Shavuot begins this evening and continues through Tuesday 18 May for Orthodox Jews in the diaspora. Twenty-four hours of weighty reflection is my portion. I rarely send out blogs on Sunday, but Shavuot is my excuse. Further, my rabbi, Yael Splansky, offered a Torah study on Shabat morning that reminded me of a schema of thinking about God that I was taught many years ago. I will not give credit because I am not sure if my memory is correct, and I cannot locate the original source.
It happens to be an appropriate time to conceive of God in the various ways that I will when COVID-19 is within sight of being defeated, this invisible to the human eye circular microbe with protein spikes protruding from its spherical surface. COVID-19 is so ominous and threatening. It is also the time when my brothers and sisters in Israel (literally, my grandchildren and great grandchildren) are hiding and sleeping in safe rooms as missiles rain down on that country, as murderous mobs haunt the streets of Israel’s mixed cities and target synagogues and restored buildings of antiquity, as Palestinian men, women and children hide from bloodthirsty Jewish unruly and disorderly crowds intent on vigilante revenge, and as Palestinian men, women and children in Gaza do not even have safe rooms or solid stairwells where they can find relative safety from the missiles being shot from Israeli warplanes to once and for all try to intimidate Hamas from sending rockets against innocent Israeli civilians.
Three days ago, Muslims celebrated the end of Ramadan and prepared for Eid the following day, like Jews on Shavuot, often spending all night in preparation. Yesterday was Nakba Day, the day Palestinians remember with deep sorrow the catastrophe that befell them with the creation of Israel. In a week, Muslims will celebrate Eid ul Fitr, usually a celebration of gifts and sweetness, but this year, laced with bitterness for Palestinians. Normally a day of festivity, it is also a day that Muslims are commanded not to forget the suffering and deprivations of others.
I write this fully aware that I am biased and worried more about my own family, my own flesh and blood, than other Israelis, and I am more concerned about my fellow Jews in Israel than the Palestinian and foreign workers who also crouch and seek safety in Israel and suffer casualties as well. Most of all, my heart bleeds more for all these types of Israelis and others living in the Promised Land than the tremendous number of hapless Gazan men, women and children who are being killed at ten times the rate of those dying in Israel.
Why do I care with such differential emotion? Because God offered my people – they are my people – an ancient covenant on Mount Sinai, and my people have celebrated that event for millenia, for 3,333 years more precisely, to stand as one nation before God, even though I recognize we have always been riven with differences and schisms through all that time, but especially at such times as this of fear and foreboding.
And tonight, I will study with my fellow Reform Jews from across the country until the wee hours of the morning. I no longer teach on such occasions, but I do participate in study sessions. And I will be reminded by the story of Ruth that, perhaps the greatest heroine in Jewish history, Ruth, the most archetypal Jewish mother, was not born a Jew. But she said that your people shall be my people with such truth and commitment that she would give birth to a line of Jews that produced King David.
Shavuot is the holiday to commemorate when Jews were given Torah. What they were actually given, and if they were given even the tablets with the ten commandments, can be debated for another three millenia. But the depiction of the giving of that gift cannot be denied.
The children of Israel in flight from Egypt had reached the foot of a mountain in the Sinai desert. Moses ascended that mountain. God came down from heaven atop that mountain. And the two met. And God blessed the Israelites and instructed Moses as follows: (Exodus 19:3-6)
6 and ye shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.’
I am the God that uses fear that is greater than the fear you had of the Pharaoh of Egypt. He cowered in fear before Me. I am God that intimidates. I am God who meets out divine justice. The people cowered in fright before God who had appeared in a thick, black cloud of smoke and fire. But do not try to touch the mountain for you will surely die. As in COVID-19, keep your distance.
On the third day, there was a revelation. As dawn broke, as thunder blasted away and lightning flashed, as heavy dark clouds hung over the top of that mountain, as the people stood at the foot of the mountain in fear and trembling, God descended in a stream of lava and smoke from a mountain that had blown its top. And God confessed. “אָנֹכִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֵל קַנָּא–פֹּקֵד עֲוֺן אָבֹת עַל-בָּנִים עַל-שִׁלֵּשִׁים וְעַל-רִבֵּעִים, לְשֹׂנְאָי” (I am a jealous God visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.” I am a punishing God. I am God to be feared. And those who do not fear, I curse and do not bless.) (Exodus 20:4)
Thus, there are two aspects to this God of fear and intimidation. God coerces humans to obey Him and curses them who do not. But people are free to curse God in turn. And, more importantly, to regard the blessing of the Torah given to the Israelites on Mount Sinai as a curse, as a burden no human should be asked or expected to carry. To expect Jews to be a nation of saints, a priestly nation, a light unto the world, is just too much.
But the God of coercion and the God of the curse is offset by a very different side of God, a God who provides a blanket of protection, a God who offers a comforting cover. But the other side of this God of mercy that infantilizes, that makes us complacent and passive, is the God of mercy who challenges us to act, to commit, to freely enter into a covenant with God to care and collaborate and heal the world.
Thus, God can be represented in terms of different directions. There is the God of wrath, of intimidation, the God of fear that rules by coercion, but in requiring your cooperation and commitment of the highest order, turns a blessing into a curse, a curse of expectation and double standards in terms of which Jews shall be judged. But there is also the God of mercy who provides a shelter, who covers us with a blanket of protection, who vaccinates us against the invisible sources of unseen death. God is the God of grace, who bears the Israelites on eagles’ wings and brings them into God’s embrace. But the God of mercy has another side, a caring and collaborative side, God that requires commitment and action by us, that regards humans as self-legislators, as moral individuals responsible for their own actions and what happens to them.
The Four Faces of God
The Four Faces of God
God of Fear
God of Mercy
Opposites (1 & 4)
God as coercive and commanding
God of Care and Commitment
Opposites (2 & 3)
God as a Curse
God as a Protective Cover
We cannot see the face of God because God is multi-faceted. Depending on the direction we look, we experience a different God and respond in fear to God as coercive or God as a curse. Or we respond with love and appreciation to God as a cover, a protective blanket, or, alternatively, as a caring God of commitment and the covenant. If we keep our end of the bargain, God will keep His.
Thus, on Shavuot, the shofar sounds; we once again experience the proclamation of the Ten Commandments. God first reveals Himself as a coercive being who rescues us from bondage to a cruel human form of oppression and slavery. Then God is revealed as jealous, as demanding exclusivity, as commanding service of an inordinate kind, a God to be cursed and, in Christianity, crucified not simply for what God demands of us, but for the divine sacrifice He makes. We as humans cannot chew gum and swallow at the same time. Giving oneself over to God is a curse for which, at many times, it is God you will want to curse rather than the enemies of God.
What does it mean when we are commanded not to take God’s name in vain? We are reminded of its meaning every day when before our vanities in the washroom we brush our teeth, wash our faces and comb our hair. Do not treat God as a vain possession. God is jealous and you cannot have another God. That means you cannot regard yourself as a God. You cannot be a narcissist. Excessive pride in oneself, especially an admiration for one’s own accomplishments and the face you put before the world, is vanity and is treating God in vain, for one treats God’s creation as if it were God.
Then there is the fourth commandment – to remember the sabbath. Sanctify the sabbath. Do not work on shabat. Study. Reflect. Rest and be blessed. How? By re-commitment. By re-commitment to moral and ethical behaviour, to commanding oneself and taking responsibility for what you do, to understanding that the covenant demands commitment and not just obedience out of fear or desertion because you resent the burden and responsibility that commitment means. Yet also recognizing that, while the Iron Dome may provide a protective cover, defence is unsufficient. Such a retreat is cowardice. You can curse God for the burden placed upon you, the greatest burden being to defend oneself and kill others to do so. Caring for oneself and one’s loved ones, commands us to use coercion, to send fear through the hearts of those who would harm us, and, worst of all, kill bystanders caught up in the maelstrom.
Unfortunately, there is no true face of God. Face a different direction and you see another face. And even that face is hidden behind a veil. It demands that you interpret, that you reflect, that you weigh the use of force against your own moral inhibitions, that as you curse God for the condition you are in, you recognize the blanket of protection a state must and does provide for its people and its citizens.
This past week I filled out a census form for the Government of Canada online under threat that I would be fined $600, at least that is what I was personally told, if I failed to complete it by the assigned deadline. In this week’s parshah, the Israelites, on the second month of the second year after they entered the wilderness, underwent a military census. It was taken by groups, by the ancestral house or clan, of those males who were at least age 20 years of age and who were capable of bearing arms. The exclusion of the Levites from the main census confirmed it was a military census because the Levites had the unique responsibility of taking care of the Mishkan and were not required to go into battle.
2 ‘The children of Israel shall pitch by their fathers’ houses; every man with his own standard, according to the ensigns; a good way off shall they pitch round about the tent of meeting.
Each tribe had its own standard or flag with symbols depicting the unique strengths and characteristics of that tribe. Each flag had a different colour and special symbols and, according to the Talmud, every group of three tribes formed a company in modern military terms with its own flag. Each tribe also had a different stone on the breastplate of the warriors from that tribe. And then there was the uniting symbol for them all, not a military flag, but a religious symbol, the tent of meeting, the Mishkan, around which each of the tribes were arranged like the numbers on a clock. The Mishkan provided the united national expression that they all were Israelites.
The ancient Israelites who fled from Egypt quickly learned the importance of communitarianism, of team loyalty, but also of a common national spirit, that the divisiveness of particularism had to be offset by a spirit of unity, a national rather than just a tribal spirit.
The Israelites were united by religion, by a common mission and by a common narrative. Yet, they were divided to create their own local loyalties to develop and perfect the characteristics attached to that tribe. For example, the tribe descended from Jacob’s oldest son, Reuben, had a flag with a rising sun like the Japanese flag symbolizing the first born and the beginning, the first hour of the birth of a new nation. The flag also had a blossoming plant, for Reuben was thoughtful and considerate and the flag showed him with an infant in his arms. Reuben was sensitive and collected flowers for his mother. He tried to save Joseph from the wrath of his brothers. On the other hand, he rashly slept with Bilhah, his father’s concubine. He was a loving and caring man in all senses of the term.
But flags are also symbols of conflict and militant divisiveness. Earlier this week, Israeli flags were set on fire outside two German synagogues in the city of Gelsenkirchen. The flag burners marched through the town shouting “shitty Jews” and chanting “free Palestine.”
Today is Friday May 14th, the day before Palestinians commemorate the Nakba, the catastrophe they suffered when Israel was created on 15 May in 1948. Jews in Israel and in France have learned that anti-Israeli passions are often aroused in the sermons given in the mosques on a Friday, especially when the media carry stories of Muslim worshippers being attacked right in the Al Aqsa Mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem and when their predominant ownership of the plaza on which that mosque and the Dome of the Rock are placed, a plaza believed to be an exclusive Muslim gathering place or, at the very least, a predominantly Muslim one. But the border police see the worshippers as threats to the Jews below saying their prayers at the Western Wall being subjected to stones being thrown down on them when they go there for the prayers that they recite at the beginning of their sabbath.
The Muslim worshippers carried with them not only their holy book, and their book of prayer, but allegedly stones and certainly Palestinian flags, a tricolour of three equal horizontal stripes (black, white, and green from top to bottom), overlaid by a red triangle issuing from the hoist. That was the flag adopted by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) on 28 May 1964. In the protests that almost inevitably follow a sermon at this time of year, but especially in the aftermath of the Sheikh Jarrah protests, the 1,700 missiles being shot at Israel and the reprisal air raids by the IDF in Gaza, and, most significantly this time, the inter-ethnic riots between Jews and Israeli Palestinians in the mixed cities of Akko and Ramle, Jaffa and especially Lod, one watched in fearful anticipation and dread of even worse violence, more destruction, and more innocent civilians killed and wounded on each side.
Flags unite. But flags also divide, but they divide in potentially violent ways when parties are not united by an overarching symbol and a common narrative. Instead, what we have is an almost irreconcilable narrative of Palestinian replacement and displacement by invading Jews on one side and a story of a return to their homeland to create a prosperous, dynamic, creative country on the other side, a side which treats its Arab citizens with tolerance and respect but not always with equality.
But how can there be even basic equality when Jews in the same city of Jerusalem can use Israeli law to reclaim the land they lost in the 1948 war, but Palestinians cannot use the same law to reclaim the property they lost in that same war. Recall that in Jerusalem, 2,000 Jews were displaced in that war from East Jerusalem and resettled in Western Jerusalem, while 20,000 to 30,000 Palestinians lost their homes. There were 37,000 Jewish refugees and 720,000 Palestinian refugees. In addition, of the 250,000 Arabs left in Israel proper, 100,000 were displaced. They had lost their homes or their villages had been razed.
