This open letter to “leaders of North American Jewry” from over 1400 “academics and other public figures from Israel/Palestine and abroad” is a travesty (the graphic illustrating this article came with it). Although it has gained substantial traction in some academic and leftist circles it embodies numerous serious flaws. It is probably easiest to itemise the main ones below.
· Contrary to what the letter claims there is no direct link between Israel’s drive for judicial reform and its occupation of the “occupied Palestinian territories” (OPT, that is the West Bank and the Gaza strip). The relationship is complex and indirect. The judicial reform package is designed to enhance democracy among Israeli citizens (which includes about 1.6m Arab citizens with another 400,000 in greater Jerusalem having permanent resident status). That is the reforms are essentially designed to stop unelected judges overriding the wishes of the elected legislature (Knesset). In contrast, the current status of the occupied territories, however one views it, is the result of the Israel that existed before the current judicial reform was implemented. Indeed in this context it should be remembered that Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza under a leftist government in 1967. That expansion of territory to include many more Palestinians was the creation of the Israeli left rather than the right.
· Israel’s protest movement, like the authors of the letter, is profoundly anti-democratic. Its main goal it to maintain the power of a technocratic elite by giving the judiciary the final say in Israeli politics.
· As I have argued several times it is a travesty to describe Israel as an apartheid state. That is not because Israel is discrimination-free but because the objective situation is entirely different from that which existed in South Africa. Apartheid was essentially a discriminatory framework that allowed a small white minority to control a black majority in a system of economic exploitation. The conflict in Israel is the result of a bitter clash between Jews, who were mostly fleeing the threat of extermination abroad, and the majority indigenous population. It is at root political rather than economic.
· Why would anyone trust human rights organisations? For one thing, if their reports on Israel were read closely it would become apparent that they acknowledge the situation is not analogous to the one that pertained in South Africa. They redefine “apartheid” to mean systematic discrimination. But if that is the case why single out Israel (and sometimes Myanmar)? Unfortunately discrimination is rife in many countries worldwide. The apartheid slur is essentially a way of holding up Israel as an exemplar of evil in the world.
· The letter does not make clear that its demand for equality for Jews and Palestinians within Israel and the OPT combined is in effect a call to liquidate Israel. Since Palestinians constitute a narrow majority in the entire area it would no longer be a Jewish majority state. They are of course free to make that argument – as opposed to calling for a two-state solution – but then they should make its implications explicit. The way they frame this point sidesteps three key questions. First, the Gaza strip is not controlled by Israel, which unilaterally withdrew in 2005, but by Hamas (although Israel does control the borders on three sides with Egypt controlling the other border). Second, this may not be the preffered solution of Palestinians either. It should be up to them, not foreign academics, to decide what form of solution they prefer. Finally, there is also the crucial question of Islamist groups in particular making genocidal threats against Israel’s citizens. Israel has a duty to protect the lives of its citizens. These are not small questions which can be ignored. Resolving them is central to any genuine peace.
· The call for American leaders – even elected ones – to interfere in domestic Israeli and for that matter Palestinian politics is profoundly undemocratic. It should be up to the people of the region to determine their own futures. Bringing in an outside party makes this task even more difficult than it is already.
The outlook embodied in the letter is thoroughly elitist. Not only is it opposed to the rights of Israeli citizens, Jewish and non-Jewish, but it also ignores the Palestinian right to national self-determination.
· For an alternative critical take on the letter see this article by Jarrod Tanny, a professor of Jewish history at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington and recent interviewee on my site.