About “The Elephant in the Room” petition: Abe Silberstein’s response

Nearly 2,800 public figures, most of them Israeli and American (including a very large number of academics), have signed an open letter, The Elephant in the Room, calling on them to speak out against the “ultimate goal” of the judicial reform proposed by the current Israeli government: the maintenance of the “apartheid regime”. This last qualification is debatable – and even contested by some of the petition’s signatories. So why did they sign it? This is Abe Silberstein’s response.


>>>About the open letter The Elephant in the room, read: “Apartheid: an elephant painted red”.




You have signed a petition that is a wake-up call about Israel, both its current policy and the long evolution that has produced it. This petition uses the term ‘apartheid’ to describe this policy, both within the borders and in the occupied territories, and endorses the choice of this lexicon to describe the Israeli situation. Is your signature a sort of mea culpa, meaning that the description was already valid beforehand? Or did you sign and choose this wording to denounce the current policy of the extreme right-wing government in Israel?

In the past, I have resisted using the term ‘apartheid’ in describing the status quo in Israel/Palestine. I objected to its use on two grounds. The first was its historical and legal inexactitude: apartheid in South Africa entailed a regimented system of de jure racial segregation that plainly does not exist in Israel; as for the crime of apartheid as defined in international law, I did not believe this best described Israel’s actions vis-a-vis the Palestinians. My position then, and even now, is that Israel is flagrantly violating its obligations as an occupying power under the Fourth Geneva Convention. I do not believe violating these obligations is either more or less severe an offense, normatively speaking, than instituting apartheid.

My second objection was a political and philosophical one. If Israel was imposing a regime of apartheid on Palestinians—whether they are Israeli citizens, occupied subjects in the West Bank, precarious residents of East Jerusalem, or isolated Gazans—then the solution would necessarily entail movement that addressed conditions in all these domains. I certainly do not deny critical moral deficiencies on Israel’s part in each area; I have never been one to sing the praises of Israeli democracy within the Green Line. Still, I was troubled by the coupling of these situations. I believe it undermined a righteous opposition to an anachronistic colonialism in the occupied territories by launching a wider assault against Zionism. For some who frequently deployed “apartheid” this was, of course, precisely the intent. Their preferred solution was and is a single state between the Jordan River and Mediterranean Sea. I also believed the notion that Israel had imposed a unitary regime of apartheid to be fundamentally ahistorical, disregarding the many contingencies dotting the path to where we are now.

Yet I signed the Elephant in the Room petition, which as you note states that the occupation “has yielded a regime of apartheid.” My reading of the petition is that it is deliberately ambiguous as to what is meant by “a regime of apartheid.” It allows for those who believe Israel has institutionalized apartheid across all areas it controls (the position of Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and B’Tselem) as well as those who limit this characterization to the occupied territories (Yesh Din) to sign. As I am generally unconvinced by both arguments, this fact had no bearing on my decision to sign, but I think it is worth stating since your question only assumes the former possibility. Surely not all those who signed would define apartheid in Israel/Palestine in the same way.

So, why did I sign? Simply put, I agree with almost everything else the letter states. Its overall message, to my mind, is crucial. The reason the far-right government in Jerusalem is pursuing a power grab is not to advance personal corruption, though this may well be Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s piece of the deal. The Haredim, while supportive of an override clause to protect their sectoral interests, are hardly enthusiastic. Secular Likudniks—at least the ones who still support Netanyahu—do not view the High Court favorably, but one gets the impression this is not their top priority. (They, in fact, seem quite irritated by the zealousness of Justice Minister Yariv Levin.) This so-called reform is being driven principally by the radical right-wing Religious Zionist Party and Jewish Power, the parties most associated with the settlements.

In Israel, the protest movement is belatedly making the connection between the ideological leaders of the occupation and the assault on democracy within the Green Line. I think they are waking up to the untenability of democracy in Israel and colonial dictatorship in the occupied territories, that the latter aims to asphyxiate the former in order to achieve greater and permanent settlement. At the protests it is now routine to hear “Where were you in Huwara?” chanted at Israeli police officers. This a reference to a settler pogrom earlier this year, which the military and the Border Police failed to stop. Perhaps my reading is too optimistic, but I think the settlers and their allies overplayed their hand, launching their coup before they actually attained the demographic majority that we are told is inevitable. They burst not only the elite Tel Aviv bubble but also those of more conservative Jewish members of the Israeli middle class. They have awakened a sleeping giant. This letter is an effort to press American Jewish leaders, some of whom might still believe that the answer is a compromise between “brothers” hatched in President Herzog’s residence, to pay attention to developments on the ground. This is now about so much more than the independence of the judiciary.