This year, and uniquely, the narratives of displacement and replacement of the Palestinians in Gaza, where 70% of the inhabitants are descended from refugees, the Arabs in the West Bank, especially from Area C, the residents of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem and a large percentage of the Palestinian Israelites have a demonstrably common theme – displacement and replacement.
They march and demonstrate with calls and signs announcing, “Palestine from the river to the sea” and, echoing the fascists in Charlottesville, Jews will not replace us. In the Lod riots, three synagogues were torched. And Jews responded by lynching an Arab and killing two others, attacking Palestinian-owned businesses and homes. An interethnic war had been ignited that carried nationalist sloganeering to extremes.
And behind it all was a census and a demographic battle. For living between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, there are almost the same number of Arabs as Jews. They are virtually at parity – 6.5 million Arabs and just a few more Jews. Instead of the two tribes being counted in a common census around a common religious symbol, religion divides them.
But there is hope. The leader of the radical Orthodox Jewish ultranationalist party in Israel, Otzma Yehudit (“Jewish Power”), is Itamar Ben-Gvir, That party won one of the six seats as part of the Religious Zionist List. That party led protests in Sheikh Jarrah against the Palestinian squatters who had lived in their homes built by the Jordanians since 1956. He advocated immediate eviction. However, in the aftermath of the violence in Lod and in other mixed Arab-Jewish towns and cities, he advocated a cessation of violence and strongly deplored the mob of Jews who had lynched an Arab.
On the other side is, Mansour Abbas, leader of The United Arab List Party (Ra’am), an Islamic Palestinian Party that won four seats in the Knesset. He had suspended negotiations for an Arab backed Jewish coalition government in Israel. However, he also promised to resume discussions when the rioting stopped and there was a ceasefire in Gaza. He too strongly deplored the violence as did the leader of the other Palestinian Party.
Further, Abbas is actually a close friend and ally on a number of issues with Aryeh Deri, leader of the Shas Party, the largest of the two ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset with 9 seats. They unite on a number of points close to conservative religious hearts.
Saner heads may hopefully prevail. And perhaps one day the Palestinians in Israel and the Jewish Israelites will be able to assemble and march under a common flag with the symbols of both groups. Someday.
Some battles are physical and violent. Other battles entail a war of words, a battle between historical narratives – such as the one currently dominating American politics in the fight between the Trump fraudulent tale of a stolen election and the liberal and progressive tale of a democracy that escaped fascism by the skin of its teeth because America is fundamentally a powerful democracy. Unfortunately, in many places on our planet, the physical war and the war of words go hand-in-hand. Often the rhetorical battle becomes more important than the physical one, however extensive and significant the physical violence.
Have you seen photos of the Temple Mount ablaze? Is this 70 CE, but with the Al Aqsa Mosque rather than the Jewish temple burning? Or just some trees, but from Palestinian incendiary cocktails rather than arson by the Israeli police currently being painted as the modern version of Roman storm troopers?
Have you read reports of the Lod riots? Just when Israel was finally on the verge of a new government formed by Yair Lapid of the centre and kippah-wearing Naftali Bennet on the far right with the support of the two parties on the left. The final necessary ingredient backed away and postponed any commitment to supporting the new coalition – the Arab party, Ra’am, an Islamic and nationalist party of Israeli Arabs led by Mansour Abbas with only four seats; it now holds the balance of power. Abbas stands in the wings as the prospective kingmaker.
To compound all the noise, the use of rubber bullets, stun grenades and skunk water by the Israeli police on the Temple Mount to protect the Jewish worshippers at the Western Wall below from rock throwers, there are the barriers put up to clear the plaza at Damascus Gate that incited the worshippers at the end of Ramadan. The efforts to separate peaceful protesters from right wing Israeli ultra-nationalists at odds over the impending ruling of the Israeli Supreme Court in a dispute over land ownership and the protection of tenants rights, has become the symbol of seventy-three years of Israeli seizure of Palestinian homes and land and displacement of their occupants.
And then the rockets. 40 at first. A bus hit in Holon. And the rapid escalation with over a thousand missiles over two nights. And this time targeting Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and not simply the envelope surrounding Gaza. Even the Palestinians of East Jerusalem were surprised by the support from Gaza and Israeli Palestinians. Unexpected. Especially at a time when Palestinians have become despondent and frustrated by their own leaders in the Palestinian Authority (PA). Especially at a time when their communities in Israel had become overrun by armed criminal groups and Palestinian Israelis had been calling for more and better policing only to shock that same police when the armed groups became political and anti-Israel and the police belatedly tried to control the mob violence that had broken out between Jews and Arabs in mixed cities like Lod and Acre, Ramle and Jaffa.
And then the expected and anticipated response against Gaza by the IDF as bombs rained down on secret headquarters of Hamas commanders and secret weapons manufacturing places and storage depots for missiles. Ironically, the attacks were welcomed by both Hamas and the Israeli defence establishment. The attacks had been invited. The deaths in Gaza by the disproportionate force used against them had been the purpose as Hamas sought to assume the leadership of a multi-sourced uprising against the might of Israel. Martyrdom was the name of the game, not victory or even advancing one’s position. Suffering meant winning. The more one suffered, the more children died from the Israeli bombing raids (at least ten thus far), the more the world would turn against their perceived Israeli oppressors.
What had started as a largely non-violent and spontaneous local protest against the planned expropriation of four houses in Sheikh Jarrah, what had started as an insistence on total Palestinian control over their most important religious symbols in historic Palestine, the Dome on the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque, had turned into a real war. In a zoominar with ex-ambassador to the US from Israel, Michael Oren, sitting in his study in south Tel Aviv, near the end of the interview I heard a siren. And then when we looked out his window with him, flashes of light across the sky as the Iron Dome system intercepted rockets from Gaza. And then an explosion. And then another one, much louder. Some missiles were getting through. One had landed right next to his home. The interview was cut short. Oren retreated to his shelter.
My grandson had spent yesterday dragging mattresses into their shelter to reinforce its safety and where he, his wife, and two children would spend the past night trying to sleep as sirens wailed, missiles blew up in the sky and, in dread, a few landed. In the meanwhile, the occupants in Gaza had no shelters, did not even have sirens to warn them of the attacks from the air by guided and more powerful missiles that had specific targets, but, in spite of warnings to civilians, killed ten for every one of the civilian deaths in Israel as the IDF tried to pick off the Hamas militant leadership based on its accumulated intelligence.
The Palestinians and the Jewish Israelis were joined together in one fear, as Nadier Hijab put it, that the missiles from Gaza would be used as an excuse to set fire to blow up the holiest Muslim religious site in all of historic Palestine, turning a forest fire into a firestorm of mass destruction. But what else could the Palestinians do after what they perceived and claimed were seventy-three years of dispossession and displacement? What could they do now that the narrative of the Nakba and the catastrophe of 1947-1948 had morphed into a story of continuous disaster that has lasted for a century until today?
The Sheikh Jarrah story, the conflict on the Temple Mount, the uprising in the Arab-Jewish cities of Israel, the torching of three synagogues in Lod, the massive missile attack from Gaza, were all of a piece, all a response to settler colonialization, to dispossession, to repression, to oppression. The missiles reminded the world that 70% of the packed Gaza Strip consisted of refugees from historic Palestine who could not return. Social media had made a difference. Just like the story of how the election had been stolen from Donald Trump in the last American election, the story, the narrative of Israel as a colonial-settler society driven by an ideology of apartheid, had taken hold and gripped the Palestinian imagination.
The older tale of two national movements fighting over the same land, of decades long efforts to come to a modus vivendi through peace negotiations, had been replaced by a story of fake news, of the Oslo peace process as a fraud to strengthen Israeli control and expand settlement activity, to continue the century-long displacement of Palestinians.
But the world had changed. The Oslo generation of Palestinians had seen through the fraud. Youth born after Oslo had lost their fear of the Israeli police and faced them close up with their chins thrust out and a smile on their faces even as they were bludgeoned and soaked with skunk water. In this new now dominant narrative among Palestinian youth and the Palestinian intelligentsia, Israel had ruled since 1948 by fear. But Palestinians would fear no more.
Once again, the Arab countries had sold them out with normalization. Once again, their own leadership, with Fatah and Abbas continuing his four-year elected role into the sixteenth year without an election, had misled them. The election had been postponed on the pretext that Israel would not allow East Jerusalemites to participate. Into this leadership vacuum, a terrorist movement drunk on martyrdom could step into the breach with a rainstorm of missiles and take over the leadership of the Palestinian protests and the movement.
Palestinian society, broken and fragmented, had come together, from disparate sources and bases of protest, to fight, to attack Jewish police, to break the windows of Jewish businesses, to use missiles to even hit Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Israel had not allowed the Palestinians to return to their homes lost in 1948. But Palestinians had returned once again to continue the fight for those homes, fight for return, fight against Israel now labeled by Human Rights Watch as an apartheid state.
The Palestinians against desperate odds had not capitulated. The Palestinians had now seen though the Oslo route as a fraud. Negotiations were simply vehicles to expand oppression. Washington was not a reasonable interlocutor even when Biden replaced Trump, for although Biden insisted his administration had more important and pressing issues than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it still had time for strengthening mutual security arrangements, for sharing intelligence, for forging technological partnerships, and for strengthening the American-Israeli alliance while pretending to be aloof from the struggle.
President Abbas and Fatah had proven to be corrupt patsies for Israeli rule and settler expansion in the West Bank. Their own leadership had sold Palestinians out. Only Hamas appeared ready to die for the cause. And die they would. The paralysis of fear had been broken. Fear was no longer a barrier in Sheik Jarrah, on the grounds of the Al Aqsa Mosque, in the Israeli city of Acre. What was the point of fear of losing one’s land if all that fear did was allow the loss to creep ahead with no one willing to step in and stop the process?
The Palestinians now had a new narrative. Jews in historic Palestine may have practiced a slow process of replacement interrupted by acute moments of displacement when war broke out in 1948 and 1967 and subsequently, but it had only led to the displacement and replacement of the image of Israel as a peacefully inclined and benign movement destined to bring prosperity to a backward area. Instead, a clearer vision had come into view for the world of a repressive colonial movement determined to create an apartheid society in which Jews dominated Palestinians in perpetuity.
The rise of middle-class Palestinians, of professionals in medicine and other fields within Israel was only a fig leaf to disguise the underlying direction and character of the Israeli state. Palestinians watched as the US gave 3.8 billion dollars in aid to Israel to perpetuate its apartheid system, as America under its laws allowed Jewish charities in America to deduct tax dollars and support settlements in the West Bank, to allow Israel with American surreptitious help to increase the stranglehold of Israel on Gaza and increase the very high unemployment rate even further. America may want to return to a nuclear agreement with Iran, but forces within America remained allied with Israel to undermine any restoration of a deal, for Iran was the only formidable power helping Hamas strengthen its resistance to Israeli exploitation.
The fight all along had been a rhetorical one. It was a battle over the ruling narrative. Finally, the Palestinians have had a breakthrough. They may have been losing on the ground in terms of the strength of their military power to resist, but they were on the verge of international victory with the story of a settler-colonial movement built on apartheid premises working to seize all of Palestine. The narrative had changed. A key vocal minority in the Democratic Party in the United States had bought into the replacement narrative. And that faction was growing, especially among American Jews. Zionism, which had become the dominant narrative of Jewish life in the post-Holocaust era and the war in Palestine in the 1940s, was now faced with its largest challenge.
In the assault, the Jewish community was becoming increasingly fragmented. The number of fault lines in the Jewish community grew and became extended. For every child who died in Gaza, that fault line stretched for a further mile and the chasm broadened between the youth and the older generation who held on in fear to the old narrative of a movement that brought enlightenment and wealth to the Middle East, but only by hiding the tale that it had done so with repression, with oppression, with systematic displacement, with the creation of an apartheid regime.
The international community was buying into this replacement narrative in increasing numbers. The old story was false news disconnected from reality. Rights organizations, Israeli and international ones, were defying the suppressors of truth to establish the real tale of dispossession and replacement on the ground. But the centre could and would not hold. Without a commanding narrative, the oppression could not continue. As fast as the Berlin Wall came down, so the barrier between the West Bank and Israel would crumble to be replaced by a state in which everyone would have equal rights and equal opportunities. This was the silver lining in all the violence throughout historic Palestine. This was the sign of a colonial settler regime beginning to crumble. This was the core of the replacement narrative.
The Palestinian national movement which appeared to be on the verge of defeat had risen like a Phoenix from the ashes of the conflict to challenge the most formidable military power in the Middle East. Most importantly, the tale of Israel’s intellectual and political and ethical exceptionalism was being undermined and destroyed along with the tale of the Oslo Accords as a move towards peace when it was just a cover for the extension of repression.
