I have now been living in Tel Aviv for over two weeks, renting an apartment and taking classes at the university nearby. In those two weeks I have made two important realizations about the dual nature, and the paradox, of the State of Israel.
First, Israel is a place of unspeakable, indescribable, beauty; it is the kind of place that takes your breath away and fills your very soul with a sense of wonder. Yet it is also a place of unimaginable and indescribable cruelty, particularly vis-à-vis the Palestinians. Despite this reality, living here, one would never realize the existence of this cruelty. It simply stays bubbling under the surface, revealing itself only as brief flares before it disappears once again.
No matter one’s personal thoughts on the occupation, be they of the opinion that it is morally acceptable, necessary, lawful, etc. or not, occupation is undeniably cruel. The subjugation and control over several million fellow humans, whether for a good reason or not, is in no way a pretty thing. For the past two weeks, in my Tel Aviv bubble, the occupation does not exist. Besides the occasional flare up – terrorist attacks, Palestinian riots, and the like – I see no evidence that people think about this cruelty on a daily basis. This is not a criticism of Israeli society per se; instead it suggests that those who advance pro-settlement policy in the Knesset have succeeded in turning settlements, and the occupation, into a norm that pushes its inherent issues to the back burner of the collective Israeli conscience.
The only hints of occupation are high tensions in Jerusalem, readily felt there, particularly near East Jerusalem and the Old City. Additionally the five terrorist attacks against Israelis, mainly settlers and soldiers stationed at checkpoints on the border and around West Bank are a reminder of the violent nature of this conflict. No matter how deplorable these attacks are, and the violent stabbing of a 19 year old female soldier in the neck should enrage anyone, as a Jew, I hold other Jews to a higher moral standard based on the values I find inherent in Judaism. Thus for me, the true calamity in the conflict is the very loud silence.
In the United States, unfair laws are met with legal challenge, civil unrest, and disobedience. In Israel, while protests of course do exist, in the face of occupation, for the most part the answer is silence. This is equal parts concerning and telling – this is not to say there is an easy fix to an extremely complex problem – but silence portends acceptance, and acceptance of the status quo is not acceptable.
I have a friend who lives in Israel. She votes for the left-wing Zionist party, Meretz, and just finished her army service. She is strongly opposed to the conditions and existence of occupation. Her response to these issues is troubling and unsatisfactory. The fact of the matter, as she rightly explains it, is that all Israelis, right and left, are collectively responsible for the cruel occupation of another people for 48 years. While there have been signs of peace – withdrawal from Gaza or the Oslo Peace Accords – the majority of these years has been defined by status quo occupation, settlements, and the violent response of Palestinians against this status quo.
Her answer is unsatisfactory and troubling because, if true, it means that the average Israeli doesn’t care about occupation. As a country founded on the values of Judaism (and considering our own history of subjugation and mistreatment of the worst kind) it is appalling to think that this could be true. The silence is indicative of the collective guilt of the Israeli populace and the ignorance, or more troubling the lack of care, over that guilt. One must ask themselves: Where are the protests? Where are mass movements of civil disobedience? The movements such as B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence are fringe elements, bordering on anti-Zionism. Those who refuse the army are breaking the law and should be punished accordingly. These methods of protest are ineffective and only result in harm to Israel – but they are also the only signs of protest.
My friend suggested that perhaps Israel’s conscience will emerge and a party like Meretz or Labor will take power and make true strides towards peace. In other words, Israelis will wake up the realities of the State’s policies towards the Palestinians. I am not holding out any hope.
Israelis who are against the cruelty of the occupation must make their voices heard. To stay silent, in public or private is a crime of the worst kind, one that Jews are tragically intimately aware of. To stay silent is to be as guilty as the perpetrator, for it is only through collective will that change can occur.
I have no illusions of peace even if people were to speak out. The Palestinian side, particularly through the use of violent tactics and stubbornness at the negotiating table, are as guilty of the failure for peace as the Israeli side is. However, if Israelis truly want peace, staying silent can only make this dream impossible.
I often pass the memorial to Yitzhak Rabin, part of which says “Sorry” in Hebrew. It makes me wonder, whom are we saying sorry to? Is it to Rabin for his assassination? Or is it instead a collective apology for leaving his dream of peace at the wayside?
The silence poisons the air, obscuring the beauty of Israel, filling the gut with a feeling of despair and disgust, and that is a real tragedy.