Israel Can't Atone for Past Wrongs While Perpetuating a Terrible Injustice

It's a sad historical phenomenon: We are often sensitive to wrongs from the past while ignoring acts of equal cruelty being perpetrated here and now

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Palestinian Muslim worshippers pray near the rubble of mosque destroyed in an Israeli bombing in Beit Lahia, in the northern Gaza Strip, last week.
Palestinian Muslim worshippers pray near the rubble of mosque destroyed in an Israeli bombing in Beit Lahia, in the northern Gaza Strip, last week.Credit: THOMAS COEX/ AFP

Most of us tend to think that sensitivity to the rights of vulnerable human communities that are subjected to oppression is something limited to recent decades. According to the conventional wisdom, we are gradually learning to include more and more people, and also nonhuman creatures, in the category of those entitled to a life devoid of suffering. But works written hundreds of years ago refute this.

Contemporary readers of discussions that took place in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries may be surprised to see the sensitivity displayed by many of those writing 300 years ago to the rights of indigenous Americans and to the suffering they endured during the period of the Spanish occupation. English writers in particular assailed the Spanish conquests in the Americas and the killing of millions of people, describing the barbarity and cruelty of these acts.

That sensitivity could be heartwarming if we didn’t know what the English themselves wrought during precisely the same period and in the centuries that followed. Because, as the English philosophers delved into the Spaniards’ crimes, thousands of slave ships were crossing the Atlantic Ocean, carrying millions of kidnapped Africans in inhuman conditions. English companies, with support from the government and the elites, were then committing one of the most heinous crimes in human history: the Atlantic slave trade. The oppression and annihilation of the Indigenous peoples in the English colonies was also proceeding apace. Thus, in 1755, the governor of Massachusetts offered a reward of 20 pounds for every scalp taken from a child from the Ottawa nation.

This historical reminder is not intended to ridicule the hypocrisy of the English, but to point out a sad historical phenomenon: In many cases we show sensitivity about wrongs that are part of the past, while closing our eyes to equally cruel acts occurring in the present. The criminals of the past are denounced, but new crimes pile up at an accelerated rate.

In many countries, occupation with the past is something at the heart of the current public agenda. French President Emmanuel Macron is considering apologizing for his country’s responsibility for the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Previously he spoke about France’s colonialist crimes in Algeria. In the meantime, Germany has acknowledged the crimes it committed in Namibia at the start of the past century, and apologized for discriminating against homosexuals in the armed forces in the more recent past. Canadian Premier Justin Trudeau apologized for an array of crimes perpetrated by his country, from the annihilation of the Indigenous peoples to the internment of Italian Canadians during World War II, and so forth.

In Israel, too, historical wrongs often become part of the public agenda. For example, discussions are held about the radiation treatments for ringworm given to new immigrants and the abduction of Yemenite children during the early years of the state, as well as about the destruction of blood donations from Israelis of Ethiopian descent in the 1980s and ‘90s. In some cases, commissions of inquiry have been appointed to examine the wrongs and apportion responsibility. The scholar Ruth Amir examined these local cases in her book “Who is Afraid of Historical Redress?: The Israeli Victim-Perpetrator Dichotomy” (published in English in 2011), and presented them as part of the global trend of correcting historical injustices. Some believe that Israeli society is maturing and becoming able to face up to its past crimes.

But nothing could be further from the truth. Because, while Israel is busy – in part – coming to terms with forgotten wrongs from the past, it is perpetuating and intensifying a vast, blatant injustice: oppressing millions of Palestinians under occupation, expanding the settlements in the West Bank, and in particular conducting an ongoing siege of the Gaza Strip and deadly bombing raids there every few years. In light of this wrong, dealing with historical injustices is a mockery.

France, Germany, Canada and the U.S. are today liberal democracies existing comfortably within defined borders and at peace with their neighbors. In large measure, they are positioned outside history, at least in the sense of its being a series of wars and massacres. From this point of view, they can allow themselves to look back on the past and try to reconcile with its victims.

The model for these gestures is Germany’s politics of memory – namely, the way in which Germany came to terms after World War II with the crimes of the Nazis. But the German case also exemplifies the necessary condition for processing the past: The crime must be over before it is apologized for. The Germans stopped annihilating Jews and Roma people and disbanded the Wehrmacht, which had conquered most of Europe. Only then did they move to apologize and to compensate the survivors.

In contrast, the dispossession of the Palestinians is not a wrong that can be relegated to history. It is, to borrow a phrase from the philosopher Theodor Adorno, a past that never passed. With regard to the Palestinians, the same conceptions that were the cause of the Nakba and the plundering of their lands in 1948 continue to prevail in Israel. In fact, they still guide Israeli government policy.

A bridge over the Ayalon Highway named after the late general and cabinet member Rehavam Ze’evi. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

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In her book, social scientist Amir notes that the essence of a request for forgiveness is a promise that the wrongdoer will not repeat the same or similar acts. “Expressions of sorrow and remorse, and taking responsibility for past wrongs are meaningless as long as they are held to be isolated from the actions that are being done in the present against the ethnic group or any of its members,” she writes (translated by Ralph Mandel).

Under American influence, young liberals in Israel have adopted a sophisticated discourse on racism and even on symbolic wrongs like blackface or cultural appropriation. We want to be enlightened like the Canadians and the Germans, and to conduct discussions about racism like in the Netflix series “I May Destroy You.” Israeli television also display high awareness of racism against Mizrahim or Israelis of Ethiopian origin, and of sexism. But at the same time, Israel continues to implement a policy of flagrant racism and xenophobia against refugees from Africa and their children. These people, who fell victim to horrific crimes, are labeled “infiltrators” and are treated inhumanely. Some of those sensitive television announcers also exult to see the destruction of Gaza by air force planes. Every time Gaza is destroyed, the ground is pulled from the possibility of addressing wrongs from the past.

In light of this, isolated acts of confronting historical injustices are meaningless. One of them, for example, is the call to remove Rehavam Ze’evi’s name from the bridge named for him over the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv. What meaning does that act have, when people who harbor views like those of the late general and cabinet member, or take even more racist positions, are sitting in the Knesset itself? And when the population transfer policy he advocated is being implemented in practice in the Jordan Rift Valley? It’s like putting a bandage on a bleeding stump.

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