Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting. March 5. Photo by Abir Sultan/REUTERS.

AJC joins US Jewish groups criticizing Israel’s anti-BDS entry law


The American Jewish Committee said it was “troubled” by a new Israeli law banning entry to foreigners who publicly call for boycotting the Jewish state or its settlements.

The AJC’s statement, released a day after the law’s passage, was the first signal from the American Jewish establishment that it was unhappy with the law. An array of American groups on the left — including J Street, Americans for Peace Now, Ameinu, the New Israel Fund, and T’ruah, a rabbinical human rights group — condemned the law as soon as it passed.

“Every nation, of course, is entitled to regulate who can enter, and AJC, a longtime, staunch friend of Israel and opponent of the BDS movement fully sympathizes with the underlying desire to defend the legitimacy of the State of Israel,” AJC CEO David Harris, said Tuesday.

“Nevertheless, as history has amply shown throughout the democratic world, barring entry to otherwise qualified visitors on the basis of their political views will not by itself defeat BDS, nor will it help Israel’s image as the beacon of democracy in the Middle East it is, or offer opportunities to expose them to the exciting and pulsating reality of Israel,” Harris said.

According to the final wording of the boycott bill, the ban applies to any foreigner “who knowingly issues a public call for boycotting Israel that, given the content of the call and the circumstances in which it was issued, has a reasonable possibility of leading to the imposition of a boycott – if the issuer was aware of this possibility.” It includes those who urge limiting boycotts to areas under Israeli control, such as the West Bank settlements.

Backers of the bill say it would be used only against those active in organizations that support BDS, and would not block an individual for something she or he might once have said.

Is U.S. taxpayer money subsidizing Jewish terrorism against Arabs?


Taxpayer dollars in the United States and Israel are subsidizing Jewish terrorism against Arabs, a complaint filed with the New York state Attorney General’s Office alleges.

The accusations follow a recent expose by Israel’s Channel 10 about the work of the 13-year-old Israeli nonprofit Honenu, which provides financial support to Jews convicted of or on trial for violence against Palestinians, including so-called price tag attacks in the West Bank. The television program aired earlier this month in the aftermath of the July 31 firebombing of a Palestinian home in the West Bank village of Duma that killed an 18-month-old boy and his father. No suspects were arrested in the attack, but Jewish extremists are suspected. The attackers scrawled the Hebrew work for “revenge” at the site of the arson.

Since 2003, Honenu has operated a New York-based U.S. fundraising arm. In 2010, the last year for which data is listed, the tax-exempt organization has raised $233,700 in the United States, according to tax filings.

Critics say Honenu’s activities are no different from those of Palestinian groups that provide material support to Palestinian terrorists.

“Honenu is doing exactly what Hamas and the PLO have been criticized for — providing personal support, if not incentives, for those who commit terrorist acts against others,” says the complaint sent Monday by T’ruah, The Rabbinic Call For Human Rights, to the charities bureau of New York state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.

The complaint asks the attorney general to investigate Honenu and its fiscal sponsor, the Central Fund of Israel; both are located in New York state.

Reached by telephone in Israel, Honenu’s executive director, Shmuel Meidad, declined to be interviewed and referred inquiries to a spokesman. The spokesman asked that JTA submit its inquiry in writing; as of press time, no response had been provided to emailed questions about the Channel 10 report and T’ruah’s action.

But a lawyer for the organization, Zion Amir, told Israel’s Channel 10 that the organization is not breaking any laws.

“They respect the court’s rulings,” he said of Honenu. “They don’t decide who is good and who is bad, they don’t determine who is guilty and who is innocent. They operate within the bounds of the law.”

Among those to whom Honenu has provided legal help, according to a ProPublica report published in July 2014, is Yigal Amir, the assassin of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

In 2013, the year examined in the Channel 10 report, Honenu sent funds to the family of an Israeli convicted of massacring seven Palestinians in May 1990, the families of two Jewish-Israelis convicted of attempted murder for trying to plant a bomb at a girls school in Arab eastern Jerusalem in 2002, and the son of a former Israeli Knesset member who kidnapped and abused a Palestinian boy in 2010.

Most of Honenu’s budget does not go to convicted Jewish extremists. Much of it is used for the defense of Jews on trial for activities such as violence against Arabs and refusing orders to vacate illegal Jewish settlement outposts in the West Bank. The group helps approximately 1,000 individuals under arrest per year, according to the Honenu website.

“Soldiers and civilians who find themselves in legal entanglements due to defending themselves against Arab aggression, or due to their love for Israel, have an organization that will come to their aid 24 hours a day,” Honenu says on its website. “In the Arab-Jewish conflict in Israel there are dozens of foreign funded organizations helping our enemies. We are there for those loyal to the Jewish people.”

Honenu’s 2013 budget was approximately $600,000, according to documents obtained by Channel 10. About one-quarter of the money went to lawyers defending individuals on trial for actions against Arabs or for activities in the West Bank, and about $50,000 went directly to Jewish prisoners, according to the documents. The money included about $14,000 for the families of two men who planned the bombing of the Arab girls school in Jerusalem, and some $1,600 to Ami Popper, who murdered seven Palestinians in 1990. Zvi Strock, who received a 2 1/2-year sentence for kidnapping and abusing a Palestinian boy, also received a payout. Strock’s mother, Orit Strock, was a member of Knesset with Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party from 2013 to 2015.

