2017: A Year of Foreboding Anniversaries for Israel-Palestine

By Ilana Sumka

Published in Dutch in Knack, January 21st, 2017:  http://www.knack.be/nieuws/wereld/israel-palestina-er-is-nog-veel-werk-om-de-fouten-uit-het-verleden-recht-te-zetten/article-opinion-804503.html

A few days ago I put up my new calendar to welcome 2017, and while often I welcome the fresh start that a new year offers, this year I hung up my calendar with a sense of trepidation and foreboding.  Some of that apprehension surely comes from the fear of rising right-wing sentiment in Europe and the corresponding racism and xenophobia that it heralds; add to that Brexit, a global refugee crisis and a Trump presidency in the US and it’s not surprising that my anxiety is higher than normal.  But much of my apprehension comes from profound uncertainty I feel regarding the future of Israel-Palestine.

Photo: Direct action in Hebron, The Center for Jewish nonviolence

Photo: Direct action in Hebron, The Center for Jewish nonviolence


As a religiously observant Jewish person who is deeply concerned with advancing peace and justice in Israel-Palestine, the unease I feel about the year 2017 is connected to the significant anniversaries that this year marks: one hundred years since the Balfour Declaration was issued; seventy years since the United Nations adopted a resolution in support of the partition of Palestine; and fifty years since Israel conquered the Palestinian territories of the West Bank and Gaza.

All of these anniversaries – and the subsequent wars and displacement of people from their homes – are reminders of how much work there is to do to right past wrongs and chart a path for the future based on a genuine commitment to equal rights and self-determination for all.

On November 2, 1917, Britain issued the “Balfour Declaration” named after its author, the United Kingdom’s Foreign Secretary Arthur James Balfour and sent it to Walter Rothschild, a leader of the British Jewish community.  It called for the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine.  It had two caveats: in the process of establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine, nothing should harm the civil and religious rights of the pre-existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine – that is, the Palestinians – and nothing should harm the rights and political status of Jews in any other countries.  Both of these conditions have been egregiously violated in the one hundred years since the Balfour Declaration.

As a young Jew growing up with a strong attachment to Israel, I was taught that the Balfour declaration was the first major political victory for the Jewish people in the twentieth century, since, in language simplified for my young teenage ears, ‘the United Kingdom gave Palestine to the Jews.’   I will always stand by the call for Jewish self-determination and the demand for full equal rights for all Jews.  What I question is the path we’ve taken in an attempt to get there.

It was only later in my adult life that I came to question the very assumptions that the Balfour Declaration is based on.  What right did Britain have to ‘offer’ a piece of land in the Middle East, whether to Jews or anyone else?  And what about the people who were living on this piece of land, what rights did they have?

Seventy years ago, in 1947, the United Nations voted in favor of partitioning Palestine to create two states: an official Jewish homeland and a Palestinian State.  While Israel was established the following year, a Palestinian State was never established.  Again, a significant political victory for the Jewish people.  And again, no recognition in the Jewish communities that raised me that this represented a devastating loss of land and sovereignty for the people already living in Palestine at the time.  Instead of recognizing the profound loss and humiliation that the partition plan represented for the Palestinians, too many Jewish communities – then and now – blame the Palestinians for not being grateful to be left with half of what was once theirs.

Fifty years ago, Israel conquered Gaza and the West Bank in the 1967 war.  The result has been five decades of Occupation under Israeli military rule: settlements, more refugees, land confiscation, home demolitions, unequal water distribution and the wide-spread imprisonment of Palestinians, including children.  Fifty years later, in the first week of January 2017 alone, the Israeli government demolished 151 Palestinian homes in the West Bank – nearly four times the weekly average of the previous year.  That a ‘weekly average of Palestinian home demolitions’ even exists is a shocking testament to the inhumane treatment the Palestinians have received under Israeli military rule in the West Bank, now reaching its 50th anniversary this year.

We were greeted by one bright piece of news just before the new year, when the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution that reaffirmed that settlements are illegal and are a violation under international law.  The group I’m a member of, Een Andere Joods Stem, applauds the endorsement of the UNSC resolution by the Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs. We call upon the minister to take concrete steps to promote the implementation of the decision, starting by instructing Belgian companies to halt any business activity in the settlements and by banning the import of settlements products to Belgium.

The significance of these three anniversaries has prompted us to join a European-wide campaign called “Enough is Enough.”   Jewish groups from across Europe will proudly affirm our commitment to human rights for Palestinians and call for an end to the occupation through various political and artistic events during this monumental year.  In addition, hundreds of Jews from around the world will travel to the West Bank this summer with the Center for Jewish Nonviolence to stand in solidarity with Palestinian and Israeli activists to call for an end to 50 years of occupation.

While the Israeli government attempts to equate its right-wing and repressive politics as representative of Jews worldwide, more and more Jews are speaking up to say that we believe in human rights over discrimination.

To this day, we are living with the consequences of these significant anniversaries: the existence of at least five million Palestinian refugees; the status as second-class citizens of the one and a half million Palestinians who live inside Israel; and the lives of some 4 million Palestinians living under military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza are living proof that these anniversaries – from Balfour to the 1967 war – have created more problems

Jewish Israelis are also living with consequences: an on-going sense of insecurity and fear in the region, asking, “why don’t the other Arab nations like us?”  This stems in part from a failure of the Israeli public school system to teach the actual history of the region, and is combined with an utter inability or unwillingness by so many Jewish Israelis to see how their presence and creation of their homeland has come at an unbearably high cost to the Palestinians who had been living in Palestine for generations.

For the past hundred, seventy, and fifty years, we have been engaged in an ill-fated game of human dominoes in which one piece is knocked down, setting off a chain reaction and knocking down piece after piece after piece.  Only until we are able to adopt a truly global understanding of shared humanity will we be able to devise solutions together, creatively, that establish genuine, long term, sustainable win-win outcomes for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Ilana Sumka is the founder and director of the Center for Jewish Nonviolence. With two decades of experience as an organizer, educator and activist, Ilana previously spent five years as the Jerusalem director of Encounter. Ilana currently lives in Belgium where she co-founded Een Andere Joodse Stem/Another Jewish Voice to elevate progressive Jewish voices in the Belgian and European political discourse.