Gila Svirsky: A Personal Website

Celestial Jerusalem: Human Rights in Israel and Palestine

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I spoke recently about human rights in Israel and Palestine in two U.S. venues: the University of Arkansas in Little Rock (22 September 2009) and Temple Beth Sholom in Salem, Oregon (25 September 2009). My thanks to Dr. John Coffin and Rabbi James Green, respectively, for their kind invitations. I am grateful to WAND (Women's Action for New Directions) of Arkansas and Oregon, which organized and sponsored my trip to the US, enabling me to speak on a variety of issues in many locations.
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      Id like to start by telling you one of the things I love about my country, Israel: I love the sunshine in Israel, so unlike the sunshine I experienced growing up on the East Coast of the US. The sunshine in Tel Aviv and Haifa, coastal cities, glints off the rooftops and the windows, shining back the deep azure blue of the Mediterranean that laps at their shores. And I love the sunshine in Jerusalem, my city set into the Judean Hills, especially at evening: Sunsets in Jerusalem are a golden hue, burnishing the cold stone in which our buildings are clad. As the sun slowly sinks in Jerusalem, the city seems to rise, to glow, to lift off into the celestial reaches that everyone seems to believe is another Jerusalem, lurking just beneath the surface, if only we could find it.

       I was asked to speak here this evening about “Human Rights in Israel and Palestine”. Human rights is a difficult thing to talk about because you’re always talking about the bad news. And human rights activists always sound like the bearers of bad news, if not the very inventors of it.

          When we start talking about human rights in Israel, the bad news becomes even worse. Not because Israel is worse than other countries – in fact, it isn’t. Many other countries – Sudan, Burma, China – are exponentially much, much worse than Israel. But the bad news becomes worse for Israel because many people have such an emotional reaction to this country and whatever it does…or doesn’t do (depending on whom you believe).

          I am one such person with a deeply emotional reaction to Israel. My mother fled to Palestine in 1935, escaping anti-Semitic Europe, though her entire family was wiped out in the Holocaust. My parents met and married in Jerusalem in 1937, when my father came to visit his parents, who lived there. Together my parents moved to the United States, where they brought me up in a home that was Orthodox and staunchly Zionist.

           I moved to Israel 43 years ago, married, and have children, both of whom served in the Israeli army. While a lot has changed for me – I’m no longer Orthodox and I’m intensely involved in Israel’s peace and human rights movement – some things remain very much the same: my love for Israel and my belief that it has the right to exist. I should also say that these feelings have been challenged and tested over the years, but this is where I am today: I love being Jewish and I love my country.

          So now I can tell you that I also have a deeply emotional reaction every time I hear about the human rights profile of Israel, and my immediate response is: Fix it! Out of my deepest desire for Israel to be the kind of country we want it to be, that’s what I want to do most: Fix it.

          In its human rights report card domestically, Israel does not get terribly bad grades. In fact on some issues – protection of children and protecting homosexuals from discrimination – Israel has very good legislation, and not bad enforcement either.

          On the rights of women, the legislation is excellent, but the reality is far from perfect. I’m sure you know the two big obstacles to equality for women in Israel. First, the ultra-Orthodox control of personal status issues in Israel – marriage, divorce, and funerals – which discriminates against women, and contributes to the belief among traditional Israelis that women are inferior to men. And the second obstacle to equality for women in Israel is the absence of peace. In a society at war – where it is predominantly the men who are risking their lives and making military and political decisions – men and their views become valued and privileged over women and our views. This entrenches inequality for women, leaving us at a disadvantage in competing for jobs, political office, and social status. For example, a man who has been an officer in the army or served in a combat role has an advantage over a woman in applying for a job or getting elected to public office.

          Like women, non-Jewish minorities in Israel are also at a disadvantage, not legally but in reality. While 20% of the Israeli population is Arab, they are at the bottom of the totem pole in terms of government spending on them, job opportunities or discrimination in housing, just to mention several glaring examples. Many Bedouin towns in Israel are not even connected to the water or electricity grids.

          Without giving you an entire report card of Israel on the domestic issues, suffice it to say that we probably get a passing grade, with teacher’s comment, “There’s room for improvement”.

          The more problematic side of the report card is Israel’s conduct in the Occupied Territories, where some 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank are paying the price of having half a million Israeli settlers live among them. And many Palestinians innocent of all wrongdoing are made to suffer also on account of Palestinian terrorists who use violence to promote their political ends.

          Now there are rules to being an occupying power, rules designed to protect the innocent civilians who are under occupation, to give them a safe haven from the belligerence surrounding them, and Israel must abide by those rules. Incidentally, many Jews were instrumental in writing these covenants, written in the shadow of World War II, with the memory of war, occupation, and Holocaust so fresh in their memories.

