Palestinians walk through rubble following an Israeli airstrike on the Rimal neighborhood of Gaza City on Oct. 9, 2023. (Photo/Wafa-APAimages via Wikimedia)
Palestinians walk through rubble following an Israeli airstrike on the Rimal neighborhood of Gaza City on Oct. 9, 2023. (Photo/Wafa-APAimages via Wikimedia)

Jews must reject calls for ‘voluntary emigration’ of Palestinians

This story was originally published in the Forward. Click here to get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox.

Israel’s Minister of Finance and settler leader Bezalel Smotrich recently told Israel’s Channel 12 that he was supportive of what he called “voluntary emigration” of Gazans out of Gaza. “All we need,” he said, “is to find countries willing to take them in.” Or in the words of Smotrich’s ideological forebear, Meir Kahane, “they must go.”

Other members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition are apparently conducting secret talks with Congo to take in thousands of Gazans. And while deputies and spokespeople for Netanyahu have issued statements insisting these ministers do not represent government policy, Netanyahu himself gave the go-ahead for members of his government to support Gazan migration out of the Strip.

All of this brought the Israeli government into a direct conflict with the Biden Administration. In response, U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller tweeted that the calls by the far-right ministers were “inflammatory and irresponsible.”

These calls are also disingenuous and morally repugnant. American Jews have an obligation to vocally oppose them.

The phrase “voluntary emigration” is absurd: Right now, Gazan civilians face painful decisions about how to try and keep themselves and their families safe and avoid starvation.

Israel has instructed hundreds of thousands of Gazans to leave their homes in the north and seek safety in the south of the tiny Gaza Strip, but then is bombing those areas as well. If the reason people leave is Israeli bombs and the massive humanitarian catastrophe that this war has created, such emigration can hardly be called “voluntary.” Forced migration during a war, including through coercion, is considered ethnic cleansing, a crime against humanity.

Israelis and Palestinians have been locked in conflict for over 70 years, since before Israel was founded as a state. But there is no world in which forcibly transferring civilian populations is the solution to this problem.

The only way forward is to recognize that no one is going anywhere — not Israelis, and not Palestinians — and figure out how to live in this shared space in a way in which everyone is guaranteed equality and democracy.

A resumption of the search for some version of the much-maligned two-state solution now appears to many to be the best (and indeed only) way out of the death spiral in which Israelis and Palestinians find themselves. Unfortunately, the Netanyahu government has devoted itself to ensuring that never happens, even as the two-state solution remains the official position of the state of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, the Arab League, the United Nations and the United States. Flirting with the idea of ethnic cleansing certainly contravenes that “official” policy, but it also actively erodes the basic tenets of what we believe liberal democracy should stand for.

American Jews have begun to understand over the last year that we must stand up to an Israeli government that opposes core democratic values. Indeed, our brothers and sisters in Israel, who took to the streets in their hundreds of thousands this past year, implored us to support and join their protests against their authoritarian and illiberal government. It is ministers from the same government that plotted to eviscerate the independence of Israel’s top court and undermine its democratic structure who now, since Oct. 7, talk about their plans to “roll out Nakba 2023,” and “flatten Gaza,” and who suggest that dropping a nuclear bomb on the Gaza is “an option.”

The same ministers are now calling for the reestablishing Israeli settlements in Gaza, and justifying or denying the rash of settler violence in the West Bank, violence which has resulted in 1,000 Palestinians self-evacuating from their homes — “voluntarily emigrating,” they might say.

This is a government of ultra-nationalists, messianic religious fundamentalists, supremacists and radical settlers. Its leader, Netanyahu, is still on trial for corruption, and an overwhelming majority of Israelis view him as responsible for the catastrophic failures that led to Oct. 7. Israelis are right not to trust this government. American Jews should not trust it, either.

The idea for this kind of ethnic cleansing didn’t begin with Smotrich or Ben Gvir — it began with their spiritual leader, and the founder of their radical racist movement, the American-born Meir Kahane. In the 1980s. Kahane spoke of “transfer,” an idea — at the time — so abhorrent that MKs, including from the Likud, would walk out on Kahane, who served briefly as a member of Knesset, whenever he ascended the podium.

Kahane was eventually suspended from the Knesset for waving a hangman’s noose at an Arab legislator in the chamber, and the Knesset amended election law to bar “racist parties and candidates” from running. But his ideas, once fringe, have crept into the mainstream. Netanyahu, at the start of this war, likened Hamas to Amalek, a biblical people about which the God commands Saul in the book of Samuel, saying “Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’” Many of these quotes are now cited in South Africa’s charge to the International Court of Justice, arguing that Israel is intent on genocide. Through their irresponsible and immoral rhetoric, Israel’s ministers are not doing the state of Israel — or the Jewish people — any favors.

We, as Jewish people, have our own experience with ethnic cleansing: the expulsion of Jews from Spain and England, the pogroms in Eastern Europe leading up to the Holocaust, and the forced departure of hundreds of thousands of Jews from various Arab countries after the establishment of the state of Israel.

If we’ve learned anything from our history, it is that when extremists — whether those trying to attack us or those in our own ranks — say they are going to do something, we should take them at their word.

Will the current government of the Jewish state, a state whose mission was to be a haven for those fleeing ethnic cleansing, now turn around and perpetrate such an atrocity as a matter of policy? I certainly hope not, but surely, it is the obligation of American Jews to say, loudly and clearly: not in our name.

Daniel Sokatch
Daniel Sokatch

Daniel Sokatch is the San Francisco-based CEO of the New Israel Fund.