Hundreds of US rabbis call for Israel to end arms sales to Myanmar

Citing Talmudic prohibition, more than 300 religious leaders say Jewish state should stop assisting military accused of ethnic cleansing

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Rohingya refugees carry supplies through the Jalpatoli refugee camp in the 'no mans land' between Myanmar and Bangladesh in Gumdhum district on September 16, 2017. (AFP Photo/Dominique Faget)
Rohingya refugees carry supplies through the Jalpatoli refugee camp in the 'no mans land' between Myanmar and Bangladesh in Gumdhum district on September 16, 2017. (AFP Photo/Dominique Faget)

A group of more than 300 US religious leaders on Thursday called for Israel to cease weapons sales to Myanmar, whose military is accused of carrying out ethnic cleansing and massacres against the country’s Muslim population.

For decades, the Myanmar government has been accused of committing war crimes against its Rohingya Muslim population, including infanticide, systemic rape and mass killings. However, those actions has picked up dramatically in recent months following an attack by Rohingya rebels against police positions, an act that sparked violent reprisal from Myanmar’s military.

In response to the violent crackdown, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims fled from their home in Myanmar’s Rakhine state across the border into Bangladesh.

Despite the reports of overwhelming human rights violations, Israel has refused to say that it will not sell weapons to the Asian nation.

The issue of Israeli defense exports is difficult to discuss in the media, as many aspects of the industry are subject to military censorship. However, when it comes to arms sales to Myanmar, the country’s military junta is not tight-lipped, and has boasted of acquiring Israeli advanced weaponry on social media as recently as last April.

On Thursday, in response to the apparent Israeli arms sales, the left-leaning T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights organization published a petition that has already been signed by more than 300 rabbis, cantors and community leaders.

“As American citizens and as Jews, we refuse to accept any involvement by the US or Israel in training or arming a military that is carrying out a brutal ethnic cleansing against a minority population. The European Union has already ceased weapons sales, all EU nationals except for Italy have ended military trainings, and both Israel and the US should do the same,” the petition read.

The open letter also drew a parallel to the Holocaust, noting the “haunting historical parallels between the Jewish experience and the current plight of the Rohingya people.”

The group also lauded a letter sent last month by US Democrats and Republicans that called for “an end to any US support for the Burmese military.”

Head of T’ruah rabbinic network for human rights Rabbi Jill Jacobs (Tamara Fleming Photography)

It was signed by religious figures from Reform, Orthodox and Conservative Judaism, like Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah; Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism; Rabbi Shira Stutman of Sixth and I Historic Synagogue; Rabbi Asher Lopatin of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah; Rabbi Jack Moline; and Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz, founder and president of Uri L’Tzedek.

The petition cited a Talmudic prohibition against “selling ‘weapons or accessories of weapons’ to dangerous individuals or groups, as well as ‘grind[ing] any weapon’ or even selling a certain kind of iron predominantly used for weapons lest we find ourselves contributing to bloodshed. (Avodah Zarah 15b-16a).”

The call by US religious figures came after over 50 Israeli rabbis and community leaders released a similar petition last month.

That letter, sent to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin, called on Israel to halt arms sales to Myanmar and support a bipartisan bill — written by Israel human rights attorney Eitay Mack and sponsored by Likud MK Yehudah Glick and Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg in 2016 — that would restrict weapons exports to human rights violators. The bill has languished in a Knesset committee since its introduction.

Last month, Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled on a petition to forbid arms sales to Myanmar, but issued a gag order on the verdict to prevent it from being published by Israeli media.

However, it can be reported that the activists who filed the request were privy to the verdict and, upon seeing the results, announced they were renewing their call for Israel to stop supplying Myanmar with weapons.

Bangladesh army soldiers stand guard as Rohingya Muslim men, who crossed over from Myanmar into Bangladesh, wait to receive aid during a distribution near Balukhali refugee camp in Bangladesh on September 25, 2017. (Dar Yasin/AP Photo)

In response to the recent petitions, the Foreign Ministry released a statement that did not deny weapons were being sold to Myanmar, but said that Israel was not directly involved in the apparent ethnic cleansing there.

“Israel vigorously denies the false reports being spread by the media about Israel’s alleged involvement in the tragedy in the Rakhine state in Myanmar,” a foreign ministry spokesperson said. “The State of Israel’s oversight policy for defense exports are reviewed regularly in accordance with different considerations, including the human rights situation in the country, as well as the policy of the UN Security Council and other international bodies.”

Since late August, more than 600,000 Rohingya have fled the army campaign in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. A recent report by the UN human rights office accused Myanmar of ethnic cleansing, including seeking to permanently expel the Rohingya by planting land mines at the border with Bangladesh where the refugees are sheltering.

UN rights officials spoke to refugees who gave accounts of soldiers surrounding homes and firing indiscriminately as residents ran for their lives, and of uniformed men gang-raping women and girls.

AFP contributed to this report.

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