“An Affront to Truth and Justice”: Occupation, Not Dissent. A Response to Rabbi Warren Goldstein

by Rifat Odeh Kassis | 20 November 2010 | As a Palestinian living in the so-called West Bank, I cannot go to Tel Aviv at all, let alone to the….

by Rifat Odeh Kassis | 20 November 2010 |

As a Palestinian living in the so-called West Bank, I cannot go to Tel Aviv at all, let alone to the Tel Aviv Opera House. But I know what’s on the program for tonight: Porgy and Bess, performed by none other than the Cape Town Opera, from November 12-27.

This collaboration between the South African and Israeli opera companies is both ironic and painful, given South Africa’s recent era of apartheid – and our current one. In response to the news of this performance, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu contacted the Cape Town Opera’s managing director and urged them to reconsider their visit. Kairos Palestine (co-authors of “A Moment of Truth,” which is Christian Palestinians‟ word to the world about the Israeli occupation and a call for support in establishing a just peace), of which I am the coordinator, did the same. The Cape Town Opera refused, and so they are in Tel Aviv at the time of this writing, performing Porgy and Bess (which has, as Archbishop Tutu noted, a “universal message of non-discrimination), playing their part in normalizing the fundamental injustices of the Israeli state.

Yet I write today in response not to the Cape Town Opera House, nor to the Israeli government, but rather to Rabbi Warren Goldstein, the chief Rabbi of South Africa. Rabbi Goldstein wrote an open letter to Archbishop Tutu, published in The Jerusalem Post on 3 November, which essentially condemned the Archbishop’s commitments to peace with justice, equality for Palestinians, and boycott as an important and non-violent means of opposing the systemic atrocities of Israeli occupation – a means successfully employed for all of the same reasons in apartheid South Africa.

Thus, I will address Rabbi Goldstein directly from now on.

Rabbi Goldstein, I write in response to the many ways in which your words contribute to the apparatus of racism, denial, inequity and outright falsehood that continually oppresses the Palestinian people. You have urged Archbishop Tutu to remember the core values of truth, justice, and peace – but I have searched your letter for these values and I cannot find them. Please allow me to revisit and reflect upon some of your words.

You wrote:

1. “The truth, archbishop, is that Israel is simply not an apartheid state. In the State of Israel, all citizens – Jew and Arab – are equal before the law…Israel is a vibrant liberal democracy with a free press and independent judiciary, and accords full political, religious and other human rights to all its people, including its more than 1 million Arab citizens….”

As Professors Allan Boesak and Farid Esack state in their eloquent response to your letter, published in the Star Newspaper of South Africa on 10 November, you “[conflate] life inside Israel and life in the occupied territories.” But given that your above remarks refer to Palestinian citizens of Israel, I will also focus on this community in the following comments.

I marvel at the use of your phrase “equal before the law,” a statement both audacious and false. Since obtaining citizenship, the Palestinian population in Israel has been systematically dealt with as second-class citizens, facing exclusion and discrimination in educational, professional, political, and all other public spheres. In a heavily militarized national culture, Israel often justifies its discrimination against Palestinian citizens on the basis that they don‟t serve in the military. Palestinian schools have separate curricula; Palestinian municipalities receive only a small percentage of funds allocated by the state, per resident, to settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt) or to so-called “development towns” inhabited solely by Jews; and a brutal land-expropriation policy has severely damaged Palestinian citizens’ ability to own land, keep land already owned, or receive adequate services.

I wonder if you have ever spoken to a young Palestinian citizen of Israel attempting to rent an apartment for the first time, rejected on the basis of her last time; to a family of Palestinian citizens of Israel who seek to buy land, or keep the land their families had owned for generations; to a Palestinian university student within Israel, excluded from scholarship opportunities offered only to military veterans of specific wars; the residents of Al-Araqib, a Bedouin village in the Naqab (Negev) Desert whose residents, all Palestinian citizens of Israel, have had their homes demolished for the sixth time in the past three months; to Palestinian MKs in the Israeli Knesset who are dismissed as terrorists for criticizing any of these practices of oppression – I wonder if you have ever spoken to one of them and tried to convince them that they are equal before the law.