But there were gaps in this rhetorical replacement thesis, gaps much wider and deeper than the perceived opening chasm in the Jewish community of America. The Oslo agreements provided a vehicle to provide material support for the Palestinian community, as Nadia Najib noted. The chance of America bringing quiet but effective pressure to undermine the Zionist position was a chimera fostered by a vocal minority in one party in the US to advance its own so-called progressive vision. Further, there was no way a rhetorical inversion could compensate and overcome the asymmetrical strength of the Israeli military. Gaza would once again suffer. Hamas would once again be crushed, gaining a stronger leadership position, but only at the expense of the Palestinian people.
Discrediting Israel was not equivalent to dismembering Israel. 7,000 rockets fired and the vast majority intercepted could not be offset by a very few landing – with the death of only three Jewish Israelis, an Arab Israeli couple and an Indian domestic care worker. Hamas, challenging Israel with red lines on Monday and finally forcing the rerouting and then cancellation of the Flag Day parade, was a token victory that could never offset the destruction that is currently being rained down on Gaza. Hamas had expected Israel to remain restrained in the face of rising public opinion. Hamas did not expect Israelis to damn public opinion and become determined to break the back of Hamas control once and for all.
What started as an effort to give Israel a black eye is quickly turning into a determined resolve of Israel to say, “Enough is enough.” Enough with fake news. Enough with fraudulent replacement narratives that distort history primarily by omissions and selective reading. Enough trying to avoid the Hamas quest for martyrdom. Enough is enough undergirds the new determination of Benny Gantz. If Hamas could up its ante, so could Israel and risk the wave of international criticism bound to come its way.
No one had expected Hamas to go this far. No one had expected an uprising among Palestinian-Israeli youth. No one had expected a cult of martyrdom to take hold and challenge Israel. But there were now extensive middle class vested interests in the Arab population of Israel and even in the West Bank that reject martyrdom, that does not buy into the new replacement narrative. Further, the burning of synagogues in Lod and the attacks in Acre would only offset charges of apartheid with countercharges of antisemitism that carry a greater resonance in the enlightened world. Even the Islamic party kingmaker, Mansour Abbas, has only taken a pause from what he perceives as his role as a kingmaker that not only allows an Israeli government to be formed, but allows the Palestinians to mount the real steps of power in Israel. What an unlikely source in the revolution of the Israeli polity – an ally of Hamas undermining the envisioned trajectory of martyrdom of Hamas.
Is there an exit ramp from the escalating violence? I cannot see it. The rhetorical battle now demands a heavyweight fight that will go the full fifteen rounds. Out of the battle, a new Israel will emerge in which the political power and role of 21% of the population becomes more fully acknowledged. Out of this conflagration will come a more broadly held conviction that endless expansion of Israel into the West Bank is fraught with mines. Out of the battle of a very attractive but false narrative of a stolen Palestine will emerge a renewed Israel determined to ensure its Israeli citizens have equal rights and that its Arab communities have access to an equal level of quality education and that the police will protect Palestinian communities from the criminal gangs that have been ravaging them.
Out of this firestorm will, hopefully, emerge a nascent Palestinian state.
Critics of the evictions from Sheikh Jarrah claim that the action amounts to apartheid. Israeli critics in the liberal centre view the actions as both unnecessary and provocative, but do not suggest apartheid. When more radical critics, Jewish as well as Palestinian, claim the actions are just part of a long history of creating an apartheid regime, right-wing defenders claim such charges are antisemitic because, at base in their charges that Israel is a colonial settler state, they deny the right of Jews to self-determination.
Though three-quarters of Israeli Jews reject the application of the term “apartheid” to Israel, about 25% of Jewish Israelis agree with this radical position. They come from both the left and the right, the extremists on the right endorsing apartheid and expressing a belief in the separation of Palestinians and Jews by law. 41% of Palestinian Israelis and 77% of Palestinians concur simply in characterizing Israel as an apartheid state.
In opposing the charge of antisemitism, Palestinians and others in defence have argued that this is an instance of the weaponization of the term antisemitism that has claimed both Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as accomplices because those media outlets have removed hundreds of stories related to Sheikh Jarrah on the grounds that the reports mischaracterize Israel’s policies and actions as ethnic cleansing, persecution, oppression and apartheid. Those critics argue that these media platforms have violated the rights of freedom of expression as well as the right to freedom of association and assembly.
Palestinians and their sympathizers declare that terms such as apartheid, settler-colonialism as well as milder descriptors, such as occupation, accurately and objectively describe the Israeli treatment of Palestinians. Defenders of Israel argue that the Israeli Supreme Court’s proposed compromise cannot possibly be described as “forced eviction” and that doing so even reveals an anti-Jewish animus.
For example, CJPME, Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East, declares that, “Israel’s founding in 1948 was a result of premeditated ethnic cleansing campaigns across historic Palestine with the goal of displacing and dispossessing the indigenous Palestinian population of their land.” Thus, the Catastrophe or Nakba did not just take place in 1947 and 1948, but began with the settlement of Jews in Palestine and continues today with the efforts to evict the Palestinians from Sheik Jarrah and the program of building settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. However, why do these critics not denounce the illegality of Gaza initiating rocket attacks against the Israeli population and instead play up the disproportionate number of Palestinian dead compared to Israeli casualties?
The focus has shifted from Sheikh Jarrah to Gaza as 35 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza as a result of IDF bombings in reprisal against multiple missile attacks by Hamas and Islamic Jihad against population centres in Israel (over 200 rockets have been fired) in which three Israelis have been killed. A senior Islamic Jihad commander was killed in the IDF strikes against a hideout apartment in Gaza City, head of the PIJ’s rocket unit, Samih al-Mamluk, as well as other senior militants, Mohamad Abu al-Atta — brother of the military commander of the PIJ’s Northern Brigade in Gaza Bahaa Abu al-Atta who was assassinated by Israel in late 2019 — and Kamal Karika.
Hamas has taken over the militant leadership of the struggle against Israel.
“Zionist settlement remains an ongoing process that seeks to remove Palestinian natives and replace them with Jewish-Zionists. In Jerusalem, the forced removals echo throughout the West Bank, throughout Gaza and among Palestinians forcibly exiled in the global diaspora…As May 15 marks the 73rd commemoration of the mass expulsion of Palestinians from cities such as Haifa, Tarshiha and Safad in 1948, let the world bear witness to Jerusalem today. This is how refugees are made, this is our ongoing Nakba. Our freedom struggle is not for a state but for belonging to the land (my italics), to remain on it, to keep our homes, to resist erasure…There’s no denying the reality: This is Zionist settler colonialism, where if one settler does not take our homes, another settler will. When will the world open its eyes to this injustice and respond appropriately? We do not need more empty both sides-isms; we need solidarity to overcome apartheid.”
Rashida Tlaib, the Palestinian-American Congresswoman, has attributed the violence entirely to the oppression by the Israelis and the practice of apartheid. The fundament principle that must be observed is the Palestinian right to return to their homes in Palestine prior to the Nakba in 1947-1948 and the additional exodus after the Six Day War. (In tomorrow’s blog, I will discuss “the right of return.”) The abstract claim is reinforced by videos of survivors. Fatima Marwan, who very recently passed away, in a widely distributed video recalled with nostalgia “the pure air,” the “secure environment,” the “indescribable feeling,” that existed in Der Yassin when she was a young girl. There were “no hardships” and her family enjoyed a “beautiful life” without suffering and full of hope.
Rashid Khalidi (author The Hundred Years War on Palestine) in a more academic and more outraged mode, has described the flight of expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948 in which two-thirds of the Palestinian population in what became Israel fled or were forced to flee. 300,000 fled before the Arab armies invaded Israel and the refugees cannot be said to have been the result of that invasion. But did they flee as a result of Arab propaganda and/or to get out of the way of the war? If Israeli officials underplay the numbers forced to flee by armed units of the Haganah and Irgun, Palestinians underplay the large numbers who voluntarily left expecting to return behind victorious Arab armies.
Rashid will write about the confiscation of “abandoned property” but underplay the expulsion of all Jews and the seizure of their property by Jordan, including Sheikh Jarrah. He is the major figure behind the thesis of the Nakba as a continuous process of domination, expulsion and replacement beginning with the Zionist settlements in Palestine and continuing into the present, and not just an event on 15 May 1948 or even during 1947-1948.
Lubnah Shomali, head of Badil Resource Centre for Palestinian Rights, argues that 9.1 million Palestinian refugees represent the largest and most protracted refugee situation in the world. The displacement went back to the British mandatory period when 150,000 were displaced by the British. In 1947-1948 she, as does Rashid Khalidi, offers a figure of 750,000 refugees in 1947-1948, leaving out any mention that 37,000 of these Palestine refugees were Jews from territory captured by Jordan. Further, Shomali emphasizes that there were an additional 200,000 internally displaced Palestinians remaining in Israel whose villages were razed.
Israel has been unwilling to pay reparations which she claimed is required under UN Resolution 194. (See tomorrow for a discussion of the resolution.) International law, according to her, requires:
Guarantees of Non-repetition.
The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) set up to provide emergency humanitarian aid for the Palestine refugees (including Jews) evolved into the education, health and welfare ministry for the Palestinian refugees, that is, excluding the Palestine Jews who were resettled in Israel. However, over the last two decades the services provided have deteriorated as funding has been decreased.
Umar Al-Ghubari, a documentalist for the Nakba, proudly notes that in the last fifteen years, the term “nakba,” which was not previously widely known and not broadly used by the media, has become a topic of everyday discourse, especially among the Israeli public. Umar, as part of Zochrot, an Israeli NGO founded in 2002, conducts tours, offers educational programs and initiates conferences on the Nakba. He takes Israelis – both Jews and Arabs – to visit the Arab villages demolished in 1948, and Imwas, Yalo and Beit Nuba, ethnically cleansed on 5 June 1967. The residents were expelled to Ramallah and not allowed to return. Umar has reversed the trend of making these villages invisible as he has increasingly been successful in inserting the stories of those villages into the Israeli educational curriculum in order to amend the dominant Israeli narrative. But even he would replace that narrative with occupation, displacement, oppression and replacement.
For all of these Palestinian activists, there has been a pattern of Zionist oppression and displacement that goes back to the roots of Zionism in Palestine. Further, the oppression of Palestinian history has been an integral part of repression of the Palestinian narrative. But if he and others would characterize Zionism as ridden with a replacement ideology, many of the Israeli critics sympathetic to the Palestinian cause downplay the extent and the depth in which a vengeful replacement thesis permeates Palestinian ideology. In the effort to overcome Israeli mindblindness, a contrarian mindblindness has been under construction. Thus, Mohammed El-Kurd, a poet and resident of Sheik Jarrah, will describe not only the West Bank and East Jerusalem as occupied, but all of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
The ideology of the Nakba as an ongoing event has replaced the older thesis of an anniversary date from 15 May 1948. Not only is the West Bank characterized as occupied, but so are Gaza and Haifa, even though Gaza is currently on the brink of war once again with Israel. Further, the war has been continuous. When armed struggle recedes, Israeli lawfare comes to the fore to be used to expel more Palestinians, such as those from Sheik Jarrah. What is omitted from most of the narratives told from the Palestinian side is that the land in dispute was owned for over half a century by Jews before it was seized without compensation by the Jordanians. Further, the court decision offering a compromise instead of immediate eviction is usually omitted from the narrative.
What we have is not only a war of physical violence, but a war of laws, a war of words in the narratives told and in the epithets used. Israel is labeled a colonial-settler state, ignoring entirely the history of the land as a Jewish homeland and the primary efforts of self-settlement against the interference of the British after 1937, twenty years after the Balfour Declaration. The legal system is said to be a colonial one because one set of laws apply to the colonizers and another to the colonized. But however true this is in the West Bank, it is untrue in Israel even though in practice Palestinian Israelis are often treated as second class citizens.
Thus, we have the paradox of a government being formed currently which depends on getting the support of Palestinian legislators – something unheard of and impossible in apartheid South Africa. But you do have evictions under the law that are insensitive and inconsiderate but that do have a legal basis. You do have the right of Jewish Israelis to repossess their land in East Jerusalem while that same right of repossession is denied to Palestinians, both Israeli and non-Israeli. The double application of the law and the domination of one group by another is sufficient for many to use the charge of apartheid and join the war of epithets.
Israeli defenders point out that the accusation of colonizing and occupying all of the land between the river and the sea, as a Zionist goal that must be overturned and relaced with Palestinian control, denies what was denied in 1948, the willingness of Jews as a nation to share and divide the land with the Palestinians as a nation. If not only the West Bank, if not only Gaza currently at war with Israel, but also Israel itself is referred to as occupied and requiring liberation, then we have the denial of the right of self-determination of the Jews which the major definition of antisemitism characterizes as antisemitic.
