Orthodox Leaders Demand Knesset Probe Into Israeli Arms Sales to Myanmar

The UN accuses Myanmar of conducting 'ethnic cleansing' against the Rohingya, the country's Muslim minority

Rohingya Muslims travel on a raft made with plastic containers on which they cross from Myanmar into Bangladesh, Sunday, Nov. 12, 2017.
A.M. Ahad/AP

A group of prominent Orthodox Israelis is demanding the Knesset investigate allegations that Myanmar is using weapons sold by Israel to commit atrocities against the Rohingya, the country’s Muslim minority.

The demand was issued Sunday in a letter submitted to MK Avi Dichter (Likud), chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. The Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee maintains oversight of Israel’s arms exports.

Close to a dozen Orthodox leaders met with Dichter last Wednesday to express their concerns that Israel might be complicit in human rights violations in Myanmar because Israeli weapons were reportedly being used against the Rohingya. Dichter said he was not at liberty to answer all their questions and advised them to issue an official request for a probe.

The meeting was organized by MK Yehuda Glick (Likud), who has advocated for legislation that would ban exports of Israeli arms to countries that violate human rights.

The group in attendance included Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, a founding member of Tzohar, an organization of Orthodox rabbis that aims to make religious rituals more palatable to non-observant Israelis; Rabbi Mosheh Lichtenstein, co-director of Yeshivat Har Etzion in the West Bank; Rabbi Benny Ish-Shalom, founder and president of Beit Morasha in Jerusalem; Racheli Frankel, a Torah educator and the mother of one of three Israeli teenss kidnapped and murdered in the summer of 2014; and Avidan Freedman, a teacher at the Hartman Institute High School program, who has been a driving force in mobilizing religious leaders to speak out against weapon sales to Myanmar.

The United Nations has accused Myanmar of conducting “ethnic cleansing” of the Rohingya.

“Has Israel sold arms to Myanmar in recent years, as alleged in several foreign reports, and continued to do so even after the publication of several reports on severe human rights violations in the country?” the Orthodox leaders wrote in their letter to Dichter. “If so, why was there no veto issued on the exports?”

“And is Israel still selling arms to Myanmar?” it continues. “If not, why does Israel refuse to publicize the fact that it has joined other Western countries in prohibiting arms exports to Myanmar?”

The letter contains a list of reports and testimonies indicating that Israel has, indeed, sold weapons to Myanmar.

Last month, 55 Israeli rabbis representing various denominations signed a petition calling on Israeli leaders to end arm sales to Myanmar. The letter was organized by Freedman. More than 350 rabbis from the United States subsequently signed a similar letter, which also called on the U.S. government to end military training programs with Myanmar. That letter, which was hand delivered to the Israeli consulate in New York, was organized by T’ruah, an organization of rabbis and cantors committed to human rights.

Rabbi Jill Jacobs, the executive director of T’ruah, said the campaign to end Israeli arm sales was a unique example of “cross-border cooperation between Israelis and Americans that transcend politics.”

“Usually, we are split along the lines of where we stand on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the occupation,” she told Haaretz. “But this is clearly a moral issue, and for us as Jews, what is happening in Myanmar is very reminiscent of what happened under the Nazis, so it’s become an issue that transcends normal political lines.”