The moral imperative
“Let me get this straight: Israel just killed humanitarian workers in international waters, and the author has the nerve to call that provocation? Unbelievable.”
So writes one individual in response to one of the many journalistic attempts to defend Israel’s position in the recent Gaza flotilla affair.
Let’s be clear: we are losing the PR battle. Badly. Read the international press, read the talkbacks all over the Internet, witness the worldwide demonstrations, listen to international government statements, watch the TV coverage. It all points in one clear direction: Israel is either becoming, or has already become, morally bankrupt.
Those of us who know Israel well know that such a perception is far from the truth. The country has its faults certainly, and many of the concerns that are being expressed by its close friends around the world are entirely legitimate. Israel needs to clean up its act in all sorts of ways. But, let’s not deny that the country is also in an impossible situation that no other nation state could better tolerate or manage. It is being goaded time and time again by those who wish to destroy it, and the tactics that are being employed against it are becoming increasingly clever, sophisticated and dangerous. Yet all of our attempts to re-write the headlines are failing. And miserably so.
Why? In short, because we are operating in defensive mode. Time and again, the headlines are written and the storyline is sealed before we have time to present our version of reality. And when the initial victims of the story are starving Palestinians or abused human rights activists, we do not stand a chance. There is right and wrong in this world, and those deserving the most support are people denied their human rights and attacked by military force. In the eyes of the world, those people are not us.
It is time to change strategy. It is time to move into attacking mode. Not with weaponry, tanks and the pursuit of terrorists, but with wisdom, courage and the pursuit of justice. It is time to write the story that we want to tell, generate the headlines that we want to generate, show the images that we want to show. It is time to respond to Haaretz journalist Anshel Pfeffer’s cry to Diaspora Jewry to tell Israel why it has erred and what to do about it. And, most importantly, it is time to reclaim and live the human rights agenda as a core part of our heritage, our values, and our fundamental way of being. Some of us may well have been trying to do that, but the world’s reaction to the Gaza flotilla affair demonstrates more clearly than ever that we have completely failed.
What does an attacking strategy based on the moral imperative entail? Here are my suggestions:
1) A National Moral Ombudsman
In response to all the criticism that has been levelled against the Israeli government and the IDF in recent years (think Gaza flotilla, think Operation Cast Lead, think Lebanon 2006) Israel should establish a new position of National Moral Ombudsman. It should be held by someone of great standing in the Jewish and wider worlds – perhaps a Nobel Prize winner. Or perhaps it is better structured as a committee of several such people. Either way, the job is (a) where possible, to ensure that all moral issues have been appropriately considered prior to any military action, and, without necessarily having a veto, to approve or disapprove such action accordingly; and (b) where not possible, to examine all of Israel’s military activity on moral grounds after the event and, as a matter of course, publish the findings.
Inevitably, some will argue that this happens anyway – it’s the role of the Supreme Court and/or the State Comptroller – and they may well be right. But we need to create a new position or bolster the existing ones for two main reasons: first, Israel needs to make a clear statement about just how seriously it takes its moral responsibilities; and second, it needs to put in place appropriate mechanisms that will limit the possibility of it succumbing to the all-too-real temptations and dangers of unnecessary force.
2) An international Jewish humanitarian aid initiative
It appears that whilst the aid provided by Israel meets the UN-set minimum guidelines of 1,800 calories per-person per-day, it lacks sufficient protein and, as a result, malnutrition is a serious issue. Let me just clarify that: under the terms of the Fourth Geneva Convention, the State of Israel is legally responsible for Gaza, and whilst the people of Gaza are not starving, they are becoming sick in part because the quality of aid we are providing is insufficient.
