Do Not Expect to “End the Occupation”

A Partially Successful Account for the Split between Israeli and American Jews, or, Even Without Netanyahu, Israel Cannot Just "End the Occupation."

In a number of recent articles, Daniel Gordis has pointed out that American Jews and Israeli Jews have had increasing trouble communicating because where we stand gets determined by where we sit. 

Rabbi Max Kapustin once told a tale of an argument without end.  Two neighbors on opposite sides of an airshaft would open their windows each morning and argue with each other, yelling, railing, carrying on, and disturbing the peace of their fellow-tenants in each building.  A wise woman from the neighborhood once asked one of them why she did not just meet with the other and reach some sort of peaceful compromise. 

“We cannot,” she said, “because we are arguing from different premises.”  

Americans and Israelis argue from different premises, so we cannot ever reach an agreement.

Americans live in a country that was founded to express an idea, the idea of universal rights.  The United States of America does not belong to, or demand loyalty to, any specific ethnic or religious group.   Israel was founded as the national homeland of the Jewish people. It owes its existence to that particularistic purpose, not to an abstract universalist idea.

So American Jews, mostly in the progressive camp, find something attractive about the slogan “End the Occupation.”  According to these progressives, Israel should not reserve special rights for Jews, and the country should not have political power over an unwilling population. 

Israeli Jews, on the other hand, live in real messy political history.  Israelis have no choice but to take actions that privilege the interests of the Jewish people.  Observers who know the actual stakeholders have trouble imagining how to apply abstract universal rights to real Israelis and real Palestinians. 

As a result, Israelis simply cannot meet the basic requirements for support from American progressive Jews. 

It seems to me that Gordis has set up a correct dichotomy, but the dichotomy remains too pure. 

The United States of America was founded on abstract intellectual ideas, (“all men are created equal”) but disembodied principles did not build it; actual flesh-and-blood human beings built it.  These human beings identified as former subjects of the King of England, Christian, male, white, landowners. Though their principle should have extended to others in principle, many citizens understood that political rights applied only to people like them.  Each expansion of the abstract principle to include more “equals” happened with pain. Deciding that men who own no land, Germans, Irish, Blacks, Chinese, Japanese, Native Americans, women, and Hispanics really could become citizens, vote, hold property, and hold office, in each instance happened over vigorous opposition. The opponents of expansion did not, and do not, see themselves as enemies of the American Revolution, but as its most loyal defenders. 

Progressives today – I count myself among them – regret that opposition, and wish that America could embody its high ideals. America has not done so easily, or unambiguously, in the past, and shows little likelihood to do so in the near future.   America does not fit neatly into the abstract universalist side of the dichotomy. Perhaps no country in history has fulfilled the universalist dream easily. 

Israel does not fit neatly into the particularist side of the dichotomy either.  The Declaration of Independence (May 14, 1948) stresses the place of the State of Israel in the history of the Jewish people, but then it also includes the intention to found a state “for the benefit of all  its inhabitants.” It explicitly claims  that “it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”  The Declaration states its intention to guarantee “to the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to preserve peace and participate in the upbuilding of the State on the basis of full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions.”

 I believe that the key impediment to “just ending the occupation,” does not really lie in the theoretical history of Israel.   It pains me to write that the leadership of the Palestinian movement, whether in the form of Hamas or the Palestinian Authority, does not pay even lip service to the notion of a permanent peace with Israel, though the Palestinian Authority has accommodated coexistence with Israel in various practical ways.  Israel has the power to end the occupation by withdrawing from the disputed territories as it has withdrawn from Gaza. Hamas and the Palestinian Authority would then presumably struggle for dominance in the territories, probably at enormous cost in Palestinian lives and treasure. Whichever side came out ahead, if it followed its principles, it would then turn its attention to conducting war against Israel. 

Under such circumstances Israelis cannot contemplate “just ending the occupation.” Even Israelis who would like to see Israel embody the abstract universalist values of the American Revolution (the values that the United States of America never quite embodies) generally do not favor ceding power to an existential enemy. 

And even a universalist power such as the United States of America, faced with an adversary that rejects America’s existence and survival, such as Al Qaeda, does not easily transfer assets to that adversary. Idealistic American progressives (Jews among them) ask Israel to do what no other actual country would risk doing.  Many progressives make glib recommendations for what Israel should do; recommendations that they might not apply to their own principled enemies. 

Gordis thus accurately reports that the United States of America and the state of Israel were founded on different principles, thought the neither actual state entirely fits its role in this neat dichotomy. We can settle on a less abstract explanation for why Israel does not “just end the occupation.”

 A certain percentage of Palestinians – perhaps many of them – may not feel adequately represented by the uncompromising rhetoric of Hamas or even of the Palestinian Authority.   

Louis Finkelman     September 16, 2019

About the Author
Louis Finkelman teaches Literature and Writing at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Michigan. He serves as half of the rabbinic team at Congregation Or Chadash in Oak Park, Michigan.
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