A Jewish Left perspective on the Israel-Palestine conflict (with a personal note on the Australian Jewish Left and the Jewish Community’s tendency to intolerance)

by Robin and David Rothfield 
(An address delivered 22 May, 2013, to the B’nai B’rith Yitzhak Rabin group)
Abu Dis, 2007
Thank you , and I wish also to thank Irene, my machataynista, for initiating this invitation, because it gives me the opportunity to document a number of concerns I have with the attitude of many in the Jewish Community who view the Jewish Left as anti-Israel and sometimes even anti-Jewish.
Jewish affinity to Israel can be broadly separated in to 2 categories:
Firstly, an affinity based on the belief that Greater Israel is a God given birthright to the Jewish people. Therefore Arabs who live there have no compatible rights and they will be able to live there only on our terms.
Secondly, an affinity based on the recognition that the Jewish people have a strong historical and emotional tie to the country. In the aftermath of World War II, the Jews successfully won international support for the establishment of a Jewish state as a home for the Jewish people. Our right to that country is based on international law, but that right must inevitably co-exist with the natural rights of others, specifically the Palestinians whom we must recognise as the indigenous people of that land.
The Jewish left broadly subscribes to the latter view. We cannot argue the case with those whose belief is drawn from the divine. Nothing we say can trump a belief in a God given right.
The topic of this address is A Jewish Left perspective on the Israel-Palestinian conflict and is particularly pertinent at this time because the Jewish Community Council of Victoria (JCCV) is currently considering a move to disaffiliate the Australian Jewish Democratic Society (AJDS) from membership of the JCCV. The reason for this move is that the AJDS has initiated a campaign urging people not to buy goods produced in the Settlements.
I submit that this move by elements within the JCCV constitutes an act of intolerance towards those of us in the Left whose views on the Israel Palestine conflict differ from those in the mainstream Jewish Community. My address is entitled “A Jewish Left perspective” and not “ An AJDS perspective” because whereas the AJDS was founded in 1984, the Australian Jewish Left goes back, in my personal experience, to 1947. In this address I will cover a number of instances of intolerance shown by mainstream members of the Jewish Community to those of us on the Left. This intolerance goes back to the period before the Israel Palestine conflict became an issue and so my address will also make reference to the period of the 1950s when the issue dividing the Community was not the Israel Palestine conflict but the cold war.
My address will make particular reference to the Settlements and my brother David who has lived in Israel for 27 years and has a good grasp of the geographical details will assist me with his own contribution and slides.
With regard to the often expressed assertion that the Jewish Left is anti-Israel, I want to start by emphasizing the pro-Israel stance taken by by parents Norman and Evelyn Rothfield in the period 1947 – 48 when the state of Israel was founded. On 30 November 1947 Australian time when the UN decision on the partition of Palestine was taken, there was immense rejoicing in our family. My mother heard the news first and went banging on the door to inform my father who was at that moment sitting on the throne, but such was her excitement that she could not wait for him to come out in order to tell him the wonderful news!
But my mother’s activity was not confined to her excitement within the family. As a member of the executive of the Jewish Council to combat fascism and anti-Semitism she wrote two pamphlets in support of Israel’s statehood, Wither Palestine (1947) and Israel Reborn (1948). A more detailed analysis is provided by Jewish historian Philip Mendes in an article in Labour History, November 2009, as follows:
“As early as 1945, the Council expressed its support for a Jewish national home in Palestine. A pamphlet by Evelyn Rothfield, the information officer of the Jewish Council, called for free Jewish immigration into Palestine, and the establishment of a Jewish Commonwealth [Evelyn Rothfield, The Jewish People, RAAF Educational Services, Melbourne, 1945, pp.44-47.]. A further pamphlet issued by the Council in March 1947 titled Whither Palestine was issued with a supportive foreword by the Victorian Attorney General William Slater. This pamphlet firmly attacked the British White Paper on immigration, defended the right of the large number of homeless and displaced Jews to enter Palestine, and attributed Arab-Jewish conflict to the malign influence of exploitative Arab landowners, and the extremist Mufti of Jerusalem who had collaborated with the Nazis. The pamphlet called for Arab-Jewish friendship and cooperation in an independent Palestine [Evelyn Rothfield, Whither Palestine, Dolphin, Melbourne, 1947. See also Rabbi Dr H.M. Sanger, This Is Our Story, Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism, Melbourne, pp.25-31.].
