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The Moral Failings of Israel


It continues to amaze me how many liberal Jews will become full-fledged reactionaries when it comes to Israel’s treatment of Palestine. We see this all the time in LGM comments, but there’s nothing unique about that. It’s the one issue where liberals will go at each other’s throats, whether at the faculty meeting, the dinner party, the blog comment sections. I find this astounding. Evil is evil. Your past doesn’t give you the right to commit evils against others. Now, many many Jews do get this. It’s hardly surprising that many Jews are behind BDS and other anti-Zionist human rights organizations. The tradition of human rights and dignity is deep within Jewish culture and has been for basically ever. But the white nationalist turn of Israel has forced many Jews to make a choice–be OK with widespread human rights violations and open murder of Palestinians or question the Zionist project entirely. Not surprisingly, most in Israel have chosen the former. But not all. David Shulman, who lives in Israel, has a powerful essay in The New York Review of Books that attempts to force his fellow countrymen, not to mention Jews in the U.S. and western Europe, to confront what their state is doing to Palestine.

November 10, 2021: Twenty Israeli settlers, armed with guns and clubs, their faces masked, descend upon the hamlet of Halat al-Dab’ in the South Hebron hills. They attack the Palestinians who live there, smash windows, cars, and whatever else they find. Six Palestinians are wounded, at least one from gunshots. There are Israeli soldiers nearby who make no attempt to interfere and who leave the area while the pogrom is going on. I use the word deliberately. What happened that day in Halat al-Dab’ is not different in kind from the pogrom in Nikolayev, in Ukraine, in the early years of the twentieth century, when my grandmother’s brother was killed by Cossacks.

September 28, 2021, Simchat Torah, the end of the Sukkot holiday: Dozens of masked settlers storm the tiny Palestinian encampment of Mufagara, also in the South Hebron hills, wreaking havoc. Basil al-Adraa, an activist from the nearby village of at-Tuwani, reported that the settlers.

Went from house to house, and broke windows, smashed cars with knives and hammers. A large stone they threw hit a 3-year-old boy, Mohammed, in the head, who is now in the hospital. The soldiers supported them with tear gas. The residents fled. I can’t forget how the villagers left their houses, terrified, the children screaming, the women crying, while the settlers entered their living rooms, like they were possessed with violence and wrath.

September 17, 2021: A convoy of activists from the Israeli-Palestinian NGO Combatants for Peace and other organizations is bringing a water tanker to a village near at-Tuwani, which has no access to running water. The army violently attacks the convoy with tear gas and stun grenades. Six activists and a journalist are wounded; one of the activists is thrown to the rocky ground by the senior officer in command and has to undergo surgery on his eye. Seven Palestinians are arrested.

No one should think that these events—a random selection—are aberrations or exceptions to the rule. They are now the norm in the occupied Palestinian territories. Settler violence, backed up by Israeli soldiers, happens every day. Government ministers and high-ranking officers, including the army chief of staff, Lieutenant General Aviv Kochavi, make bland statements condemning the violence but do nothing to stop it. Some of them actively support it. The goal, by no means a secret, is to expel Palestinians from their homes and lands and, eventually, to annex as much of the West Bank as possible to Israel.


It is important to note, however, from an internal Israeli perspective, that the days are over when presenting the crimes in the occupied territories to the Israeli media, and thus to the wider public, might have some positive, constraining effect. Put simply, no one really cares. More precisely, judging by the results of the four recent elections, something like a third to half of the population ardently support the policy of repression, expulsion, and escalating violence directed at Palestinians. Many among the other two thirds or so are unhappy with this policy, but only a tiny minority are prepared to do anything to stop it.

That passivity and/or indifference constitute the heart of the problem. They are far worse and infinitely more consequential than anything the settlers or soldiers can do. Without the compliance of the vast majority of Israelis, state-sponsored terror on the West Bank could not continue to run wild. One can sometimes hear the clucking of tongues—not much more than that. Perhaps the great defender of human rights Michael Sfard is right when he says that someday, when the occupation has finally ended, nearly everyone in Israel will claim retroactively that they were against it from the beginning.

