American Jewish groups have, for the most part, condemned the Trump administration’s policy of separating parents from their children at the border.
So why can’t they condemn the Netanyahu administration’s policy of destroying villages like Khan al-Ahmar?
The residents of Khan al-Ahmar, who are Bedouin Palestinians, hail originally from the Negev, inside Israel proper. But the Israeli military expelled them from there in the 1950s. So they moved to a part of the West Bank called E1, which is near Jerusalem and the settlements of Maale Adumim and Kfar Adumim.
Unfortunately for them, the Israeli government doesn’t want them, either. It wants to give their land to settlers. For years, objections by European governments and the Obama administration helped delay Israel’s plans. But the Trump administration does not seem to care. So Israel now stands on the brink of expelling Khan al-Ahmar’s people once again. As of Wednesday, the bulldozers stood ready.
On the surface, Khan al-Ahmar’s story is quite different from the story of child separation that has outraged many Americans in recent weeks. The child separation story is about the brutality America deploys to keep immigrants from leaving their homes. The Khan al-Ahmar story is about the brutality Israel deploys to make Palestinians leave theirs. But both provide examples of the rationalizations governments deploy to justify actions that, at a simple human level, are monstrously, self-evidently, wrong.
The first rationalization concerns law. To justify Trump’s child separation policies, Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoted the Apostle Paul as instructing people “to obey the laws of the government.” Defenders of Israel’s demolition of Khan al-Ahmar constantly describe the village as “illegal,” because its buildings lack government permits.
But neither American nor Jewish tradition sees law as absolute. Thomas Jefferson famously said, “If a law is unjust, a man is not only right to disobey it, he is obligated to do so.” The Talmud says that a person who sees a child who has fallen into a pit or been swept out to sea should violate Shabbat in order to save her rather than consult with a court.
Obviously, it’s usually good to abide by the law. But both Jefferson and the Talmud recognize that there is something higher than law: human dignity and human life. Israel recognizes that by honoring as “righteous” gentiles who broke the law to save Jews during the Holocaust. Americans recognize that when they honor the Bostonians who disobeyed laws imposed by a British parliament that did not represent them.
The residents of Khan al-Ahmar know something about lacking representation. Their village is on the verge of being bulldozed because its buildings lack government permits. But Israel barely ever grants building permits to Palestinians in Area C of the West Bank. Why would it? The Jews who live in Area C are Israeli citizens; they enjoy representation in Israel’s government. The Palestinians in Area C do not. So the Israeli government deems Jewish homes legal and Palestinian homes illegal, and bulldozes them.
The second rationalization concerns safety. When Trump talks about Central American immigrants, he often invokes the violence perpetrated by the gang MS-13. In a recent oped, Naomi Kahn of the pro-settler NGO Regavim explained that Khan al-Ahmar sits “in the heart of an area that is strategically critical to Israel’s security.” This too requires overriding one’s basic human instincts.
The parents and children being separated at the border and the residents of Khan al-Ahmar, who lack not just weapons but even electricity and running water, are self-evidently not the perpetrators of violence, but its victims. Which is why the people justifying violence against them must retreat to abstractions (“lawlessness,” “security”) in order to depict them as a threat.
The third rationalization is to deny that America and Israel’s policies actually cause harm at all. Fox News’ Laura Ingraham called the detention centers where the Trump administration holds migrant children “essentially summer camps.” Ann Coulter warned of “child actors weeping and crying.” Regavim’s Kahn has accused the Palestinian Authority of staging “’photo ops’ showing destitute, barefoot Bedouin children being forcibly evacuated,” when, in fact, Israel is moving them to a better place: “A large plot of land, completely developed and zoned for residential construction, with infrastructure for water and electricity. The new neighborhood will offer services that the Jahalin [the name of Khan al-Ahmar’s Bedouin clan] can only dream of today.”
She doesn’t mention that other Palestinians already claim this nirvana, which sits near a garbage dump outside the Jerusalem suburb of Abu Dis. Nor that Khan al-Ahmar’s residents have been desperately battling evacuation: by appealing to foreign governments and activists, by suing in the Israeli Supreme Court and most recently by physically resisting their imminent removal.
Why would they cause such a ruckus when they are being treated so well? Ingraham raises the same question when she calls detention centers “summer camps.” The implication is that it’s all a ruse. The migrant children being separated from their parents, and the residents of Khan al-Ahmar, are either dishonest or depraved or agents of some sinister force — anything but what they appear to the naked eye: human beings being treated in a fundamentally inhumane way.
Why aren’t the American Jewish groups that are protesting Trump’s policies at the border protesting Netanyahu’s policies in Khan al-Ahmar? Because the politics are different. Except in the most right-wing corners of American Jewish life, criticizing Trump’s treatment of immigrants isn’t that controversial. Criticizing Netanyahu’s treatment of Palestinians is. For mainstream Jewish organizations, which want to stay on the right side of both the Israeli government and American Jewish opinion, the path of least resistance is still to take a mildly progressive stance on domestic American policy and a hear-no-evil stance on Israeli behavior in the West Bank.
But in the years to come, that moral schizophrenia will become harder to sustain. It will become harder because while many older American Jews look at America and Israel through different lenses — tolerating actions in the latter they would never support in the former — young American Jews generally don’t. They’re more consistent. They don’t believe the need for Jewish self-protection exempts Israel from the moral judgments they make about their own country. Which means that if they’re outraged by what’s happening at America’s southwestern border, they’re likely to be outraged by what’s happening in Khan al-Ahmar, too.
For mainstream American Jewish groups, this shift will spark an institutional crisis. For the people of Khan al-Ahmar — and the millions of other Palestinians who live under Israeli control without basic rights in the West Bank and Gaza Strip — it can’t come a moment too soon.
Peter Beinart is a Senior Columnist at The Forward. Amitai Abouzaglo contributed research for this article.
Peter Beinart is a Senior Columnist at The Forward and Associate Professor of Journalism and Political Science at the City University of New York. He is also a Contributor to The Atlantic and a CNN Political Commentator.