Terms of description of ideologies become verbal missiles to hurl against the other side. A democratic legal system, as imperfect as any other, is however characterized as an instrument of oppression and a tool used to deny Palestinian rights. Not only violence but law has been used by Zionism to crush the Palestinians and that oppression crushes the heads and hearts of every Palestinian, ignoring that even as some Israeli Palestinians have identified with the struggle in Sheikh Jarrah, most have stayed aside from the legal conflict and continue to carry out similar professional roles as Jewish Israelis. Yet Israeli law is characterized as racist.
There are some ways in which it is: not allowing Palestinians living under Israeli law to exercise that law, available to Jews, to retrieve property, but also in ensuring Palestinians equal access to homes and apartments everywhere. But this no more makes Israel an apartheid racist state that South Carolina celebrating Confederate Day, a day in honour of a slavery regime, makes America a slave country.
If Israel was truly practicing ethnic cleansing, it would have completed the job, but now Palestinians make up almost 20% of the population of Israel when originally they were only 12.5% of the citizens of Israel. Further, they could elect 20% of the legislators and hold even more than the balance of power in the Knessset, but in the last election their seats slipped from 15 to 12 and from 12.5% to 10%. Israel is an odd type of colonizer and an incapable ethnic cleanser compared to the Turks in northern Cyprus and the Serbs and Croats in former Yugoslavia.
Part of the reason the Palestinian narrative has not become more integrated into the Israeli Jewish narrative of Israel is because, more often than not, the Palestinian substitute ideological narrative is even more full of absences and distortions than the predominant Israeli Zionist narrative. Further, the epithets of colonizer and apartheid only reinforce a message of counter-replacement. Palestinians cite that half the population living between the Jordan and the Mediterranean are Palestinian (actually, 49.7%) and Jews constitute 50.3%. The trend favours the Palestinians in spite of the very high birthrate among the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox.
Further, leading critics of Zionism now, such as Khalidi, denounce the Oslo Accords and insist they were a cover for more oppression of Palestinian self-determination than a vehicle of peace moving towards Palestinian self-determination. When this is attributed solely to the Zionists and the incompetence of the old Palestinian leadership, the Oslo Accords are inverted from a peace agreement to a ruse, a trick and a stab-in-the-back.
Tomorrow: Return, Restoration, Apartheid and Settler Colonial State as Epithets.
Foreground and the Current Controversy in Sheikh Jarrah
The Jewish Flag Day March was initially neither cancelled nor rerouted from its planned start at 5:30 p.m. yesterday through Damascus Gate and the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem. Then, at the last minute, it was rerouted and then canceled. Just prior to that, Religious Zionism (Otzma Yehudit Party) chair, Bezalel Smotrich, along with other Knesset members from the party, toured Sheikh Jarrah stirring shouting matches between Jews and Palestinians.
Jews had already been barred from the Temple Mount as a precautionary measure, especially following violent clashes that began on Friday and escalated on Saturday between Palestinian worshippers and Israeli police when police forced themselves into the Al Aqsa compound ostensibly to protect the Western Wall from stone throwers in the run-up to Saturday night’s Laylat al-Qadr, the holiest night in Islam. In that action, 215 Palestinians and 21 officers were injured; additionally, 153 other Palestinians and 3 police officers were hospitalized; the injuries of 7 of the Palestinians were serious.
Hamas, in an effort to take ideological leadership of the Jerusalem protests and encounters with Israeli police on the Temple Mount, has escalated its attacks against Israel, firing over 200 rockets from Gaza into Israeli territory, injuring seven in Ashkelon. Even the Knesset was evacuated as Jerusalem was also targeted. Israel bombing reprisals in an operation called “Guardian of the Walls” hit 140 targets in Gaza, including sites for manufacturing and storing rockets, training and military complexes, as well as two underground tunnels and the home of a battalion commander. The Gaza Health Ministry reported that 24 had been killed, including nine children, and 103 injured.
In the United States, the Foundation for Middle East Peace (FMEP) led the protests on behalf of the Palestinians over the planned evictions in East Jerusalem. (Settlement and Annexation Report of 7 May 2021; webinar hosted by Lara Friedman of 6 May, “Jerusalem on the Verge: Dispossession & Violence in Sheik Jarrah, with Aseel AlBajeh, an Al Haq legal adviser and advocate, and Budour Hassan, a journalist. https://fmep.org/resource/index-of-fmep-webinars-podcasts/) The four families currently targeted for eviction rejected the proposed Supreme Court compromise that the Palestinians would be allowed to remain provided they paid rent and recognized Jewish ownership and agreed to vacate when the original Palestinian occupant died.
“We the four Sheikh Jarrah families firmly reject the terms of this agreement, for these are our homes and settlers are not our landlords. The inherently unjust system of Israel’s colonial courts is not considering the questioning of illegal settlers’ ownership and has already decided on the families’ dispossession. This pattern of elongating the legal process is common practice to dull popular resistance and public opinion protesting these expansionist colonial efforts. As the threat of expulsion from our home remains as imminent as ever, we will continue our international campaign to stop this ethnic cleansing.”
The four Palestinian families facing expulsion even refused to meet with Mansour Abbas, leader of the Palestinian Israeli party, the Islamist-leaning United Arab List (Ra’am) that holds four seats in the Knesset, claiming that he had allied with Israel’s right-wing. After spontaneous Palestinian Israeli protests broke out on Monday evening across Israeli cities, beginning in Jaffa and in the northern Arab city of Umm al-Fahm and the nearby Wadi Ara (in Lod, one Palestinian man was killed by a Jewish Israeli in response to the threats of 200 protesters hurling stones), for today, Palestinian Israeli students organized a sympathy and solidarity strike with both the Sheikh Jarrah resisters and the residents of Gaza. The controversy has become a national Israeli one as well as an international one. This crisis has been building for a long time. Various left and peace movement individuals, such as those in Shalom Achshav, have expressed both sympathy and support for the Palestinian resisters led by the coalition of 14 Palestinian NGOs in the Palestinian Human Rights Organizations Council (PHROC).
On the international front, the European Union, Kuwait and Jordan expressed alarm at the potential imminent evictions. Jordan summoned the charge d’affaires of Israel’s Embassy in Amman to protest Tel Aviv’s continued escalation and attacks against Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem. Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi claimed that documents showed the Sheikh Jarrah Palestinians were the “legitimate owners” of their homes [not the land] and that Israel was “playing with fire” in pressing forward with the evictions which were in violation of international law and the “historical and legal status” in Jerusalem. Morocco, Singapore and the UN Secretary-General expressed “concern,” Turkey called on Israel to end its attacks on Palestinians, Bangladesh, Russia and Indonesia condemned those attacks, and Switzerland insisted that the expulsions were violations of international law. As might be expected, the strongest criticism came from Iran. In a tweet, Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister,
censured the Israeli regime’s moves against the Palestinian people and said, “It wasn’t enough for the Israeli regime to steal people’s land & homes; create an Apartheid regime and refuse to vaccinate civilians under illegal occupation. It had to shoot innocent worshippers inside Islam’s 3rd Holiest Mosque upon Islam’s Holiest Eid.”
In contrast, Canada’s Honourable Marc Garneau, Minister of Foreign Affairs, issued as non-partisan a statement as one could imagine. “Canada is following the situation in Jerusalem closely. We call for immediate de-escalation of tensions and for all sides to avoid any unilateral actions.”
Representatives Marie Newman and Mark Pocan of the US Congress, along with Rep. Rashida Tlaib, Rep. Jim McGovern, Rep. Hank Johnson, Rep. Andre Carson and Rep. Ilan Omar, urged Secretary of State Tony Blinken and the Biden Administration to join in that support and pressure the Israeli government to rescind the eviction orders. Note that Newman and Pocan both co-sponsored Rep. Betty McCollum’s recent legislation specifying actions Israel may not finance with U.S. taxpayer funding. The legislation also calls for additional oversight under the principle that, “U.S. assistance intended for Israel’s security should foster peace and must never be used to violate the human rights of children, demolish the homes of Palestinian families, or to permanently annex Palestinian lands.”
The above members of Congress released an open letter on Friday (see attached) that declared that:
The current debate over the four homes and the eviction orders was part of a long pattern of forcible displacement, ongoing home demolitions and forcible transfer of Palestinian civilians not only in in East Jerusalem currently focused on Sheikh Jarrah, Wadi al-Hummus and Al-Bustan, but also in the West Bank;
The legal claim is being made by settlers backed by the government;
The settlers plan to evict the Palestinian residents in Sheik Jarrah;
The settlers plan to demolish the four houses in Sheikh Jarrah;
These actions are all in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, a sentiment echoed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights who said that the evictions, “if ordered and implemented, would violate Israel’s obligations under international law”;
The State Department should pressure the Israeli government because:
East Jerusalem is occupied territory and its 1967 annexation by Israel is illegal;
As the Occupying Power, Israel is obligated to abide by the terms of the Fourth Geneva Convention, Article 53, which states: “Any destruction by the Occupying Power of real or personal property belonging individually or collectively to private persons, or to the State, or to other public authorities, or to social or co-operative organizations, is prohibited, except where such destruction is rendered absolutely necessary by military operations.”
Article 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) defines as a war crime the “extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly.”
The pressure should consist of:
Launching a formal protest;
Condemnation of Israel’s home demolitions in unequivocal terms and taking diplomatic action to end this policy;
Investigating whether materials supplied by the U.S. as part of its defensive aid package was used in any demolitions;
U.S. Embassy officials in Israel should be instructed to send observers to document Israel’s forced displacement of Palestinians, including details on the military units involved in these operations and the usage of any U.S. weapons for purposes of oversight and accountability regarding Leahy Law and AECA violations.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry on Friday insisted that the Palestinians were “presenting a real-estate dispute between private parties as a nationalist cause in order to incite violence in Jerusalem.” However, the reasons for the conflict lay deep within the Zionist/Palestinian conflict and even within interpretations of Judaism. Israeli law provides that only Jews are eligible to seek and receive so-called abandoned land. But this land and the houses were never abandoned. Rather it is land that is being repossessed.
But there is a deeper reason offered by the ultra-Orthodox and even Orthodox. Verse 2 of chapter 25 of Leviticus from this past Saturday’s Torah reading states:
2 Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them: When ye come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath unto the LORD.
שַׁבָּת לַיהוָה , a sabbath unto the Lord, is a sabbath for the land and not just an obligation of the Jewish people. That is unique. Although in Canada or the US, Jews only are obligated to keep the sabbath, in Israel, that obligation for many of the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox, falls on the whole land. That means, according to some religious interpretations, that, in order to ensure the sabbath is respected on all territory of Israel, when title to land is regained by Israel, it must be sold to Jews dedicated to maintaining the sabbath.
Thus, inequities are built into both Israeli and Jewish law that do not allow Palestinians even to launch claims for land they lost in 1948 but do allow Jews to make claims for their abandoned property. It is not difficult to see why there might be objections – and there are – to this type of Zionist, Israeli state and Jewish theological justification for what is happening in Sheikh Jarrah. While protesters claim colonial settlement, apartheid, dispossession and repossession, the source of conflict goes much deeper, even if, on the surface, this is merely a civil claim over ownership and tenants’ rights.
There is an escalating hierarchy of threats to characterize the position of the other side. At the pinnacle from the Jewish side, used by Kahanist MK Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit Party, is the epithet antisemitic to characterize anti-Zionist opponents while praising Druze allies of Israel. In his maiden speech to the Knesset, Ben-Gvir praised his ideological mentor, Rabbi Meir Kahane (whose Kach Party was banned from the Knesset for racism). He was joined by his colleagues in the far-right, Michael Ben Ari, Baruch Marzel and Bentzi Gopstein, all banned by the High Court from running for Knesset due to incitement to racial hatred.
From the Palestinian side, head of Islamic Jihad, Abu Hamza:
saluted Palestinian violence in Jerusalem
called for jihad in pursuit of its liberation
referred to Sheikh Jarrah as the “land of martyrdom”
praised the series of protests that took place throughout Ramadan, promising they would “spread to settlements”
called for a renewal of the “running and stabbing” Israelis at checkpoints
supported “shooting without hesitation”
Called the shooting by Muntasir Shalabi of three Israeli teenagers at the Tapuah Junction in the West Bank, one of whom died, as “honourable”.
Extreme actions can be correlated with extreme words and epithets. If one defends “the heroic settlers who cling to all parts of our land” and sacrifice “themselves to settle the land” on religious and nationalist grounds, and then uses that justification to also mount attacks against Palestinians, that is Jewish extremism. If, on the other hand, Palestinian rights are not just defended in terms of tenancy rights, but, more radically, as a defence of Palestinian national rights, and then these defences are matched by attacks against the policy underlying the eviction efforts claimed to be colonialist-settler oppression and apartheid, is this not an expression of Palestinian extremism even though the courts are clearly willing to compromise and Jews are also ready to live within a predominantly Palestinian area? Does this depiction using negative epithets lack a descriptive content? Or does the dispute over Sheikh Jarrah express the practice of apartheid because Israeli law protects Jewish efforts to reclaim land and homes but not Palestinian efforts to reclaim their lands and homes?
