Our tradition teaches us that one mourns for the past destruction of Jerusalem and its temple not merely by fasting but by internalizing the causes that led to it. According to one account in the Talmud, Jerusalem was destroyed because Jewish society at the time merely followed the law and did not see itself as obligated to go beyond it. When a society fails to be bound by larger moral imperatives, and instead hides behind legalese, it loses its compass and undermines its legitimacy.
The Edmund Levy report on the status of the occupation of Judea and Samaria is a case in point. While the potential political fallout from the report has been avoided for now by assigning it to a bureaucratic black hole, it is incumbent upon us to not overlook the moral blindness and societal failing that it or its like can engender.
Removing the status of occupation — either as a result of the fact that Judea and Samaria are part of the Jewish people’s ancestral homeland or, as Justice Edmund Levy claims, was never under the control of a sovereign state from which it was annexed — is not only politically irrelevant, but Jewishly and morally irrelevant as well. Israel’s control over Judea and Samaria is an occupation because we are occupying a people who, like us, have a right to sovereign, independent, national expression.
The consequence of the current status quo, under which the majority of Israelis support a two-state solution but believe that nothing else can be done on our side to implement it, is the development of a political discourse devoid of any values — with the exception of security and self-preservation. Since the Palestinian people and leadership never waste an opportunity to waste an opportunity, we indulge the myth of seeing ourselves as non-occupiers of land, simply forgetting the people therein.
An occupation is just, to the extent that it is the result of a just war and that everything is done to bring it to a conclusion, while taking into account one’s legitimate security needs. While this principle gives Israel a passing grade legally and morally, it cannot be allowed to anesthetize us to our principles and aspirations.
When one lives in a ghetto, one is forced to speak to oneself, and as a result, one can delude oneself regarding the veracity and legitimacy of one’s arguments. One of the central questions we need to ask is whether we want Israel to be a ghetto or a gateway to the world. As a ghetto surrounded by enemies and delegitimizers who only seek our harm, it is comfortable to retreat into the welcoming arms of a private religious or legal conversation that only we can get, for only we are truly objective. Such a ghetto may ideally position us to defend our borders from immediate threats. But it is a grossly inadequate position from which to meet long-term strategic dangers, and, more importantly, the moral failures that endanger us from within. It is these latter dangers that we tend to belittle or classify as secondary, in the midst of the crisis du jour. The obligation to internalize the causes for the destruction of Jerusalem close to 2,000 years ago is an ongoing attempt by our tradition to overcome this tendency.
Israel as a gateway to the world seeks to not merely defend Israel from its enemies but to construct new bridges to our allies. It obligates us to cease speaking to ourselves and to welcome others into the conversation. The occupation of another people, and the applying to others of standards that we would not want applied to ourselves, is a violation of Jewish principles and international moral discourse. Denying the existence of a Palestinian people, or ignoring the reality that Israel has placed them under military rule by quoting biblical verses attesting to the Jewish people’s divine right to the land, or arguing about the legal and historical complexity and fluidity of the borders and ownership over Judea and Samaria — these approaches are what break those bridges and entrench us in a ghetto mentality.
A strong case can be made for the right of Israel as the sovereign state of the Jewish people and our right to pursue policies that are in keeping with our national security needs. Such a case may postpone ending our occupation of the Palestinian people until such time as our security concerns are met. That case, however, needs to be made on the basis of Jewish and moral values that adhere to the ethical compass and telos of our society — not by attaining a victory in a private discourse in which we are not only the sole participants but the judge and jury as well.
Israel is strong when we internalize the lessons from our failures in the past. We mourn the destruction of Jerusalem by building a better society, one where moral aspirations are neither overwhelmed by the political contingencies of the present, nor silenced behind the walls of legal argumentation.