Again, this information specifically addresses the inequalities facing Palestinian citizens of Israel. However, the charges of apartheid (which you so confidently refute) affect the entire Palestinian population, most harshly those living under direct military occupation. As former U.S. President Jimmy Carter has said, “When Israel does occupy this territory deep within the West Bank, and connects the 200-or-so settlements with each other, with a road, and then prohibits the Palestinians from using that road, or in many cases even crossing the road, this perpetrates even worse instances of apartness, or apartheid, than we witnessed even in South Africa.”

2. “The other untruth is the accusation of illegal occupation of Arab land.”

By the end of the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, the Israeli military had destroyed more than 400 Palestinian villages and claimed the land on which they stood (expelling, in the process, about 780,000 Palestinians, versus the 150,000 who remained). Israel has seized what is now the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights. Between 1967 and 2007, 121 official settlements, 10 “unrecognized” settlements, and many outposts (proto-settlements, if you will) were constructed in the oPt. An additional 12 settlements exist within East Jerusalem, which was annexed – illegally, according to international law – by Israel in 1967. This systematic construction was made possible by the continual theft of Palestinian land: thousands of dunams once belonging to Palestinian families, farmers, and communities have been and continue to be expropriated for settlement building.

Rabbi Goldstein, we did not invent the definition of “occupation,” nor of “illegal.” Scores of international laws and UN resolutions condemn the illegality of Israel’s confiscation of, occupation of, and construction on Palestinian land – all practices that egregiously violate the human rights of Palestinians in the process.

3. “Archbishop, you and I as religious leaders always turn to the Bible as a source of truth.”

In your letter, you speak at length about the land promised to the Jewish people, about the inherent Jewish right to this land, about the Bible’s statement of this connection – of the Jewish “claim,” essentially, to a holy place and its sites. My purpose in writing this article is not to provide interpretations of God’s promises. But Kairos Palestine and I do oppose ideological readings of the Bible, and we certainly oppose any use of the Bible that legitimizes injustice, promotes inequality, endorses racial and religious domination, or otherwise severs the Word of God from its universality and love. Thus, we condemn the way in which your interpretation justifies the denial of Palestinian rights, and our very existence, in our home. This is the logic of the Israeli occupation itself, which is fundamentally a distortion of the image of God in human beings, a degradation of the way we were meant to treat and be treated by one another, and a dishonoring of God’s love.

4. “Archbishop, the Arab/Israeli conflict is not a struggle against apartheid or occupation. It is a century-long war against the very existence of Jews and a Jewish state in the Middle East.”

This statement ignores the Israeli occupation as a driving force, a fundamental source, of conflict in the Middle East, while simultaneously ignoring the many positive steps taken by Palestinians and Arabs from other countries in order to resolve this conflict. In 1988, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) formally recognized the state of Israel; in 2002, all Arab countries expressed their willingness to recognize the state of Israel with the end of the occupation. It is misleading to pretend that the Arab world has sought to prolong the conflict forever, or that its “rejection of Israel” is the core problem. You glibly refer to many missed opportunities for peace. But justice, without which peace is meaningless, is what has been and continues to be missing from the peace process. The state of Israel has yet to act in a way that demonstrates its investment in justice as opposed to simply a “resolution” that affords it a maximum of control.

Moreover, if opposition to the Israeli occupation and the policies of the Israeli government is considered anti-Semitic (you frequently make this erroneous charge in your letter), then this is a very dangerous conflation indeed; it makes anti-Semitism into a tool used to intimidate anyone who criticizes Israeli policies. In our document, “A Moment of Truth, we “condemn all forms of racism, whether religious or ethnic, including anti-Semitism and Islamophobia; and we call you to condemn it and oppose it in all its manifestations (passage 6.3). What we oppose is not and has never been Judaism: what we oppose is oppression and occupation in any form,

5. “…[U]ntil the National Party was prepared to accept that black South Africans had a place in their own country, there could be no peace. And so, too, until the Arab/Muslim world accepts that Jews have a right to a state of their own on their ancestral land, there will be no peace.”

There are many possible analogies to be drawn between the South African struggle and the Palestinian one, but yours is not one of them: this analysis is both insulting and incorrect. First and foremost, as Professors Boesak and Esack state, “The solution in South Africa was precisely NOT to accept separate black states, but to reject that „solution‟ for the lie that it was. Israel must give up the premise of separation – apartheid.” Second, you wrongly position the “Arab/Muslim world” as the National Party, as the white leadership of South Africa, in this analogy, while you position Jews as the equivalent of oppressed black South Africans. No, Rabbi Goldstein, the reality is quite the opposite. The Israeli government is an apartheid elite systematically separating the Palestinian population from the full and equal realization of their human rights and self-determination. Who is David and who is Goliath?