My own conviction is that a detailed and contextualized description of the persistence of the Palestinian court challenges and the protests backing them up are fair and reasonable. So are the claims of the Jewish owners of the land. Compassion should be expected towards the Palestinians who believe they own their own homes in which they raised their families for decades. Courts exist to settle disputes where each side has justification. When those efforts at eviction turn to intimidation and even the use of force by non-state authorities, then we have illegal vigilantism that must be prosecuted. And when resistance to eviction is based on defining the courts as simply an internationally illegal arm of an illegitimate government, then the charge of apartheid verges on and even characterizes one expression of antisemitism.
To be continued: tomorrow – Part VIIC: Analyzing the Palestinian Position
The Honorable Antony Blinken
Secretary of State
U.S. Department of State
Washington, D.C. 20520
Dear Secretary Blinken:
We write to express our deep concern about Israel’s imminent plan to forcibly displace nearly 2,000 Palestinians in the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Al-Bustan and Sheikh Jarrah. We call upon the Department of State to exert diplomatic pressure to prevent these acts from taking place.
According to media reports, the Jerusalem municipality is planning to build a biblical theme park–Gan Hamelech–in Al-Bustan neighborhood near the walls of the Old City after it demolishes 100 properties, which are home to almost 1,550 Palestinians, 63 percent of whom are children.1 In the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, 169 residents, including 46 children, from 12 different families have received eviction notices so that their homes can be occupied illegally by Israeli settlers.2 Recent media reports have documented the blatant disregard for Palestinian families.3
From 1967 to 2017, Israel demolished an estimated 5,000 Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, according to a report by the Land Research Center.4 According to B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, from 2018 to 2020, Israel demolished another 349 Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem.5
East Jerusalem is part of the West Bank, and, under international law, Israel is in military occupation of this territory, notwithstanding its illegal incorporation of East Jerusalem within the Jerusalem municipality and its subsequent illegal de jure annexation of East Jerusalem. As the Occupying Power, Israel is obligated to abide by the terms of the Fourth Geneva Convention, Article 53, which states:
“Any destruction by the Occupying Power of real or personal property belonging individually or collectively to private persons, or to the State, or to other public authorities, or to social or co-operative organizations, is prohibited, except where such destruction is rendered absolutely necessary by military operations.”
In addition, Article 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC) defines as a war crime the “extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly.”
Israel’s plans to demolish Palestinian homes in Al-Bustan and to evict Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah are in clear violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention.
The United States has long opposed Israel’s demolition of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem. For example, on July 1, 1969, the Nixon administration’s Ambassador to the U.N. Charles Yost told the Security Council:
“The expropriation or confiscation of land, the construction on such land, the demolition or confiscation of buildings, including those having historic or religious significance, and the application of Israeli law to occupied portions of the city are detrimental to our common interests in the city. The United States considers that the part of Jerusalem that came under the control of Israel in the June 1967 war, like other areas occupied by Israel, is occupied territory and hence subject to the provisions of international law governing the rights and obligations of an occupying Power. Among the provisions of international law which bind Israel, as they would bind any occupier, are the provisions that the occupier has no right to make changes in laws or in administration other than those which are temporarily necessitated by his security interests, and that an occupier may not confiscate or destroy private property. The pattern of behavior authorized under the Geneva Convention of 12 August 1949 and international law is clear: the occupier must maintain the occupied area as intact and unaltered as possible, without interfering with the customary life of the area, and any changes must be necessitated by the immediate needs of the occupation. I regret to say that the actions of Israel in the occupied portion of Jerusalem present a different picture, one which gives rise to understandable concern that the eventual disposition of East Jerusalem may be prejudiced, and that the private rights and activities of the population are already being affected and altered.
My Government regrets and deplores this pattern of activity, and it has so informed the Government of Israel on numerous occasions since June 1967. We have consistently refused to recognize those measures as having anything but a provisional character and do not accept them as affecting the ultimate status of Jerusalem.”6
We would also like to recall to your attention that Members of Congress have expressed recent concern as well about Israel’s home demolitions in East Jerusalem. On March 16, 2020, 64 members of Congress sent the State Department a letter expressing “concerns over the ongoing home demolitions and forcible transfer of Palestinian civilians in the West Bank, including the recent demolitions in Wadi al-Hummus and other communities in East Jerusalem. We urge you to press the Israeli government to prevent more families from being forcibly transferred and having their homes destroyed.”
The letter also noted that “in light of the long-standing use of U.S.-origin and supplied equipment by Israeli security forces, we specifically request an examination of Israeli compliance with the requirements applied to recipients of U.S.-origin defense articles pursuant to the Arms Export Control Act of 1976 (AECA) as amended [22 U.S.C. 2751, et. seq.]. We also request a determination as to whether a report to Congress on this issue is required by section 3(c)(2) of AECA [22 U.S.C. 2753].”7
We also note that on March 12, 2021, 12 members of Congress sent you a letter stating: “We remain concerned about Israel’s policy of demolishing Palestinian homes in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem. We request that the State Department undertake an investigation into Israel’s possible use of U.S. equipment in these home demolitions and determine whether these materials have been used in violation of the Arms Export Control Act or any U.S.-Israeli end use agreements. We believe the State Department should condemn Israel’s home demolitions in unequivocal terms and take diplomatic action to end this policy.”8
We appreciate that the Biden administration has committed itself to ensuring that human rights and international law undergird our country’s foreign policy. Accordingly, we are calling upon you to:
1. Immediately send the strongest possible diplomatic message to Israel to desist from its plans to demolish Palestinian homes in Al-Bustan and evict Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah.
2. Publicly reiterate that Ambassador Yost’s statement on Israel’s demolition of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem is still official U.S. policy.
3. Undertake an expeditious review of previous Congressional requests that the State Department investigate whether Israel’s demolition of Palestinian homes with U.S. weapons violates the Arms Export Control Act (AECA).
4. If Israel proceeds with its plans to demolish Palestinian homes in Al-Bustan and evict Palestinian residents from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah, then the U.S. Embassy to Israel should send observers to document Israel’s forced displacement of Palestinians, including details on the military units involved in these operations and the usage of any U.S. weapons for purposes of oversight and accountability regarding Leahy Law and AECA violations
We appreciate your urgent attention to the dire situation in the West Bank. We look forward to your earliest possible reply and working with you to uphold the dignity and human rights of all peoples around the world.
Member of Congress Co-signed by other Members of Congress
“There are two issues which cut to the core of the identity of both the Jewish people and the Palestinian people: displacement and Jerusalem. It’s all there in this limited space of Sheikh Jarrah, and once you put them together, it’s nuclear fusion.” Daniel Seidemann
The current conflict over Jerusalem is not perceived to be an example of antisemitism, even when critics rage against Israeli policies and actions there. At the same time, the critics often view the behaviour as an exemplification of the reverse, of Jewish discrimination against non-Jews, particularly Palestinians that is often perceived as having equal weight to antisemitic hatred. Analyzing this alternative may provide some insights into differentiating antisemitism from discrimination as well as examining the possibility that Israeli action may be a possible stimulus.
Sunday evening marked the beginning of Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) in Israel commemorating the reunification of Jerusalem after the 1967 Six-Day War. Jerusalem may be a sacred city for Jews, Muslims and Christians around the world, but this spiritual centre is also a focus of conflict. Friday, the last day of Ramadan, was marked by Palestinian protests at the Al Aqsa Mosque in which at least 205 Palestinians and 105 police officers were wounded; 15 Palestinians were arrested in Jerusalem and, more unusual, another 15 in Haifa. The Palestinian Red Crescent emergency service reported that most of the wounded suffered injuries to the face and eyes by rubber-coated bullets and shrapnel from stun grenades. Yesterday, three additional battalions of the IDF were deployed to the West Bank and severe warnings were delivered to Hamas in the Gaza Strip about any additional rocket attacks and incendiary baloons. A serious effort is underway to confine the eruption to Jerusalem.
This morning’s headlines and bylines included the following:
As Jerusalem Violence Escalates, Israel Tries to Put Genie Back in the Bottle
Jerusalem, United in Violence, Marks Bloody Anniversary Today
Jerusalem Has All the Ingredients for a New Intifada – but So Far It Hasn’t Happened
Of all the areas of tension in Israel and the occupied territories – the areas next to and in the Gaza strip, the West Bank centres of settler harassment of Palestinians, the resort of individual and small groups of Palestinians to once again resort to terrorism and violent attacks against Jews – Jerusalem now stands at the top of these violent arenas.
The reasons for this current firestorm and its location include a confluence of many events:
Israelis and Palestinians are all on edge as a result of COVID-19
Jerusalem is experiencing a heat wave
As a result of the pandemic, thousands of Palestinian youth remain unemployed
Israelis are depressed, lacking a secure government and effective leadership
Israel’s police chief, Kobi Shabtai, and Jerusalem District Commander, Doron Turjeman, are inexperienced heads, having held their positions for only a month
the Government of Israel final authorization to go ahead with the construction of 540 settlement units in the Har Homa E area in south-eastern East Jerusalem that will encircle East Jerusalem with Israeli settlements
settlement advances in the Givat HaMatos area of Jerusalem encompassing 170 dunams bordered by Talpiot on the north, Gilo in the south and Beit Safafa to the west, reinforces this process
religious tensions spawned by Ramadan
the end of Ramadan on Friday with the Eid al-Fitr festival
70,000 worshippers attended the final Friday prayers at Al-Aqsa
afterwards, thousands protested peacefully waving the green flags of the Islamic militant group Hamas and chanting pro-Hamas slogans
following evening prayers, hundreds of Palestinian worshippers began hurling stones and other objects at the Israeli forces
in Sheikh Jarrah located just outside the Damascus Gates of the Old City, dozens again protested eviction orders
the imminent convergence of Mass Muslim Prayers and the Jewish Flag March this evening; the latter may be postponed or, at the very least, rerouted at the request of Israel’s domestic security, Shin Bet
the approach of Nakba on 15 of May commemorating the Palestine “disaster” of 1948
the very recent cancellation of the Palestinian elections by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas
the claimed reason for that cancellation, namely the failure of the Israeli authorities to allow voting booths to be set up in East Jerusalem post offices, contrary to the terms of the Oslo II Accords
Increased terrorist activities in the West Bank – Israeli forces shot and killed two Palestinians after three men opened fire on an Israeli base
The continuing Palestinian protests against the evictions of Palestinian residents in Sheik Jarrah when the Israeli Supreme Count today was scheduled to once again rule on whether the eviction orders will stand and be enforced; The Supreme Court once again just announced that once again the decision has been postponed
The ongoing evictions in Silwan on the other side of the Old City from Sheikh Jarrah and from al-Bustan just south of Silwan
Far-right Israeli provocations by politicians like Kahanist MK Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit Party, who first announced the move of his “pop-up” parliamentary office to the Sheikh Jarrah area and then, under pressure, postponed the planned move until after Ramadan in return for a police presence near homes claimed by Jews.
The city is once again in crisis. Let me focus on one source of the crisis, the dispute over the ownership of homes in the Sheikh Jarrah area. The general claim is that in Sheikh Jarrah, as well as in areas like Silwan, Palestinian families are being forcibly evicted from their homes to be replaced by Israeli settlers. The reality is more nuanced. The Supreme Court of Israel endorsed lower court orders that the evictions are legal. The Supreme Court offered a compromise in which the residents would be allowed to continue in residence for the lifetime of the original adult occupants provided they; a) formally acknowledged Jewish ownership of the houses; b) paid rent, and c) agreed to move when the original occupant passed away. On Thursday, the Supreme Court once again delayed its decision and gave the residents until 10 May to decide whether they would accept the proposed compromise, but yesterday postponed its decision once again. Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, with the instigation of the defence and intelligence establishment, requested that the Supreme Court postpone the scheduled hearing today on the appeal by Palestinian families against their planned eviction from the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood.
In late November 2019, the Supreme Court rejected the Sabagh (originally from Jaffa) and Hamad (originally from Haifa) families’ appeals against their evictions. That rejection was viewed by the 500 residents of Sheikh Jarrah as a prelude to the forced removal of the whole community. For example, Abdel Fataq Sqaffe is a 71-year-old occupant of one of the houses and there are 14 members of his household; that family is among others facing eviction. Earlier that year, on Sunday, 3 March, the judge of the Israeli Enforcement Authority rejected the petition of advocates on behalf of the five Sabagh families to cancel, or, at least, freeze the eviction orders issued in January.
