The Case for Divestment

Editor’s Note: This essay is presented as a three-way discussion with Rabbi David Teutsch and Rabbi Carl Choper.

In 1994, A United Nations Commission of Experts defined ethnic cleansing as “… rendering an area ethnically homogeneous by using force or intimidation to remove persons of given groups from the area.”[1] From deadly Israeli military raids on Palestinians cities, to Israeli soldiers aiding settlers in unleashing pogroms on Palestinian villages Huwara, Zatara, and Burin, to leading members of the Israeli government threatening genocide, what is happening to Palestinians right now is ethnic cleansing.

We all have a role in stopping it, even here in the U.S. As rabbis, we call on our Jewish community to stop the empty words and hand wringing. Right now, it is on us to declare that this is not Judaism. We call on every Jewish person who believes in freedom and justice to demand an end to U.S. military funding of ethnic cleansing and apartheid—Israel’s maintaining a system of legalized racial segregation over Palestinians. Join us in supporting the call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions.

On Sunday, March 12th, Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich spoke at a fundraising event for Israel Bonds. In addition to gaining notoriety for his far-Right, homophobic views, Smotrich has also repeatedly praised attacks on Palestinians, including the pogrom by Israeli settlers on the Palestinian village of Huwara. Smotrich, along with other members of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s extremist government, supports plans to expand illegal settlements and further force Palestinians from their homes and land, as well as changes to the Israeli law enabling the expulsion of Palestinians deemed “disloyal” from Israel and the Palestinian territories it occupies, and barring them from ever returning home.

These plans are not an aberration, as many wish to believe, from a functioning democracy.  Israel was always predicated on the establishment of a Jewish majority by means of the displacement of Palestinian people. Smotrich and Netanyahu’s government are enacting what some of the early Zionist founders of the state always said was inevitable and necessary. In 1895, the founder of modern political Zionism, Theodore Herzl, wrote in his diary:

We must expropriate gently the private property on the state assigned to us. We shall try to spirit the penniless population across the border by procuring employment for it in the transit countries, while denying it employment in our country…. Both the process of expropriation and the removal of the poor must be carried out discreetly and circumspectly.[2]

As we know, there was nothing gentle about the violent displacement of Palestinians that ensued from this vision. Palestinians refer to the events of 1948 as al-Nakba, the Catastrophe, to describe the organized effort by Zionist militias, ongoing today in the form of the Israeli military and state infrastructure, displacing hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. Many Jews object to this understanding of history. But whether or not you accept the evidence of prominent Israeli historians[3] that mass displacement of Palestinians was intentional, it is undeniable that the establishment of the State was catastrophic for Palestinians. This, then, is what Smotrich was fundraising for at March’s Israel Bonds conference: more money to continue the program of ethnic cleansing established in 1948 with the founding of the state of Israel.

We do not have to stand by silently, or scream in outrage: We can divest. The Palestinian-led movement for Boycott, Divestment  and Sanctions is a set of common sense and reasonable demands for justice and human rights, and a clear strategy to get there, all deeply aligned with our Jewish values. Right now, when so many people are feeling distressed by the current Israeli administration and at a loss for effective action to take, let’s take the time to learn about this strategic call to action.  Over a decade ago, an overwhelming number of Palestinian civil society organizations put out the call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. As rabbis who value Jewish tradition’s embrace of learning and fearless engagement with rigorous ethical challenges, we lovingly invite all in our community to learn about the B.D.S. movement.  B.D.S. calls for applying international pressure on Israel until it meets its obligation to recognize the Palestinian people’s inalienable right to self-determination and fully complies with the precepts of international law by:

    1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the Wall
    2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and
    3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.[4]

These are not only basic conditions for a just peace in Israel/Palestine, but they are also deeply in line with Jewish principles, repeated many times in Torah, of one law for all: “There shall be one statute for you and for the stranger who sojourns with you, a statute forever throughout your generations. You and the sojourner shall be alike before the Divine.” (Numbers 15:15)

B.D.S. has long been vilified by those who wish to suppress Palestinian resistance, so that many in our community have not yet taken the time to read or try to understand the B.D.S. call.  Organizing in support of this call builds pressure by boycotting Israeli institutions, advocating for sanctioning the Israeli government and divesting from funding the Israeli military.  This is a strategy of political pressure, and we can both support B.D.S. while maintaining loving relationships with our family, friends and community in Israel, and acknowledging millennia of Jewish spiritual connection to Eretz Yisrael.

