A woman watches as soldiers burn her baby alive. The government disparages an established ethnic and religious minority as a dangerous foreign influence. Families run for their lives with no place to go. While there are clear differences between the current experience of the Rohingya people and that of the Jews during the Holocaust, the reports and images emerging from Myanmar over the past month resonate with inescapable familiarity. The UN’s top human rights official has called it a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing.” According to the Center for Prevention of Genocide, a project of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the latest round of attacks on the Muslim minority raise “even higher alarms about the risk of genocide.”
Following the Holocaust, the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, as steps toward ensuring that what happened to us would never happen to any other people. As a Jewish state, Israel bears a particular responsibility to uphold the international aspiration to protect minority groups from mass slaughter.
It is, therefore, hard to believe, but impossible to deny, that the Jewish state remains one of the few countries in the world willing to sell weapons to Myanmar.
Some have run to find easy consolation for their conscience in data published by the Stockholm Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) that suggests that Israel stopped weapons sales to Myanmar in 2011. However, this defense fails to acknowledge Israel’s exceptional secrecy when it comes to its weapons exports and the resulting dearth of publicly-available information.
We do know that the commander in chief of Myanmar’s defense services, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, proudly publicized his visits to, and even his orders from, various Israeli weapons manufacturers in September 2015. This was just four months after a report by the USHMM stated: “We left Burma deeply concerned that so many preconditions for genocide are already in place.” And in August 2016, an Israeli company proudly published on its website, “Israeli CornerShot now in service in Myanmar’s Special Operations Task Force”, accompanied by pictures of its staff training Burmese forces in the use of this specialized weapon.
Despite these publicly available proofs of continued Israeli exports, Israel oddly clings to its policy of silence. The Supreme Court even placed a gag order on a recent petition to order the cessation of all export licenses to Myanmar. That is why each of us, in our respective countries, recently organized hundreds of our colleagues to write a letter calling on Israel to cease this practice. The letter from American rabbis also demanded an end to the remaining military training exercises that the U.S. continues to conduct with Myanmar.
At first glance, we make quite an odd couple to be partnering on this issue. One of us is a male Orthodox rabbi living in Efrat. The other is a female Conservative rabbi who directs an organization opposed to settlement growth. And yet, we agree that the call of “Never Again” obligates us to insist that our own countries refuse to be complicit in the violence against the Rohingya people. In Israel as well, this is an issue which transcends political lines. The law to prevent arms sales to human rights violators like Myanmar was proposed by Tamar Zandberg, a Member of Knesset for the Meretz Party; and Rabbi Yehuda Glick, a Member of Knesset for the Likud party and a prominent Temple Mount activist.
While our people’s experience in the Holocaust may be the most immediate and visceral imperative for action, it is not the only reason Israel must change its policies. Our obligation to the Rohingya stems from Israel’s identity as a Jewish state. Israel’s Declaration of Independence declares that the state will be “based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel.” These prophets regularly railed against kings who were guilty of neglecting the most vulnerable and forgotten, and of prioritizing political considerations over moral ones. They envisioned Jerusalem as a place to which nations stream to learn the paths of peace, not the art of war.
Jewish law, too, warns against selling arms to those who would use them for evil. The Talmud cautions against selling “weapons or accessories of weapons” to dangerous individuals or groups, or even “grinding any weapon” for such people, or selling them a certain type of iron predominantly used for crafting weapons. (Avodah Zarah 15b-16a) Maimonides extends this prohibition to selling “anything injurious to the public, like the weapons of war or instruments of torture… in order to not aid the destroyers of the world in destroying.” (Commentary on Mishnah, Avodah Zarah 1:7)
Some later commentators granted permission for Jews to sell weapons to the governments under which they live, and upon which they depend for protection. In the modern era, legal thinkers have made allowances for Israel to sell weapons when it is in the national interest and some will argue that Israel needs all the friends it can get.
But what argument of self-interest can possibly be weighty enough to justify supporting the Burmese military, which already has a long and horrific record of committing ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya? Even the most insignificant support for the Burmese military grants legitimacy to their horrific campaign of ethnic cleansing.
The U.S. should follow the example of the U.K., which last month suspended all partnerships with the Burmese military. Meanwhile, both Burmese generals and an Israeli company have attested to Israel’s continued sale of lethal weapons. What argument of self-interest can we possibly accept that puts Israel in the moral company of China, India, and Russia, against the policies of the rest of the Western world?
Following the biblical exodus from Egypt, God commands the Israelites to care for the most vulnerable members of our own communities — both Jewish and not — and even prohibits hatred toward the Egyptians themselves. Our own suffering does not become an excuse to look inward and care only for our immediate needs. Rather, our history of suffering instills in us the obligation to prevent the suffering of others.
By standing with the Rohingya people and ending arms sales to Myanmar, Israel has the opportunity to fulfill this obligation, and to live out the promise of “Never Again.”
Rabbi Jill Jacobs is the Executive Director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, which mobilizes 1800 rabbis to protect human rights in North America, Israel, and the occupied Palestinian territories. You can follow her on Twitter @rabbijilljacobs. Rabbi Avidan Freedman, an educator at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, is part of a diverse group of Israeli activists working to end Israeli weapons exports to gross violators of human rights.