An ignominious fossil has been unearthed from the sediment of history. In 1975, Israel arranged the sale of an array of nuclear warheads to the apartheid regime of South Africa. Reading the recent story in The Guardian detailing the clandestine meetings between Shimon Peres and P.W. Botha, the defense ministers of their respective countries, I am overcome by a wave of revulsion, shame, and despair for the land of my ethnic heritage.
For many years, Israel has engaged in a bloody and repressive occupation against the Palestinians, committing horrific human rights abuses, and routinely suppressing internal dissent and criticism. The right-wing in Israel has grown ever more racist, nationalistic, and even fascist, while the pro-peace movement has diminished into irrelevance and obscurity. Israel long ago lost the moral high ground in the eyes of the wider world, with the exception of the narrowly-interested American Jewish lobby and its congressional backers.
But this story is truly the coup de grace of outrage; for it contains no ambiguity, no fuzzy equivalence chararisic of the geopolitical realities of the Middle East. Simply put, In 1975, Israel committed an action with no moral justification and which fundamentally betrays the historical lessons of the Jewish experience
My conscience rages against my fondness for the land of my heritage. I am an Israeli-American: my parents are both from Israel, and most of my family still lives there. Some of my most formative childhood memories took place in Israel, and I still remember vividly the smell of jasmine wafting through the streets on hot Jerusalem evenings; the hypnotic and transcendentally beautiful curves of the moonscape-like Negev Desert; the cool relief of the Mediterranean after a another unbearably hot day in Tel Aviv. I come from a liberal, pro-peace, Zionist background. Growing up, I was taught that the Jews have the same right as any other people to form a self-determining political entity, and that our state should be located on the cultural, spiritual, and historical homeland of the Jewish people. But I was also taught that the same criteria which establishes Israel’s legitimacy as a land for the Jews establishes it equally as a land for the Palestinians.
These parallel ideologies have hardly been harmonious bedfellows. It is hard to maintain a moral compass when the lines of justification are so subjective and when both sides have blood on their hands. Throughout the myriad conflicts which Israel has engaged in with its neighbors, part of me has tried persistently to rationalize and justify Israel’s actions: they are acts of self-defense; they are acts upon which their survival depends in a region full of enemies; they are actions which any state with sovereignty over its borders has the right to pursue. Thus, even my most sympathetic feelings towards Palestinians are, for a time, tempered by an indelible Israeli-ness in which I come to see them as my adversaries: these are the people who murdered my cousin, Eran, as he hiked through a canyon too near the border of the West Bank.
All that changed when I read the recent article about Israel’s “friendship” with apartheid South Africa. No longer did I experience feelings of moral ambiguity; no longer did I make excuses for differences in narrative and context. What a relief to suffer the pains of a divided conscience no longer! I was struck with the kind of outrage and disgust that follows only from an action that is purely and simply wrong, and the utter dejection one feels upon realizing that it has no justification.
I have never supported the blindly simplistic statement, so frequently heard within the American Jewish community: “wherever I stand, I stand with Israel”—that, only an ideological mercenary can believe—but the shaky stilts of heritage and nostalgia, upon which my qualified support of Israel has always wobbled, have finally come crashing to the ground.
Of course, there are those, frequently found among the American Right, who justify Irael’s historical misdeed. For instance, prominent journalist Emmanuel Navon writes on FrumForum.com that “because the Arab world managed to isolate Israel internationally after the Yom Kippur war, Israel was compelled to develop diplomatic ties at almost any cost and to favor Realpolitik over ethics” (http://www.frumforum.com/israel-isnt-south-africa). Mr. Navon can tiptoe all he wants around the moral implications of Israel’s relations with apartheid South Africa, but it will not erase their significance.
We cannot ignore that, even given the harshest economic situation facing it at the time, Israel betrayed its principles and dishonored the historical experience of the Jewish people by supporting a regime of systematic oppression and subjugation. Mr. Navon may believe that Israel’s foundational principles need not apply when dealing with direct adversaries such as the Palestinians, but surely there is no excuse for Israel to push aside all adherence to the ideals of human rights when it comes to a nation such as South Africa.
I suspect that Mr. Navon and the crowd on FrumForum would not justify a suicide bomber’s actions by saying that his socio-economic conditions compelled him to cause harm to others; how can they possibly justify the claim that Israel’s economic condition compelled it to sell unbelievably destructive weapons to a regime with a demonstrated history of harming its own populace?
I wonder what the price tag is on Mr. Navon’s principles.