The Guardian / August 15, 2023
Open letter calls on Jewish leaders to speak out against ‘ultimate purpose’ of PM’s judicial reforms – upholding ‘regime of apartheid’Hundreds of Israeli and American public figures have called on US Jewish groups to speak out against the occupation of the Palestinian territories as “the elephant in the room” of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s deeply divisive judicial reforms.
The statement has drawn international attention because of the prominent Israelis who have signed its forthright declaration that “Palestinians live under a regime of apartheid”, including the renowned Israeli historian Benny Morris, and the former speaker of the Israeli parliament, Avraham Burg.
The open letter, which has gathered more than 1,500 signatories since it was released a week ago, comes amid months of mass demonstrations in Israel against Netanyahu’s legislation to weaken the power of the judiciary, widely seen as a battle for the country’s soul. Israeli protesters have drawn support from several major Jewish groups in the US, which have criticized the legal changes as designed to help Netanyahu evade prosecution for corruption – and for rightwing members of his government to weaken individual rights, particularly for women, Arabs, and secular or religiously liberal Jews.
But the statement said Jewish American leaders have failed to speak out on “the ultimate purpose” of the judicial overhaul to “annex more land, and ethnically cleanse all territories under Israeli rule of their Palestinian population”.
“American Jews have long been at the forefront of social justice causes, from racial equality to abortion rights, but have paid insufficient attention to the elephant in the room: Israel’s longstanding occupation that … has yielded a regime of apartheid,” the statement says.
The open letter urges “leaders of North American Jewry” to support the Israeli protest movement while embracing equality for Palestinians who “lack almost all basic rights, including the right to vote and protest”.
“There cannot be democracy for Jews in Israel as long as Palestinians live under a regime of apartheid, as Israeli legal experts have described it,” it says.
The signatories include Israelis, Palestinians, Jewish American academics, religious leaders, musicians and lawyers.
The statement in part reflects a concern among some protesters that if they are successful in blocking the judicial changes, Israel will return to the cycle of governments maintaining occupation without end and expanding annexation by stealth, including settlement expansion.
“The problems did not start with the current radical government: Jewish supremacism has been growing for years and was enshrined in law by the 2018 Nation State Law,” it says.
The statement notes that the controversial judicial reforms are being driven in part by “American Jewish billionaire funders” supporting the Israeli far right. In March, a Labour party member of the Israeli parliament, Rabbi Gilad Kariv, travelled to New York to call on Jewish groups to stand up to “rightwing forces in the Jewish community in America and ultra-right players” who, he said, were driving a political coup in Israel.
The judicial reforms were designed by an ultra-conservative think-tank, the Kohelet Policy Forum. Two American billionaires, Arthur Dantchik and Jeffrey Yass, who made their fortunes in part by investing in TikTok, were major funders. Earlier this month, Dantchik said he would no longer donate to Kohelet because Israel has become “dangerously fragmented”.
The statement calls on American Jewish groups to “support human rights organizations which defend Palestinians” and to back an overhaul of the Israeli education system “to provide a more honest appraisal of Israel’s past and present”.
It says they should also “demand from elected leaders in the United States that they help end the occupation, restrict American military aid from being used in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and end Israeli impunity in the UN and other international organizations”.
The letter echoes calls made by a growing number of politicians and former diplomats, including Democratic senator Chris Van Hollen, who told The Guardian earlier this month that Biden should reassess US assistance to prevent it from being used to facilitate annexation of the West Bank and oppression of the Palestinians.
The open letter adds: “No more silence. The time to act is now.”
Another group of Israelis, including two former military chiefs of staff, an ex-director of military intelligence and a former member of parliament, placed an advertisement in the New York Times on Sunday warning the US-based World Jewish Congress that it is being “misled” by Netanyahu.
Chris McGreal writes for Guardian US and is a former Guardian correspondent in Washington, Johannesburg and Jerusalem