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The following is an article of mine that appeared in the Jerusalem Post the other day about the political climate here in Israel, and how many opponents of the Gaza withdrawal plan are feeling less and less free to express themselves and their opinions.
This is not a matter of "crying wolf" - there have simply been too many instances in which people exercising their basic democratic right to protest government policy have found themselves on the receiving end of some less than democratic treatment. We all need to speak out against this worrying trend.
A Chilling Pattern of Harassment
A Chilling Pattern of Harassment
By Michael Freund
After listening to the joint press conference between President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on Monday, I curled up in front of my laptop ready to pen a blistering critique of the premier and his plan to withdraw from Gaza. But as the words began to flow, so did my perspiration, as I began to consider some of the heavy-handed tactics now being used against critics of the withdrawal.
In recent weeks especially, there have been a growing number of incidents in which those opposed to the plan, or even those merely assumed to hold such views, have found themselves and their most basic of freedoms trampled upon.
Take, for example, the mass arrest of dozens of Orthodox Jewish youth this past Sunday after protesters blocked Tel Aviv's Ayalon highway for several minutes.
According to various reports, many of those detained by the police had nothing to do with the demonstration. They were arrested simply because they were religious and happened to be in the vicinity of the protest. This included a 10-year-old boy wearing a kippa, and a religious soldier in uniform.
Several teenage kids in the area were said to have been taken to police stations and held incommunicado for hours without their parents receiving notification, as required by law.
There have also been a number of instances in which people standing on street corners and holding signs against the Gaza withdrawal were taken away by police – for no apparent reason other than exercising their right to protest peacefully.
In one case, a 14-year-old girl was arrested a few weeks ago and held for 24 hours in police custody without being allowed to see her parents. She was denied access to her medications, even though she suffers from chronic asthma and was at risk of a potentially dangerous asthma attack.
With less than 100 days to go until the proposed Gaza withdrawal, something terribly frightening is happening here in Israel. Some of the tactics being employed by the authorities simply have no place in a democratic society, calling into question their underlying commitment to that most fundamental of civil liberties – the right to disagree with government policy.
Now I don't consider myself an alarmist; nor do I belong to the category of those who employ frenzied language to get a point across. But I don't think it is exaggerating to say that many people opposed to the withdrawal are starting to wonder whether they can truly express themselves without fear.
Earlier this month, late one night, a prominent activist involved in organizing buses for people to visit Jewish communities in Hebron and Gaza was arrested at his home in the center of the country and held into the early hours of the morning. It remains unclear why he was taken into custody, other than to frighten and intimidate him.
Things have reached the point where even people who "look" like they might be going to a protest can find themselves receiving special attention from the security forces.
This past Monday evening, a busload of Jews from Samaria was stopped by police as it made its way toward the Gush Dan area to deliver Pessah goods to needy families. According to eyewitnesses, the police refused to let the bus continue on its way, claiming that it posed a "potential threat that may lead to the blocking of roads and other protest actions."
Only after being held up for 90 minutes were the 50 passengers allowed to continue with their charitable undertaking.
Say what you will about Sharon's plan to withdraw, there can be no excuse for such tactics. If it were just a matter of an isolated incident or two, it could perhaps be dismissed as an aberration. But the sad fact is that there is a clearly a pattern at work, one in which innocent Israeli citizens are being harassed and/or silenced because of their political views.
Of course, you won't read a great deal about this in much of the mainstream media; and don't expect to hear any of Israel's myriad human rights groups speaking up against this worrisome phenomenon. Their commitment to principle seems to extend only to those who share their liberal point of view.
But that should not deter the rest of us from speaking out, if only to ensure that Israel's democracy remains vibrant and strong. Just because someone wears a kippa, or holds a placard opposing the withdrawal from Gaza, it does not make him an "extremist" or "threat" to the country's future.
I thought twice about whether to submit this column, but realized in the end that I simply had no choice. Because if we ever reach a point where we can no longer legitimately criticize the prime minister and his policies without fear of reprisal, something will truly have gone wrong in Zion.
The only way to ensure that never occurs is to stand up without fear for what we know in our hearts to be true – that the Land of Israel belongs to the people of Israel, and to no one else.
The writer served as an aide to former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
Not that we should need any reminders, but just in case anyone out there has somehow forgotten just what it is that Israel is up against, check out the following news item:
Boy carrying 5 bombs detained
By Efrat Weiss
IDF forces apprehend a 15-year-old Palestinian boy carrying five pipe bombs at the Hawara roadblock south of the West Bank town of Nablus; "I looked into his eyes, he was on the brink of tears and scared to death,” soldier tells Ynet
That’s right – Palestinian terror groups sent a 15-year old kid, one of their own children, for G-d’s sake, to serve as a weapons delivery system.
