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America, Human Rights, and Israel’s War on Palestine

Human rights are human rights, and they are part of international law under the UN Charter. Whether the case is Xinjiang and the Uighurs, Myanmar and the Rohingya, or Israel and the Palestinian Arabs, the correct way to defend international law is through the United Nations, starting with an independent investigation under the auspices of the UN Human Rights Council.
(A Palestinian child stands amidst the rubble of buildings, destroyed by Israeli strikes, in Beit Hanun in the northern Gaza Strip on May 21, 2021. – A ceasefire in the conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, controlled by Islamist group Hamas, came into effect after 11 days of airstrikes and rocket fire. Photo: Emmanuel DUNAND-AFP)

Israel’s attempt to justify its latest brutal assault on Gaza rings hollow to anybody familiar with events in Israel, where the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, backed by anti-Arab racists, has systematically, cruelly, and persistently violated the basic human rights of the Arab population. Human Rights Watch, a global NGO with many Jewish leaders, has recently condemned Israel for crimes against humanity.

Israel’s behavior puts US President Joe Biden’s administration, which professes a foreign policy based on human rights, under the spotlight. If that commitment is genuine, the administration should support an independent UN investigation of Israeli human rights violations against the Arab population and suspend military aid to Israel until the inquiry is completed and the human rights of the Palestinians are secured.

The antecedents of Israel’s recent airstrikes and artillery attacks on Gaza were Israeli threats to expel Palestinians from their home in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem and Israeli-provoked violence at the al-Aqsa Mosque, one of Islam’s holiest sites. Right-wing Israelis marched through East Jerusalem chanting “death to Arabs.” Rocket fire from Gaza soon followed, which may well have been Netanyahu’s objective. He is fighting for his political life in the face of a looming corruption trial, and fomenting and exploiting anti-Arab hatred has long served him well in pursuing and holding on to power.

As a Jew, I am deeply troubled by Israel’s reckless anti-Arab violence, which runs against the very core of Jewish ethics. The Talmud says that, “Whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.” The great sage Hillel famously observed that all Torah (Jewish law) could be summed up as, “That which is despicable to you, do not do to your fellow.”

Israel’s ruthless bombing of Gaza, causing mass suffering and killing innocent people, including at least 63 children, violates both principles. Corrupt and self-serving politicians like Netanyahu often wrap themselves in religious garb to cover their malevolent deeds. They gravely wound religion in the process.

Netanyahu claims to be acting in the name of the Jewish people. He certainly is not. Many Jews around the world, including me, despise Netanyahu’s racist politics.

As an American, I am also deeply troubled by the US government’s knee-jerk support of Israel. Fortunately, I am not alone in this view. A growing number of Democratic Congressmen, Jews and non-Jews alike, have called on the United States to stop supporting Israel’s lawlessness. The truth is that the US government’s uncritical support for Israel has come to depend more on evangelical Christians, such as former US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, than on American Jews, who are deeply divided by Netanyahu’s actions. And the evangelicals’ real interest in Zionism is not Jews’ security, but Armageddon, the end of the world, which they believe will come only when all Jews are in Israel.

Moreover, the blank check that former President Donald Trump gave to Israel in recent years has encouraged extreme racism within parts of Israeli society, along with a sense among Israeli leaders that no abuse they commit or condone will shake US government support. The language of hate, racial exclusion, and pogroms is invoked all too easily among the Israeli right. The Palestinians’ pain and loss is powerfully described by my distinguished Columbia University colleague, Rashid Khalidi, in his new history of the conflict, The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine.

The recent Human Rights Watch report on Israeli policy toward the Arabs of Israel and occupied Palestine reaches a stark and telling conclusion:

Israeli authorities methodically privilege Jewish Israelis and discriminate against Palestinians. Laws, policies, and statements by leading Israeli officials make plain that the objective of maintaining Jewish Israeli control over demographics, political power, and land has long guided government policy. In pursuit of this goal, authorities have dispossessed, confined, forcibly separated, and subjugated Palestinians by virtue of their identity to varying degrees of intensity. In certain areas, as described in this report, these deprivations are so severe that they amount to the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution.

If the Biden administration is to abide by international human rights law, it can’t point fingers at China and then give a free pass to Israel, which indeed depends on US-provided munitions and financial support. Human rights are human rights, and they are part of international law under the UN Charter. Whether the case is Xinjiang and the Uighurs, Myanmar and the Rohingya, or Israel and the Palestinian Arabs, the correct way to defend international law is through the United Nations, starting with an independent investigation under the auspices of the UN Human Rights Council.

In the meantime, I will also offer a bit of simple economic advice: a powerful way to stop bad behavior in the future is to raise the cost. Instead of yet another donor conference at which the US, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and other countries pledge funds to pay for Gaza’s reconstruction, it is time to compel Israel to pay for rebuilding Gaza. Scarce international donor funds should be used to help the world’s poorest people, not to subsidize repeated and wanton destruction.

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