Rachel Tzvia Back

The Occupation and the Anti-Democratic Legislation in Israel

In November 2008, on what would turn out to be his last birthday, I brought my father a book gift: the first ever English language translation of Khirbet Khizeh. This canonic 1949 Hebrew novella by S. Yizhar tells the story of the violent expulsion of Palestinians from the fictional village of Khizeh during the 1948 Israeli War of Independence/Palestinian Nakba (Catastrophe). In the first-person narrative of a young Israeli soldier horrified by what he is witnessing and by what he is participating in, the vivid details describe what dispossession looks like. It is a suffering train of people old and young, frail and once strong, mothers with babies at their breasts and skinny toddlers crying at their side, all stumbling into exile; it is the individual stripped bare of all he knows and all he owned, afraid and shamed, forced at gun-point to walk off into the unknown.

My father was already sick with cancer at this point, but into the third year of his cancer battle, it seemed as though my fiercely life-loving father could keep the disease at bay indefinitely. I brought the gift, with my birthday wishes, to the hospital where he was recovering from another bout of pneumonia. Some days later, as I sat beside him again in his hospital room, he told me he thought the book was beautiful, but he had stopped reading it mid-way through and wouldn’t continue. “I can’t bear to read how it will end,” he explained, “I don’t want to see how it ends the way I know it will end.”

I’ve carried that moment with me all these years. I always understood my father’s words quite literally – he couldn’t bear to read the descriptions of Khizeh’s deracination, the novella’s bitter end foreshadowed from its very beginning. But last week, watching the night news with its terrible images of religious Jewish settlers rampaging through the West Bank Palestinian town of Hawara, burning houses and cars, terrorizing the inhabitants – and then pausing mid-violence to recite together the evening prayer of maariv– my understanding of my father’s words suddenly shifted. Perhaps this was the end my father knew and didn’t know, intuited and didn’t dare give shape to: a vengeful pogrom performed by Jewish Israeli civilians, religious men with long sidelocks and large kippot, on the unarmed and the innocent. Perhaps this was the end embedded in the first moment we refused, and then for decades continued to refuse, the basic humanity of the Palestinian people: a minister in the Israeli government unashamedly expressing support for the rampagers, stating that Hawara should be erased entirely.

War is its own terrain, and the representational village of Khizeh of 1948 is not the real town of Hawara of 2023. Israel’s war for existence of 1948 is long over; Israel is a sovereign and powerful nation, and also a necessary place of refuge for Jews. But what this country has become is a terrible deformity of what it meant to be, what many worked tirelessly (my father too) for it to become. The arrogance, self-righteousness, sense of superiority and entitlement that have been part of our national and religious indoctrination have led to this moment, to this deformity, to this end.

Which brings me to the 55-year Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and the current revolution being enacted by the right wing and religious parties of the horrible Israeli government currently in power. No one is talking about the occupation, though it is, I believe, the occupation that has led us here. Israeli governments have sanctioned and promoted anti-democratic actions and laws for all the years of the occupation; the Israeli people have tolerated, justified and often ignored, the anti-democratic reality in our midst. One cannot be an occupying force for five decades and not lose the right to call oneself a democracy.

It is the occupation that gives us the obscenity of Minister of Interior Itamar Ben-Gvir and his blunt racism; it is the occupation that gives us the dangerous Minister of Finance Bezalel Smotrich and his flagrant hubris. Bolstered by these players and the inherently anti-democratic ideologies of the ultra-orthodox, Netanyahu and Yavin can move ahead with their complete destruction of the Israeli Judicial system. They can, and are clearly striving to,  eradicate the protections the judicial branch may offer minorities and any weaker and more vulnerable sectors of Israeli society; they can ensure that all power will be theirs to enact whatever fascist, rabidly nationalistic and anti-humanistic legislation they wish.

Hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens are marching in the streets now, many of them demonstrating for the first time in their lives. The demonstrations grow from week to week and have spread throughout the country. The grass-roots organization of tens of groups leading the protests is impressive – and yet I feel at a remove from it all. I join the demonstrations, but half-heartedly. After decades of participating in the protests of one peace group after another, I’m quietly disheartened by what is not being said by the speakers at these demonstrations.

My friends and colleagues say to me we can’t afford to talk about the occupation now. Perhaps they are right, now and here where we are, teetering at the edge of the precipice. But in my heart of hearts, I think we can’t afford not to talk about the occupation, especially now as the Israel of morality and equality that we imagined and that has been crumbling for decades seems at risk of fully disappearing from the world.

Last week I lit a candle on the 14th anniversary of my father’s death. Proudly identifying  himself as the seventh generation of his family in Palestine/Israel, he was a religious Jew, and a fervent humanist. He was also a life-long Zionist and a true believer in the good Israel could do in the world. Watching the flame flicker, I felt something akin to relief that he isn’t alive to see what the bitter end of Israel might look like.

About the Author
Rachel Tzvia Back is a poet, translator and professor of literature. She lives in the Galilee, where her great great great grandfather settled in the 1830s.
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