“In the wake of the horrific terrorist bombing that killed an 18-month-old and his father, and left his mother and brother in critical condition, we in the U.S. Jewish community must examine our own responsibility for such crimes,” T’ruah’s executive director, Rabbi Jill Jacobs, told JTA after the group sent its complaint to the attorney general.

“We have no complaint with the use of money for legal assistance; Honenu itself admits that the money also goes for general support of those accused or convicted of these horrific crimes,” she said. But, “just as we would be furious to learn of tax-exempt money going to Hamas or ISIS, we must not allow U.S. taxpayers to subsidize money that is given strings-free to members of our own people who are accused or convicted of terror.”

The Bedouin, human rights, and ‘legitimacy’: A final word to Gerald Steinberg


Gerald Steinberg has asked that I respond to the specific charges he levies against human rights organizations, my colleague Rabbi John Rosove, and me regarding our involvement in protecting the rights of some 30-40,000 Bedouin to avoid forced expulsion from their homes. At the risk of prolonging our back-and-forth, I will reply one last time before returning to the more pressing work of engaging T’ruah’s 1800 rabbis and their communities in human rights.

In his response to Rabbi Rosove and me, Steinberg perpetuates the myth that the Bedouin settled in their current homes illegally, and without regard for zoning or environmental regulations. On Twitter, representatives of his organization have even used the word “squatting.”

This accusation against the Bedouin is a cruel one. As I indicated in my initial response, the Bedouin are living where the Israeli government moved them in the 1950s. Following the War of Independence, the new Israeli government used martial law to move the Bedouin who remained in the Negev into an area known as the Siyyag (fence), comprising a pocket of land between Beersheva, Arad, Dimona, and Yeruham. Bedouin property outside of this area was confiscated as state land.

This situation might have been sustainable if master zoning plans in the 1960s had not failed to acknowledge the presence of the Bedouin towns in the Siyyag. The villages disappeared from official maps, and all land within the Siyyag became zoned for industrial, military, or Jewish agricultural purposes. Thus, the Bedouin found themselves in a catch-22, forced to live in a place where they could not build legally, and where they were demonized as squatters. Furthermore, without official status, the “unrecognized” villages could not receive health services, schools, or other basic governmental services. No wonder that these are some of the poorest areas in Israel. Imagine what might have happened if the Israeli government had invested in building schools for Bedouin children, teaching sustainable agriculture, and providing medical services.

Tragically, the absence of the Bedouin towns from official maps allowed Israel to build a hazardous waste facility and chemical plants right next to the village of Wadi Na’am. Blaming residents of this village for“squatting in a toxic waste dump,” as one article NGO Monitor tweeted at me did is simply cruel.

Toward the end of the 1960s, Israel set up seven Bedouin townships and relocated approximately half the Bedouin populations there. By all accounts, these towns have been a failure. Separated from their traditional ways of life and their communal structures, most Bedouin have not thrived in these townships. This should be no surprise to any of us Americans who have seen what happens when low-income populations find themselves in cramped urban areas with subpar educational opportunities and few job prospects. Moving tens of thousands more Bedouin into these townships against their will promises to exacerbate the problem.

Are there problems within Bedouin communities? Yes, of course. I won’t excuse crime, mistreatment of women, or any of the other issues that those purporting to help the Bedouin often highlight. But this is not a zero sum game. Despite what Steinberg and often the Israeli government suggest, the choices are not either to allow the Bedouin to languish in their poverty or to move them against their will into townships. The most reasonable option is to build schools, health centers, and other social services in Bedouin villages, and to give these populations the tools they need to flourish. In some cases, as with Wadi Na’am, residents are willing to move, but want to have a say in where they move, rather than being shoved against their will into urban areas. It’s simply not fair to refuse social services to a population, and then argue that the population must move because they have no social services.

Nor is the question of building Jewish communities in the Negev versus sustaining Bedouin communities a zero sum game. The Bedouin claim only five percent of the Negev. There is plenty of room for new Jewish communities to flourish.

Steinberg argues that campaigns to support the Bedouin “erase 4000 years of Jewish history in the Negev (from the arrival of Abraham in Beersheva).” May I remind him that Abraham himself understood the need to share land, as he did with his nephew Lot. Each took land for his own family, lest there be squabbling among them. Furthermore, the Bedouin see themselves as descendants of Abraham and Hagar, and therefore also lay claim to a long history in the region. If we are to demand that others take seriously our own stories about ourselves, we must also pay respect to the stories of other peoples.

As for Steinberg’s claim that we or our Bedouin partners wish to delegitimize Israel, nothing could be further from the truth. What’s missing from his discussion is that the Bedouin are Israeli citizens, who are not trying to give up their citizenship, to question the right of Jews to live in the Negev, or otherwise to delegitimize the state. In fact, the Bedouin are claiming the rights of citizens within a sovereign western state to avoid forced displacement.

