Report from Israel: the occupation is the Stanley Milgram experiment, for American Jews
At the beginning of the year I visited Israel and came back and wrote a post, Israel’s crisis. Last month I got back from my third trip to the country, and that sense is stronger. Israel is headed for the iceberg, as one Israeli friend put it. Its effort as a Jewish state to govern a population that is half-non-Jewish is unsustainable. Palestinians are everywhere oppressed in the occupied territories (and second-class citizens inside Israel). The awareness fills me with dread and a renewed commitment to the American conversation, and even feelings of blasted brotherhood with American Jews, who are the chief enablers of the oppression.
The most obvious thing about Israel and Palestine is that they are separate societies under one government’s control, and the worlds are starkly different. Israelis rush around in fancy cars, Mercedes SUVs and BMWs, and there are cranes all over West Jerusalem building towers, the Jews have plenty of opportunities (including to plop down implausible “art” on any street corner). Then cross into East Jerusalem and the people are humiliated and subject to incursion and arrest and the loss of houses and children. Resist those conditions, even protest them, and you can go to jail.
In Gaza the garbage burns in the streets a few miles from Israelis living suburban dreams. “There’s a stench in Gaza, and when I came into Israel it was so green, and I thought, yes who wouldn’t want to be living here instead?” a friend who works in the aid community in Gaza City told me.
That good Israeli quality of life is built on the backs of the Palestinians in several ways. Of course Israel carved its country out of Palestinian land. The Israeli use Palestinian land for cheap housing (the colonies), they get some cheap labor from the Palestinians. And they steal the Palestinians’ water. Traveling in that dry land, I thought about water all the time. (that narrow green streak slanting up from lower right is the mighty Jordan River, drained before it gets to the Allenby Bridge). Israelis control the West Bank aquifers, under the land of the forever-projected Palestinian state, and suck as much of the water as they like, something like 80 percent of the water. Palestinian households are on rationed water and their farmers’ irrigation pipes are ripped out of the ground by settlers; and meantime you see black irrigation pipes snaking through the ostentatious gardens of Maale Adumim, the big settlement.
The whole scene really is that blatantly unfair. I read about this stuff in Seham’s digests all the time; but the shock for me was seeing it up close and realizing that Americans don’t get a fraction of the story. You are visiting a historic field of oppression, like the American south or South Africa, but the New York Times only occasionally talks about the occupation when it should be thundering forth about the conditions every day. On his visit to the States last spring, Ethan Bronner (who lives in an ethnically cleansed West Jerusalem neighborhood and whose son is in the Israeli army), told one questioner that he doesn’t harp on the occupation because you get used to anything. Well, I’ve met many people who have been there a lot longer than Bronner, and they have never gotten used to the conditions. Of course they are Palestinians.
More about those two societies. My last night in East Jerusalem I had to get cash to pay my room bill. Well, there is only one ATM in East Jerusalem and it is closed at night, but of course there are dozens of ATMs in West Jerusalem, open at all times. There must be hundreds in Tel Aviv. And this really is the largest apparent truth about Israel and Palestine: One is a flourishing European-style economy and the other is small, fragmented, choked. This truth mocks the Israeli insistence that Hamas recognize Israel’s right to exist before Israel negotiates with Hamas. As if the denial of Israel’s right to exist could really wipe Israel away. It exists. Denying its existence is like an angry ant walking by a bank and shaking his fist at the glass tower and saying, you have no right to exist (as James North once put it). Khaled Meshal, the Hamas leader in Damascus, said words to this effect last May on Charlie Rose. Israel exists. Who can deny such a thing. Why should we have to recognize its existence, when we are being occupied, arrested, smashed and assassinated…
The conditions of Palestinian existence are often shocking. Every time I turned the corner I saw depredations on honorable people. Atta Jaber, his house destroyed five times by settlers who encircle him near Hebron; and who has come to his side? Only Rabbis for Human Rights and the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions. A disgrace. Or I met Jawad Siyam, in locked down Silwan on the night after a settlers’ security guard killed a man in the village; and the sense of fear and oppression and helplessness and political powerlessness that pervaded the village made my heart hurt; Siyam feels completely abandoned by politicians. And note that when I posted about Siyam, Angela posted a comment saying that
last year [I accompanied Siyam] to The Hill, to the J Street Conference and to the UN in New York. We gave 40 congressional briefings and 20 UN Security Council member states’ briefings. Did any evicted family gain re-entry? No. Has Silwan settler violence stopped? No. Has Bethlehem regained its water or farmland or had its closure ended? You gotta be joking. And did any of the congregation of the Upper West Side’s Beit Yeshurun Synagogue to whom we spoke – the first time they’d ever met or heard from Palestinians of East Jerusalem – did any of them DO anything after hearing of the trials and tribulations that contribute to Israeli insecurity?