The Council strongly supported the creation of Israel in 1948, and played a key role in promoting public sympathy for the fledgling state. The Council established a joint committee with representatives from the politically diverse Zionist Federation of Australia, Kadimah Cultural Centre and the Jewish Progressive Centre to organize pro-Israel broadcasts, newspaper articles and other publications, and public addresses. Young people and churches were specifically targeted. For example, the Council organized a ‘mass rally for youth to support the Yishuv (Jewish community) in Israel in its struggle for freedom and independence’. This rally was addressed by Presbyterian Minister and peace activist Reverend Alfred Dickie and Council President Norman Rothfield. In addition, the Council organized a mass Jewish rally to demonstrate the Australian Jewish community’s solidarity with Israel [Australian Jewish News, 10 & 17 September 1948; Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism, Annual Reports 1947-48, 1948-49; Norman Rothfield, Many Paths To Peace, Yarraford Publications, Melbourne, 1997, p.22.].
The Council also distributed 25,000 copies of a pro-Israel pamphlet, Israel Reborn. The pamphlet argued that the only Arabs who opposed partition were the feudal landlords and chieftains from surrounding countries who ‘fear the progress and enlightenment which the Jews have brought to the Middle East’. These war lords were allegedly not representative of the broader mass of Palestinian Arab peasants, workers and middle classes. According to the pamphlet, ‘Arabs in Palestine have displayed little enthusiasm for the war. Many of them, to escape fighting, have tried to leave the country…The fact is that the large mass of Arabs inside Palestine have little quarrel with their Jewish neighbours’ [Evelyn Rothfield, Israel Reborn, Dolphin Publications, Melbourne, 1948.].
The Council organized a petition in favour of immediate Australian recognition of Israel which was signed by twenty four prominent left-wing figures including leading civil libertarian Brian Fitzpatrick; Jim Cairns, William Slater, Doris Blackburn, Frank Crean and historian Manning Clark. The petition attacked the Arab invasion of Israel, stating that ‘those Arabs who have attacked the Jewish State are not Palestinians, but outsiders led by rulers from neighbouring countries. They have attempted to prevent the establishment, not only of the Jewish State, but of an independent Arab State in Palestine as well. They seek to divide the country of Palestine amongst themselves’ [Brian Fitzpatrick and 23 others, Australia and Israel, Jewish Council to Combat Fascism and Anti-Semitism, Melbourne, July 1948.].  The Council distributed 55,000 copies of a brief pamphlet based on this petition.
Fast forward to 1982. My brother David was serving in the Israel Defence Forces. He was driving a truck. And when he came to the Lebanese border he stopped the truck and got out, refusing to go any further. David was, so he believed, serving in an army for the defence of Israel, not for an invasion of Lebanon. News of this event got to Melbourne and caused considerable controversy. There was no move to disaffiliate AJDS because AJDS did not exist at this time. But some of the friends of my parents suddenly decided that they were friends no more. And it should be noted that the 1982 invasion of Lebanon led to the creation of Hezbollah. (Google “Hezbollah” and see the entry Encyclopedia Britannica)
But the move to disaffiliate AJDS currently before the JCCV is not the first time that the roof body has taken to this type of action. In 1952, at a meeting of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, a report was presented showing that thousands of Germans were coming to Australia and Minister of Immigration Harold Holt had refused to guarantee that former members of the Nazi party would be kept out. The Jewish Council conducted a campaign
against this German Migration and a public meeting was planned for 16 June in the Assembly Hall. The President of the Victorian Jewish Board of Deputies, Maurice Ashkenasy, demanded that the meeting be called off, threatening that the Jewish Council would be disaffiliated if the meeting went ahead. The meeting did go ahead and the Council resigned from the Board. However Ashkenasy was not satisfied with the resignation and succeeded in getting the Council expelled from the Board.
