Prompted by growing evidence of ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, a diverse group of Israelis from across political and religious spectra are putting increased pressure on the government to end arms exports to rogue regimes.
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On Tuesday, they were out in full force at a first-of-its-kind, Knesset-sponsored gathering dedicated to creating public awareness about a topic long considered taboo. The eclectic group included both left-wing and right-wing politicians, religious and secular Jews, and rabbis from across denominations.
“This is definitely not something I would call routine,” remarked MK Tamar Zandberg, of the left-wing Meretz party, observing the crowd. “We have here people who represent diverse and often conflicting worldviews, but at least on one issue we can all agree – that Israeli weapons are meant to defend us and not to be used to perpetuate crimes against humanity.”
She said the Knesset gathering, co-organized with MK Yehudah Glick of the Likud, was the first in a series of planned events aimed at drawing public attention to the ramifications of Israeli arms sales to regimes known for violating human rights.
The most recent example is Myanmar, where evidence has mounted of atrocities committed by the army against the Rohingya, a Muslim minority. Last month, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said it was no longer selling weapons to Myanmar, but it did not say when it had stopped.
Several panelists at the Knesset event expressed skepticism about the statement, noting that on various occasions in the past, Israel was known to have lied about arming rogue regimes.
“It is important that people in Israel know what is happening, so that then they can come out and say, ‘Not in my name,’” said Zandberg.
The other panelists at the event included Rabbi Michael Melchior, a former Israeli government minister and founder of a now defunct dovish Orthodox party; Yair Auron, an international expert on genocide; and Naomi Chazan, a former Knesset deputy speaker and professor who has focused her academic research on Israel’s relations with Africa. The gathering was attended by human rights and social activists, legal experts and Jewish educators.
Explaining his commitment to the cause, Glick, an Orthodox lawmaker known as a political hawk, said: “I believe that the state of Israel is the greatest wonder in the history of humanity, and this obligates us to be the most moral, most humane and most just society that exists.”
For that reason, he continued, Israel cannot be complicit in human rights violations carried out elsewhere in the world. “There cannot be a place in the world where a soldier rapes a woman using an Uzi,” he said, referring to the well-known, Israeli-made submachine guns.
In order to prevent Israeli arms from reaching the hands of human rights offenders, Zandberg and Glick have drawn up three legislative initiatives, all of which are pending approval. One is an amendment to the law governing weapon sales, which would require the committee that approves export licenses to take into consideration ethical concerns. The second is an emergency act that would put an end to all Israeli arms exports to Myanmar until further notice. The third is a bill that would impose a cooling-off period on army officers and defense ministry officials seeking employment in arms sales.
Attorney Eitai Mack, who has been a driving force in recent years in the campaign for increased transparency and public oversight of Israeli arms exports, said he was also disturbed by the government’s silence amid reported atrocities in Myanmar. “Even if Israel has some [security] interest in being involved in selling arms there, which I don’t believe it has, we haven’t heard any words of condemnation from senior officials about what’s happening there,” he said. “When Israel remains silent, it is the equivalent of endorsing what is going on.”
Mack represented a group of human rights activists in a recent petition to the High Court of Justice demanding an end to Israeli arms sales to Myanmar. A gag order was issued on the ruling, which was handed down in late September.
“There is no excuse for hiding what is being sold in our names,” said Chazan. “There has to be transparency in weapons sales.”
Avidan Freedman, an Orthodox high school teacher who has been active in mobilizing religious leaders to speak out against weapon sales to Myanmar, told the gathering that he had tried without success to get David Lau, Israel’s chief Ashkenazi rabbi, to take a stand.
Another activist, Eli Yosef, said he planned to organize a hunger strike outside the Knesset starting mid-January, since other tactics had failed.
Auron, who teaches at The Open University, likened Israel selling weapons to rogue regimes to “selling arms to Nazi Germany during the Holocaust – and I know people don’t want to hear this.”