Michael Ratner, president of the Center for Constitutional Rights, has written a powerful statement about American Jewish complicity in the rape of Gaza. What’s unusual about this is that CCR is a U.S.-based constitutional law group with no explicit portfolio dealing with human rights in an international context.
Perhaps that’s why Ratner quoted Martin Luther King’s seminal 1967 speech at Riverside Church in which he first denounced the Vietnam War. King himself was roundly condemned not only by Democrats like LBJ who had a vested interest in defending the war, but by members of the civil rights movement itself, who saw him as straying from the reservation. They simply could not understand that King’s vision embraced the anti-war movement as a natural extension of the civil rights movement.
Ratner is saying that all of us liberal American Jews are guilty of the same moral deafness and lack of vision concerning Israel. We hold critical views about domestic U.S. politics which we are afraid to apply to Israel. What is exciting about Ratner’s statement is that it marks a swelling chorus of opinion from unusual quarters demanding change in American Jewish attitudes toward Israeli policy.
Here are some key excerpts:
…For too long, and I do not exempt myself, most of us have stood silently by or made only a marginal protests about the massive violations of Palestinian rights carried out by Israel. I recall a conversation I had some years ago with the political artist Leon Golub, famous for his outsized oil paintings of torture carried out by American mercenaries in Central America. Leon told me that he had been invited to attend a panel to address what it meant to be a Jewish political artist. He said he had never thought of himself as a “Jewish political artist” but only as a “political artist.” Then he thought some more. Of the works of art he had made, none concerned Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. And then he knew, at least for himself and probably many others: to be a “Jewish political artist” was to be an artist who avoided depicting the horrors inflicted on Palestinians. Of course, that is true for more than just artists. Many Jews who are very involved in human rights, ending poverty and war, and fighting for the underdog avoid criticism of Israel. They wrongly think that human rights are divisible; or that like ostriches they can hide their heads and pretend not to see what is clearly staring them in the face and makes them uncomfortable: the inhuman treatment of Palestinians.
Some of our willful blindness and refusal to act is a result of our ambivalence about condemning the actions of a people that have experienced pervasive antisemitism and the holocaust. Some of our hesitation to act results from the condemnation and opprobrium anyone, but especially Jews, encounter with even mild criticisms of Israel. Organizations that take a position against Israeli actions subject themselves to a loss of funding from foundations and individuals. Few can afford to do so. As long as this silence continues, so will the U.S. billions in aid and arms that facilitates the killings of Palestinians. As long as this silence continues, more and more settlements will be built. As long as this silence continues, there will be more and more Gazas and more and more children murdered.
The lesson here is simple, but difficult to act on. We are, each of us, responsible for the murders in Gaza. Our silence is betrayal. Each time we hesitate to speak out; each time we moderate our condemnation we become accomplices in killing. The time, if there ever was one, to show courage is now. Yes it will be difficult for many…We must begin somewhere…Begin the discussion; begin to act…And remember, “A Time Comes When Silence is Betrayal.” That time has come.
Ratner’s comments indicate there is a slowly gathering storm in the American Jewish community. Divorce from Israeli most noxious policies doesn’t come overnight especially to a community that has been so wedded to an “Israel right or wrong” attitude for so long. But for those like Ratner who have not previously been “out front” on this issue, they are the crest of a wave of dissent and questioning that should lead to a far more probing, balanced relationship with Israel in future.