Is there more to this “No more silence” than opening the floodgates to criticism? In other words, is it in your mind to initiate a change in the relationship between the diaspora and Israel, where the diaspora not only assumes a say in Israel’s internal policy, but goes so far as to break away when that policy goes off the rails of the rule of law? Do you see a shift in the balance of the Jewish world in the current period?

I think this question gets to the heart of the matter. Before I answer, allow me to say that I can only speak with some credibility about the situation among the American Jewish diaspora. I am slightly informed of the reactions of British Jews to events in Israel, but I must confess complete ignorance about the situation in France, Germany, the Netherlands, South America, and elsewhere. The picture may be similar or radically different.

In the American Jewish community, the political storm triggered by Benjamin Netanyahu’s anti-judicial coup has hastened a crisis of hegemony that had been slowly coming to pass for more than a decade. Previously, at least since the beginning of the current century, there was what we might call an “establishment consensus” that consisted of the following postulates: Israel is a democracy no more (but perhaps less) flawed than any other in the West; when the Israeli government states an action is necessary for its security, we are in no position to interrogate the matter; and the two-state solution is a desirable outcome, its failure to materialize being entirely the fault of the Palestinian leadership.

This center is failing to hold. The right-wing of the community has already withdrawn its consent for this project. This happened gradually, not suddenly. The American Jewish establishment’s support for the Sharon government during the Gaza disengagement radicalized certain elements of the religious Zionist community. During Barack Obama’s tenure, the establishment organizations were fairly critical of the administration’s handling of relations with Israel and the Iran nuclear agreement—even though Obama continuously had the support of a significant majority of American Jews. Yet this posture was not enough for the right. They practically viewed Obama as antisemitic and began commiserating with the far-right in Israel. Even a totally meaningless commitment to the two-state solution became too much for them to swallow. Towards the end of his life, Sheldon Adelson stopped supporting AIPAC [the largest pro-Israel lobby in the U.S.] and began funding more partisan alternatives. Jewish right-wing publications routinely attack establishment organizations, especially the Anti-Defamation League, which they believe to be too liberal.

At the same time, more progressive and left-leaning liberals (a group in which I include myself) were growing tired of the outsized influence the right was having in the establishment, especially since they weren’t even keeping their part of the implicit bargain. The plurality of American Jews who supported President Obama’s diplomacy with Iran, not to mention the majority who supported his administration’s failed efforts at reaching a two-state solution, had virtually no voice in the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish organization. Only J Street, which had been blocked by the right from joining the Conference, was effectively speaking for them.

The most significant crack in this coalition came with Trump. The right-wing of the Jewish community, a distinct minority, found an unprecedented open door to the halls of power. If in the past they felt forced to compromise due to their weak position relative to the liberal majority of American Jewry, they now sensed an opportunity for total victory. In some initiatives, they even upstaged the establishment; for example, American recognition of unilaterally imposed Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem (and the concomitant moving of the embassy) was an on-paper priority for the major American Jewish organizations, but it was always treated as unrealistic and had long become a stale talking point. Presidential candidates promised to do it, and then would renege soon after the election. It was a reality the establishment accepted, and this deeply frustrated the right. In Trump, they found someone who vindicated them. They no longer had to compromise; they could have it all. Their only failure during Trump’s term was in not securing the partial Israeli annexation of the West Bank, for which we have the United Arab Emirates to thank.

The progressive reaction to Trump is critical to account for here as well. The American Jewish establishment did issue statements opposing Trump’s vulgar racism and his xenophobic policies, but due to their commitment to Israel and to also representing right-wing Jews it proved to be an awkward balance. One day they condemned Trump, and the next praised his administration’s latest sop to Israel. They could never maintain a stance of total revulsion toward Trump. Progressive Jews, on the other hand, were like other American progressives. We were totally revolted by Trump. There was no allowance we were willing to make. This disgust was also directed at the entire Republican Party, which in turn rendered the bipartisan nature of much establishment work extremely unappealing. Recently AIPAC exacerbated, but did not create, its challenges by publicly and directly intervening in election campaigns, which it had never done before. As usual they supported both Democrats and Republicans, but the number of Democratic donors willing to have some of their contributions directed to the likes of Jim Jordan and Scott Perry [supporters of Trump’s effort to illegitimately hold onto power after losing the 2020 election] is mercifully small. So today AIPAC is increasingly and correctly characterized as a center-right organization, even if it still has the support of some Democratic members of Congress.

The upshot of the above is that by the time the current Israeli government took office, only some liberals and the centrists still subscribed to the establishment position in the American Jewish community. The right-wing was in Trumpland and progressives had likewise moved away from the center. The anti-judicial coup has now begun to alienate the remaining liberals from the establishment position. Liberal Jews made the obvious connection between Trump’s attempt to undermine American democracy and Netanyahu’s regime change. The centrist establishment has expressed its concerns about the Netanyahu government’s proposals, but it is constitutionally incapable of matching the rhetoric and alarm of the opposition. They cannot interpret the present moment in terms of Israeli democracy being in serious jeopardy, even if they privately believe it themselves. After all, what happens if the judicial overhaul passes in full? Do they now say Israel is no longer a democracy? They cannot possibly do that.

