About “The Elephant in the Room” petition: Sarah & Guy Stroumsa’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 Sarah and Guy Stroumsa’s response.


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

Patriotic shame


We thank the editors of K. for their invitation to elucidate the reasons for our signing the recent international petition “The Elephant in the Room” (over two thousand signatures so far), which stresses the need—for the impressive popular struggle against the so-called judicial reform and for democracy in Israel—not to evade the multifaceted injustice towards the Palestinians.

“Democracy and occupation cannot coexist!”, “Equality for all, from the Jordan to the [Mediterranean] sea!” In the weekly Saturday evening demonstrations, for example in Jerusalem, in front of the presidential residence, some demonstrators can be seen brandishing such signs (trilingual in Hebrew, Arabic, and English), but they remain in the minority. The vast majority of organizers prefer not to address the issue of the occupation, probably to allow as wide a range of political standpoints as possible to participate without feeling manipulated by “the left.”

Without disputing the tactical merits of such an attitude, it seems to us absurd to aspire to get the country out of the deep rut in which the government’s plans and actions have mired us, without even mentioning the question of the occupation, now more than five decades old. We have long known, and constantly maintained, that the military occupation of a people is bound to corrupt and eat up the foundations of any democracy, even an imperfect one, as all democracies always are. The petition in question stresses the daily violence in the occupied territories as well as its periodic eruptions. This violence is multifaceted as well as systemic. It is perpetrated both by the settlers—usurpers of the land, some of whom are racist, brutal, and at times pogromist—and by the army. Tsahal, which is required by international law to protect civilians, all too often ignores the settlers’ violence, which is proudly displayed ad maiorem Dei gloriam [for the Glory of God]. At times, the army also behaves abominably, obstructing wells, destroying makeshift schools built with the help of the international community, and expelling Bedouin communities from their land under false pretenses. Soldiers shoot quickly, with live ammunition, claiming innocent victims—often minors—every week. All too often, the Israeli press and media are appaled by this continuous situation, but they are usually very cautious in expressing their sentiments.

The petition speaks of apartheid (separation, in Afrikaans), a term referring directly to the legal system in force in South Africa from 1948 to 1991. This system required the separation of “races” at all levels. Whites, Indians, “colored”, and Blacks could not intermarry, ride the same buses, use the same hospitals, or swim on the same beaches. To speak of apartheid, of course, is to stigmatize. For some time now, the term is used more frequently in Israel to refer to the complex, fluid, and sometimes confusing system that prevails in the occupied West Bank; In a televised interview on September 6th Tamir Pardo, a former chief of the Mossad, explicitely described the situation in the West Bank as one of apartheid.  Admittedly, this system bears little resemblance to South Africa’s former legal system. Above all, it is in no way based on racial theory. For those who use it today in Israel, it refers above all to the legitimization of inequality and injustice between Jewish settlers and Palestinians—although they live side by side in the same territory, the two groups are governed by two distinct political, social, and legal systems. Only the former are citizens: they have the right to vote, are protected by Israeli social insurance, and depend on the national school system and civil courts, whereas the latter are under the jurisdiction of the military authorities (and courts).

Signing a petition, like demonstrating, is above all a symbolic expression. Contrary to what is suggested by the title of John Austin’s classic book “How to do Things with Words”, not all uses of language amount, by their very utterance, to an act, and saying sometimes does not mean doing.  Signing or demonstrating is often not doing, allowing an easy way out for a guilty conscience. It is sometimes “to save one’s face” that one signs or demonstrates. When one cannot see what could be done that would be really useful, it allows one at least to confront one’s shame.

Along with “Democracy!”, “Shame!” has been the most common slogan of the constant demonstrations across the country for over six months. “Shame” is, of course, what characterizes our feelings towards the government’s actions. This shame, which our ministers are incapable of feeling, is splashed across our faces. Alongside patriotic pride, there exists what we propose to call patriotic shame. We endorse the words of Carlo Ginzburg, another signatory of this petition—“My country is the one of which I am ashamed.”