Finally, a word about rhetoric. In order to accuse me of a “harsh attack,” Steinberg puts words in my mouth, and then attacks these words. For example, he writes that I claim “that the issues I raised were nothing more than an effort ‘to defame lovers of Israel who dare to believe that the Jewish state can and should live up to the moral values of our tradition.’ Nothing more? Surely, the head of an organization that proclaims Jewish moral values and promotes tolerance might avoid such dismissive and immoral language.”

Actually, “nothing more” are Steinberg’s words, and do not appear in my piece. He further suggests that I do not respond at all to the specifics on the Bedouin dispute, without acknowledging that my piece does, in fact, include a condensed version of what appears above.

As for Steinberg’s accusation of “the soft-power warfare led by NGOs that exploit the language of human rights. (See the latest round of discriminatory academic boycotts.).” He fails here to distinguish between the demand that Israel live up to internationally-accepted human rights standards, which include protection from forced displacement, and specific tactics that some organizations choose to pursue. Neither I nor the organization I represent supports boycotting Israel as a tactic for holding Israel accountable to its human rights obligations. But the fact that some others do use this tactic does not render the human rights complaint itself any less legitimate. I will not attempt here to speak on behalf of other organizations that have not appointed me as their spokesperson.

This whole conversation leaves my wondering: What is Steinberg so afraid of? The question of the future of the Negev Bedouin is a complex, but not intractable problem. It is not an issue of national security, borders, or international diplomacy. There is a happy ending available—one in which the Israeli government does right by its Bedouin citizens, and in which these citizens build a sustainable life in the Negev, alongside their Jewish neighbors. Surely, the right and the left can come together to build this dream.


THE BEDOUIN CONVERSATION, A TIMELINE: 


Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, which mobilizes 1800 rabbis and cantors and their communities to protect human rights in North America, Israel, and the occupied territories.

Some Jewish questions for rabbis Jacobs and Rosove


Asking questions is a central aspect of Jewish tradition – indeed, formulating good questions is more important than trying to provide answers. Questions reflect the complexity of the human condition, as well as humility in acknowledging the inability to give ready answers in the face of this complexity

Unfortunately, in their attempts to respond to my article on misleading and immoral campaigns related to the complex issue of Israel’s Negev Bedouin citizens, Rabbis Jill Jacobs and John Rosove were quick to provide snarky “answers,” instead of posing good questions.

Before any exploration of this complexity, or acknowledging any possible errors by political advocacy groups such as T’ruah (formerly Rabbis for Human Rights, North America), Jacobs launches into a harsh attack, claiming that the issues I raised were nothing more than an effort “to defame lovers of Israel who dare to believe that the Jewish state can and should live up to the moral values of our tradition.” Nothing more? Surely, the head of an organization that proclaims Jewish moral values and promotes tolerance might avoid such dismissive and immoral language. Surely, public debate and criticism in the Jewish tradition cannot be reduced to defamation.

In the Jewish prophetic tradition, moral values do not exist in an imagined ideal, entirely detached from the complexities of the real world, and designed to tell others how they should act. In contrast, Jacob’s response skips over the complexities (yes, that word again) in the Bedouin’s transition from nomadic to modern conditions, the rampant crime and social problems (including oppression of women) resulting from polygamy, carefully argued rulings of  the Israeli High Court, the false and politicized claim to be “indigenous” in the Negev , and other crucial facts. 

In many ways, Jacobs’ “response” is actually a non-response.  She skips over most of the substance that I provided in my article, and omits any mention of “Jewish Voices for Peace,” a million dollar organization funded anonymously whose main objective is “driving a wedge” in the Jewish community over Israel. The involvement of a group that is at best agnostic on a “two-state” framework, and that cannot be said to “love Israel,” should worry Jacobs.

The one question in Jacobs’ attack is rhetorical, followed immediately by a demeaning and snarky pseudo-answer: “Does [Steinberg] really believe that 800 rabbis …. oppose ‘Jewish self-determination and sovereignty’? More likely, Steinberg resorts to such name calling in order to avoid real discussion and open debate about Israeli policy.” This is hardly consistent with “healthy debate” and “the best of our Jewish values.” I do, however, believe that 800 rabbis have been misled by a simplistic and detached narrative promoted by Truah and other political advocacy NGOs.   

In his post, Rabbi Rosove’s continues the abusive and insulting assault.  His recollection of a presentation I was asked to make before his synagogue group in Jerusalem could be politely termed “idiosyncratic.” He was “shocked and disappointed” that I spoke, as I do before dozens of groups every year, on the soft-power warfare led by NGOs that exploit the language of human rights. (See the latest round of discriminatory academic boycotts.) Had he remembered, Rosove might have admitted that our group had an intense and high-level discussion, reflecting the complexities involved, with many good questions on all sides of these very important issues.

Rabbi Rosove is right that “it is contrary to Jewish tradition to withhold legitimate criticism.” The same should hold true for voicing criticism of powerful NGOs that exploit the language of human rights and of campaigns that contribute to abuse, not love, of Israel.