Why the Occupation Is Bad for Zionism

In order for Israel to maintain a long-term Occupation, it must overcome the aversion to oppression that is part of human nature. This aversion is a core part of Jewish identity, whose foundational myth — the Exodus — is that of being an oppressed minority; this myth became reality in 2,000 years of exile, culminating in the Holocaust.

The simplest way to overcome this aversion is by creating a moral dichotomy: There is Us, the Israelis, who the rules of morality apply to, and there is the Other, the non-Israeli, to whom those rules don’t apply.

The problem with this dichotomy is, that as the Occupation becomes more permanent, it becomes a core aspect of Israeli identity, and as such, the Us-Other dichotomy becomes a core part of that identity as well.

Recently, we’ve been seeing the effects of this moral dichotomy in a wide array of policy issues: The entire Israeli binary options industry, which was just outlawed, was based on the premise that it’s ok to scam people, as long as they don’t live in Israel. Israel has been selling weapons to Myanmar, because it’s profitable, and the Rohingya victims of the Myanmar government’s ethnic cleansing live far away — and aren’t Israelis. In both cases, it’s deemed acceptable to take advantage of an “Other” when there’s profit involved.

The binary options industry arguably violates Jewish laws against gambling, theft, and cheating on weights and measures. Abetting ethnic cleansing arguably violates the prohibition on standing idly by while your brother’s blood is shed, as well as the Biblical principle that all human beings are created in God’s image. The sale of weapons to Myanmar was condemned by rabbis across the political spectrum, including Rabbi Benny Lau, a symbol of the moderate religious-Zionist community.

However, the violation of Jewish values doesn’t end there: The Israeli government is withholding money from the wages of asylum seekers, and making the receipt of that money contingent on the asylum seekers “volunteering” to resettle to a third country, despite stories of resettled people being left destitute, and even killed. Withholding wages from an employee is a Torah prohibition, and the “voluntary” resettlement is reminiscent, at least, of the Torah prohibition of not returning a fugitive. Now, there are talks of passing legislation to allow involuntary resettlement of asylum seekers, as well. Asylum seekers, as non-Israelis and non-Jews, have been placed into the category of Other, therefore, the moral codes no longer apply.

Of course, the latest category of Others to be singled out is left-wing NGOs: Legislation is being proposed to shut down left-wing NGOs that criticize the army. A bill with a similar goal passed a few months ago, but that bill had the decency to pretend not to single out organizations based on their political beliefs — it simply proposed a financial criteria that “happens” to be characteristic of many left-wing organizations. In order to get away with this, the right has Othered the left-wing by painting them as not being “real” Israelis or “real” Jews, portraying them as lackeys of anti-Semitic Europeans, and in some cases, even comparing them to Nazi collaborators. That’s because the right understands the “Us-Other” dichotomy at the heart of Israeli identity — it knows if it can push left-wingers into the “Other” category, then it’s won. Tag Mechir graffiti now regularly says, “Death to Arabs and their friends”. Left-wing people are defined by their proximity to non-Jews and non-Israelis, in order to classify them as an Other to whom moral codes need not apply. These efforts to silence political opponents go against the Talmudic tradition of arguments for the sake of heaven, and the rabbinic maxim that the truth sometimes speaks with seventy voices.

For those who believe that the goal of Zionism is a Jewish nation-state like any Western nation-state, perhaps this is good news: Most Western nation-states are predicated on an Us-Other dichotomy that applies a different moral standard to citizens vs. non-citizens; many sell weapons or give military aid to human rights violators, and most have economic sectors that are quite ethically dubious. So maybe Israel is simply joining the club of Western nations.

However, for those of us who believe Israel should be something more — a Western nation-state that takes inspiration from Jewish tradition and values, a country that strives for the utopian ideals of the Biblical prophets, even when it doesn’t always meet them — the Occupation is bad for Zionism.

So it’s time to stop pretending that supporting the Occupation makes you a good Zionist – it simply makes you a certain type of Zionist. When we speak about the Occupation, we’re talking not just about a piece of land, but about definitions of Zionism and Israeli identity. The anti-Occupation stance is a reaffirmation of the utopianism that has been a part of Zionism since its founding.

Thank God Israel is a thriving democracy where we can have these conversations.

About the Author
Shayna Abramson, a part-Brazilian native Manhattanite, studied History and Jewish Studies at Johns Hopkins University before moving to Jerusalem. She has also spent some time studying Torah at the Drisha Institute in Manhattan, and has a passion for soccer and poetry. She is currently pursuing an M.A. in Political Science from Hebrew University, and is a rabbinic fellow at Beit Midrash Har'el.