A form of mass protest did develop in Israel over the last two years with the aim of removing Benjamin Netanyahu from office—certainly a worthy goal. For months, many thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, came to Jerusalem every Saturday night to demonstrate outside the prime minister’s residence. Ultimately, they succeeded, at least for now. But Netanyahu was an easy target. How much mendacity, venality, and sheer selfishness on the part of a leading politician does it take to get a decent citizen into the streets? However, it was not the occupation that moved many of these protesters. They wanted to rid themselves of a prime minister who, in order to remain in power, was undermining the entire fabric of state institutions, including the courts, and who had cultivated a culture of rabid hatred for any opponent, from within or from without, along with a personality cult such as one sees in authoritarian regimes.


I’d like to bring such questions down to a concrete, more personal perspective. There is, unfortunately, no lack of instances we could examine. Here is one not atypical of the Israeli-Palestinian situation—the case of Harun Abu Aram, twenty-four years old, from the village of al-Rakiz in the South Hebron hills.

On January 1, 2021, Harun’s neighbor Ashraf was fixing a roof over his sheep pen. Five soldiers, apparently summoned by the settlers of the nearby illegal outposts of Avigail or Chavat Maon, came to the village, invaded Ashraf’s house, and discovered there, horror of horrors, a small electric generator. (Al-Rakiz is not attached to the electrical grid.) The soldiers seized the generator. Ashraf protested. A scuffle developed. Harun’s father, Rasmi, came running to help his friend and, like Ashraf, was beaten and kicked by the soldiers. Harun, hearing what was happening, rushed to the scene. For a few minutes, there was a tug-of-war between the soldiers and the Palestinians, and the generator changed hands several times. Then one of the soldiers, standing to the side and in no danger, shot Harun at point-blank range, hitting him in the neck. He fell to the ground, his spinal cord severed between vertebrae six and seven.

The soldiers, now the proud owners of the generator, set up a roadblock at the main road in and out of the village. Here comes the worst part of the story. Rasmi and Ashraf managed to get Harun into a car in order to drive him to a hospital, but the soldiers, including the one who shot Harun, stopped the vehicle and shot at its tires, puncturing one of them. Miraculously, Ashraf managed to drive the car on three wheels past the roadblock and into the village of at-Tuwani, where Harun was transferred to another car, which, after running into another military roadblock, finally got him to a hospital. The doctors said that if they’d come ten minutes later, Harun would have died.

Harun is paralyzed from the neck down. After many months in hospital, he can again breathe without assistance. He is now in a specially equipped house in the town of Yata and requires twenty-four-hour care. His life is ruined. Before the incident, he was about to be married. The army demolished the house his father had built for the young couple, one of many recurrent demolitions in al-Rakiz. The soldier who shot Harun has not been punished, and the State of Israel has refused to take any responsibility for Harun’s fate or to cover any of the enormous costs of his hospital stay.

This is a single instance among thousands. The essential point is that whatever the soldier who shot Harun was thinking—maybe he panicked, maybe he was taught to hate Palestinians—the incident illuminates the inner logic of the Israeli occupation as a whole. A Palestinian should not have a generator, nor should he fix his fence or sheep pen. A Palestinian must never protest or disobey a soldier. A Palestinian can be killed by settlers or soldiers with impunity. A Palestinian will never receive justice in the military courts that operate in the territories. And so on. Given that logic, what happened to Harun, and to countless other Palestinians over the past decades, was natural, in fact inevitable. It is wrong to class it as a tragic mistake. Once the soldiers entered the village on their ugly mission, all the rest unfolded along familiar lines. The ultimate malice, no doubt a decision on the part of those same soldiers, took place at the two roadblocks.

Defenders of Israel’s behavior–justify this! It’s your duty. Otherwise, it’s like American liberals being totally fine with Trump’s ICE putting immigrant babies in cages and just brutalizing immigrants because it’s fun to do. That would be unacceptable. Just like what Israel does to the Palestinians is unacceptable.

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