The year 1952 was at the height of the cold war. And this affected Jewish youth movements. I was a member of the Zionist youth organization Habonim and the Hanhaga had decreed that Habonim, alongside other Zionist youth movements of the time, would not have anything to do with the peace movement. A Youth Carnival for Peace and Friendship was being organized in Sydney and I decided to go along and compete in a swimming event. This displeased the Hanhagah of Habonim. On 25 March 1952, the day of my 16th birthday, I received a phone call from Issy Fine, the Merakez of Habonim. Issy informed me that I had been asked to leave Habonim. This was in effect an expulsion. And Habonim was my entire social life. I had no friends or activities outside Habonim.
The Settlements
I now move to the subject of the settlements, the issue which has led to this talk of disaffiliation.
In September 2007 I was in Israel to attend the wedding of my niece. I took the opportunity to visit, together with my brother David, some of the projects of NGOs funded by the New Israel Fund, an organization of which my father was a supporter.
One of the NGOs was MACHSOM WATCH, a group of dedicated volunteers who endeavour to monitor the treatment of Palestinians by the military, particularly at the many checkpoints they need to cross when moving from one town or village in the West Bank to another.
David will first show us how the military controls the movements of Palestinians within the territories.
Jewish Left historyR4_1
David and I were escorted on a tour of the West Bank by two Machsom Watch activists and observed a number of situations which caused us deep concern, for example:
1. The tour started near the town of Kalkilya, with a population of 20,000, and is almost completely enclosed by a concrete separation barrier 8 metres high (refer slide.) We stopped at the gate to a neighbouring village Ras Atiya also surrounded by the barrier, this time a barbed wire fence, with the villagers having limited access controlled by the army. The villagers now have to go through 2 checkpoints to get to market at Kalkilya. And why is this? So that the residents of the Jewish settlement on the hill Alfei Menashe have unfettered access to Israel. The Supreme Court had handed down a ruling two years earlier to move the separation barrier so that it would lessen the disruption to the lives of Palestinians, but the ruling had been ignored and today nearly 6 years later the barrier has still not been moved. In any other country this would be called “contempt of court.”
2. The gate to the village closes in the evening and for emergency medical treatment the villagers have to shout to the soldiers who sometimes don’t come out. We saw a school age boy taking his donkey across rough ground, apparently going to fetch water for his family (slide) Israel has taken control of all water supplies in the West Bank so that the settlers have water for their gardens and their swimming pools (2 slides) while many Palestinians have to travel to get water for their everyday needs.
3. A farmer, Al Rafiq was at the gate. He had brought 2000 week old chicks from the village and wanted to sell them elsewhere but the soldiers would not let his vehicle pass. He had been waiting for permission to cross with his chicks for two hours in the sun and likely to die from the heat.
4. We saw a school age child aged between 10 and 12 years waiting with some trepidation at a gate some 50 metres from the checkpoint for a signal from the soldier to proceed. Daphne, our tour guide, had words with the soldier who then allowed the child through. But Daphne explained that had she not been there the soldier would have made the child wait half an hour in the hot sun.
5. We drove along roads which only Israeli cars are permitted to use, and noted the sharp deterioration in the quality of roads which Palestinians are permitted to use. Israel does not maintain Palestinian roads.
6. Daphne told us the following disturbing anecdote. One day while driving she came across a stranded religious Jew and a Palestinian standing next to one another. The religious Jew had run out of petrol. The Palestinian, who had stopped to help the Jew, explained to Daphne that there was a settlement nearby which could sell petrol but that he, the Palestinian, would not be permitted entry. Therefore Daphne should go there and buy petrol on behalf of the religious Jew. She agreed to do this. When Daphne got to the settlement and bought the petrol, the settler who had sold it to her said, after realizing she was from Machsom Watch: “If it was for you, I wouldn’t help you even if you were dying.” Another settler said to Daphne: “A pity your family survived the Holocaust.”
7. At Elkanah we saw the house of a family of 8 Palestinians cut off from their village, Mas’ha, by the separation wall. ( 2 slides) The wall has been positioned for the convenience of the Jewish settlers below the offending house so as not to obstruct the settlers view from the hill over the valley. The family has a key to access the village through a yellow gate in the wall until 8 pm but none of the villagers are allowed to cross the wall and so the family cannot receive them as visitors. The positioning of the wall has thus made this family virtual prisoners in their own home.
