How Israel's occupation of Palestine negatively impacts life for all involved, Israelis and Palestinians alike
You can always tell when something really hits Rabbi Joseph Berman, one of my two delegation leaders on our trip to Palestine, who works extensively with Jewish Voice for Peace. Our two weeks in Palestine were emotional and heavy, but there were certain moments when a tear or a pained closing of eyes betrayed those of us unable to hide our shock or our sadness. Rabbi Berman (we called him Joseph) was no exception, and expressive in something of a trademark manner; when painful or heavy testimonies landed hard on him, he’d let out a deep sigh and avert his eyes from the speaker, clenching his Kansas City Royals baseball cap by the bill.
Joseph’s visceral reactions happened often enough for me to plainly recall them even now, months later. One specific instance is burned into my memory, from Aida refugee camp in Bethlehem. Before touring Aida, our host sat our 27-member delegation down for coffee and tea and to tell his story. Our host, Salah, worked at a refugee center which does work with youth in the camp. We lost track of time, and ended up cutting into the time for our tour of the camp, but the testimonies he shared with us were ones that I’ll never forget.
In particular, Salah spoke of how he’d taken his two daughters to Haifa. As a Palestinian, his freedom of movement is limited, and one has to go through a lot of hassle to get from Bethlehem to Haifa. But he spoke with a glimmer in his eye of his promise to show his daughters all of Palestine—that even though their family were internally displaced refugees in Palestine, he had promised that his daughters would see the land in all of its glory.
So Salah took his daughters to Haifa, and it was what happened in Haifa that shattered my heart, and I think Joseph’s too. Salah described sitting on a hill in Haifa, having lunch with his family, when his daughters overheard other children nearby speaking Hebrew. According to his account, Salah’s daughters turned to him, with perplexed looks on their faces, and asked:
“Why are the other children speaking Hebrew?”
To which Salah replied: “These children are Jewish, Israelis.” Salah recalled a look of astonishment on the faces of his daughters at that, and he didn’t have to inquire further to know what they were thinking. In Aida, his children would have only ever encountered Israelis who were fully-grown and fully-armed. When you’re a child, and the only Israelis you’ve ever come across are the ones that sit in the outposts atop the infamous wall and that arrest your friends in night raids and have put bullet holes in the door of your school, it’s understandably easy to forget that those same soldiers have children, and in fact were once children themselves.
I remember closing my eyes in heartbreak at that, but not quickly enough to miss Rabbi Berman clutch his Royals hat. And closing my eyes wasn’t enough to block out the pained sighs from others in our group. I went to Palestine with a delegation called Interfaith Peace-Builders, an organization out of Washington D.C. that brings together people across faith backgrounds to witness the occupation and hear from Palestinian and Israeli activists on the ground. Our delegation was predominantly Christians, though we traveled with one Muslim Palestinian-American and seven or eight American Jews, many but not all of whom worked with or for Jewish Voice for Peace.
In spring 2015, I took a history course on apartheid South Africa with Dr. Brenda Tindal. The parallels between South African apartheid and the current situation in Israel-Palestine have been readily drawn on by academics and activists. Some Palestinian activists, however, reject the wholesale equation of their situation to apartheid, saying instead that Israel’s illegal wall in the West Bank isn’t about separation of races but about creating inconvenience for Palestinians and expanding Israel’s claim to territory. This position suggests that Israel is, like the United States, predicated on settler-colonialism: the expropriation of land. This editorial won’t try to mediate that debate, over whether we’re witnessing apartheid, or settler-colonialism, or both. This editorial will be the first of several in a series in support of Palestinian liberation. For what it’s worth, I witnessed much that does resemble what I’ve learned of apartheid, and much that also feels distinct; ultimately, though, I find that irrelevant, and whatever we call Israel’s policy towards the Palestinians, that policy is undeniably unjust and wrong.
But I bring up Dr. Tindal’s course because of a text we were assigned in that class: Nadine Gordimer’s essay “Apartheid.” It really is a must read essay, in which Gordimer—a white South African who struggled against apartheid—outlines how under apartheid all human life is limited. She writes that her “opposition to apartheid is compounded not only out of a sense of justice but also out of a personal, selfish and extreme distaste for having the choice of my friends dictated to me, and the range of human intercourse proscribed for me.” As Gordimer notes in her essay, this motivation was really not of importance to any African living under apartheid, but it’s still a very important insight to remember that in the act of oppressing, one limits one’s own freedom.
There’s a liberal proverb on the Internet that I think misses the mark, which says that “when you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” We must not ignore that Israelis materially benefit from the occupation—they have more access to water sources than Palestinians do, they can establish claims to land through the expulsion and relocation of Palestinians, and these are just the tip of the iceberg. But in the process, their very humanity has been limited, as was the humanity of white South Africans during apartheid, as is the humanity of white settlers in the United States. Ask Salah, or anyone we met in Palestine working against the occupation and they’ll tell you that their fight is not against Jews or even Israelis, but against the state. Salah has taught his daughters to be able to distinguish Israeli Hebrew-speaking children from the militaristic state, but the longer the occupation goes on for, and the worse it treats Palestinians, the harder this distinction is to make.
Jewish-Israeli liberation and humanity, I firmly believe, is tied up with Palestinian liberation. Our delegation met with Israelis who refused service in the Israeli Defense Forces, and Israeli activists from Zochrot, B’Tselem and other anti-occupation organizations who recognize this fact. It’s important to keep in mind that our government, when it gives unconditional military aid to Israel, is limiting the human experience for Salah’s children and children in Haifa. When we take a stand for Palestine, we’re not fighting the Hebrew-speaking child, we’re fighting against a social system that limits the movement, access to water, and material freedoms of Palestinians, while simultaneously limiting the expression of Jewishness to anything other than the armor-clad, AK-wielding soldier at the checkpoint. We’re fighting for the Hebrew-speaking child in Haifa and the Arabic-speaking child from Bethlehem, so that both might grow up in a world where—in the words of Gordimer—their choices of friends are not dictated to them, and the range of human intercourse is not proscribed for them in advance.