Letter from Steve Hunegs and the JCRC: Reflections on Israel, antisemitism, and the way forward
May 24, 2021
As we head into the new week, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas welcomes the ceasefire between Israel and terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip while growing increasingly alarmed by the spike in antisemitism here at home. Here are our reflections on what has happened, where we go from here, and resources and suggestions for how to approach the conversation regarding Israel, anti-Zionism, and antisemitism. Know that we share your sense of alarm, frustration, anger, and hurt about what so many of us are seeing and experiencing. We are here to help. We are here to listen.
As we articulated on WCCO Radio last Friday, the JCRC is grateful for the strong leadership of the Biden administration in publicly backing Israel’s right to self-defense while working effectively behind the scenes with the Egyptians, Palestinian Authority, and the Israelis to facilitate an end to this latest round of fighting. It is our hope that the Biden administration will continue to remain actively involved at the highest level in not just managing conflicts as they arise but working proactively to reduce tensions and increase the likelihood of a more lasting peace in the Middle East. We also want to extend our gratitude to Republicans and Democrats such as Senator Kevin Cramer, Senator Mike Rounds, and Representative Dean Phillips for their outspoken bipartisan support for Israel during this difficult time.
Here at home, we are alarmed by the spikes in antisemitic violence and rhetoric being directed at Jews and Jewish institutions by anti-Israel activists. The perpetuation of conspiracy theories, antisemitic tropes, and unhinged vitriol directed at Israel from celebrities and politicians to activists on every corner of social media has sadly led to the scapegoating and targeting of Jews from London, Los Angeles, New York City, and Minnesota as well. As we continue to uphold the JCRC’s community security mission during these turbulent times, we echo Rep. Phillips demand that “it’s time for ‘progressives’ to start condemning antisemitism and violent attacks on Jewish people with the same intention and vigor demonstrated in other areas of activism. The silence has been deafening.” We join our partners at Zioness in calling for elected leaders to stand with the Jewish community against vitriolic antisemitism.
Additionally, as explained by our friend and colleague Jeremy Burton, the use of the western frames of settler colonialism and whiteness are both an erasure of Jewish history and the majority of Israelis who are themselves people of color. It is also a terribly unhelpful way for understanding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is a struggle between two equally indigenous people in their shared ancestral homeland.
Returning to the Middle East, we are impressed by the strength of the people of Israel, as well as the bravery of the men and women of the Israel Defense Forces who protected the civilians of Israel while undertaking great efforts to minimize the loss of life among Palestinian civilians in Gaza. We are grateful for the Iron Dome which saved not just Israeli lives, but Palestinian lives as well, providing protection from rockets shot into Israel indiscriminately and allowing Israel to avoid the necessity of a ground invasion. Sadly, this hi-tech defense system is still imperfect, as evidenced by the murder of over a dozen Israelis, Jewish and Muslim, as well as foreign guest workers and the injuring of hundreds more by terrorist rockets. We are thankful for the Biden Administration’s promise to help resupply Iron Dome batteries.
Though Israel sought to protect its own citizens and residents while minimizing the death of Palestinians, we know that the people of Gaza have still paid a heavy price for the conflict their cynical terrorist government initiated. The use of Gazan civilians as human shields to launch attacks on Israeli civilians constitutes a double war crime, and the deliberate targeting of Israeli aid convoys bringing desperately needed supplies into the Gaza Strip is proof of Hamas’ moral depravity (To learn more about the legal implications of the recent conflict, please join us on June 2nd at 1:00 p.m. in conversation with Professor Oren Gross).
And yet the fact that Hamas and their sponsors in Iran are ultimately responsible for the devastation within Gaza does not lessen our sympathies for the innocent Palestinians caught in the shattering crossfire. Palestinians like Israelis and people everywhere deserve to live in peace and security. We agree with Rep. Phillips that it is possible to both “fiercely support Israel’s right to exist and protect itself from sworn enemies AND Palestinians’ desire for self-determination and opportunity.”
While the Biden administration, in concert with the international community, is right to want to swiftly begin the work of rebuilding Gaza, the fact that Hamas was able to build such an extensive tunnel system and assemble thousands of rockets proves that lack of materials and money are not the reasons for Gaza’s chronic underdevelopment and ongoing unavailability of clean drinking water, reliable electricity, and access to other necessities. Moving forward it would be beyond foolish to repeat the mistakes of the past and allow terrorist groups to once again siphon off aid money intended for the welfare of the people of Gaza and instead replenish their means to launch attacks on Israeli civilians.
No less a challenge than the rebuilding of Gaza is the rebuilding of trust and peace within Israel’s borders between Israel’s Jewish majority and its non-Jewish Arab/Palestinian minorities. Like our own country, Israel is an imperfect democracy and systemic inequalities are a significant challenge. Israelis were shocked by the outbreak of significant violence in communities such as Lod, Jaffa, and even Haifa which had long been upheld as a model of peaceful coexistence between Jewish Israelis and non-Jewish Israelis. And while the minority of Jews and Arabs perpetrating violence are a most visible stain on Israeli society, we’ve been heartened to see Israelis from all religions marching and protesting together under the slogan of “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.”
It is also critically important for Israel to deny pretext to its foes by maintaining the status quo in Jerusalem, freezing land claims for Palestinians and Jews from 1948, and renewing its commitment, at least in principle, to a two-state solution—as expressed by our dear friend Yossi Klein Halevi and the Times of Israel’s editor-in-chief David Horovitz, who we look forward to welcoming to Minnesota for our June 2022 annual event.
Though we are under no illusions that the work will be easy or that a breakthrough is imminent, we hope that with the leadership of the United States, Israelis and Palestinians may begin to take the necessary steps to foster a most elusive peace to the Holy Land.
Photo: Tamar Fenton, daughter of machalnik Jason Fenton, z”l, and local chapter leader of Twin Cities Zioness at a solidarity gathering in support of Israel organized by Students Supporting Israel, co-sponsored by JCRC, AJC, Minneapolis Jewish Federation, and Minnesotans Against Terrorism on May 23, 2021 (JCRC/Ethan Roberts).