Where are we headed? A reflection on the 73rd remembrance of Kristallnacht
In hindsight, Kristallnacht signaled what was to come: the rounding up and extermination of European Jewry. Most of the world did not intervene, and worse, chose to block Jewish efforts to escape. As people either collaborated with or chose to ignore the implications of each step along the path toward genocide, the Germans carried out their plans with impunity and in public. German civilians either explicitly or tacitly supported a regime of incredible brutality. They stood by while Jewish neighbors and friends were rounded up and killed. Acts of collective nonviolent resistance like the one pursued by the village of Le Chambon (they saved 500 Jews) were rare.
I grew up in Allentown, Pennsylvania, a sixth-generation North American Jew in the Reform tradition. I am still amazed by the wisdom of my rabbinic teachers in response to the Shoah. I learned from the rabbis of my youth not to barricade myself in layers of fear and distrust; rather, they taught me to protest racism in all its ugly manifestations in public because never again meant never again for anyone. They taught me that when one of us suffers, all of us suffer. They taught me that silence in the face of injustice is complicity with injustice. They tied these lessons to their version of Jewish religion. I never imagined that I would have to apply these lessons to the actions of the Jewish community in relationship to Israel. I incorrectly assumed that the Shoah had somehow immunized us against harming others, that we had learned the Biblical lesson: do not oppress others, for you were once oppressed.
When I was seventeen and traveled to Israel as an exchange student where I confronted a deeply uncomfortable truth which I have been wrestling with ever since: the same racist patterns of segregation, discrimination, and mass incarceration of people on the basis of their identity which I learned to resist in North America because of Jewish experience during the Shoah, was, in fact, occurring in Israel. Only instead of white people oppressing blacks, Jews were oppressing Palestinians. The justification? Security. But it looked and sounded racist to my eyes and ears. In 1966, Atallah Mansour told me the story of the Nakba. The Nakba never ended.
For the past 45 years I have been deeply involved with all kinds of peacemaking efforts between Israelis and Palestinians including dialogue, education, delegations, and direct action. As I prepare to mark the anniversary of Kristallnacht, I am haunted by profound disquiet.
A recent poll of Jewish citizens of Israel (September 2012, based on a sample of 503 interviewees) is the Israeli response to President Jimmy Carter’s question: Peace or Apartheid? The majority of Jewish Israelis have answered: apartheid, or, as Ehud Barak described it, “Us here, them there.” Most Israelis believe that Israel should be a Jewish state that privileges Jews over “non-Jews” as a matter of law. They use draconian laws that apply only to Palestinians to separate, marginalize, and systematically discriminate an entire people based on their national, cultural, and religious identity.
Many people are offended by the description of Israel as an apartheid state. What we should be offended by is the actual policies that Israel employs against Palestinians. People outraged by the South Africa/Israel comparison claim that Israel is nothing like South Africa during the apartheid era because the term apartheid is associated with racism. But they would be wrong.
Race is a social, not a biological, construct. Use of the term “apartheid” applies whenever a state codifies into law a preferred identity status, then racializes that identity. The racialized identity group is systematically segregated from the rest of the population into discrete geographic areas (bantustans in South Africa; and areas A, B, and C, plus Gaza in Israel) in order to dominate and control them. An apartheid state grants the preferred group access to resources and benefits and denies the same benefits to the denigrated group. Those in the underdog role are forcibly confined to their designated territories. Military repression, mass incarceration, and unyielding bureaucracy are used to keep systems of apartheid in place.
No one voluntarily deports themselves from their family land or homes. Israeli apartheid involves: systematic and massive land appropriation; settler brutality; Jewish-only roads; the permit regime; the cutting down of trees; restrictions on family unity; arrest of children; administrative detention without legal recourse; constant military incursion; movement restrictions; severe limitations on export and import capacity; home demolition and the threat of demolition; denial of education and health care; unjust distribution of water; internal transfer; and in the case of Gaza, a siege which is making the entire stripe “uninhabitable.” These conditions makes Palestinians vulnerable to mass killing.
Denying this reality is tantamount to willful ignorance. Mountains of credible testimony collected by a variety of human rights groups such as B’tselem, Al Hak, ICHAD, the Russell Tribunal, the Goldstone Report, and thousands of eyewitnesses over six decades — including Palestinians, Jewish Israelis, internationals, and human rights organizations — leave no doubt that Israel is pursuing policies that are an insult to Jewish history. Israel’s apartheid regime is a disgrace to the values that I was once taught are the very heart of our tradition.
As Angela Davis recently told the American Public Health Association, you don’t get rid of racism with anti-racism workshops alone! Systematic and institutional change occurs when people engage in mass protest and noncooperation with policies that support a corrupt status quo. That is why Palestinians have called upon us to take up boycott, divestment, and sanctions as a way to apply pressure until Israeli apartheid is dismantled. The object of nonviolent struggle is not to defeat people, but to change the system. Apartheid is not good for the occupied or the occupier. It is a dehumanizing system that promotes endless tragedy for everyone. We need a new paradigm.
Those deriving profit and benefit from apartheid do not easily surrender their power. The history of nonviolent struggle has taught us that people maintaining an unjust status quo will do as little as possible to prevent real, systematic change. They will obstruct, deflect, or suppress with harmful force those who demand their freedom. Institutional change can only arise from movement building, grassroots organizing, and steadfastness. Like all freedom struggles, the struggle for Palestinian human rights is a universal struggle. That is why people across nationality, gender, and religion are joining together to shape political, economic, and social realities that embrace universal standards of human rights. Overcoming injustice is the first priority of our religious traditions.
This 73rd anniversary of Kristallnacht, let us pick up the broken shards of history and fashion a mosaic of peace that honors the human dignity of everyone. This is the true meaning of the promised land.
Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb is coordinator of the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s Interfaith Peacewalks project and cofounder of the Shomer Shalom Network for Jewish Nonviolence. In September she co-led a FOR Arts of Resistance delegation to Palestine.
[Photo by Rae Abileah, courtesy of Jewish Voice for Peace. All rights reserved.]