Liberal American Jews have responded by independently supporting the Israeli protest movement, alongside the more progressive Jews in J Street and similar organizations. They are taking their marching orders from the protesters on Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv, not the pro-Israel doyens in the U.S. I have encountered more than a dozen prominent American Jews at protests outside the Israeli consulate in Manhattan, people who never imagined themselves as opponents of an Israeli government. The nationalistic tenor of the opposition, with the Israeli flag being the prominent symbol, has certainly helped. These liberals are still pro-Israel and Zionist to their core. But one of the stool legs of the old establishment catechism has been broken. Israeli democracy is not as strong and enduring as they thought it was, and the threat to pluralistic Zionism is posed not by Palestinians or the Arab world but by extremist Jews. I would not underestimate the significance of this development. The consensus pro-Israel position is no longer definable, for there is no longer even an image of a consensus.

I had this crisis in mind when I opted to join the letter. The connection I noted above between the ambitions of the settlers and the anti-judicial coup, now gaining traction within the Israeli protest movement, has not quite penetrated here. There is still a sense that this is either about Netanyahu’s corruption trial or the Haredi parties desire to weaken the divide between religion and state. I don’t mean to say these are irrelevant or unimportant, but the second leg of the stool is still quite strong. The liberals in the community are not yet ready to say that what is happening in the occupied territories—not just the pogroms, which are easy to condemn, but the entire structure of governance there imposed by Israel—is an appalling affront to democracy and is at the core of the anti-judicial coup. I don’t know if we will succeed in moving them, but there is no time more propitious than now to try.

On this point, perhaps it is important to legitimize the term “apartheid” even with all its intellectual and political drawbacks. Apartheid is tantamount to a crime against humanity, which should never be justified in the name of security. I don’t know how the current crisis of hegemony in the American Jewish community will be resolved; as Gramsci said of such an interregnum, “the old is dying and the new cannot be born.” But one solution that I desperately do not want to be born is some sort of modus vivendi between a reconstituted American Jewish establishment and the Israeli right. This seems scarcely imaginable today, but in the event the anti-judicial coup is unsuccessful there will be a great desire to move on, especially if Netanyahu eventually departs from the scene and coalitions between Likud and the bourgeois centrist parties (Yesh Atid and National Unity) become a possibility again. Old habits die hard. To foreclose on the possibility of such a rapprochement, there may be no superior alternative to stigmatizing the territorial objectives of the Israeli right to such a degree that it is impossible for any self-respecting liberal to deal with them again.

The petition speaks on behalf of the American Jewish diaspora, and recruits its signatories mainly from Israeli and American universities. These signatories include both anti-Zionists and Zionists. How do you understand such a coalition? And what coherent movement could result from it, in Israel itself? Isn’t it in tension with the democratic mobilisation of recent months, which was rooted in a reminder of the 1948 Declaration of Independence, and was therefore genuinely Zionist, against the government accused of betraying Zionism?

Our letter was addressed to American Jews, those holding leadership positions in particular. I presume most of us believe that cooperation between progressive Zionists and anti-Zionists (as well as non-Zionists, the vast majority of humanity) is possible and even desirable on several fronts. My own view is that the struggle within the American Jewish community is best led by progressive Zionists.

In Israel, however, a coalition of Zionists and anti-Zionists is not only possible—it has a very recent precedent in the “government of change” that was established in June 2021—but a necessity. Outside the most optimistic polls, which are likely outliers, there is no Zionist majority for liberal democracy in Israel. There is an Israeli majority for liberal democracy, but it can only be activated with the support of Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel. The nostalgic aspects of the protest movement are thus very concerning to me. Nostalgia is a powerful force, and it can clearly mobilize social classes that rightly understand the malign intentions of the right-wing settler elite. But it must be checked by a realization that Jews alone can no longer ensure Israel remains a democracy. Building this democratic counter-bloc will require redressing persistent discrimination and socioeconomic gaps between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel. To restore Israeli democracy for Jews, Arab citizens of Israel must finally live in a democracy. And to put an end to the threat of a dictatorship of the settlements in the future, the pilot dictatorship in the occupied territories must be dismantled.

Abe Silberstein

Abe Silberstein is a writer focusing on American Jewish life and Israel. His work has previously appeared in The New York Times, Ha’aretz, The Forward, and The Tel Aviv Review of Books. His free subscription newsletter can be found at http://abesilberstein.substack.com

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