July 18, 2019

A Time for Reflection

Guest Column
By Jack Segal | Sept. 8, 2018

On Sept. 9, Jews worldwide began celebrating the Jewish New Year (“Rosh Hashanah”).  Observant Jews believe that this occasion marks when God sits in judgment of the world’s inhabitants, decides who will live another year, and decides whether the believers will enjoy happiness and success.

Yom Kippur — the Day of Atonement — follows on Sept. 18 and 19. Jews observe Yom Kippur by fasting from sundown until nightfall the following day, by refraining from work, and importantly, by turning inward for a day of self-criticism and praying to God for forgiveness for their transgressions and faults.

By now, I’ve already gotten myself into trouble with the real experts for presuming to describe these two important Jewish holidays to you. But my purpose here actually relates to foreign policy, about which I claim some expertise. Because the United States and Israel are so closely connected, it is essential for all Americans to understand what is happening between and within our two countries. These holidays are pivotal events in Israel, and the period of self-reflection expected of Jews should apply also to the policies of Israel’s government.

Recent events give cause for concern. On July 20, Israeli lawmakers passed a controversial “nation-state” bill declaring that only Jews have the right to self-determination. The new law also downgraded Arabic from an official language to “special status,” declared Jerusalem to be Israel’s “united” capital, and proclaimed that Israel is the “historic homeland of the Jewish people.” 

Though the new law is largely symbolic, many of the country’s 1.8 million Arabs — around 20 percent of Israel’s population — see it as an affront and have branded the bill racist. 
The law also has incensed the 130,000 Druze in Israel. They are a non-Muslim, monotheistic minority who are known for their fierce loyalty to Israel. Traditionally, a majority of Druze young men join the Israeli Defense Forces and — because of their skill in Arabic — are often the troops most likely to encounter Palestinian protestors. As retired Brigadier General Amal Asad, a Druze veteran of 30 years in the IDF, said, “This law is the most painful blow I’ve received in my life, something I never thought I’d get from people with whom I served, alongside whom I was shot, with whom I’ve built this state … 450 Druze gave their lives for Israel, and Netanyahu passes a law telling me the country doesn’t belong to me?”

These two communities — Israeli Arabs and Druze — have always underpinned Israel’s claim to be a true democracy. While the Arabs have at times wavered in their support for the Israeli state, they are essential players in any effort to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. To them, this new law threatens a fundamental element of Israeli democracy.

In another example of the need for self-reflection by Israel, just this week, the NGO Breaking the Silence (BtS) was banned from putting on an exhibition at a private art gallery. Former IDF soldiers formed BtS to provide transparency of IDF practices in the occupied territories (called “Judea and Samaria” by some Israelis). BtS offers seminars in Israel about the occupation and even conducts tours of Hebron for visitors — an activity that so far had been tolerated by the government. Like other Israeli organizations engaged in self-criticism in the territories, BtS is a symbol that democracy prevails in Israel; that freedom of speech exists; and that Israelis can criticize how Israel is conducting its now 50-year long occupation. 

But during those tours of Hebron, some tourists break the rules and try to spur shouting matches with the IDF soldiers on guard in the overwhelmingly Arab city (pop. 120,000), also home to 500 Jewish settlers. Some of the rule-breakers have been hustled away to the airport and sent home. In the Israeli Parliament, Prime Minister Netanyahu regularly lashes out at BtS, labelling the group as traitors. 

Clearly, the situation between Israelis and Palestinians is not improving. Complicating matters: President Trump has followed through on his promise to be “the most pro-Israel President ever,” but his long-promised peace plan hasn’t materialized. U.S. arms sales to Israel — financed by U.S. taxpayers — have increased. The U.S. has pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal and tightened the screws in Teheran with sanctions that will increase sharply in November.  The Assad regime in Syria has ceded much control to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, which Israel will not tolerate.

These developments place the Middle East closer to a war than it’s been in decades.  The U.S. and Israel are committed to preventing Iran from getting nuclear weapons, and Israel has also taken lately to bombing Iranian bases inside Syria to force Iran and its proxies back from Israel’s border.

But in the coming period of self-reflection, Israelis should be asking themselves if what they are doing in their own country, in the occupied territories, and to their democracy might weaken the ties that bind us to them. For American Jews, perhaps it’s unthinkable to abandon Israel. Growing anti-Semitism globally, rightist movements in Europe, even “identity politics” here, raise alarm bells. But for non-Jews, the ties are less strong. If most Americans cannot identify with Israel as a democracy, the risk of a break in the long-standing partnership between us is great.

Jack Segal served as Political-Military Counselor at US Embassy-Tel Aviv from 1989-1991. He and his spouse, Karen Puschel, co-chair Traverse City’s International Affairs Forum, whose 25thanniversary year begins on Sept.20 at 7:00 pm at Interlochen’s Corson Auditorium with Susan Goldberg, the first female chief editor of National Geographic.


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