Palestinians and peace activists claimed that the homes were being taken away because of the national identity of the inhabitants. That is, at best, only partially true. The residents facing eviction – four families now and three down the line – lost their homes in what is now Israel in 1948. Jews were also forced to flee Jordan, including East Jerusalem, as Jordan in 1948 made Jerusalem and the West Bank judenfrei. Though the last few decades following the Six Day War and the annexation of East Jerusalem, the Jews tried to reassert their ownership of those houses.
In the nineteenth century, the Sephardic Community Committee and the Knesset Israel Committee bought the original ownership of a plot of land near the tomb of Shimon Hatzaddik, a Jewish priest in ancient Israel. According to scholars and archeologists, a small Jewish community existed for thousands of years in Sheikh Jarrah around the tomb of Shimon Hatzadik. Jordan captured the territory in 1948 and, in 1956, built, with the help of the UN, 28 homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood to house displaced refugees from what was then Israel. The tenants paid rent to the Jordanian general custodian and, I believe, continued to pay rent to the successor Israeli authority.
Well after Israel captured East Jerusalem in the Six Day War and annexed that part of the city, problems arose in 2002 when Nahalat Shimon, a US-based company, purchased the land from the two community councils in 2003 with the intention of replacing the current residents with Jews, conditional upon the communities obtaining a waiver from the rabbinical court to permit the sale of the land, permission which was obtained. Nahalat Shimon then launched a serious legal effort to evict the existing occupants of the houses in order to demolish the neighourhood and build 200 homes for Jews.
A protest movement ensued in 2009 with demonstrations every week to protest the results of a series of court cases. In a few cases, the Palestinian families settled and moved in return for cash payments. But as the protests became caught up in the broader and deeper Jewish-Palestinian nationalist struggle, legal claims and counterclaims dragged out the process for twelve years. During that period, Jewish Israelis had only been successful in one legal case and four families were evicted. Currently, thirteen households with 300 people face eviction. Today, a ruling was expected by three families after they rejected the Supreme Court proposed compromise, but it has once again has been delayed.
A compromise had been proposed as early as 2010 by two academics, Professor Yitzhak Reiter and Lior Lehrs at the Jerusalem Institute for Policy Research. The state itself would expropriate the land now owned by Nahalat Shimon and determine what should happen with the occupants and the houses built by the Jordanian government. The presumption is that Israel would launch a housing program for Palestinians rather than Jews. Needless to say, under Netanyahu governments, the proposal went nowhere.
At the same time, the Palestinians were not allowed to use the Israeli legal system to reclaim their homes in Jaffa or Haifa. In the legal case over Sheikh Jarrah, almost two decades of the repossession efforts took on a new “lease” as the company provided documents to the court establishing its ownership of the land while the Palestinians presented evidence that the documents were fake. Jordan also provided documents that purportedly backed the residents’ claim and documented that the homes on the land had been constructed by Jordan. Though residency rights were at issue, the main battle was fought over ownership rights and rights of redress. But the battle was really about the authority of the whole Israeli legal system and, in particular, the Supreme Court. At an even deeper level, it is a struggle between Israeli Jewish nationalism and Palestinian nationalism.
To be continued; Foreground and the Current Controversy
“Leviticus 25 offers a vision for the relationship between individual and community, an approach to resources and the distribution of resources, and an understanding of the limits of ownership and private property. Leviticus 26 follows with a detailed image of what happens when a community fails to live up to its values.” (Rabbi Dvora E. Weisberg) Begin with the relationship of man and nature, man and man, and community and community with respect to the use and ownership of land.
This section creates: a) the shmita year, the seventh year during which the land itself shall enjoy a sabbatical of rest. (25:3-4); b) the jubilee year, yovel, every fifty years when land that is “sold,” that is rented to another under a long-term lease lasting until the scheduled jubilee year to a maximum of fifty years, is returned to its original owner (25:23); and c) the way tracts of land were distributed among the ancient tribes of Israel who were assigned only as its custodial ownership on behalf of God.
Individual persons were also considered property. One had proprietary ownership of one’s own body. That meant that it too could be rented out for hours, days, weeks or even years, but within limits. If it was a long-term rental, that was considered as selling oneself or another into slavery. A peasant could only sell himself to a landlord for a maximum of fifty years. A captive in war could only be enslaved for a maximum of fifty years. There was no right to own another in perpetuity and, in that sense, slavery was forbidden.
If these laws of ownership and apportionment are not followed, the Israelites were condemned to grow up as roots out of dry ground in the words of Isaiah. (52:3) Possessive individualism and collectivism both have boundary conditions in time and space. At the same time, the law protects the ownership of private property. Theft of property is forbidden as is its fraudulent or arbitrary confiscation. If the model of Abraham is followed in the purchase of a gravesite for his beloved Sarah, property should not be taken as a gift from a stranger lest an obligation be assumed within a system of shame and humiliation that does not spell out terms. Land exchange requires a contract, a watered-down economic covenant, that is, a hypothetical agreement that specifies the value of the exchange in monetary terms and any conditional clauses under which the exchange is to take place.
Some commentators, like Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, also view these provisions as visionary, as offering an economic utopia of egalitarianism. “The Torah reveals its commitment to equality by shaping the seventh year as a sabbatical year. The number seven represents the Torah’s ideal of the perfect, the whole, the complete. The seventh day every week is Shabbat. Six days a week we tolerate and participate in the flawed daily regimen where there is equality and inequality, rich and poor, justice and injustice, satiety and deprivation. On the seventh day, the Shabbat, we put aside all the compromises and injustice. All people—be they free or slaves—are released from work. All competition and striving to get ahead is suspended. People live the day as a foretaste of the Messianic era when all people will have all that they need, without war or conflict. People live in harmony with God, with Nature, and with each other.”
But I believe that this vision is read into the text and does not arise from the text. There may be boundaries placed on ownership of lands and persons, but equality is neither commanded nor promised. The Torah, I believe, in this respect, is not about that kind of justice and egalitarianism. It is not economic competition that is suspended on either shabat or on a sabbatical year, but labour. And the two are not the same. In the doctrine of possessive individualism, in contrast to communism for example, humans put their labour into the land specifically in an agricultural society, or into the material world more generally, to convert that world through the benefits of one’s intellectual and physical energy into goods and services that can be bought and sold. Shabat and the sabbatical year requires both a periodic rest from such activities and redistribution. It does not mandate equality among all parties. Justice does not entail equality but simply fairness.
However, is the land not apportioned among the tribes according to the ratio of the numbers in each tribe, larger tribes getting a larger portion and smaller ones a lesser portion? That is certainly the principle of collective distribution of land so that each nation should receive an amount of productive land proportionate not only to their numbers but to the type of activities in which that community is engaged. Cowboys need greater swaths of land than settled farmers. Rueben, Gad and half the tribe of Menassah received larger portions relative to their numbers because they raised cattle and were not farmers. (Numbers 32:4)
Periodic liberty from labour does not entail equality of ownership. Nor do efforts to redistribute ownership in the direction of greater equality and rebalancing. Fairness does not mean egalitarianism in the biblical ethos.
What about the Palestinians who lost their homes and lands in 1948 and became refugees or displaced persons? What about the Jews who lost their lands and homes when they were forced to flee Arab countries in the aftermath of the War of Independence? Should they not have their ownership rights restored by 1998 or, compensation paid for their losses? If the residents of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem lost their homes in Haifa or elsewhere in what became Israel and fled to Jordanian occupied East Jerusalem to take possession of homes and land owned by Jews there who were also forced to flee, after fifty years, should title be restored to those Jews or payment made under a contract of purchase and sale? Should the Palestinian refugees not be entitled to repossess their land and homes by the fiftieth year following their losses?
I believe that the biblical principles of both individual and community land ownership and the precepts found therein demand precisely such a redistribution, not in the name of egalitarianism, but in the name of justice and fairness. The Torah does not command full equality assured only by collective ownership, but fairness of distribution within a specific historical context. That is how the world is repaired.
However, for fairness to be pervasive, there must be one kind of equality – equality before the law. All residents in a region must be subject to and be protected by the same law. That is why the occupants of the homes in Sheikh Jarrah have continued to reside in their homes for decades in spite of pressures on them to leave. That is why the court ordered a compromise whereby the residents would be allowed to remain in their homes provided the ownership of the Jewish owners in 1948 is recognized, the “leases” to last a limited period relative to the length of lives of the owners and tenants.
Fairness requires the rule of law and equality before that law. What happens if one group contends that the system of law does not apply equally to all, that the law is merely an extension of a colonial settler apartheid state that privileges Jews over Palestinians by applying the law one way in the case of the Sheikh Jarrah area in East Jerusalem but another law in the case of an area in Haifa that used to be Palestinian before 1948? If that is the case, then the law falls into disrepute. All communities in the land governing those communities by a common law must be treated in the same way. If that is not the actual case, it must be the aspirational goal.
However, it must be the aspirational goal of all the communities living under that system of laws, whether in East Jerusalem, the rest of Israel or the West Bank controlled by Israel and administered under that law. If the system is headed in the other direction, then it is headed toward an apartheid system rather than an egalitarian system under the rule of law. However, both the protesters resisting inequity under the law and the defenders of traditional property rights must both recognize and respect that law. The protesters cannot be allowed for years and decades to use the legal system to postpone a day of reckoning rather than resolve a dispute. And those in power cannot use the law simply to advance their own ownership rights but must advance the ownership rights of all those who live in the land under the ruling legal system.
Further, jurisdiction does not align with military control but with the area ruled by a common system of law. That is why one cannot have one system of law ruling some people in Area C of the West Bank whereas another system of law governs people in the same section of Area C. That is simply a guarantee of inequity under the law. An equitable system requires all people in an area of jurisdiction be treated under the same system of laws.
What about the distribution of land between and among communities and the defining of the boundaries of one system of law versus another? The rules of a just defensive war apply. When the kingdoms of Sihon and Og attacked the Israelites, and the peoples of both Sihon and Og were defeated, the land conquered and its boundaries are determined in actuality and in the biblical text by the conquering party. But only if it applies that law to all who fall under that jurisdiction.
Thus, equity and fairness must boundary power at all times.
In the IHRA definition, five types of cases cited in that definition are of greatest interest for this discussion. They are, of course, all about certain types of responses considered antisemitic to the behaviour of Israel as a state. They include the charges of:
Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.
Denying the Jewish People the Right to Self-determination
Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.
Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.
Characterizing Israelis by Traditional Antisemitic Tropes
Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.
Characterizing Israel as a Nazi (or an Apartheid?) State
Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
This blog is only concerned with the fifth of the above. I have added the apartheid epithet to the Nazi one because:
The identification is similar to the original
It carries the corresponding degree of opprobrium
It is currently the most relevant one
It is experienced by Jews as a very repugnant characterization.
There is one major difference. Those characterized as antisemitic are often those who approve of Nazis who embrace the symbols and language of Nazism to characterize Jews. They view Jews as the movers and shakers behind the rise of people of colour. Charlottesville is an example where racists shouted, “Jews will not replace us,” not meaning that Jews will grow sufficiently in numbers to displace whites, but that Jews provide the direction, the strategy, the organization and the monies to back the rise of the Black and Brown presence in America in both their numbers and their roles. Jews are the anti-racists par excellence.
In characterizing Israel as an apartheid state, Jews are the racists. They intentionally have built a power structure intent on one group (the Jews in Israel) dominating another group (the Palestinians) in perpetuity. That intention has purportedly resulted in a widespread set of practices of oppression. In that oppression, Israelis and the Israeli government are guilty of a series of inhumane acts.
However, there is one major difference between “Nazi” and apartheid. The latter has a status in international law. The crime of apartheid is defined by the 2002 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court as inhumane acts of a character similar to other crimes against humanity “committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime”.
“Apartheid” was originally just the ideology and political means used by the National Party in South Africa to win the 1948 general election. In Afrikaans, it means “apartness” and the policy promoted the separation of different racial groups. Each group was to be entitled to their own equal and free social and cultural expression through autonomous political structures. In practice, it meant the domination of one group (White South Africans) over all other groups (Blacks, Coloured, Indians). Further, the most dangerous group to that policy, the vast majority of Blacks, were further divided, in South Africa, along tribal divisions. These policies and practices were backed by domestic law since 1950 to ensure the separation of races.
In 1973, the UN general assembly declared acts of apartheid as constituting a crime under international law through passage of the Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid. In 2002, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court included apartheid as a “crime against humanity” comprising a) “inhumane acts b) an institutionalised regime of systematic oppression and c) the intent of one racial group to dominate any other racial group”.
Apartheid is then characterized as a general rather than a state-specific phenomenon:
as the commission of inhumane acts
those inhumane acts are similar to “crimes against humanity”
they are perpetuated by a system of domination and oppression
they require intent, in the Human Rights Watch (HRW) report, the intention of any group to dominate another and not just a racial group.