6. “In 2000, the Palestinian leadership launched a massive wave of suicide bombers into Israel….”

Like you, we reject terrorism and all other acts of violence, including those implemented in frameworks of religious fundamentalism. However, we also reject the idea that acts of terror occur in a vacuum. The root evil of occupation continues to generate its own worst extremes – enacted by both Palestinians and Israelis – and the cycle of violence continues to affect and involve individuals and groups from both sides. Further, I wish to raise the following question: is the definition of terrorism exclusive to those who use themselves as suicide bombers, or should this category not also include the murder of innocent people at the hands of those in uniform, using sophisticated arms, firing from tanks? We condemn the acts of terror that have killed innocent Israeli civilians. We also condemn the acts of terror that, for example, killed over 1000 innocent Palestinian civilians in Gaza, including over 300 children, in December 2008/January2009. We must extend the definition of terrorism to everyone who perpetrates it, and we must end the cycle of violence completely.

7. “The checkpoints are on the border between sovereign Israeli territory and the disputed territories of the West Bank and Gaza in order to keep civilians from being murdered….”

The idea that checkpoints are located on the “border” between sovereign Israeli territory and the oPt, and that these checkpoints exist solely as a protective measure, is gravely misleading. Of the approximately 99 numbered permanent checkpoints, only 36 are located along the Separation Wall or equivalent entry/exit points (which are often located far from the Green Line), while the other 63 permanent checkpoints are scattered within the oPt. The city of Hebron alone has 16. These permanent checkpoints form an overall structure of movement restrictions for Palestinians, yet the Israeli state also establishes multiple “flying” (temporary) checkpoints, the existence or locations of which can change on a daily or weekly basis. Together, the system of checkpoints and roadblocks also serves to divide the oPt into six geographical regions, making travel within the oPt more burdensome and fragmenting Palestinian communities even more than they already were.

In short, checkpoints do not obey a consistent territorial border; in reality, they operate primarily to limit and monitor Palestinian movement within the oPt, each one a locus of restriction and humiliation for the individuals who must pass through them.

Further, the fact that you refer to the oPt as “disputed territories” is euphemistic to the point of absurd. They are not disputed; they are confiscated, they are occupied, and this occupation is illegal.

8. “Archbishop, do not bestow respectability on an immoral sanctions campaign that is an affront to truth and justice, which prevents peace and prolongs the terrible suffering of people on both sides of this painful conflict.”

Your attitude toward the global BDS campaign is by no means unfamiliar to us. Many people criticize this campaign as “imbalanced” or overly punitive, because they still erroneously reduce the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to a “balanced” dispute between two sides, refusing to acknowledge that the situation is irrefutably otherwise: an apartheid state, brutally militarized and shamelessly unequal. Many people complain, as you have done, that BDS “prevents peace.”

Starting from the fact that Palestinians are boycotted by Israel to begin with, I must emphasize the hypocrisy of such an argument. Rabbi Goldstein, your letter to Archbishop Tutu extols the state of Israel as a “vibrant liberal democracy.” Later, you condemn terrorism. I‟d like to remind you that boycott, divestment and sanctions are all means of non-violent protest consistent with democratic rights and responsibilities. Its methods are peaceful, and its objective is peace – for all. By affirming this tactic, we reject violence and revenge; the complete system of sanctions should lead to justice and freedom for Palestinians, and peace and security for Israelis as well.

If you reject BDS as a valid way to call for change, and as a right in and of itself – a right that should be defended by any true democracy – than what other means do you propose for creating peace in our region? In a time when bloodshed has been the primary tactic, negotiations are an exercise in humiliation, and voices like yours continue to suggest that Palestinians have no rights to defend in the first place, BDS is an effective, nonviolent tool that strengthens – and unites – Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers alike.

What is truly an “affront to truth and justice,” and what “prolongs the terrible suffering of people on both sides of this painful conflict,” is occupation – compounded by the blind support offered by so many people, including you, for its existence and its crimes.

We, too, pray for the three inseparable values you have quoted: justice, truth, and peace. We hope you will join us in these prayers.

Rifat Odeh Kassis
is a Palestinian active human rights and political and community activist, co-founder of the Kairos Document.