In Israel, it is not the races that are separated and kept apart. The issue is both more complex and more insidious. If Israel—which claims to be both a Jewish and a democratic state—struggles to link these two epithets, it is because the definition of what it means to be a “Jewish state” is not clear in the minds of Israelis—or rather, it does not mean the same thing to everyone. For many citizens who identify themselves as Orthodox, the idea of a Jewish state does not only mean a state whose citizens are overwhelmingly Jewish, but also a state that is faithful to halacha, the rules of the Torah as interpreted by rabbinic tradition. Mutatis mutandis, this is similar to the idea of an Islamic state that obeys the laws of Sharia. Among other things, religious parties are increasingly insisting on the separation of men and women in the public space, on buses, and at cultural events. They sometimes succeed in preventing women from singing in public. In addition, students of Talmudic schools (yeshivot) are automatically exempt from military service (as are Arabs) and receive scholarships, to which university students are not eligible. We can thus see that the idea of keeping people apart, the fragmentation of society, and the separation of different layers of the population, goes much further than the barriers erected between Jews and Palestinians.

Historically, Zionism aimed to “normalize” Jewish society, to make the Jewish people similar to the nations of the world. Another form of Zionism, however, dreams of a chimerical return to the biblical historia sacra and undertakes to build a mythical, inward-looking Hebrew society around a rebuilt Temple. From such a perspective, the Jewish state cannot possibly be a true democracy, a society in which all citizens, regardless of ethnic, religious, or gender identity, are equal in rights and duties. Although in practice equality between Jews and Arabs remained all too often illusory—in government budgets, for example — Israel’s Declaration of Independence unambiguously affirmed Israel’s democratic character. But since the adoption in 2018 of the “Basic Law”, which defines Israel as “the Nation-State of the Jewish People”, voices claiming that the state’s Jewish identity takes precedence over its democratic character have become increasingly louder. This shift has culminated in the establishment of the current government coalition, which, in addition to the Likud, includes religious parties, all of whom affirm Israel’s Jewish primacy and reject equal rights for all citizens.

These planned inequalities between Jews and Arabs are largely responsible for the tragedy that is now engulfing the Israeli Arab community. Israel’s Arab citizens are subjected to the murderous brutality of mafias that dominate, exploit, and kill, and which the police has never been able to bring under control, no doubt because it has never been given the means to carry out a task of such magnitude. On August 26th, the weekly demonstration in Jerusalem opened with a long list, listened to in silence, of the 157 murder victims in the Arab community since the beginning of January, most of them murdered by mafias—but also victims of femicide. A speech of the popular Arab singer, Mira Awwad, was then followed by a video clip, which presented a moving poem by Mahmoud Darwish in Arabic, Hebrew, and English.

Until now, Arab citizens and the issues concerning the Palestinians have had little presence in the popular movement of outrage and revolt. Is this changing? Are we seeing the beginnings of an awareness of the interface between the different aspects of what might be called Israeli-style apartheid, this multifaceted fragmentation of society? In any case, if we hope to change things, we should not be afraid to say the words, but ashamed by the realities.

Sarah Stroumsa

Guy G. Stroumsa

Sarah Stroumsa is Professor Emeritus at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she has taught in the departments of Arabic language and literature and Jewish philosophy. She is a former Rector of the University. She is a member of the Israeli Academy of Sciences and Letters, the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy, the Academia Europea, the American Philosophical Society, and an associate member of the Academy of the Kingdom of Morocco. She has been awarded the Humboldt Prize and the Leopold Lucas Prize. She is President of the Society for Judeo Arabic Studies. Her publications include ‘Maimonides in his World: Portrait of a Mediterranean Thinker’ (Princeton 2010); ‘Andalus and Sefarad: On Philosophy and its History in Islamic Spain’ (Princeton 2019); and ‘Théologie et philosophie au temps des Almohades (XIIe siècle de l’Ère commune)’ (Rabat 2023).

Guy G. Stroumsa is Emeritus Professor of Comparative Religion at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (Martin Buber Chair) and Emeritus Professor of the Study of Abrahamic Religions at Oxford University. A member of the Israeli Academy of Sciences and Humanities and holder of an honorary doctorate from the University of Zurich, he has been awarded the Humboldt Research Prize, the Leopold-Lucas Prize and the Rothschild Prize. He is a Knight of the Order of Merit. Among his many books: ‘The Idea of Semitic Monotheism: The Rise and Fall of a Scholarly Myth’ (Oxford, 2021); ‘Religions of Abraham. Histoires croisées, Genève’, Labor et Fides, 2017; ‘La Fin du sacrifice: Les mutations religieuses de l’Antiquité tardive’, Odile Jacob, 2005.

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