The 213-page HRW report, “A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution” (HRW Apartheid Report 27 April 2021), instead of beginning with the alleged pattern of inhumane acts, in part to interpret intent, the report begins with alleged evidence of clear governmental intent to create in perpetuity a system of domination of Palestinians by Jews characterized by a legal system of separation and kept in place through domination and oppression. Thus, one major and critical difference. Apartheid was the pronounced policy of the South African regime from 1948 to 1994 and ended with the election of Nelson Mandela. Apartheid is the inferred policy of Israel by HRW, a policy denied by Israel. Second, the dominant demand for political separation by the Palestinians themselves is effectively ignored in the report. Third, whatever the remaining deficiencies, the dominant pattern since 1967 has been one of transferring increased power to the Palestinians however inadequate and tardy that process of transfer has been.
Further, the policy of separating Jews and Palestinians into two separate and on the surface autonomous political regimes was determined by a UN resolution, accepted by the Jews but rejected by the Arabs. War resulted. The territory politically dominated by Arabs became Judenrein, free of any Jews. The autonomous polity of Israel consisted of almost 20% Arabs in 1948, approximately the same percentage as today. In Israel, the laws treating Palestinian citizens of Israel as a potential fifth column were gradually lifted. Palestinians were elected to the Knesset and today, in professional life, say in medicine, in hospitals one finds that approximately 20% of the staff at all levels are Palestinians.
However, the situation could simply be phenomenal while the structure is, in fact, one of domination and oppression overall. The entire area, including Israel, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, contains roughly the same number of Jews and Palestinians (6.8 million), Further, since 1967 and the capture by Israel of both the West Bank and Gaza, and including both the Old City and East Jerusalem, the claim is made that, “Throughout most of this area, Israel is the sole governing power; in the remainder, it exercises primary authority alongside limited Palestinian self-rule.” Even in Area A of the West Bank where one finds the largest percentage of the Palestinian population in 10% of that occupied territory, Palestinians are considered to have limited self-rule over administration and security though Israel controls such issues as registration of occupants, travel, exit and entry. Even in Gaza, according to the Report, Israel is the dominant political authority even though the regime there periodically fires rockets at Israel. Gaza is explicitly governed by self-rule over security issues and administration, though its economy is constrained by Israel and Israeli policies limit entry and exit via Israel though not via the Rafah crossing to Egypt.
The report claims that, “Across these areas and in most aspects of life, Israeli authorities methodically privilege Jewish Israelis and discriminate against Palestinians. Laws, policies, and statements by leading Israeli officials make plain that the objective of maintaining Jewish Israeli control over demographics, political power, and land has long guided government policy.” Since the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, in what sense can Israel be considered to maintain “control over demographics, political power, and land”? Further, even in the West Bank, the current Israeli government may indeed be determined to maintain overall political power and the use of land, but that determination is divided at the top and divided in practice on the ground. The effective full control governs about 30% of the West Bank while control in the other areas has been gradually ceded to the Palestinians in contrast to the charge of a determination to maintain control.
Does the report not concede this? Israeli “authorities have dispossessed, confined, forcibly separated, and subjugated Palestinians by virtue of their identity to varying degrees of intensity.” (my italics)
Further, the report claims that, “In certain areas…these deprivations are so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.” Let me repeat and highlight this assertion. In certain areas…these deprivations are so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution. In other words, Israel is not accused of a general practice of apartheid, but only of the crime in certain areas where the oppressive practices are so severe that they constitute such a crime.
If that is the case, then Israel is being accused of apartheid practices only in certain areas. Which areas? Israel has maintained military authority over Palestinians from 1948 to 1966 in a declining pattern, and then in Gaza again in a declining pattern, and in the West Bank in parts in a declining pattern and in other parts in an increasing pattern, and in East Jerusalem which Israel annexed in an increasing pattern. Further, only in the West Bank is there to be found two legal systems controlled by Israel, the military one for Palestinians under its control and the civil Israeli law for settlers – the latter applying to Israeli Palestinian citizens and characterized by the report as “rights-respecting”. In the West Bank, there is a third legal system of domestic civil law, a mixture of Ottoman, British Jordanian and Palestinian law as well as a fourth system of military law, both under the control of the Palestinian Authority.
By far, the major case for the charge of apartheid comes from Israeli rule over the West Bank, both because of the differential in laws applied to Palestinians versus Jewish settlers and because of the limitations imposed on Palestinian self-rule wherein, “Israel retains primary control over borders, airspace, the movement of people and goods, security, and the registry of the entire population, which in turn dictates such matters as legal status and eligibility to receive identity cards.”
The reality, however, is that in a territory under occupation, the occupying power is obligated to respect the laws in force in the occupied territory, “unless they constitute a threat to its security or an obstacle to the international law of occupation.” In an occupied territory, international law not only commands the existence of two systems of law, but one in which military law trumps civilian law wherever the issue of security is invoked.
In Article 42 of the 1907 Hague Regulations, occupation is defined as applying to territory “placed under the authority of a hostile army” and extends only to the territory where such authority can be exercised and maintained. It is presumed that the army is hostile when it is in occupation contrary to the will of the existing occupation. Under this vague definition, Israel is in occupation of both the West Bank and East Jerusalem but not Gaza.
The report reverts to intent. “A number of Israeli officials have stated clearly their intent to maintain this control in perpetuity.” True enough. But what a “number of officials” state and believe does not make government policy let alone the policy of the state. And even the current Prime Minster, as a hawk on the issue, has contradicted his position at different times. What some officials declare does not establish the intent of the state. This is a far cry from South Africa where apartheid became the stated and actual government policy for over thirty years.
Finally, in criminal law – which is what is being discussed here – innocence is presumed; guilt must be established. The charge of intent is even more difficult to prove and intent must be established for a characterization of apartheid. With these preliminary observations, in subsequent blogs I want to examine the degree of intent in perpetuity and the extent to which it has been established in the report, the sense in which the “peace process” has been part of this effort at perpetuating apartheid, whether annexation, even of only part of the West Bank, would “formalize the reality of systematic Israeli domination and oppression.” Only after that examination will I return to the issue of whether the charge of apartheid against Israel amounts to antisemitism.
Yesterday I dealt with the conceptual differences among the current three competing definitions of antisemitism, the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance), the JDA (Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism) definitions, and the Nexus Declaration. I want to focus on the core debate that unites all three definitions but also divides them when it comes to criticisms of Zionism and Israel. All three definitions agree that certain forms of criticism of Israel are antisemitic, differing primarily on which kind of criticisms fall under the category of legitimacy.
This seems appropriate since this past Saturday was the centennial of the antisemitic (?) riots and fighting between Jews and Arabs that began in the Jaffa neighbourhood of Manshiva. A fight between two Jewish groups, the Jewish Community Party determined to celebrate May Day with a march from Jaffa to Tel Aviv and the rival socialist Ahdut HaAvoda ended with an attack of Arabs on Jews in that urban area that soon spread across Palestine resulting in the death of 48 Arabs, 47 Jews while 146 Jews and 73 Arabs were wounded. The Jaffa riots, Me’oraot Tarpa between 1 and 7 May 1921 became an attack by Arabs on Jews after a fistfight broke out between the two Jewish groups and rumours spread through Arab neighbourhoods that Jews were attacking Arabs. Arabs had spread the word (untrue as it turned out but continued to be believed until today) that Jewish marchers shot Arab passers-by.
“Arab men bearing clubs, knives, swords, and some pistols broke into Jewish buildings and murdered their inhabitants, while women followed to loot. They attacked Jewish pedestrians and destroyed Jewish homes and stores. They beat and killed Jews in their homes, including children, and in some cases split open the victims’ skulls.”
The attackers included Arab police. One of the victims was Yosef Haim Brenner, a giant and pioneer of Hebrew literature who had just issued a statement claiming that the Jews had offered an outstretched hand to Arabs and were spurned. High Commissioner Herbert Samuel called for military reinforcements from Egypt and General Allenby sent two destroyers. Samuel in the process made two ill-fated decisions, first to suspend (and then limit) Jewish immigration and, second, to appoint Haj Amin al-Husseini, a known rabid anti-Semite, as Mufti of Jerusalem.
The Haycraft Commission of Inquiry (Sir Thomas Haycraft was the Supreme Court Justice in Palestine) concluded that, “the fundamental cause of the violence and the subsequent acts of violence was a feeling among the Arabs of discontent with, and hostility to, the Jews, due to political and economic causes, and connected with Jewish immigration.” (my italics) Note, not antisemitism, but economics and politics were the causes of the hostility towards Jews. But Jews qua Jews were targeted. Arabs in Palestine wanted to stop Jews from migrating to Palestine. During the riots, two boatloads of 300 Jewish migrants were turned away from landing.
The Haycraft Commission characterized the Arab attack on the Jews as “racial strife.” The Arab majority were found to be the aggressors who inflicted most of the Jewish casualties. The Arab casualties were overwhelmingly the result of the use of British military and police forces to stop the rioting. A preponderance of anti-Jewish rhetoric and anti-Jewish feeling morphed into anti-Jewish violence. Today, there is a general consensus that widespread antisemitism led to widespread violence against Jews.
A century later, the battle rages and continues on the campuses of North American universities. As Kenneth S. Stern, one of the main authors of the IHRA definition of antisemitism, tells the tale in his book, The Conflict Over the Conflict: How the Israel-Palestine Campus Debate is Eviscerating Campus Freedom, pro-Palestinian groups label Israeli policies as racist and its practices of institutionalizing apartheid, a charge seconded by a very recent report by Human Rights Watch. Pro-Israeli groups counter, calling Palestinians terrorists and antisemitic, and its Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) as rooted in the denial of the Jewish right to self-determination. From both sides, terms of opprobrium are used to try to censor the other side. Antisemitism becomes one such term used as an insult rather than a legitimate descriptor.
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations denounced the use of the term apartheid coming from the other side as an epithet rather than a legitimate descriptor. “We strongly reject the disgraceful report released today by Human Rights Watch (HRW) that attempts to demonize, delegitimize, and apply double standards to the State of Israel. Authored by Omar Shakir, a longtime operative of the blatantly antisemitic and anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, this libelous document resorts to baseless apartheid accusations against Israel, among other lies and distortions.”
In this context, antisemitism and apartheid may be used as expressions of hatred primarily to vilify the other side and even incite violence. Barbara Landau of J Street expressed deep dismay at “the vitriolic response of some Jewish communal and pro-Israel organizations to the new report by Human Rights Watch titled A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution.” Defamation and delegitimation rather than depiction are the goals. J Street proclaims that such efforts are counter-productive, even harmful, to Israel and the goal of ensuring a safe and secure homeland for the Jewish people.
At the same time, Honest Reporting Canada in The Hill Times claimed that, “No Mainstream Jewish Organization, Politician, or Community Advocate Would Suggest Criticism of Israel Constitutes Antisemitism.” But demonization of the Jewish state is characterized as antisemitic and even members of Congress, such as Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina, accused the HRW report of demonizing the Jewish state and hence guilty of antisemitism. The defenders of Israel depict these attacks as merely another in a series of double standards applied to Israel fueled by an unceasing demonization which seeks to remove legitimacy from Israel’s very right to exist as a Jewish state.
Yet the HRW report never attacks Israel’s right to exist or even to exist as a Jewish state but, instead, focuses on Israel’s purported policies and practices against international law standards, describing apartheid as the continuing effort and intention of one group to dominate another leading to the systemic oppression of that other group carried out by means of inhumane actions. It is one thing to criticize the report as inaccurate or even distorted. It is another to declare that it is engaged in a program of demonization. The defence is to declare that, in such contexts, antisemitism is used to defame, unfairly malign and delegitimize defenders of Palestinian rights.
Which side is doing the defamation in the use of words like antisemitic and practicing apartheid? Criticism is not delegitimized, only certain kinds. In the debate, alternative definitions to the IHRA definition, such as the JDA one, are efforts to remove or severely limit the effort to characterize certain forms of criticism of Israel as antisemitic. Critics of this revisionism accuse the supporters as an effort to accept demonization, delegitimization and double standards in evaluating Israel.
The result are the campus wars, such as the one within the student government at the City University of New York. A proposal to adopt the IHRA definition was met by an alternative co-sponsored by the CUNY Law School Students for Justice in Palestine and CUNY Law Jewish Students Association which vilified IHRA and proposed a stripped-down condemnation of antisemitism based only on ‘white supremacism’ and excluding any critical stance against Israel as antisemitic. Both proposals were voted down, a result seen as a victory for the critics of the IHRA definition. In contrast, student governments at Notre Dame and the University of Manitoba adopted the IHRA resolution. At other universities, students who expressed support for Israel were denied the right to hold office or to use student facilities for pro-Israeli student clubs. Some even went so far as to identify such supporters as on a par or even in partnership with white supremacists.
