The American Jewish community has a proud and celebrated history of activism in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel famously marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, saying afterwards, “I felt my feet were praying.”
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Young Jews comprised a large number of Freedom Summer activists fighting against racism and segregation in the South; some like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner even gave their lives in the pursuit of racial equality. Even the threat of personal harm did not stop American Jews from acting on their values.
Jewish communal organizations often remind us that we have a proud, historical commitment to civil rights. By recounting our history of civil rights activism and our strong values of equality and justice, our communal leaders and organizations hope to inspire those same values in our generation. As J Street U leaders, we see our obligation to pursue social justice and civil rights side-by-side with our commitment to a just and secure future for the State of Israel. That work becomes far more challenging when the Israeli government undermines its own democratic precepts and runs counter to the values of the American Jewish community.
This week, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon announced a plan which would require Palestinians who work in Israel during the day to return home to the West Bank through a separate checkpoint than Israelis with the same commute. This will effectively segregate buses in the West Bank; keeping Palestinians off of buses used by Jewish settlers. And while Ya’alon cited “security concerns” as his rationale, the decision contradicts the IDF, which maintains that shared buses do not pose a threat to Israelis. Israel’s Justice Minister, Tzipi Livni, has said that if the policy is carried out, it will mean nothing less than “apartheid.”
By imposing the ban, Ya'alon, who once threatened to address the "Palestinian cancer" with "chemotherapy" – lines up with MK Moti Yogev, a settler himself, who recently said, “riding these buses is unreasonable. They are full of Arabs.” A settler group in Ariel also recently released a video and staged a protest demanding the racial segregation of buses. The video depicts a lone Jewish woman exiting a bus filled with Palestinian workers, and is captioned, “it's not about racism, it's about a simple question – would you be willing to go on a bus [packed with Arabs]?”
The idea of segregated buses should send chills down the spine of anyone who has ever witnessed or learned about apartheid South Africa’s separate bus system for whites and blacks, or the segregated Jim Crow-era American south. But sadly, this is just the latest in a long series of discriminatory acts and policies that define Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. It also marks the disturbing rise of influence of the settler movement in Israeli politics – and the government’s willingness to kowtow to their demands.
Since the busing decision was announced, only two major Jewish organizations – J Street and the Union for Reform Judaism – have spoken out publicly against bus segregation. We note positively that the Anti-Defamation League have also said that they will look into the matter, though they have not yet made a public statement.
If they are truly committed to both civil rights and Israel’s future, Jewish organizations cannot stay silent. The occupation is nightmarish for Palestinians; it also guarantees that Israelis cannot live with true security, stability, or international respect. That is the simple truth, and it isn’t changing. Segregated busing in the West Bank should serve as a wake up call that Israel’s future has been hijacked by a racist settler movement that cares only for its own continued presence in the West Bank. We must recognize that these segregationist policies are morally repugnant and destroy Israel’s image in the international arena, even among its usual friends.
When American Jewish leaders actually act on their values, it is a potent and invaluable antidote to discrimination within Israel, and all over the world. We saw this last year when the ADL lauded Israeli government efforts to address the scourge of gender-segregated buses. Groups like the American Jewish Committee have a long history of involvement in the civil rights movement in America and in challenging civil rights abuses across the globe. That makes their current silence even more deafening.
An urgent letter from the youth arm of the Israeli Labor party has called on the leaders of some of the most prominent institutions of the American Jewish community – the Conference of Presidents, the Jewish Federations of North America, AIPAC, and others – to speak out against segregation in Israel. This call must not go unheeded.
Segregation was wrong in Birmingham, Alabama, and it is wrong in the West Bank. Denying Palestinians civil rights and self-determination is wrong. The occupation, which began while Dr. King and Rabbi Heschel were alive, is also wrong. We must continue the Jewish communal legacy of fighting for civil rights – even when it means addressing unjust Israeli policies. J Street U is committed to seeing a reversal of this policy and will hold our communal organizations accountable to push for the same.
Gabriel Erbs is a senior at Portland State University and the Northwest Representative to the J Street U National Board. Catie Stewart is a junior at Brandeis University and the Northeast Representative to the J Street U National Board. Follow them on Twitter: @gabriel_erbs and @catrionastew.