So let’s recruit world Jewry to help solve the problem. Let’s work with the Israeli government to create a new international Jewish humanitarian aid initiative or organization. There are several of these already, but we need them either to come together, or to build a new one. Let’s build an international Jewish effort – in close collaboration with the Israeli government and the UN – to ensure that the UN’s recommendations about both the amount of aid and the quality of aid are met. We cannot fully control how (or indeed whether) that aid is appropriately distributed (Hamas or others may choose to undermine our efforts), but let’s make sure that we – the State of Israel and the Jewish People – are doing all in our collective power to ensure that the people of Gaza are receiving enough food of sufficient quality, and let’s put a clear and unambiguous end to any suggestion that this is not the case.
3) Create “Habitat for Humanity” in Gaza
Habitat for Humanity is an American charity that enables volunteers to build homes for, and in partnership with, the impoverished. So let’s set up a similar initiative with and for the people of Gaza. Let’s recruit Jews from Israel and the Diaspora, together with Palestinians from Gaza, the West Bank and elsewhere, to rebuild Gaza. Let’s partner with the PA, the State of Israel and the UN and pull in architects, engineers, town planners, builders, plumbers, electricians, painters and decorators to do what needs to be done. There are all sorts of security concerns associated with such a venture of course, but any attempt to sabotage an effort like this is likely to be seen as utterly contemptible. And maybe, just maybe, by working on such a project together, a whole set of new relationships might emerge which would dramatically alter perceptions on both sides of the current divide.
4) Up the ante on the Gilad Shalit campaign
Let’s involve every synagogue, every JCC and matnas, every Jewish school, every Jewish organization throughout the Jewish world in this one. Let’s encourage them to send, or, if possible, personally deliver a small aid package every single day to either the United Nations, the International Red Cross or the Hamas government, with a simple request that it be delivered directly to Gilad Shalit. Let’s generate maximum press, let’s monitor exactly what happens, and let’s see if we can’t change attitudes and opinions throughout the world. But fundamentally, let’s free Gilad Shalit. We did it for Soviet Jewry; now let’s do it for him.
5) Create a “No Hate Speech” certificate
Similar to a kashrut certificate in kosher restaurants, and along the same lines as the Tav Chevrati certificate that is now being awarded to Israeli restaurants, cafes and wedding halls that abide by certain guidelines regarding workers’ rights. In this instance, the no hate speech certificate would be awarded to Israeli and Jewish public bodies – charities, NGOs, Israeli government institutions, educational institutions – that abide by a new set of guidelines concerning the manner in which other people (Jews and non-Jews) are spoken about or represented. To gain the certificate, organizations would have to commit to a no hate speech agenda; certified organizations would be listed as “kosher” on a specially-created website, and would be entitled to use the no hate speech kite mark on any of their publications or publicity.
6) Establish an online dialogue initiative
Every Israeli, every Jew, every Palestinian and every Muslim with a Facebook page should seek to build social links with one another on Facebook. Let’s use the Internet tools that exist to bridge divides, establish links and encourage dialogue. And let’s sing about that from the rooftops. Let’s put advertisements in the international press, sponsored by major Jewish organizations, the Israeli government and Israeli NGOs, saying and demonstrating as clearly as possible, “We Want To Talk.”
Those are my ideas. Some are more practicable than others, and no doubt many people will put up all sorts of barriers to prevent them from gathering steam. You may knock them down with pleasure, but in doing so, come up with better ones that similarly abide by both of the underlying principles in each case: first, the absolute centrality of the Jewish moral imperative within each initiative; and second, the public relations exercise designed to highlight the centrality of the Jewish moral imperative within each initiative.
If we want to see a secure Israel, a supported Israel and a successful Israel, we have to do three things: (1) publicly announce that we are on the side of justice; (2) demonstrate precisely how we are on the side of justice; and (3) genuinely be on the side of justice. We have to overcome our fears, our insecurities and our prejudices, and we have to take some courageous steps that are fundamentally grounded in Judaism’s moral imperatives – to be a goy kadosh, a mamlechet kohanim and an or l’goyim. Security will come by building relationships with others, support will come by creating opportunities to partner in shared moral endeavour, and success will come by having the courage to live up to our most fundamental values. We can do no more and no less.