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Celebrate Israel In Its Entirety
Wed, 04/25/2012 - 20:00
Special To The Jewish Week Online

For me, like for most Israelis, the two weeks between the end of Passover and Yom Haatzma’ut, Israel’s Independence Day, are a time of year in which big concepts materialize in one’s daily life - our emergence as a people in the Exodus, the memory of the horrors of the Holocaust on Yom HaShoah, the remembrance, on Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day), of the Fallen, through the celebration of the founding of the State of Israel.

Israel's Declaration of Independence includes two pillars upon which it stands – the creation of a Jewish national homeland under a democratic regime. Indeed, this special time of the year can elicit a narrow focus on the first pillar. Yet equally significant is the other pillar – Israel’s democratic foundations. 

For a democracy to genuinely thrive, certain conditions must be met: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly – the basics of civil rights. If we don’t first acknowledge that “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, the question of civil freedoms becomes moot.

As such, those who advocate for human rights anywhere must be seen as allies of democracy everywhere – and Israel, where a unique situation of 45 years of military control over a large civilian population creates daily human rights challenges, should not be an exception.

There are those in Israel – and even here in the United States – who aim to silence the voices of Israeli human rights advocates.  Somehow, the notion is that less information is better, that not knowing what goes on in the West Bank and Gaza serves Israel’s best interest. But the opposite is the case.

Democracy can’t function absent of information – freedom of speech is meaningless when we don’t have the facts on which to base that speech.

Those who document and educate the Israeli public about human rights violations thus provide a patriotic service. As Israelis, we are right to also be concerned about violations carried out by the Palestinians, but surely our primary duty has to be determining the extent to which we ourselves are responsible for human rights violations. 

The problem is that it’s invariably painful to hear negative information about the country we love. But when we are deaf even to well-founded criticism, we’re denying the democratic debate which is the foundation of both Israeli and American societies.

Indeed, the very terminology with which we discuss the conflict is still fiercely contested. Even Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was challenged by his own Likud peers when he defined Israel’s presence in the West Bank as “occupation,” and “a terrible thing for Israel and for the Palestinians.” 

Denying the nature of occupation does not change the reality on the ground, in which 2.5 million Palestinians in the West Bank have been living under Israeli military control. Beyond that, the exploitation of land and water, the extensive military presence, the network of settler-only roads, and the separation barrier, built with little regard for Palestinian land ownership, mean that every day the settlements – which are themselves a violation of international law - bring new human rights violations.

Without the work of human rights organizations, many of these facts would disappear entirely from the public eye.  This does not mean that the problem goes away, of course. Instead it continues to fester, with no public scrutiny. More often than not, human rights organizations reveal the human stories behind faceless numbers. When the Israeli government says that it has erected a security barrier hundreds of miles long, what does that actually mean for the people living on the other side of it? How do hundreds of roadblocks affect the lives of real people?

Israel’s security challenges are real.  All Israelis, including myself, have painful experiences of war and terror.  Yet sometimes our government's policies use our legitimate security concerns to further unrelated goals, such as the expansion of settlements.  This is where information is crucial – to enable informed citizens to ask the right questions and make informed decisions about government policies.

Democracy isn’t meant to be easy. It requires active engagement to function properly, so that civil rights are protected and the political process may move forward in everyone’s interests.

But that engagement and those rights are on very shaky ground if we function in an atmosphere where information, and the protection of human rights, are of secondary concern. When we celebrate Israel we must not omit its democracy and those who strengthen the bedrock on which it stands.

Uri Zaki is the director of B’Tselem USA .

Ariel Sharon, B'Tselem, civil rights, human rights, Likud, Palestinians, Passover, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Yom Haatzma’ut, Yom Hazikaron

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I agree Palestinians should be treated democratically and humanely, but it is difficult when they have subscribed to a philosophy of hatred and alienation against the State of Israel. Hopefully both the Palestinians and the State of Israel can come together and initiate a path to peace.

Thank you for your balanced ed contribution on this veryspecial day.

I have always had faith in Jews. This gives me faith in the future of Israel. I hope the message gets through.

if you have not watched Rabbi Hirsch's sermon (of the Steven Weiss Free Synagogue) denouncing Peter Beinart from beginning to end, please do. Also, read the article on Beinart by Rabbi Wolpe in the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles.

I was intimately involved with Jenin and with several of the other alleged “Israeli atrocities”. The Palestinians lied, the US State Department and the UN condemned, and the truth was suppressed . I also have a tape of the testimony from the British officer who commanded the NATO forces in Bosnia discussing(and supporting the humaness of ) the activities of the IDF during operation cast lead.

The IDF record in Gaza is very far superior to the US record in Bosnia in terms of civilian-military casualty ratios. It's certainly vastly superior to the NATO scores in Iraq and Afghanistan.

After the brutal Fogel murders Haaratz coverage was virtually non-existent and B'tselem gave great public sympathy to those who shielded and knowingly hid the murderers- accusing the Israeli authorities of roughly handling the villagers.

Listening to some of the questions from the Jewish congregations distressed me. The survey of American Jews distressed me. I have lived inside the Islamic camp. I keep telling B'tselem that if they're interested in atrocities in the Palestinian area they have plenty to work on, given the actions of the Palestinian Authority which are far more brutal than anything they allege against Israel.

Breaking the silence lied repeatedly. B'tselem facilitated the blood libel against the IDF as did J Street. When those close to Nasrallah bragged about how much they have snookered the American Jewish community and laugh --I weep because they are correct.

B'tselem. : I will never understand their mindset nor their priorities.

We must all appreciate these remarks. Well said and thank you.

Well said Mr. Zaki!
As a Palestinian American, but a human being first, I welcome such a level headed statement. The truth and facts on the grounds ,should never be hidden from the well intentioned humans. May they be Jewish ,or any other religion, or nationality. My opinion of the situation, without getting into the history,and right and wrong, that the Jewish people have blindly subscribed to the Zionist/Israel creation in it's entirety, without any room for rational, critical and human scrutiny,or questioning. Till that changes, Israel and the Jewish people will jeopardize it's legitimacy and existence. Making a just peace with the Palestinians is their best ticket to Salvation from the terrible sense of being persecuted for centuries and prove their desire to be a legitimate nation between the nations. At least according to some decent Jews, that I respect.

I am glad that you subscribe to the ideals expressed so eloquently by Uri Zaki. However, what is missing from your comment is any acknowledgement that Palestinians themselves blindly subscribe to a narrative which depicts them as totally blameless victims of all that has happened in the area both before and since 1948. What is worse, unlike a majority of Israelis, Palestinians, whether they live in the occupied areas or in Gaza, not only do not indulge in any critical self- examination of their actions, but actively suppress it while continuing to promote the kind of distortions of history we heard in President Abbas' speech at the UN last year.

Every nation needs some myths to help the population to rally round it. It is a sign of maturity, not weakness, when these myths begin to be questioned.

Excellent article. Let's not forget that a country which allows freedom of speech often has to hear things it does not like, but that country will always be stronger for allowing dissent.