It is clear that antisemitism is widely used as a term of abuse to vilify an Other, a use not sanctioned by any of the three definitions, but clearly in common use on both sides. This does not mean that antisemitism is not characterized by cognitive and emotional identifiable elements as well as characteristic targets, but merely that the use of antisemitism as an epithet should be recognized in any definition. When it is not, then moralism rather than linguistic analysis is being used to classify and characterize terminology.
Jews, not gentiles, have often been at the centre of the effort to, on the one hand, legitimize or delegitimize certain definitions of antisemitism or, on the other hand, to weaponize or disarm antisemitism as part of a larger conflict. It is not that these critics of weaponization accuse the other side of attempting to stifle all criticisms of Israel but only of the oppression of and violence against Palestinians. Those defenders of Palestinian rights are generally considered to have crossed a line and ventured into antisemitism when they even deny the right of the Jewish people to self-determination.
My major concern is that a definition should capture all common uses of a term, including uses you might not like. Further, in offering the definition, a systematic conceptual approach should be the starting point which identifies all the aspects that must be covered by the definition – the target, the cognitive and affective dimensions. The content of these categories should be determined by common use and not by moral or political positions. Further, the effort to produce a univocal meaning is inherently prone to self-destruction for it will fail to recognize the principle of family resemblance in the use of terms whereby some uses of the term may have little and perhaps no overlap with another at the opposite end of a spectrum of meanings.
Definitional assignments should not be the responsibility of advocates but students of language. Otherwise, the advocacy determines the definition, not usage. Then the definition merely becomes another dimension of the advocacy and an expression of a different political preference. This is especially true when terms are mutating to include new meanings. The classical meanings may be backed by a consensus, more or less, but as one moves towards the margins and new uses and inclusions, it is easy for advocacy and ideology to override the science of language use.
If the definition is comprehensive, it will include the way political opponents use the same term in different ways with different boundary conditions. This is far better when the term is used for pedagogical purposes and to gather data, for the definition will then identify the various uses, nuances and differences. It will also defang defining by showing how ascribing fangs to certain and limited meanings are reflections of political positions rather than descriptive analysis.
Tomorrow, I want to unpack the IHRC definition to reveal the political position embedded in that definition in relation to the HRW Report on Israeli apartheid. Next week I will examine two eminent defenders of the JDA definition with the same goal. I will then move on to provide more precise guidelines for more objective searches for a definition of antisemitism.
It is often said that if you want to fight the scourge of antisemitism, you must properly define it. But when propriety is in contention, then the result may be, and, in this case, has been, the scourge of a fight over meaning rather than an educational policy approach to deal with antisemitism itself.
I want to go back to the first principles of defining antisemitism and review the criticisms of the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition in the light of a meaning context rather than a consequentialist one with the impact on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict foremost in mind. Most of the discussion has revolved around the examples used as illustrations differentiating those which relate to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and those that do not. In my initial approach, I want to bracket anti-Zionism and the conflict with the Arabs.
Here is the original IHRA provisional definition offered:
“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
Note that antisemitism is defined as an emotion not as a breach of human rights. That emotion is hatred. It arises from a perception of Jews and is expressed both in language and in physical actions. The targets do not matter – they may be Jewish or non-Jewish – and they include individuals or community and religious institutions as well as the property or facilities occupied or belonging to either.
The JDA (Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism) is much simpler:
Antisemitism is discrimination, prejudice, hostility or violence against Jews as Jews (or Jewish institutions as Jewish).
Notice that non-Jewish targets cannot be objects of the JDA definition of antisemitism. Secondly, the one mental attribute, “prejudice,” is cognitive, unlike hatred that is emotional. Hatred is a powerful aversion. Hostility is not as charged. Prejudice is a judgment, an adverse one, or a negative but ignorant opinion. Prejudice may be based in indifference to the Other while hatred is an intense dislike, much more powerful and stronger than prejudice. Third, hatred inherently places the responsibility for the negative emotion on the Other; the Other is threatening, ugly or distasteful and even evil. Hostility is more neutral. Prejudice makes a pre-emptive assessment and clearly implies that the judgment is based on bias and ignorance. Finally, when these emotions or attitudes are expressed in behaviour, the IHRA definition does not indicate or specify the forms of verbal or physical “abuse” the behaviour will take while the JDA very specifically asserts that it must be violent. Clearly, there is difference between bias and partiality rooted in ignorance and an emotional-deep-seated hatred.
The Nexus definition was developed by some California scholars in response to IHRA because the latter purportedly provided insufficient guidance re identifying antisemitism and to provide greater clarity and fine-tuning. That definition states that, “Antisemitism consists of anti-Jewish beliefs, attitudes, actions or systemic conditions. It includes negative beliefs and feelings about Jews, hostile behavior directed against Jews (because they are Jews), and conditions that discriminate against Jews and significantly impede their ability to participate as equals in political, religious, cultural, economic or social life. As an embodiment of collective Jewish organization and action, Israel can be a target of antisemitism and antisemitic behavior. Thus, it is important for Jews and their allies to understand what is and what is not antisemitic in relation to Israel.”
Of the three definitions, the Nexus one appears to be the most complex and comprehensive.
Jews qua Jews Systematic conditions
Jews qua Jews Jewish institutions
Jews and non-Jews Jewish institutions
Attitude (anti-Jewish) Negative beliefs
The IHRA definition is the only one in which non-Jews can be targeted with an antisemitic diatribe. Obviously, if someone thinks you are Jewish and aims antisemitic barbs your way, the behaviour is antisemitic even though the person may not be a Jew. It is not at all clear why JDA and Nexus dropped this aspect of the IHRA definition. Further, the Nexus definition picks up the institutional side of the equation, but with almost a singular focus on Israel. This seems to be too narrow to apply to the instances recognized as antisemitic.
As far as the cognitive state entailed, an attitude is a settled mindset or emotional response normally directed at behaviour. Why did the Nexus definition conflate cognitive approaches and emotions? Further, why the focus on behaviour, the usual focus of attitudes when antisemitism may really have nothing to do with actual behaviour for we know of whole groups which are antisemitic but have no knowledge of Jews? When the character, Clever, in the Australian TV series Rake, refers to Red (a Jewess) as being afflicted with the curse of her people, a deep sense of guilt, it is quite clear that he is not antisemitic but is merely generalizing for sarcastic purposes where the joke may have a grain of truth. Negative attitudes need not be antisemitic. They may just be an expression of a viewpoint about another’s frame of mind.
A prejudice is not just anti-Jewish but a biased and ignorant perspective, whereas a perception which is antisemitic merely states that any anti-Jewish way of seeing the world which view Jews in a negative light is antisemitic. (If a person asserts that Jews are pushy (and perhaps Chinese even more so), this may be a loose generalization which may or may not be true, but it does not seem to add up to antisemitism. Calling antisemitism an anti-Jewish perception seems much too weak in characterizing the cognitive dimensions of the definition as well as far too broad. Antisemitism would seem to be a perspective and a mental inclination in viewing Jews, even negatively, but that in itself does not constitute antisemitism. Nor does the Nexus definition focused on negative beliefs. The categories seem both too broad and too general. In the case of the JDA definition, which more specifically focuses on prejudice, a preconceived opinion based on ignorance rather than actual experience, knowledge or reasoning, the definition suggests that any prejudice directed at Jews is antisemitic.
However, the proponents of the existence of antisemitism generally contend that antisemitism is not just one expression of prejudice, but a particularly virulent one, more incorrigible and deep-seated, more persistent and more lethal than most other prejudices, except perhaps racism. The bigotry is more unbridled. Whether that is actually the case is another matter. The JDA definition lacks clarity and focus on this dimension.
What clearly sets the IHRA definition aside from the others is characterizing antisemitism as a hatred and not just the milder term, “hostility” or the even mushier “negative feelings.” Though the Qur’an has much that is positive to say about Jews, it seems to have much more that is negative and characterised in such a way that “hostility” seems far too weak a term to characterize the assessment of Jews as “inveterately evil” and determined to undermine the well-being of Muslims. Jews
do not keep their promises (2:100)
are disputatious and quarrelsome (2:247)
are rebellious (2:55)
break the sabbath (2:63) and, for that, they morph into dogs and pigs
are heartless (2:74)
are fabulists and fabricators (2:79)
are self-interested and do not respect the teachings of Muhammad (2:87)
wallow in the misery of others (3:120)
mislead people (3:78)
use trickery to take the wealth of others (4:161)
slander Islam (4:46)
do not obey God’s commands (5:13)
are arrogant (5:18)
are lovers of lies (5:41)
do not regard God, Allah, as all-powerful, but weak and prone to err (5:65)
are unremittingly sinners (5:79)
are cursed by Allah (9:30)
are cowards (59:13).
Hostility and certainly negative feelings are far too weak to capture the flavour of these negative characterizations of Jews. At the same time, none of the above entails violent treatment of Jews aimed at individuals or Jewish institutions, but they certainly are not antidotes to violence. And, contrary to the JDA definition, violent behaviour is not the most frequent expression of antisemitism. Linfield University in Oregon fired a Jewish tenured professor, Daniel Pollack-Pelzner (DPP), for “serious breaches of the individual’s responsibility for the reputation of the institution. DPP had accused the trustees of sexual misconduct (DPP was the faculty-elected trustee) and President Miles K. Davis, who is Black, was accused of making antisemitic remarks. There was no review of whether Davis in fact had made remarks about Jewish noses and added negative comments on the Holocaust. The firing took place without a “statement of charges” being made as required by established university processes before an “elected faculty hearing committee” with the right of the accused to be represented by counsel.
Thus far, this is an accusation concerning antisemitism without proof and without indicating either a prejudice towards Jews and likely no hatred. The conflict probably revolved around silencing critical faculty but may have escalated to generalizations about Jewish troublemakers.
When Judith Taylor wrote a newspaper column about inordinate wealth acquisition accompanied by photos of the late Barry Sherman and his wife Nancy who had been murdered, with Prime Minister Justice Trudeau and Mayor John Tory of Toronto wearing kippahs at their funerals, this depiction alongside the photos was widely regarded as antisemitic, even if the columnist may not have had any deep-seated hatred of Jews. The newspaper apologized for the use of an antisemitic trope, but neither hatred nor even prejudice may have been at work here, just an ignorant falling into antisemitic rhetorical devices.
In another case, Peter Beinart, editor of Dissent and currently a radicalized critic of Israel, blamed the arrest of dissenters in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) because Israel sold the surveillance technology to the UAE. He was widely criticized but not accused of antisemitism. His rationale:
Israel was once offered peace by the Arab states in return for recognizing an independent Palestinian state.
In rejecting that offer two decades ago, Netanyahu “forced Arab regimes that want peace with Israel to sell the Palestinians out;” [Beinart truly did claim that Bibi forced the UAE to sign the normalization agreement and betray the Palestinians.]
That betrayal of the Palestinians and the repression of the intense popular opposition required the UAE government to use extreme repressive measures.
Israel provided the technical surveillance equipment to carry out that repression.
Hence, Israel bore a direct responsibility for the repression, in providing the provocation for the protests and then the equipment to carry out the repression.
The analysis may have been a surprising indication of Peter’s ignorance. There were clearly UAE citizens who identified with the Palestinians and agreed that their government had committed an act of betrayal. But the internet was also full of praise for Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed, perhaps manipulated, for signing the normalization agreement with Israel. He was dubbed “the man of peace.” Others welcomed the agreement for now they would be able to pray at the al-Aqsa Mosque. Still others rejected making Palestinian nationalism a priority over UAE nationalism.
Polls clearly indicate that the normalization of relations with Israel is not generally regarded negatively. Over the last twenty years, the Arab world in general has displaced the Palestinian national cause from a centre of concern to a more peripheral position and even a negative response as undermining national interests. But Peter’s ignorance and prejudice in analysis does not amount to antisemitism. Peter may reveal himself to be very biased in favour of the Palestinians to such an extent that it distorts and deforms his analysis, but such intellectual deficiencies and biases with a negative view of Israel do not amount to antisemitism whatsoever. And I know of no one who makes such a claim.
In sum, none of the definitions above are adequate. Each of them stresses different aspects and characteristics. The fault may be that equivocal terms like “antisemitism may have a range of applications wherein the extremes at either end of the range bear no resemblance to each other. The fault may be the presumption that a univocal definition is a prerequisite for attacking the problem, both in collecting information and employing pedagogical and legal means to combat it.
However, the definitions all reveal they use a similar quadrant of categories to depict antisemitism: the target; the cognitive dimension; the emotional one; and the behaviour consistent with antisemitism.