Yom Kippur: A Missed Opportunity for Israeli and American Atonement


Israeli and American Jews and all Americans need to accept responsibility for the Israel’s Illegal Annexation and Settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and  oppression of the Palestinians, and act to end that illegal conduct and oppression through non-violent civil action and protest.

At the end of this week, Jews in Israel and around the world celebrated the most solemn and holy of the Jewish festivals, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. It is a day that truly gives the New Year meaning. Unlike the celebration of the Christian New Year, It is not a day of frivolous partying and casual resolutions–soon broken–that we non-Jews are used to. It is a day and time for solemn reflection for each individual Jew to take stock of his or her life and relationship with god; a time for self-examination and confession of sins; a time for penitence and prayer; a time for expiation and forgiveness and reconciliation with God. It is a time to look back at the past year to reflect on and tally up the good and the bad and make a real commitment to atone for the bad and improve on the good.

This holy day, this Yom Kippur, could have provided a solemn opportunity for Israeli and American Jews and all Americans to reflect and atone for our collective moral guilt and fault for our role in the continuing oppression of Palestinians by Israelis.  Sadly, I suspect most Jews, Israelis, and Americans gave little thought to atoning for the sins of Israel, and American complicity in those sins. 

The collective sin requiring atonement is our role in Israel’s continuing illegal annexation and colonization of the last remaining 22 percent of historic Palestine with over a half a million of its civilian Jewish citizens, in hundreds of armed, fenced settlements, spread throughout the West Bank, and East Jerusalem.

Israel’s annexation and colonization by settlement of lands set aside for the Arab State of Palestine in the 1947 UN Partition Plan, is both immoral and illegal. A conquering power, such as Israel after its overwhelming victory in the 1967 Six Day War, can act as an occupying power for a reasonable period of time to remove the threat of hostile action against it. However, the occupying power cannot move it’s own civilians onto the occupied land of another people, to colonize and annex their land. To do so violates the Laws of War as set forth in the 4th Geneva Convention, and constitutes conduct so serious that it qualifies as a War Crime. Israel has known since 1967 that its actions violate international law. Israel, Israelis and Americans, both Jewish and non, are complicit in those violations, and, to the extent of our complicity, we are all, at least in part, war criminals.

For anyone willing to open their eyes, and many Israelis have, what has gone on in the “territories” of the West Bank and East Jerusalem since 1967, and in much of Israel itself since 1948, is nothing less than a government-sponsored oppression of one people by another. It is little more than a slow, tortuous ethnic cleansing of the last part of Palestine available for a Palestinian state.  Much of the unlawful conduct is justified and rationalized on religious grounds by a large and powerful minority of Jewish religious extremists in Israel. The unlawful seizures of Arab lands and property to allow the settlement of almost 10 percent of Israel’s Jewish population into the West Bank and East Jerusalem is done with government approval and the active support of the Israeli army which defends the hundreds of settlements and maintains the oppressive system of check points and security roads that crisscross the West Bank and East Jerusalem which were specifically allocated to the “Arab State” as part of the 1947 UN Partition Plan. The amount of oppression and brutality necessary to support the continuing seizure of Arab lands and creation of Jewish settlements is beyond this article to describe. But, it is easily confirmed by checking the B’tselem website that catalogs and reports all the brutality and illegal actions by the Israeli government and its Settlers, as well as by Palestinians.

But, you say, “the Palestinians are terrorists”. While it is true that there are Palestinian organizations that have performed ghastly acts of terror, most of the deadly terrorist acts occurred a few years ago and have been largely replaced, except in Gaza, by non-violent means of protests, boycotts and peaceful demonstrations. Also, an oppressed people, like the Palestinians, have every right to forcefully resist the unlawful occupation and annexation of their lands by Israelis; Palestinian resort to the use of force is lawful, using terrorism as a means to resist is not.

Nonetheless, terrorism tends to be one of the few forms of armed resistance available for populations occupied by large, powerful, repressive military forces. As despicable as it is, terrorism was used to great effect by Israelis themselves to force the British Army to leave Palestine in 1948, and included bombings of public markets filled with Arab civilians, police and army check points, the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, the assassinations of Lord Moyne, a British High Commissioner, and Count Bernadotte, a UN mediator, and the hanging of captured British soldiers. These Israeli terrorists are considered heroes in Israel.  Two later Israeli prime ministers, Menachem Begin and Yitschak Shamir, were members of the Israeli terrorist groups that committed those crimes.  Their complicity in terrorist acts in the defense of a nascent Israeli state likely enhanced their electability in the eyes of Israeli voters.

