that we can bring about peace by changing only what we do? (If it was that simple, we would have had peace decades ago.)

Oppression may be damaging to the other, but being the oppressor is also damaging to us. (At the same time, I do believe that any oppression we may be inflicting on others is pretty mild compared to anything done to us.)

I am not a peacenik. I believe that Jewish physical survival worldwide requires a militarily and strategically robust Israel. Because of the Jewish character, however, we need to have justice on our side in order to manifest that strength. Perhaps that’s the missing ingredient in many of Israel’s military endeavours since, say 1982?

Human rights are not an absolute good for me, at least not separate from other considerations. Here in South Africa our human rights regime is unparalleled, certainly in our own history. At the same time, there is probably no more corrupt, dangerous, unjust and even outright racist society in the world today. What is the value, the good of human rights in such a situation?

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