When his village was locked down, believe me, Siyam was not calling B’nai Jeshurun and J Street. This is the crux of the tragedy. American Jews have been informed about these conditions again and again— by young Jews leaving birthright, by Jawad Siyam, by Breaking the Silence, by Elik Elhanan and Micha Kurz and Jeff Halper. And who is crying out, who is on the rooftops decrying these conditions? Only a few groups, Jewish Voice for Peace and Jews Say No and American Jews for a Just Peace spring to mind (and yes Americans for Peace Now is doing good work against the settlements).
The general U.S. Jewish position is like the Stanley Milgram experiment, the famous Yale study in which paid research subjects were instructed by a researcher to apply higher and higher levels of shock to someone on the other side of a curtain every time he got an answer wrong on a test. And with increasing levels of shock that other subject— who wasn’t really a subject but a confederate of the researcher— howled louder and louder and passed out from pain. Still the students applied the shock. That is the American Jewish community. They hear the Palestinians screaming for 60 years but they have been told by an authority figure that the Palestinians deserve the shocks they are getting— because they are resisters, because they are terrorists, because they are animals, because they are violent, because their women cover themselves, because they live off the land, because they want their houses back, because they don’t have gay rights, because they read the Koran, because they want to return to their homes, because they elected Hamas… on and on the instructor justifies it with lies and bullshit, still the community cranks the dial and ignores the screams.
Israelis are more aware of it than American Jews. Their consciences are crying out. The Gideon Levys and Assaf Sharons and Jonathan Pollacks are denouncing the situation—and there are even artists in the Israel Museum talking about it. And of course the world too is developing awareness about the horror even as the American Jewish community is blinding itself.
My parents’ generation of ethnocentric American Jews loves Israel, and I need to come to terms with that in order to come out with my parents and their hidebound friends. In fact, I cannot go to Israel without admiring Zionism at some level. The ideology created a strong democracy for Jews, it gave shelter to the shattered culture of eastern Europe, it helped preserve a literary inheritance, it made a vibrant culture. I need to keep these achievements in mind if I’m going to speak to the Jewish community, which I aim to do, in blasted brotherhood. But that achievement was all for Jews, and at the expense of Palestinians. The great kibbutz movement that I was supposed to dance and sing about as a boy—no Palestinians need apply. Deir Yassin was a calculated effort to empty Jerusalem of Arabs. Zionism was all about nurturing Jews. And in that undying purified spirit they now have loyalty-oath fascists in the government and American Jews are knitting them scarves.
I have no doubt that the ruthlessly selfish political culture of Israel belongs to a different age. Young Americans, and young American Jews must make this clear. This militant racist society does not represent our values. And it doesn’t matter if it’s two states or twenty, unless Jews in power start to respect other peoples’ rights, we’re screwed. (Which is my secondary fear. That when the madness is exposed fully and plunges the United States into a worst mess or creates another explosion in the Middle East, Americans will wake up and blame the Jews.)
This is still a grass roots struggle. The political world is lost to fairness, corrupted by the traditional exercise by court Jews of gaining access to the powerful, the same thing Herzl did 110 years ago in the chambers of the Kaiser, the Sultan, and the Pope, waving bankers’ money. As a realist I wanted to accept the two-state solution and wash my hands of the situation. But Obama could never address the simple demands of the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002. And he stopped mentioning the occupation because Israel’s supporters don’t want him to, he can’t say, Enough stealing of land and persecution, take down the walls around Bethlehem and Jerusalem (and Gilo, the settlement in the background below). When he calls on the Arab nations to normalize relations with Israel, without addressing the injustices that make Arabs enraged, they simply laugh at him. I heard people scoffing at Obama’s call for normalization when I was in Jordan. Everywhere Arabs say that Obama has betrayed his promises of Cairo.
I agree that the Middle East is a tough neighborhood that is dominated by authoritarian governments and riven by ethnic tension. That doesn’t get Israel off the hook. It is oppressing half the population, on a racial basis, and American Jews are enabling the whole business. If we Jews have any desire to be a moral example to other people, as the tradition holds, we will accept our responsibility and power, throw ourselves into Palestinian solidarity work, listen to Palestinians describe their conditions, bear witness to those conditions, take on our elders, press boycott, shake Israelis from their lavish complacence, and help to build a society of fairness and equality that can lead the Middle East. The other way is just more darkness and screaming.