Nonetheless, Israel’s Prime Minister still plans on going ahead with the withdrawal from Gaza and northern Samaria in less than 100 days – even as the Palestinians continue trying to kill innocent Jews. So much for appeasement.
In case this story sounds familiar – that’s because it is the second time in the past three months that a 15-year old Palestinian was caught at the very same roadblock while trying to sneak through with explosives for use in anti-Israel terror.
Keep that in mind the next time you hear someone in the media complaining about those “Israeli army checkpoints” and the “daily humiliation” they impose on the Palestinians.
Were it not for those checkpoints, a lot more innocent people would no longer be with us.
G-d bless the IDF.
Where is American Jewry?
At a time when thousands of Jews in Gush Katif and northern Samaria face the prospect of expulsion from their homes in just two weeks' time, most US Jewish groups seem to have lost their voices, preferring to ignore the plight of their brethren rather than speak out on their behalf.
Nowhere has the political cowardice been more blatant than among the leadership of American Orthodoxy. Despite the close ties that many religious Jews in the United States have to the Jewish communities of Judea, Samaria and Gaza, organizations such as the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America have refused to come out openly against the expulsion.
In the article below that I wrote, which ran in the Jerusalem Post, I tried to draw attention to this failure of leadership. If you feel as I do, e-mail the two organizations (keep it short and polite) and let them know what you think of their wishy-washy stances on the issue of expelling Jews from their homes in the Land of Israel.
Write the Rabbinical Council of America at: email@example.com
The clock is ticking, and there is no time to waste. We must raise our voices now on behalf of the Jews in Gush Katif and northern Samaria, and pray for Divine mercy at this critical hour. The future of our people, and of our Land, is at stake.
The Jerusalem Post, August 3, 2005
The Silence of American Jewry
The Silence of American Jewry
By Michael Freund
The bulldozers are revving up, thousands of protesters are taking to the streets, and Israel's security forces are practicing mock evacuations – but that hasn't stopped the bulk of American Jewry from striking a shamefully casual pose of inexplicable silence.
With just two weeks remaining before the start of the proposed withdrawal from Gaza and northern Samaria, an event that could prove to be one of the most wrenching and painful in all of Israel's modern history, one would have expected US Jews to be in an uproar.
Sure, you'll find an occasional article on the subject, and perhaps even a protest or two, but there is little passion informing the debate and, quite frankly, not much of a debate taking place on the subject at all.
With the exception of a handful of groups such as the Zionist Organization of America and Americans for a Safe Israel, it is as if much of the organized American Jewish community has chosen to disengage itself precisely when Israel faces one of its most divisive moments ever.
Take, for example, the intimidation and harassment faced by opponents of the withdrawal in Israel, numerous cases of which have been documented in recent months.
In the past, American Jews have consistently shown themselves to be among the most vocal of critics when it comes to issues of human rights and civil liberties, both domestically and abroad.
Nonetheless, despite a series of disturbing developments, ranging from the singling out of religious Jews by Israel's police to the illegal detention of minors, the American Jewish community has largely fallen silent, failing to raise its voice against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's heavy-handed tactics.
Even the underlying moral issue at stake here – whether a Jewish government should be forcing Jews out of their homes in the Jewish state – has hardly received the airing it deserves.
Regardless of whether they support or oppose the pullout, how is it possible for so many American Jews to utter barely a peep when such a momentous issue is confronting the Jewish state? Have they become so disconnected from life in Israel that they fail to appreciate the importance of the current situation?
This state of dormancy is not limited to a particular sector of US Jewry. But nowhere has it been more palpable, or more startling, than among the Orthodox leadership, whose constituency has perhaps the strongest ties of any group to the Jews of Gush Katif.
Indeed, for all their outspoken stances on a range of other issues, many of America's Orthodox leaders have been unusually reticent when it comes to the Gaza expulsion plan, preferring to avoid taking a clear stance on the issue, or sidestepping it altogether.
And so, in recent months, the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America (RCA) chose to release just one statement regarding the withdrawal, the same number of statements that were released on issues such as downloading material from the Internet and utilizing gambling as a fundraising tool in the Jewish community.
BUT WHEREAS the RCA at least had the moral courage to take a stand against gambling, it failed to muster a similar level of clarity when it came to Sharon's gamble with Jewish lives known as the Gaza withdrawal plan.
