Israel: A Season of Reckoning

The season of reckoning is upon us. For Jews, the sentiment will likely evoke thoughts of the upcoming Days of Awe. Both the Hebrew month of Elul and then the ten days of repentance that starts with Rosh HaShana and ends with Yom Kippur is the time when Jews are called upon to go into introspection mode. Where we identify particular sins of commission or omission the Jewish tradition calls upon us to repent and to make amends.

These are also days of reckoning for Israel which has the excruciatingly difficult task of trying to live up to the aspirational language of its Declaration of Independence to be “a society of freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel” while living under unrelenting threats to the safety and security of its citizens. This is something worth remembering as over the next few months Israel will be under scrutiny by several different human rights bodies.

Note: This article appeared in the New York Jewish Week on October 1, 2014.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) just issued a report on Israel’s treatment of Sudanese and Eritrean nationals who made their way into Israel. The report is titled “Make Their Lives Miserable”, a quote from former Israeli Minister of Interior, Eli Yishai. Indeed, that phrase has characterized Israeli policy towards the 50,000 plus Africans who have come to Israel in the last few years. HRW found that Israel has “coerced” some 7000 Sudanese and Eritreans to return to their countries even as that repatriation exposes the refugees to torture, imprisonment and charges of treason for setting foot in Israel. Israel’s asylum procedure—for those Eritreans and Sudanese who even manage to gain access to it—has resulted in a 100 percent denial rate for Sudanese, despite any Sudanese being liable for up to 10 year’s imprisonment for having set foot in Israel, and a 99.8 percent denial rate for Eritreans, despite their global refugee approval rate of 83 percent. The vast majority of the Eritreans and Sudanese still in Israel are living in detention centers where prospects of finding work and getting residence papers are next to impossible. Israeli officials deny that they are engaged in forced repatriation, although they do say they encourage repatriation to a third country.

The vast majority of the Eritreans and Sudanese still in Israel are living in detention centers, where prospects of finding work and getting residence papers are next to impossible. Last week, Israel’s Supreme Court ordered the Holot detention facility in the Negev to be closed in 90 days, and it struck down a section of the Anti-Infiltration Law that allowed illegal migrants to be held in closed detention for a year.

As tragic and ironic as the African refugee situation is in Israel, it pales in comparison to the attention that will attend several inquiries that will take place investigating this summer’s war in Gaza. The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) itself has started an internal investigation of 99 separate incidents that took place during the Gaza war. They include Israeli military actions that resulted in the killing of civilians, the bombing of UNWRA facilities that were serving as safe havens for women and children and the use of Palestinians as human shields during ground operations. While several human rights organizations, both in Israel and abroad, have claimed that such internal investigations are not sufficiently rigorous or objective, this internal review process has resulted in some indictments in the past.

Even more attention will focus on the panel appointed to develop a report on this summer’s Gaza war by the UN Human Rights Council to be headed by Canadian jurist William Schabas. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that he will refuse to cooperate with this commission though a final decision has yet to be made. Informing the threatened boycott are statements that Schabas has made in the past critical of Israel and specifically, of PM Netanyahu. If Netanyahu follows through on his threat to boycott, the action will parallel Israel’s boycott of the UN panel of inquiry led by Richard Goldstone investigating the 2012 Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.

No comment has yet been made by the Israeli government about another inquiry that UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has proposed to specifically look into Israel’s shelling of UNWRA facilities during the Gaza war this summer. This body will be in addition to the Schabas panel and the report will likely be juxtaposed to the IDF inquiry of the same incidents. One can easily predict that the contrast in the findings will make headlines.

All together this season of reckoning promises to be difficult not just for Israel, but for Jews who are torn between their liberal, humanitarian values and their identification with and affection for the state of Israel. The double standard by which Israel is judged by human rights organizations, by the UN and by the media is well documented. Two hundred thousand civilian deaths in Syria, the imprisonment of thousands of political dissidents in Egypt and the summary executions of suspected collaborators without due process in Gaza by Hamas will get a fraction of the attention that will attend Israeli human rights abuses. It is even harder to accept the irony that sitting in judgment of Israel on the UN Human Rights Council is China, which harvests the organs of imprisoned Falun Gong practitioners, Saudi Arabia where homosexuality is a capital offense and Pakistan which executes people for religious blasphemy.

Notwithstanding all this, I believe that Israel would be making a serious strategic mistake if it again chooses to boycott or disregard the international human rights community. Judge Richard Goldstone, in an op-ed in which he reflected on the report he issued on Gaza (which the Jewish community characterized as his “apology”), made clear that the report would have been far more balanced had Israel cooperated with the investigation. He was left with no choice but to talk to the sources available to him—primarily Hamas.

In addition, in the court of world opinion Israel hurts its own cause by thumbing its nose at the only instruments that we have to insure some kind of sane world order. The instruments are flawed, to be sure. But do we believe that the world would be better off without them? Even the U.S. has learned that it has no choice but to work with these trans-national institutions and state actors. The Jewish community is complicit in this counter-productive strategy when it takes out full page ads to discredit respected international jurists like William Schabas even before he begins his work.

Israel’s human rights record is far better than most of the world believes it is but it is far worse than the organized Jewish community would have us believe. In the rabbinic tradition, one of the names for God is emet, the Hebrew word for truth. At this season of reckoning, neither individuals nor nations can afford avoiding hard truths.