      Sadly, however, Israel has not complied with many of these international laws over the past four decades of occupation. I am associated with B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights organization that monitors violations of international law in the Occupied Territories.  Through the last 20 years – since B’Tselem has been keeping records – over 7,000 Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces, many of them innocent bystanders. In the recent Gaza violence, for example, over 1,300 people Palestinians were killed, more than half of them Palestinians not involved in the combat, and half of these innocent casualties were children.

             During this 20-year period of our record-keeping, we know of 4,000 Palestinian homes that were demolished by the Israeli authorities in order to punish the families of terrorists or to “sterilize” a military zone or to clear the way for Jewish settlements or roads, leaving more than 30,000 Palestinians homeless. Thousands of Palestinians have been arrested and held in administrative detention – this means they are being held without trial or due process. Today, 600 Palestinians languish in prison without trial, and will remain there until released in a prisoner exchange or for some arbitrary reason. Israel recently released a dozen officials belonging to the Hamas Party - they were arrested soon after their election to public office, as Israel hoped to use them as bargaining chips to release an Israeli soldier captured by Hamas. These political leaders sat in prison for almost two years, and Israel accomplished nothing but sow more bitterness among Palestinians.

          Freedom of movement in the territories? It’s limited, at best, with several hundred military checkpoints blocking the movement of Palestinians from one place to another. Women have been known to give birth at checkpoints, some ill people have died at checkpoints, all because the Israeli soldiers would not allow them across. Others simply can’t visit their sick parents on the other side.

          Just two weeks ago, the UN-sponsored Goldstone Mission issued a report condemning Israel for its behavior in the Gaza Strip during the military operation last December and January. The Mission was repudiated by Israel as being biased and anti-Israeli, not paying a sufficient amount of attention to the Israeli side of the story. Unfortunately, Israel refused to cooperate with the Goldstone Mission, refused to report its side of the story. B’Tselem and other Israeli human rights organizations have been calling upon Israel for months – ever since the war ended – to establish its own independent commission of inquiry into this military campaign, and not make do with the superficial and self-interest debriefings that the Israeli army conducted as it “investigated” itself.

          Let’s be clear: Israel must defend itself from attack, even sometimes by military means, and human rights law does not prohibit this. But self-defense cannot explain all the policies that lead to Palestinian suffering. In the West Bank, for example, the homes of more than 2 million Palestinians are not connected to a running water supply, while their settler neighbors fill up swimming pools and water their lawns. In East Jerusalem, 5,000 Palestinian children are not getting an education because there was “no room” for them in the city schools, according to the Jerusalem board of education. This is wrong – illegal and immoral.

          Israeli civilians have also been victims, sometimes of Palestinian suicide bombers who entered our streets and carried out horrific attacks.  I have lost friends to terrorist bombs. My children have lost school friends, and had close calls of their own with terrorism. In the last year alone, there were three instances of Palestinians who hijacked large construction vehicles and plowed into buses and pedestrians on the streets near my home in Jerusalem, sowing death and destruction. Indeed, Palestinian attacks perpetrated in Israel and the settlements have killed hundreds and injured thousands of Israeli civilians. These attacks by Palestinians deliberately aimed at civilians are unconscionable. They can never be justified, whatever the circumstances.

           Our government had to find a way to stop them, and we can certainly accept Israel’s desire to build a security barrier between it and Palestinian areas, to prevent entry to those who seek to harm us. However, 80% of this barrier was built on Palestinian land, not on the border. As a result, it disrupts the fabric of life for almost half a million Palestinians who are cut off from their jobs, schools, medical care, or families. Again, sowing more anger, frustration, and bitterness.

          Both Israel and the Palestinians are obligated by human rights laws. As the occupying power, Israel is obliged to ensure the well being of the civilian population that lives under its rule, particularly “their rights to freedom of movement, family life, work, education and health,” in the words of the law. This principle, however, is a far cry from the current situation in the territories. On its conduct in the Occupied Territories, Israel does not get a passing grade.

          Now for the Palestinian side. Yitzhak Rabin once said that Arafat would be able to crack down on terrorism because he would be free to do so without having a Palestinian B’Tselem watch over its shoulder. How wrong he was! There are Palestinian human rights organizations monitoring the activities of the Palestinian authorities, measuring them against the same international yardsticks of democratic behavior, and sometimes subjecting them to blistering criticism.

