I grew up in a small town in Massachusetts where my parents headed our local synagogue, Hadassah and the United Jewish Appeal. My first trip abroad after university, in 1962, included a week-long visit to Israel, where I was awed by its accomplishments, as well as by its vulnerability. After the Six-Day War in 1967, I basked in the courage and military prowess of my fellow Jews. The eloquence of foreign minister Abba Eban, defending his beleaguered country at the United Nations, still fills me with pride. In the years since, I’ve been a contributor and fundraiser for the UJA-Federation of New York, a governor of the American Jewish Committee, which is dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism, and a founding director of the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. I’ve made five additional visits to Israel since 1962, the last this summer as part of a humanitarian aid trip to East Jerusalem and the West Bank. As a Jew who has been an ardent supporter of Israel since its independence, it pains me to record what I saw there. But it is my love for Israel and for the Jewish people that drives me to speak out at this treacherous time.
What I witnessed in the West Bank—home to about 2.5 million Palestinians and 400,000 Israeli settlers—exceeded my worst expectations. While the world’s statesmen have dithered, Israel has created a system of apartheid on steroids, a horrifying prison with concrete walls as high as twenty-six feet, topped with body-ravaging coils of razor wire. Spaced along these walls are imposing guard towers that harbor bunkers from which trespassers can be shot by Israeli soldiers. From this physical segregation—one land for Israelis; another, unequal land for Palestinians—flows a torrent of misery, violence and human rights abuses. The West Bank suffers from acute shortages of water, housing, jobs and healthcare. Palestinian children are separated from their parents, denied access to hospitals and stoned and beaten by Jewish settlers. Human rights sanctioned by international law, including the right to health, the prohibition on transferring populations into occupied territories and equal treatment before the law are routinely violated.
David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first Prime Minister, once said that Israel will be judged by how it treats the Arabs. This is a moral test Israel now resoundingly fails—a failure that threatens to undermine all of its accomplishments and, as is increasingly clear, its future.
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The wall that Israel is building does not follow the post-1967 border. It makes major incursions into the West Bank, the largest about fourteen kilometers deep. Circuitous, twice times as long as the actual border, the wall snakes through the West Bank to envelop Jewish settlements and military bases, dividing Arab towns and families from each other. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) counts 505 checkpoints, roadblocks and other obstacles in the West Bank that prevent and impede movement.
This hulking, omnipresent physical constraint makes life for the Arab population a hellish nightmare. Travel outside many villages is allowed only with a permit from the Israeli army (IDF). Receiving a permit often takes months; sometimes permits don’t arrive at all (the IDF does not give explanations); when they do, they expire quickly. For security reasons, permits are usually denied men aged 15-30. Families are separated for years by these restrictions. A married couple—one partner from East Jerusalem, the other from Ramallah—may not be able to live together, and acquiring permits for visitation is an onerous process. Children—who account for almost half of the West Bank’s Palestinian population—are often separated from parents, indefinitely so.
Since many Palestinians are not allowed to travel to the nearest hospital without a permit, they are frequently cut off from medical treatment. Stories abound of people dying in ambulances, waiting to cross an Israeli checkpoint. Women in labor sometimes walk miles to a checkpoint, attempting to reach a hospital on the other side—it’s evidently quicker to cross on foot than in a vehicle. Worse yet, many of these mothers receive no pre- or postnatal care. Travel permits can expire before scheduled medical treatments are finished, and parents are often denied permission to accompany their young children to medical treatment centers.