Sunday, November 14, 2010


Last night, my wife and I had the pleasure of meeting and having dinner at our home with Uri Zaki. Mr. Zaki is the US representative of the Israeli human rights organization, B'tselem
B'tselem does great work, documenting and publicizing the lives of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. As an Israeli organization, based in Jerusalem, B'tselem enjoys solid relationships with the Israeli political establishment and media.
Surprisingly to me, Uri Zaki is not a radical leftist. He started out in Likud and saw in right wing Prime Minister, Menahem Begin a role model. He speaks of himself as an "unapologetic Zionist." It was only after serving as a soldier in the Occupied Territories that Uri's eyes were opened to the reality of the Occupation. When a good friend, who was a gentle soul, stole from a Palestinian at a checkpoint, he realized that there is something in the essentially discriminatory nature of the Occupation that was poisoning Israel. He rejects AIPAC's position of Israel-right-or-wrong and sees the path of B'tselem (and J Street) as the only way "to keep Israel both Jewish and democratic."
                                                                           Uri Zaki delivering the Yizhak Rabin lecture

This morning, Uri delivered the annual Yizhak Rabin lecture. I don't agree with him on a number of key issues, most importantly, on the fundamental importance of maintaining a sovereign state for the Jewish nation and how "Jewish and "democratic" are reconcilable. However, I found it refreshing to hear a young Israeli leader speak of America and Israel as the two co-equal centers of Jews and the importance each center has for the other. By contrast, the former Israeli Consul-General in Chicago, Barukh Bina ended his speech in my congregation with this classic Zionist distinction: "Today, Israel and America are the two centers of Jews. Israel is the stage - you, are in the audience. We invite you to step on to the stage and become actors in this great drama."
Uri invited American Jews to engage with Israel and to influence US policy on Israel. He spoke of what each of the two large, Jewish communities can give each other. The AIPAC position as articulated by its representative's speech to the congregation, echoing Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren is: "American Jews should not get involved in Israeli politics." To this, Uri countered: "there is no escaping Israeli politics. If you support Israel-right-or-wrong then you are supporting Netanyahu's right wing agenda."
The audience asked thoughtful and, sometimes, provocative questions. One particularly insightful comment: "the younger generation no longer share the same relationship with Israel that the older generation is used to." This, the audience member observed, is "something we need to acknowledge, even though it is frightening to do so." Times are changing.

Uri Zaki represents a new Israeli generation of young leaders. He explained that previous generations of Israelies did not feel free to leave Israel. Those who did move from Israel to the U.S. carried guilt within and had to bear their peers' disapproval.  Today, many Israelis live in the U.S. His decision to stay in Israel is a free one. This generation therefore demands of Israel that it live up to higher standards.

For me, what's missing from these conversations is the key factor - the Arabs. As dissenting voices within the Zionist movement noted back in the 1920s, a comprehensive vision for lasting peace must involve the Palestinians. Meeting them at the negotiating table is not enough. In Israel itself, I'd like to see Palestinians brought into the government and upper echelons of the bureaucracy.

Two audience members asked Uri what we can do for B'tselem as American Jews. He replied that we not believe everything we are told about Israel. If J Street syas something, check it out. He also asked for donations.
My suggestion was to donate to B'tselem's  camera distribution project. Last year, when I visited Israel I brought a check to B'tselem, video editor Yoav Gross for the purchase of a camera. B'tselem's brilliantly simple strategy has been to arm Palestinians was cameras so that they can document settler violence (and the Israeli military's collusion with the settlers). This work has already resulted in two front page pictures - by B'tselem's Palestinian activists - on the front page of the New York Times. A similar project on the Gaza tunnels received prominent coverage in the Israeli mainstream media. Since Israeli journalists are barred from Gaza and international journalists cannot document every criminal attack by settlers, these cameras act as our eyes. This brilliant scheme empowers the powerless and does this in a non-violent fashion.

At a cost of a couple of hundred dollars, you might see a picture taken with your camera, on the front page of the New York Times.

B'tselem is doing vital work in using their privileged status within Israel to empower the Palestinians living under the Israeli settler/military occupation.

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