Incredibly, its statement on the proposed withdrawal takes no position on the issue, simply stating that "If an evacuation occurs, it should be done with the greatest sensitivity and honor." In other words, as far as the RCA is concerned, if you are going to throw thousands of innocent human beings out of their homes, at least make sure to do it with a smile.
Then there is the Orthodox Union (OU), the venerable organization that aims to serve as the central voice of Orthodox Jews in the United States and Canada. A month ago the group issued a statement that, despite being long-winded, also failed to delineate a clear stance regarding the Gaza retreat.
To its credit, the OU has taken Sharon to task for his government's "indifference to civil liberties," but it has still refused to condemn the expulsion itself, instead invoking slogans about a diversity of views among their membership.
Apparently, some Orthodox leaders seem to think that political convenience trumps Jewish law. They would do well to recall the words of Maimonides, who noted in his Mishneh Torah that it is a biblical commandment for Jews to cry out to God when we are beset by a national crisis or trauma, such as when land is about to be taken away from the Jewish people.
In the Laws of Fast Days, Maimonides warns that if the Jewish people "do not call out and do not blow the shofar, but rather say that this is happening to us because it is the way of the world," they will inevitably bring still further trouble upon themselves and their brethren.
In other words, remaining silent is simply not an option. Inaction also has consequences, and American Jews deserve to know where their leaders stand, and whether they are for or against the proposed retreat.
The sad state of affairs of the Orthodox leadership in America was best summed up by a recent editorial in the Brooklyn-based Orthodox weekly, The Jewish Press, which said, "Rabbis, where are you? Rabbis of Agudath Israel, rabbis of the Orthodox Union, rabbis of the RCA: Why are you not crying out until your prayers reach Heaven? Why are you not leading us?"
At a time of such great turmoil and upheaval for the Jewish people, it is a question that deserves an answer.
Perhaps sensing the mounting opposition that his proposed withdrawal from Gaza is engendering, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has launched a concerted effort to improve his image among the Right.
In recent weeks, Sharon has reportedly been holding secret meetings with leaders of Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria and Gaza, and he has begun to take certain measures designed to show that he is still a “right-winger” at heart.
Today, for example, Sharon told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Israel should move ahead with construction of some 3,500 housing units designed to link Jerusalem with the community of Maale Adumim to its east, much to the chagrin of the Palestinians.
In the same meeting, he also described Hebron as being a “strategic Jewish asset”, clearly intending to imply that it would remain under Israeli control.
To be sure, such statements are a welcome breath of fresh air, if only because they indicate that the Prime Minister has no intention of returning to Israel’s 1967 borders.
But it would be a mistake to put too much faith in these remarks, since it is clear that they are designed primarily to pacify public dismay over the unilateral retreat from Gaza.
Moreover, talk is cheap, and it costs Sharon nothing to say that he will build, or hopes to build, or would like to build. What counts is what he chooses to do, not what he deems to say. And thus far, he has yet to build much of anything.
Likewise, it was not too long ago that he was describing the Gaza Jewish community of Netzarim in much the same terms that he is now using with regard to Hebron – and we all know what happened there.
So don’t let the premier’s “charm offensive” fool you – because that is precisely what it is designed to do. It is little more than a verbal distraction from the impending expulsion of thousands of Jews from their homes – and there is nothing even remotely charming about that.
There’s a story that was posted yesterday on Maariv’s website that is nothing short of chilling.
It seems that as part of the preparations for a possible withdrawal from Gaza, the military rabbinate is busy drawing up plans to dig up the Jewish cemetery in Gush Katif and remove the 43 graves contained there (which include those of people killed by Palestinian terrorists as well as 4 Israeli soldiers).
Unnamed sources in the military rabbinate told Maariv that “this is an extremely sensitive subject, since Jewish law speaks against removing the dead from his burial place.”
The article also notes that the military rabbinate will not compel family members to agree to move the graves of their loved ones, but they will “recommend” such a step.
The fear, of course, hardly needs to be spelled out – if a Jewish cemetery were to be left in place in Gaza after a withdrawal, one can only imagine how it would be treated by the euphoric Palestinians. Anyone remember what they did to Joseph’s Tomb in Shechem (Nablus) in the autumn of 2000?
It probably hasn’t occurred to our courageous leaders – but what does it all this say about our ostensible Palestinian partners? They won’t let us live in peace, and they won’t even let our dead rest in peace.
And if that is the case, giving them still more territory from which to attack the Jewish state hardly seems like a wise move to make.