Scholars’ ‘Apartheid’ letter is intended to crack ‘rock of silence’ in Jewish institutions – Mondoweiss


On August 5, a group of Israeli Jewish scholars posted a letter titled “Elephant in the Room” that is highly critical of American Jewish leaders. It accuses them of making an exception to the “Jewish fight for justice” by supporting “apartheid” in Israel. It states that Palestinians must have equal rights, in one state or two, and that only democracy can save Israel from dictatorship.

The bold letter has since gained global media attention and over 2000 signatures, largely from academics, including mainstream Zionist figures such as David Myers, Paul Scham, Dan Fleshler, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, and Shaul Magid. Some of the names have been eye-openers: Benny Morris and the Holocaust scholar Saul Friedlander. (And briefly, Holocaust scholar Yehuda Bauer, who then removed his name.) It has also drawn leftwing support.

Shira Klein, a chief drafter of the letter, tells me that it was intended as a hammer blow: to “crack the rock of silence” that exists in the American Jewish community when it comes to Palestinians rights. And though it has been a great success, she says, the list of 2147 signers reveals “the absolute fear” inside the Jewish community — many Jews in Jewish institutions have told her they are afraid to sign the letter lest it damage their careers.

The letter’s first signatory, Klein says she got the idea for the letter after an upsetting discussion with a rabbi that demonstrated the code of silence that exists in the U.S. Jewish community when it comes to Palestine.

She and three other Israeli scholars at American universities set to work on the letter in June– Omer Bartov, Meir Amor, and Lior Sterneld. They were soon joined by scholar David Myers the former head of the New Israel Fund and the Center for Jewish History.

“All of us are deeply embedded in the Jewish community. We’re all Israelis except for David. We grew up in Israel, we did the army and all that,” Klein says. So it would be hard to dismiss any of the organizers as “self-hating Jews.”

Klein is a history professor at Chapman University whose specialty is the role of Italian Jewry in that society. She has also published work on distortions of the Holocaust on Wikipedia.

The drive for the letter was the feeling that there is an “unbelievable dissonance” between the “beautiful progressivism” that has been a central feature of the American Jewish community– on countless social justice issues, from race to gay rights — and the “absolute silence on anything related to Israel.”

“I’ve been bothered by this for a very long time,” Klein said. She related that she had three children in Jewish schools, and the word “Palestinian” was not even mentioned in their curriculum.

In discussions with educators, Klein says, they would say, “You know what, Shira, this is not something we can come out openly and say.”

She observed, “There was a blanket of absolute fear of speaking about Israel.”

Though the response to the letter has been “unprecedented,” Klein says, with 100s and 100s of academics signing off on the word apartheid and the possibility of one democratic state, that same fear is now evident among the signatories.

Many possible signers have told Klein, “I agree with every word.” But these people then express fear for job security or reprisal from boards, that donors will withdraw funding over the endorsement. “That groups they are responsive to will respond with a backlash.”

The list of Jewish signers to the letter reflect this fear. “The overwhelming majority of rabbis are emeritus or are chaplains,” Klein said. Chaplains typically work for institutions like hospitals and don’t have to answer to boards.

Many of the rabbis are Reconstructionist. “There are very few Conservative or Reform rabbis,” Klein said, and she is not sure if there are any Orthodox rabbis.

Similarly the Jewish academics tend to be tenured or emeritus professors. Academics in their 30s to 50s are less well represented because they fear career consequences.

“You can hear the sounds of silence,” Klein said. She said she wishes she had a dollar for every instructor who has told her that they would love to sign but can’t take the risk.

And I note that there is a paucity of signers from liberal Zionist organizations such as J Street, Americans for Peace Now, and New Israel Fund. Apartheid and one-state language surely stopped them.

David Myers then of the Center for Jewish History, 2018.
David Myers then of the Center for Jewish History, 2018.

The organizers insisted on including the word apartheid. In fact, it appears twice in the letter — and scared off some potential signers. Though Klein said the drafters stopped short of one’s desire to include the phrase, “we are looking at a potential for genocide.”

The steering committee for the letter grew to include Tamir Sorek, Omri Boehm, Hasia Diner, Nitzan Lebovic, and Peter Beinart, Klein said. “A dozen people in total weighed in.”

They sought as many signatures as they could get inside the Jewish community without alienating people. “But we didn’t want to water it down so much that we weren’t saying anything,” Klein says. “We didn’t want a both-sides kumbaya statement. It was hard to find that balance.”

Here is the strongest language in the letter:

Without equal rights for all, whether in one state, two states, or in some other political framework, there is always a danger of dictatorship. 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.

A remarkable aspect of the growth of the letter is that many people in the leftwing/Realist/Palestinian-solidarity movement have signed on to it, finding the language agreeable. They include: Diner, Marjorie Feld, Avi Shlaim, Mazin Qumsiyeh, Mark Braverman, Jacqueline Rose, Judith Butler, Nurit Peled Elhanan, Eva Illouz, Rabbi Ellen Lippmann, James Paul of the Global Policy Forum, Ian Lustick, Lowell Johnston, Joseph Levine, Rabbi Brian Walt, Brian Klug, Mark LeVine, and Juan Cole.

The letter appears at a time when the Democratic Party has laid down the law on apartheid: There is no apartheid in Israel and Palestine, and dozens of Congressional visits affirm that conviction.

Of course, the chief target of the letter is the Jewish community. “The million dollar question is how much impact the letter will have,” Klein says. “Yes we have media attention. But will it translate into sermons on the High Holidays? Will it translate into Palestinians being brought into curriculums in Jewish schools? If it doesn’t, it doesn’t matter.”

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