Battle for the character of Israel

An interview with Uri Weltmann

December 1, 2023 | News | Volume 27 Issue 24
Madalene Arias | Eastern Canada Correspondent
Uri Weltmann. (Supplied Photo)

Uri Weltmann says support for Israel’s government and support for the people of Israel are two different things.

“This is not one and the same,” he says, speaking by video call from Tel Aviv, where he lives.

Weltmann is one of the founding members of Standing Together, a grassroots political movement of Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel devoted to ending the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank. Weltmann serves as national field organizer for the movement.

He says that unless people’s moral compass had been corrupted, their hearts went out to Israelis following the October 7 Hamas attacks. However, translating this empathy for Israelis to unequivocal support for the Israeli government is “misconstrued.”

“I think that those who really want to support me, and my two daughters and my family and my friends should agree with me that my own government is undermining my security by taking a very hawkish position towards the Palestinians,” Weltmann says.

Referring to wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, he says using military means to take power from political parties has disastrous consequences for human life, and ultimately it proves unsuccessful.

Weltmann says he would like to see leaders and regular citizens in Canada, the U.S. and other countries tell the Israeli government that they’re “not going in the right direction.”

Standing Together, which was created eight years ago, is composed of Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel. Approximately 20 percent of the population of Israel—about 1 million people—are Palestinian. The movement has 18 chapters throughout Israel. They do not operate in Gaza or the West Bank, focusing instead within Israel.

A critical pillar of the movement is recognizing how much Jews and Palestinians need one another to create a peace that makes sense for everyone. Weltmann explains that Palestinian Israelis have a vested interest in establishing peace as the occupation wages war on the nation they belong to. However, a minority cannot end racial discrimination and inequality without the allyship of the Jewish majority. In turn, Jewish society cannot secure its own safety without the Palestinian minority.

“We felt that none of the existing organizations provided an adequate response to what we saw was lacking in Israeli social and political scenery,” Weltman says. He explains that many other peace groups limit themselves to only organizing with Jews or only with Palestinians, and they further limit themselves to only one issue.

“We do not live in a single-issue reality,” says Weltmann.

Standing Together views present Israeli society as a place where a small minority benefit from the “status quo” of military occupation and economic inequality. The same small group also seeks to maintain a division among the people of Israel. The country often referred to as the only democracy in the Middle East is not without its own internal troubles.

Standing Together seeks to end the political, social and economic marginalization of Mizrahi Jews (Jews from Northern Africa and Central Asia), immigrants, women, the elderly, the LGBTQ+ community and people with disabilities.

With respect to the LGBTQ+ community, Weltmann recalls times when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would talk about LGBTQ+ rights in English during visits overseas, then, back home, speaking in Hebrew, “didn’t utter a word on that.”

While Israel is often seen in the West as tolerant of the LGBTQ+ community, it is not legal to perform a same-sex marriage in Israel.

Weltmann notes racism as another issue, saying that since the attacks on October 7, the Israeli government has encouraged racist, anti-Arab sentiments throughout the country. Standing Together has received thousands of reports describing “witch-hunt” type incidents in which Palestinians have been summarily dismissed from their jobs.

Many university students have faced disciplinary charges for “liking” social media posts that depicted human suffering in Gaza. Weltmann learned of at least one incident in which a student faced charges of supporting Hamas after posting a Facebook profile that read “stop war” in English, Hebrew and Arabic.

The discourse in Israel’s mainstream news media and in statements from key politicians has shown an intolerance toward those who express sympathy for human suffering in Gaza.

“There really is an attempt to narrow down public discourse into a one-dimensional track,” he says.

After the Hamas attacks, Israeli police arrested two members of Standing Together for putting up posters that read, “Arabs and Jews, we will get through this together.”

Prominent leaders with the organization regularly receive hateful messages on social media.

Weltmann notes that Standing Together does not speak in the name of the Israeli majority; however, they view themselves as speaking in the name of the majority’s interests while trying to win them over with their worldview.

“The majority has an interest in achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace and having a Palestinian state alongside Israel with ending the occupation.”

Every week, more and more people join Standing Together’s local chapters, searching for ways to become active in the movement.

In a November 14 article in the UK-based Guardian, Weltmann said, “while war rages in Gaza, there is also a battle in Israel for the character of our society.”

Speaking from Tel Aviv, Weltman makes it clear that the hope for change among Standing Together members is not the product of naïve optimism. Rather, it is the result of looking to history for examples of organized struggle creating change. He cites the examples of women earning the right to vote and African Americans winning the abolition of discriminatory Jim Crow laws.

Weltmann says that even challenges that “seemed undefeatable were defeated.”

Uri Weltmann. (Supplied Photo)

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Thank you for sharing this article on Standing Together. This is a powerful story.

It demonstrates so clearly that the call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire, and for negotiations toward a just peace, is in the interests of Israelis as well as Palestinians.

Durable justice, peace and security cannot be achieved through hostage-taking, killing, genocide and ethnic cleansing; it can only be achieved through the difficult but necessary work of negotiations toward a reality of coexistence.

We, as Mennonites, know this. We need to be sharing this message much more widely and boldly.

Thank you, Canadian Mennonite, for urging us to do that.

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