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Responding to Amnesty International’s report on Israel and the charge of apartheid

Reconstructing Judaism and the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association have issued the following statement in response to the recent Amnesty International report:

Apartheid is one of the most shocking words in the English language, conjuring images of the brutal and racist South African regime that decades of struggle brought to an end in 1994. Last week, Amnesty International became the latest human rights organization to accuse Israel of the crime of apartheid. Amnesty’s report follows reports by Human Rights Watch and by the Israeli human rights organization, B’Tselem, both of which level the same charge. Over the past several days, we have taken the time needed to study Amnesty’s 280-page report and develop our response.

Like B’Tselem and Human Rights Watch before them, Amnesty states that they are not making the claim that Israel is enacting the same kind of racialized system that governed apartheid-era South Africa; rather, they are claiming that the crime of apartheid as defined in international law covers a much broader set of circumstances, and that Israel is in violation of it. 

Amnesty’s report claims that from its founding, Israel’s efforts to ensure a Jewish majority within its boundaries were inherently discriminatory and fostered an apartheid system. The report emphasizes the ways in which Israel’s creation has been catastrophic for Palestinians, including Israel’s policies of designating lands previously owned by Palestinians as “abandoned” and then claiming them for the State, and its refusal to readmit Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war. The report calls for a total and unrestricted right of return for all Palestinian refugees and their descendants. It also recommends bringing diplomatic pressure to bear on Israel’s government until it outlaws not only all forms of unequal treatment of Palestinians, but also any policies intentionally designed to maintain a Jewish-majority state. 

Problematically, the report downplays the ways in which Israel’s creation provided refuge for and saved the lives of many of the world’s most desperate Jews in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust. It does not address the historical reasons why Jews have needed refuge from systemic and recurring antisemitic violence in many parts of the world, nor does it address the existential threats that Israel has faced and continues to face today.

As a movement, we affirm our longstanding position that the state of Israel as a democratic national homeland for the Jewish people is historically just and necessary. To the authors of Amnesty’s report, we ask how the recommendations of their report would account for Jewish safety in the future, and why their report appears to dismiss the idea that there was any justice or wisdom behind the U.N.’s 1947 decision to partition the land in order to ensure that it would include a Jewish state capable of receiving a massive influx of Jewish refugees as a humanitarian imperative? We ask how the report accounts for the unique situation of the Jewish people before 1948 –  dispersed, repeatedly persecuted, and nowhere sovereign – yet maintaining profound historical, spiritual, and cultural ties to their ancient homeland?  

At the same time, we cannot ignore or dismiss the report’s documented examples of systemic Israeli human rights abuses, especially relating to the now 54-year-old Occupation, which our movement has opposed for decades. The Occupation’s web of military checkpoints, disproportionate use of West Bank natural resources for the settlements, land confiscations, home demolitions, and its two-tiered legal system represent serious human rights violations. In light of this report and many of the recent events we have witnessed, including evictions of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem and increased violence by extremist settlers against Palestinians, we urge our political leaders in the US, Canada, Israel, and elsewhere to act boldly to stop settlement expansion, to prevent Israeli annexation of West Bank territory, and to reinvigorate a serious Israeli-Palestinian peace process that will end the Occupation and the unequal treatment of Palestinian citizens of Israel, and that will result in compromises on all the outstanding issues, including refugees and Jerusalem. 

Amnesty’s report comes to a world that is surging with renewed antisemitism, as well as a world in which Palestinians have no state of their own and continue to face daily humiliations, losses, and systemic violence from Israel. While we do not use the word “apartheid” to describe the basic notion of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, we also take seriously the warnings of Israeli leaders like former Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who in 2017 warned that Israel is on a “slippery slope toward apartheid,” and would inevitably reach that status if a Palestinian state is not established alongside it. We want the human rights violations that Amnesty’s report documents to end, even as we worry that Amnesty’s report will be misused by those who fuel antisemitism or seek to endanger Jewish communities around the world. As Jews whose lives are deeply connected to our Jewish-Israeli brethren, we cannot turn our backs on their safety and vulnerabilities, but we also cannot turn our backs on our Jewish vision of justice for all, and on the many Israelis who are fighting for it in their own country.

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