8. Arriving at the Hawara checkpoint we were informed that no water or soft drinks are allowed to be sold in the car park there. We met another Machsom Watch worker. Tal, an American Israeli. Tal described the commander at this checkpoint as a nice guy who however had no understanding of the concept of occupation in international law. Tal explained to him that Israel is a signatory to an international convention under which the occupying power is responsible for those being occupied. This concept to the commander was like pure Chinese. ( I have in response to this point found that article 55 of the fourth Geneva Convention states: To the fullest extent of the means available to it, the Occupying Power has the duty of ensuring the food and medical supplies of the population; it should, in particular, bring in the necessary foodstuffs, medical stores and other articles if the resources of the occupied territory are inadequate.)
9. Also at the Hawara checkpoint we saw Palestinian men being body-searched by women soldiers, something which is very humiliating for the men concerned. We saw the fear in the face of a 10 year old boy who had to leave his father’s car and raise his shirt to cross the checkpoint on foot. We were told that women soldiers often try to be more macho than their male comrade, and can be obnoxious. One such woman soldier told Daphne that she was a feminist, completely misunderstanding the meaning of the word.
10. We saw an old lady being moved from an ambulance to a taxi because ambulances are usually not allowed through, and heard the story about a whole family that had been locked in one room for a week before being released.
The above are a few examples extracted from the booklet which I subsequently published entitled :Challenges facing Israel at 60 which the Jewish News, by the way, refused to review.
I was spared the more extreme examples of settler behaviour such as the burning of olive groves and acts of violence against Palestinian farmers as has been reported fairly recently. But I saw enough, including the daily humiliations of Palestinians as they try to cross check points when proceeding from one part of the West Bank to another, to convince me that the settlements are a thorn in Israel’s side and must be dismantled if ever there can be a meaningful peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.
I will now ask David to relate some of his impressions of his trip to East Jerusalem last year with one of his Israeli daughters.
Which brings me to the question “how do we go about dismantling the settlements”? I have always believed in a political solution but even with the US President Barack Obama declaring that he wants an end to settlement construction, new construction has gone ahead. Then how, I repeat, do we bring an end to the settlements? AJDS executive member Dr Jordy Silverstein has taken the initiative of drawing up a list of settlement products and asked people to not buy these products. Dr Silverstein has conceded that such boycott activity “will not work on its own, but it is one small step that we can take.”
I commend Dr Silverstein for taking this bold step. If the JCCV executive is upset by this strategy may I suggest that they come up with an alternative?
I shall now give some further examples of intolerance which I have experienced in the Jewish Community:
On my return to Australia after my niece’s wedding I was invited to a Rosh Hashanah dinner. At the dinner I was asked about my trip to Israel. I narrated some of the experiences on the West Bank, sticking solely to what I had seen with my own eyes. The man sitting next to me got up and moved to the other end of the table.
The following further examples are not specifically related to my trip to Israel but have occurred over the last 10 years or so:
1. At a Pesach dinner I was busy following the service when suddenly, out of the blue, someone told me that I was a “boged” ( Hebrew for “traitor”).
2. A woman lawyer who was a friend at the time, on receipt of an email from me setting out some human rights violations against Palestinians – the information having been obtained from Israeli Jewish sources – accused me of spreading Palestinian propaganda and put the phone down on me.
3. I sent out an email asking for support for East Timorese coffee, and one of those on my list replied that I should be concerned about my “mates” in the UK (this was at the time that a group of Moslem extremists in the UK were arrested on a charge of planning to blow up a plane mid-flight)
4. A frequent letter writer to the Jewish News once ominously sent me images of the body parts of Palestinian corpses which presumably followed a shoot-out where the Palestinians had come off second best.
Disregard for the Judiciary
Friends, in a democracy, where checks and balances between the branches of government are crucial, disregard for the judiciary is a sure recipe for the decline of democracy. It damages the authority and status of the courts, which are often the last resort for individuals who suffered by the actions of the authorities. There is no point having a judiciary if their rulings can be ignored with impunity. The following material was provided by The Association for Civil Rights in Israel, dealing with the failure of the state to comply with court rulings.