          The best known is probably al-Haq, based in Ramallah. Al-Haq has issued reports on the lack of due process by the Palestinian Authority – the arrest and detention of suspects without trial, and sometimes torture of detainees. It has criticized the Palestinian Authority for constraints on basic freedoms, and condemned the activity of the Palestinian militias that roam the streets in some Palestinian cities, taking the law into their own hands – vandalizing property, destroying homes, and sometimes killing other Palestinians.

          Another organization, the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, was founded by a man who learned the trade from years of employment at B’Tselem, and then went on to monitor human rights adherence in his own society. This organization wrote a report explicitly condemning the corruption of Palestinian political leaders, naming names. It also wrote a groundbreaking report called “Women Under Siege” about the violence against women in Palestinian society, singling out honor killings for condemnation.

          The third organization I’ll mention is the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. This is a particularly brave organization because it is based in Gaza, and operates under the intolerant eye of Hamas. Like the others, the Palestinian Center for Human Rights does not withhold its criticism of Israel, but it also condemns Palestinian human rights violations: extra-judicial killings, media censorship (including the suspension of al-Jazeera news bureau in the Occupied Territories), administrative detention, torture of prisoners, the ban on political demonstrations, and more. The Palestinian Center for Human Rights severely criticized the excesses of Hamas rule in Gaza, and issued strong statements condemning the clashes between Hamas and Fatah groups. It also publicly censured the harassment of human rights activists by the Palestinian Authority. Last, let me mention that this organization also criticizes inequality for women, including the decision of Hamas to force women lawyers in Gaza to wear traditional robes and veils.

          All these groups participated in monitoring the local and national elections of the Palestinian Authority, demanding transparency and adherence to democratic standards. I wish they would be more vocal in condemning Palestinian attacks on Israeli civilians - Qassam rockets and suicide bombings. Clearly every rocket shot from Gaza into the town of Israel constitutes a war crime, and those who gave these orders should be held accountable. While the Palestinian human rights organizations acknowledge that these attacks violate international law, they do not speak out with the same vehemence as when Palestinians are the victims of human rights violations. At the same time, I recognize that Palestinian human rights activists living under Hamas must be cautious. We in Israel have much more freedom to criticize our leaders and their policies.

          I don’t know very much about human rights violations by the Palestinian authorities within the Palestinian territory. This is not the focus of B’Tselem’s work, though we do condemn severe violations when they occur (such as Palestinians carrying out the death penalty against other Palestinians, either formally or by killing collaborators). But we leave most of the domestic violations to our Palestinian colleagues in human rights organizations, who seem to be doing a good job of it.

        When we examine the human rights record of Israel, we see a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. A largely good record inside the country, a largely terrible one in the Occupied Territories. It is my belief that these violations against Palestinians are born of fear, of a history of persecution, of a determination that a Holocaust never again happen to Israel.

          I share that determination. I don’t want my children to die from a bus bomb, or be killed in a military action in Gaza or Lebanon or the West Bank. In the women’s peace movement, we say, “We have no spare children for wars”.

          We don’t. We have no spare children for wars. But the Palestinians don’t have spare children for wars either. We have, both sides, fallen victim to that fear, that history of anti-Semitism, that determination that Jews never again pay the price for being weak – and victim to those who refuse to compromise on the Palestinian side as well.

          There are wonderful, beautiful things about Israel – its universities, its excellent health care system, available to everyone, its use of solar energy – a solar panel heating the water of every home, the revival of Hebrew as a modern language, Israeli contributions to literature, science, philosophy.  And I never forget that Israel provided the only place for Jews to go after the Holocaust.

          My commitment to human rights in Israel is rooted in my commitment to Israel, in my aspiration that my country live up to the vision of its founders – a state in which equality, justice, and respect for human rights prevail.
          “Respect for human rights” – these are not just words, especially not in the Middle East. Human rights provide the shelter and safe harbor for real people under a hail of bullets or rockets, whether they be Israeli or Palestinian. These rights shield the children, the weak, the infirm, and also the healthy young men and women who want nothing more than to go out…and come back home safely.

          Human rights hold a mirror to the face of our society, reflecting back to us that which is paramount – the intensity of our fear or the courage of our commitment to human dignity.

            I love the sunset in Jerusalem, but I love even more the sunrise, the light slowly lifting off the mist and the golden hills, the sunrise speaking of a new day, a better day than the one we had before, speaking of children who will know nothing of the fear and the hatred, speaking of the laughter we will someday laugh, and the tears that will soon be shed… in happiness.

         I also believe in this celestial Jerusalem. Not one that will rise into the sky, but one that will be that light of morning, that light of peace, that light unto the nations. That is the sunrise to which I aspire.

Gila Svirsky
September 2009

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No matter how big or soft or warm your bed is, you still have to get out of it. - Grace Slick, Jefferson Airplane