How does someone who’s a Zionist and human rights advocate justify Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank?
It’s a theme that permeated much of the discussion at the seventh annual Shira Herzog Symposium, which was organized by the New Israel Fund of Canada.
The event, called Partners and Courage, featured three prominent speakers: Ayelet Waldman, an American novelist and co-editor of The Kingdom of Ash and Olives; Mutasim Ali, a law student and a leading activist for the African asylum-seeking community in Israel; and Peter Beinart, an American journalist, political commentator and the author of The Crisis of Zionism.
Some 230 people attended the symposium, which was held on Sept. 10 at the Toronto Reference Library.
The discussion was moderated by Bob Rae, former premier of Ontario and interim leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
Rae noted that Herzog, a well-respected commentator on Middle Eastern affairs, was an “inveterate fighter for human rights. She would have been offended by a Zionism that excluded others.”
Waldman argued that the founding principles of Israel are in direct conflict with the “occupation” of the West Bank. “I couldn’t align my own political beliefs with the politics in Israel,” she said. “Because I’m a Jew, I feel obligated to speak out against human rights violations in the name of all Jews.”
She said most visitors to Israel do not go to the West Bank, so they don’t see the mistreatment of the Palestinians there.
Waldman took a group of writers to the area and asked each of them to contribute an essay on their impressions of the situation in the West Bank. The Kingdom of Ash and Olives is a compilation of those essays.
Ali grew up in a middle-class home in Darfur, a province in Western Sudan that has been ravaged by civil war. In 2003, Islamic government forces began attacking non-Islamic people in Darfur.
Ali’s family fled the area. He was separated from them and ended up attending university in Khartoum. He became an activist there and started speaking out against the genocide in Darfur.
After being arrested and tortured multiple times, Ali fled Sudan. “Remaining silent was not an option, nor was picking up a machine gun,” he said.
Egypt did not treat Sudanese refugees well, so in 2009, Ali crossed the border into Israel. He said Israel appealed to him, because he remembered that several Jewish organizations had protested against the ethnic cleansing in Darfur.
Ali has spent considerable time in Israeli refugee prisons, where many of his fellow countrymen and Eritreans are languishing. In 2013, he became the first African to obtain official refugee status in Israel.
“Israel does not have a place for people fleeing persecution,” he said. “But Israel has the capacity to take in refugees.”
Several groups have supported the Africans, he noted, saying that, “Many Israelis joined our struggle not because we are poor refugees, but to defend the values the State of Israel is founded on.”
Beinart said it is important to support those courageous Israelis who are fighting for human rights and taking “risks for the future of their society. Those of us in the Diaspora have no right to abandon them.”
He pointed to the hypocrisy of American Jewish groups that are blind to Israel’s human rights record. “They would love to have Ali speak and show the world that Israel gave asylum to an African refugee,” but “they will not fight for Israeli democracy,” he said.
He cited Yuval Diskin, the former director of Shin Bet, who, in the 2012 documentary, The Gatekeepers, said the occupation is unsustainable and wrong, and poses an existential threat to Israel’s survival.
“It’s not tenable in 2017 to be a colonial state,” Beinart said. “Democracy is what gives you legitimacy… The West Bank is not necessary for Israel’s survival.”
When Rae asked if it’s fair for Israel to be singled out, when more abuse is perpetrated in other countries, Waldman said such comparisons are irrelevant because all abuse is unacceptable.
Beinart said that while the U.S. government does not financially support those brutal dictatorships, it gives billions of dollars to Israel. He argued that, “Americans have the right to ask about the use of their tax dollars. They have the moral right to question how that money is spent.”