American Jews Gaza Strip Goldstone report Israel Palestinians Peace Now Sabra and Shatilla

Sabra, Shatilla and Gaza: A tale of two wars

On Sept 25th, 1982, at a Peace Now rally in Tel Aviv, more than 400,000 Israelis rose up and demanded an investigation of Israel’s responsibility for the Sabra and Shatilla massacres in Lebanon. Israeli troops had been responsible for guarding those two Palestinian refugee camps. But on Sept. 15th, they had allowed Christian Phalangists to enter the camps and slaughter hundreds of men, women and children. So 10% of the population of Israel came to a rally to express their anger and anguish.

American Jewish organizations, for their part, initially reacted to the massacres with “predictable vapid statements, deploring the massacre while supporting Israel,” according to Steven Rosenthal in Irreconcilable Differences, a book about squabbles between Israel and the American Jewish community. But soon, “responding to popular pressure, many Jewish organizations called for [Menachem] Begin to empanel an impartial commission to establish whether Israel was implicated in any way.” Popular pressure! In other words, at least some mainstream American Jews in the organizational world refused to passively accept the Israeli government’s denial of wrongdoing.

The Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, Alexander Schindler, flew to Israel to impress upon Begin the importance of getting to the truth of what had happened in Sabra and Shatilla. American Jews further to the left, like Irving Howe, Edgar Bronfman and Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg spoke out publicly and forcefully against the Begin government.

The contrast with today’s mood in Israel and the American Jewish community could not be more stark. There is no “popular pressure” to find out what actually happened in the Gaza Strip, in the wake of allegations of Israeli war crimes by a UN Commission headed by Richard Goldstone.

Oh, there is outrage, of course. There is a fervent campaign against the messenger, a lot of verbiage devoted to proving that the UN Human Rights Commission, which sponsored the investigation, had no interest in an objective examination. But there is no clamor for the truth in Israel or the American Jewish community, except among human rights groups like B’Tselem and some lonely columnists (and bloggers).

In Yediot Aharonot, Yigal Sarna finds this alarming:

The panic and anger and denial in the face of Judge Goldstone’s Gaza report illustrates how far we went in escaping reality. Up until recently we would look into our sins and failures and appoint commissions of inquiry. Our leading national poets described needless killing. Of course, we always had people who fought the need for investigation, but the desire to cleanse and ameliorate, and the understanding that without this we cannot survive, overcame the denial.

We had Goldstones rise from among our own ranks. Truth-seekers, who dug through the ruins of history and didn’t sleep at night because of what they saw and heard from witnesses, the officers and soldiers…

This ability to give rise from within us judges and investigators, courageous witnesses and those who refuse to be silent was the source of our strength. Israeli democracy was powerful and rehabilitative, and flourished beyond the regimes of all its neighbors – because of the ability to talk. Because of the witnesses
who did not shy away, because of the soldiers who did not remain silent, because of the witnesses who screamed in their sleep as a result of the things they were reminded of…

Yet slowly the courage ran out. The greater the injustice, both inside and outside, the greater the silencing and the noise aimed at swallowing up the truth. Yet without it, in the next crisis, not only we will be crueler – we will also make the same mistakes we didn’t correct. We will be weaker. Because even to save us from ourselves we had to have Goldstone, a foreign Jewish judge who speaks English, in place of the local judges who disappeared.

Among American Jews, no consequential community leader is calling upon Israelis to take Goldstone’s advice and at least appoint an independent, non-military body to investigate the charges, as was eventually done in Israel after the Sabra and Shatilla massacres.

Instead of calling for soul-searching because of the Goldstone report, the umbrella group of Conservative rabbis, the Rabbinical Assembly, called upon its rabbis to add the singing of Hatikva to Rosh Hashana services.

As noted in my previous post, I have read the Goldstone report and still don’t know exactly what happened in the Gaza Strip. I hope beyond hope that Goldstone and his people will be proven wrong with an objective, impartial examination by the Israelis. But I don’t seem to have much company in my community.

Yes, the analogy with Sabra and Shatilla can only take us so far. The circumstances were different. The nature of the conflict was different. But the moral challenge is similar. The American Jewish establishment won’t accept that challenge, or even accept the fact that a challenge exists. And this time, there are precious few Israelis who will encourage them to do either one.

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