1. Non-compliance with Supreme Court rulings
Here is a quote from Israel’s Attorney General:
“A court order requiring the state to take certain measures, whether it represents a temporary legal remedy or the final judgment in a case, places mandatory obligations upon the state. Compliance with court rulings is incumbent not only upon the residents of the state and those who enter its borders, but first and foremost upon the state itself.”
The Attorney General then went on to list a series of steps that state authorities must take should the courts hand down a ruling against them, in order to ensure state compliance. The need for such a directive arose from the numerous cases over recent years in which state authorities have ignored court rulings or failed to implement them in a timely manner.
Among recent High Court rulings that have not been implemented or were long-overdue when implemented are cases involving the rights of migrant workers, breaking down barriers in education, injunctions ordering the cessation of road construction to illegal outposts and the dismantling of sections of the separation barrier.
The explanation provided by the Ministry of Justice for their non-compliance with the court rulings was that implementation was complicated and at times expensive. These explanations are clearly unsatisfactory. The court had already taken the difficulties in implementation in to account in its ruling. Moreover the court had also criticized such attempts by the state to repeatedly seek delays to implementation.
2. Interior Ministry ignores rulings of the administrative courts
The administrative courts have become the country’s main venue for adjudicating matters of entry and immigration to Israel. Over the years it has become evident that the Ministry of the Interior does not hold the principled decisions of these courts in high regard, nor does it see itself as obligated to carry out their rulings. Rulings handed down by the administrative courts which defy existing policies of the Interior Ministry have been implemented only with regard to the concrete case discussed in court, but have not resulted in a change of policy required to incorporate the ruling into the Interior Ministry’s procedures. Moreover, in many cases the ministry chooses not to appeal these rulings, but nevertheless continues to conduct business-as-usual based on policies that have been found legally unacceptable by the courts. The Interior Ministry goes one step further to claim that these rulings – which the ministry declined to appeal – are incorrect and thus are not considered abiding guidelines.
The Interior Ministry’s disregard of the principled legal decisions made by the administrative courts makes it impossible to eliminate the ministry’s illegal conduct. For according to the ministry, it can choose whenever it wishes to refrain from appealing a court decision on illegal conduct by simply continuing to carry out existing problematic policies.
3. Legislative attempts to harm the status of the High Court
In addition to ample examples of state authorities ignoring court directives, we have also witnessed a series of attempts by Knesset members of the right to limit the authority of the judiciary and to weaken its power. This has been carried out through legislation designed to circumvent explicit rulings of the court and thus make them irrelevant, and through bills designed to weaken the judicial branch as a whole. These attempts tilt the delicate balance of power between the branches of government – a balance that is essential to democracy, to the preservation of human rights, and to protection against a tyranny of the majority. The judiciary serves as a counterweight to those authorities chosen by the majority – the Knesset and the government – and at times it serves as the last bastion for safeguarding the rights of the individual, especially minority rights threatened by the majority. Therefore, weakening the power of the judiciary is liable to end up harming the civil rights of minorities.
Examples of legislation “bypassing” the High Court, Civil Damages Law:
In 2005, the Knesset approved an amendment to the Civil Damages Law aimed at depriving residents of the Occupied Territories the right to receive compensation for damages caused to them by Israeli security forces, whether in the context of war actions or outside of that context. The amendment constitutes a severe blow to the most basic rights afforded to all individuals, chiefly the rights to life, equality, dignity, bodily integrity and property, and an individual’s right to seek legal remedies through the courts.
In late 2006, following a petition submitted by nine human rights organizations including ACRI, the High Court, in an expanded panel of nine justices, ordered the cancellation of the amendment, as it contradicted the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty. Nevertheless, six months after the ruling was handed down, the government prepared a bill to bypass the High Court ruling in order to re-enact the revoked amendment. The bill passed its first reading in the 17th Knesset and it was debated twice in the 18th Knesset’s Constitution Committee in order to prepare the bill for second and third readings.
At the start of 2010 the Ministerial Committee on Legislation rejected the bill. However, there are still MKs seeking to promote measures aimed at weakening the authority of serving justices, for example by changing the process by which the justices are selected.