While there is plenty of violence and blame to place on the shoulders of both Israelis and Palestinians, the main and primary cause of the violence has been Israel’s continuing unlawful annexation, occupation and settlement of its civilians into the West Bank and East Jerusalem since 1967, lands specifically allocated by the UN to the intended Arab State of Palestine.

To the extent that we are individually responsible for and complicit in the unlawful conduct of Israel toward the Palestinians, we need to atone for the harm we have caused: Israelis are responsible and culpable because they voted for and supported governments that created and expanded this illegal and immoral policy; American Jews because of their support of a right wing Israeli/Likud lobby that has corrupted our own politicians to achieve its illegal and immoral ends; and all American citizens because we have allowed our politicians to fund this illegal and immoral policy for some 43 years through our aid to Israel of more than $3 billion per year, and by allowing our government and politicians to enable unlawful and illegal Israeli conduct and policies by vetoing attempts to sanction and limit Israel’s actions.

The need to atone for our immoral acquiescence to illegal conduct by Israel, should not be mistaken as a lessening of our desire and resolve to support Israel and its continued existence. Rather, we need to sort out and define the legal and moral limits of our admiration and support for Israel. It is a given that this nation unequivocally supports the existence of the State of Israel. We have amply demonstrated that commitment with our deeds–everything from providing her with $3 billion a year in foreign aid, to providing massive airlifts of supplies to her during her darkest hours of the 1973 war, and even going to the brink of nuclear war to prevent the Soviet Union from introducing its own troops in defense of the Arabs during that war. No other country has received such unconditional support and assistance from us.

While our support and commitment to Israel should continue, it can no longer be unlimited, in support of illegal and immoral policies. It is vital that we differentiate our support for the continued existence of the State of Israel from Israel’s attempts to colonize and annex the remainder of Palestine, set aside by the United Nations in 1947, for the Arab State of Palestine. While the United Nations was committed to and created a Jewish state in Palestine, it also was committed to and created an Arab state, both to exist side-by-side together. Sixty-three years later there is still no Arab state for the Palestinians.

That reality is on its face immoral and we should no longer support or condone its continuance.

It is one of the great ironies that American Jews who have always been at the forefront of civil rights issues, and were instrumental in the drive to end racial segregation in our own country, support or ignore the illegal conduct of Israel and its oppression of the Palestinian people. An estimated 50 percent of the Freedom Riders and organizers that went into the South during the Freedom Summers of the early 1960s were Jews. Several were murdered for their efforts. Yet, when faced with the reality that their beloved Israel is rapidly deteriorating into a colonial, apartheid-like state, most American Jews remain largely ignorant, unquestioning, and oblivious of the facts, and either silent or overtly supportive of any and all actions taken by the Israeli government, no matter how blatantly illegal under international law. It is dumbfounding how a noble and courageous people, so willing to act to end segregation and discrimination against black Americans, are so unwilling to recognize and act to end similar conduct in a country they see as their Jewish homeland. Non-Jewish Americans are no better, and typically view and support Israel unquestioningly while seeing all Muslims, including Palestinians, as little more than terrorists.

So, how could we atone? We atone by getting involved; by learning about the realities and effects of illegal Israeli policies on innocent Palestinian civilians; by learning the history and legal arguments that demonstrate the illegality; by insisting, on the web, in public demonstrations, in boycotts, in letters to lawmakers, and other means that this unlawful conduct cannot be allowed to continue. We atone by publicly insisting that Israel immediately stop all settlement building and that the Obama administration take strong action to enforce the halting of all settlement construction. We atone by publicly insisting that Israel agree to a resolution of its conflict with the Palestinians in accordance with the Arab Initiative of 2002 and/or the Geneva Initiative of 2003, both of which have broad international support, as well as support from Arab and Muslim nations. We atone by making sure the Palestinians end up with that last remaining 22 percent of Palestine in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, which will be less that half of the land originally allocated to the Arab State of Palestine by the 1947 UN Partition Plan. In short, we atone by remembering our roots in the struggle for civil rights in our own country, and by once again standing up in support for the rights of freedom and justice for an oppressed people.

It won’t be easy, but Israel will be better off and safer, the Palestinians will finally have their promised state, and we will all be able to better enjoy next year’s Yom Kippur, knowing we finally atoned for a very serious wrongdoing, and are a better people for it.

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