Over 900 scholars and cultural workers based in Israel, the Occupied Palestinian Territories, and around the globe have signed a letter denouncing Israel’s “apartheid” system. Titled “The Elephant in The Room,” the missive has been circulating over the last week amongst academics and cultural workers, among them artists, arts professors, arts historians, and museum professionals.
“American Jews have long been at the forefront of social justice causes, from racial equality to abortion rights, but have paid insufficient attention to the elephant in the room: Israel’s long-standing occupation that, we repeat, has yielded a regime of apartheid,” the letter reads. Leading with a cartoon by Israeli illustrator and protest artist Ze’ev Engelmayer, widely known by his pink alter-ego Shoshke, it urges Jewish leaders in the United States to speak up and demand that elected officials help end Israel’s occupation of Palestine.
One of the petition organizers, Pennsylvania State University Assistant Professor of History and Jewish Studies Lior Sternfeld, told Hyperallergic that the response to the letter “shows that the moment is ripe to consider serious policy changes.”
“The big shift in this statement is that there are quite a few Israeli academics who signed the letter who previously would have refused to equate the occupation with apartheid,” Sternfeld said, specifically pointing to the support from Israeli historian Benny Morris as well as three retired Israeli ambassadors.
Sternfeld said that he hopes the wide range of responses from Israeli and Jewish intellectuals “will put to rest the argument that criticism of [Israel’s occupation] equals anti-semitism.”
The text calls out the violent oppression and ethnic cleansing the Israeli government has consistently inflicted upon Palestinian people, including the more than 190 Palestinian individuals who have been killed by Israeli forces in the West Bank and Gaza since the beginning of 2023 alone. While the petition criticizes Israel’s “current government’s messianic, homophobic, and misogynistic agenda,” it also points out how “Jewish supremacism” has been a growing force in the country that extends prior to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s far-right leadership.
It also notes the role of the 2018 controversial “nation-state law” that exclusively gave Israel’s Jewish citizens elevated rights over the country’s Arab population, which is largely composed of Palestinian people. In addition to selectively giving Israeli Jewish people the “right to national self-determination in the State of Israel,” the law also removed Arabic as the country’s official language.
“Despite its obvious flaws, this statement, signed by almost 1,000 predominantly Jewish and Jewish-Israeli scholars, is a substantial step forward towards recognizing the comprehensive rights of the Indigenous Palestinian people and towards dismantling Israel’s 75-year-old regime of settler-colonialism and apartheid,” said Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement that advocates for ending international support for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.
“The main flaw in the statement is its omission of the true elephant in the room — the UN-stipulated rights of Palestinian refugees, who constitute two-thirds of the Indigenous Palestinian people, to return and to receive reparations,” Barghouti said, referring to the right to return as established by UN Resolution 194 that is one of the main demands of the BDS movement.
The signatories of the “Elephant in the Room” letter include dozens of cultural and create workers who have become “deeply unsettled” by the Israeli government’s “disregard for basic rights,” in the words of Eyal Landman, an architect and artist based in Tel Aviv.
“The idea that Israel can still be seen as a democracy is getting harder and harder to swallow,” Landman told Hyperallergic, adding that the state’s “excuses being used to downplay the violent apartheid situation just don’t hold up, especially with the recent and future changes in the legal system.” Israeli-American artist Nadav Assor, currently an associate professor in Connecticut College’s Studio Art department, explained to Hyperallergic that he signed the letter because he has found it “doubly painful” to watch the US government and American-Jewish institutions “prop up a ‘regime of apartheid.'”
“As an artist and educator who teaches their students to critically consider underlying messages and causes, I find it disingenuous and dangerous to not fully acknowledge the painful and extremely undemocratic reality that over a third of the inhabitants of this land have experienced for many decades, while rightfully protesting its further decline into total authoritarianism,” Assor said. Israel-based multidisciplinary artist and teacher Avivit Ballas Baranes, who also signed onto the letter, told Hyperallergic that “the situation in Israel is deteriorating day by day.”
“I strongly believe that Jews in the US can play a role here as a wake-up call for the Israeli government to stop,” Landman went on in his correspondence to Hyperallergic, underscoring the importance of “using the right words to describe what’s happening [in Israel and Palestine], even if it’s hard to swallow.”