But there is nothing sacred about the current structure of Israel’s fundamentally unequal treatment of Palestinians, or the way the U.S. government enables it.  Every year, the U.S. sends 3.8 billion dollars in military funding to Israel. These funds are now in the hands of people like Smotrich, who does not try even remotely to mask his intentions: complete destruction of Palestinian people and life. For every person who is outraged, we can leverage the power we have as U.S. taxpayers: Urge our government to divest, by ending all U.S. military funding to Israel until it changes its policies towards Palestinians. Most American Jews imagine this military aid as needed for Jewish safety. But the outcome of building Israel’s military capacities while it operates violent apartheid control makes democracy untenable.  We support divestment because even the threat of the U.S. ending military funding to Israel, to stop giving Israel a blank check, will force Israelis to negotiate a just peace.

We know that encountering the prospect of equal rights for all in Palestine/Israel raises fears for many in our Jewish community about the future of Jewish life in the land. To this we say: we must imagine, and work towards, a new future. We are living now in the manifestation of the early Zionist dreams of prioritizing Jewish safety over the lives of all those who dwell in that land. This has led to incalculable harm and suffering. This is an unacceptable compromise, and goes against the core tenets of Judaism that we hold most dear.

Daily violence against Palestinians and upholding a system that privileges Jewish lives over others is counter to everything we hold most sacred in Jewish tradition. We know that Judaism and Jewish traditions, decoupled from the political project of Zionism, have so much to inspire our work for justice today. We know that Judaism and Jewish people will persist into a future that will see equality in Palestine/Israel.

We became rabbis in part because we were inspired by Jewish traditions that blossomed in diverse and thriving Jewish cultures around the world. We dream of and work for a time when all who live in the land have equal rights. This is the clear Palestinian demand. This is what BDS works for. We, as rabbis, are proud to support this call, in word and in deed.

Pirkei Avot (Wisdom of our Ancestors) 1:18 teaches: “Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel used to say: on three things does the world stand: On justice, on truth and on peace, as it is said: ‘Execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates’ (Zechariah 8:16).” As inheritors of Rabban Gamliel’s tradition, we commit to working for justice and telling the truth, as the only way towards peace.  Divestment is one of the strongest strategies to help us create justice in Israel/Palestine.

Rosenberg, RRC ‘18, and Alpert, RRC ‘76, are members of the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council.

[1] https://www.un.org/en/genocideprevention/ethnic-cleansing.shtml

[2] The Complete Diaries of Theodor Herzl’, vol. 1 (New York: Herzl Press and Thomas Yoseloff, 1960), pp. 88.

[3] Ilan Pappe, The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine (Oxford: One World, 2006)

[4] ​​July 9th, 2005, https://bdsmovement.net/call

One Response

  1. Dear Rabbis Alpert & Rosenberg,

    It is your right and you might add your responsibility to make Jews and others aware of what is happening in our shared Holy Land. I have spoken out and written against the Occupation since my first visit to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Hebron and Ramallah over twenty years ago. However, I believe it is essential to tell both sides of the story. Even more openly for many Palestinians and Israelis to tell their stories to build a more comprehensive factual history of all that has happened in Israel-Palestine. That will remain an assignment for another day. I just want to challenge your support for BDS as fundamentally wrong because the foundation of the movement and the practice of anti-Normalization that goes with it accompanies a basic belief in the end of an independent State of Israel. While Barghouti and the original BDS authors removed the third goal from their updated call to arms, you didn’t and frankly that’s more than enough to invalidate the goals of the BDS Movement: ‘3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.’ I believe the largest reason that there isn’t Peace is because there are simply too many people on all sides that continue to conspire against it. With Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah acting as proxies for Iran and the reconstituted Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade acting on behalf of officials in the PA it is not exactly kosher to only mention the two most extreme members of Netanyahu ‘s government, which includes sixty four members of the Knesset. However, there is no doubt much we agree on…
    Shalom Salaam Peace,

    Larry Snider
    ld.snider@yahoo.com

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