Featured 30th Anniversary Article: "The Rhetoric of Occupation"


[Managing Editor’s note: Tikkun is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year and to mark the date we have put together a special online anniversary issue that you can access atwww.tikkun.org/tikkunat30. The issue includes articles, like the one featured in this post below, from the first decade of the magazine that are representative of what we have been doing for 30 years. And as another way to mark the occasion, we have temporarily reduced the price of a one-year print subscription to the magazine from $29 to $18. Clickhereor visithttp://www.tikkun.org/nextgen/28103-2to subscribe! Already have one? They also make great gifts!]
From Tikkun Vol. 5, No. 2. 1990.
When I spoke this past November at the Tikkun conference in San Francisco, I began my remarks with an official disclaimer: I was speaking, I said, only for myself – my institutional affiliation was for identification purposes only. One might well ask why I began by stating the obvious. I did so because it is no longer possible to speak out freely on Israel without the risk of incurring venomous wrath and threats, both veiled and unveiled, to one’s very livelihood. There is a witch-hunt abroad in the land and many of us in the Jewish community are the witches.
Let me cite a few cases, taken more or less at random.
– Arthur Waskow is forced to resign from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College for advocating the creation of a Palestinian state;
– The Zionist Organization of America maintains files (which it publishes for its members) on American Jews who have taken pro-peace positions such as endorsing the Jewish Peace Lobby and signing ads sponsored by Tikkun
– A branch of the American Jewish Congress loses its funding from a major Jewish foundation because it allows another organization to use a room in order to hear a Palestinian speaker;
– Newspapers in the Bay Area report that the Israeli consul-general has spied on and harassed Jewish educational and communal organizations that have dared to engage in dialogue with the insidious P-people;
– Activists in Friends of Peace Now in Toronto report that they regularly receive death threats whenever they mount any kind of program or demonstration.

The list goes on and on. Who among us in public life has not been the target of similar vilifacation, threats, and pressure? I myself recently had the honor of being called a Kapo by a worthy member of the Jewish community for advocating dialogue with the Palestinians. Read the letters column of any Jewish community newspaper, if you can bring yourself to do so, and you will have the dismal experience of seeing Jews accuse other Jews of being “worse than Hitler” for suggesting that Israeli policy might be misguided. Or read the venomous character assassination of Michael Lerner written by Edward Alexander and now being reprinted in Jewish papers around the country. Alexander’s screed is McCarthyism with a Jewish face, an ad hominem use of selective quotations from the idstant past in place of any substantive and serious debate over the issue. Having demonized the Palestinians, the next step for these self-proclaimed defenders of the faith is to demonize those Jews who step out of line as Arab-lovers and traitors to the Jewish people.

Our situation in this country is not, of course, as desperate as it is for our allies and friends in the Israeli peace movement. For them, reaching out to the Palestinians means not only censure and threats, but even the possibility of jail sentences. Abie Natan, one of the true zaddikim of our time, served four months in jail for meeting with Arafat. Even the judge found it hard to fault his intentions. The deputy mayor of Jerusalem was arrested and charged for wearing a small lapel pin with Israeli and Palestinian flags at a ceremony honoring Yitzhak Shamir. And twenty-seven Israelis, including a number of contributors to Tikkun, were arrested and charged with sedition for traveling to the West Bank and meeting with Palestinians. The charges were dropped on a technicality, but the harassment continues. And now we read in the papers of a group called the Sicarii that has planted bombs and threatens to execute seven members of the Knesset for the crime of advocating dialogue with the Palestinians.
Need one add that these severe measures come at a time when a settler who kills a fourteen-year-old Arab girl gets a seven-month sentence and soldiers who beat an Arab to death have their sentences reduced to a few months? We all know that while Israel may be democracy within the Green Line, it deprives the Arabs of the territories of most democratic and civil rights. For more than half of its existence, Israel has maintained this double standard. As inevitably had to happen, this impossible state of affairs has begun to erode democratic rights within Israel itself.
Jewish life today is mortally threatened by a disease that afflicts not only the State of Israel, but the Jewish community worldwide. The disease is the occupation and it is attacking the cohesiveness of the Jewish people, sowing gratuitous hatred between Jews, and poisoning our public life. I submit that the price of continuing the occupation will not only be the deterioration of democracy in Israel, but also the progressive disintegration of the American Jewish community. We can no longer speak about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as though we were innocent but concerned bystanders. The real moral and political question today, then, is not the price of peace, but the price of occupation.
Now, more than ever, the occupation can be maintained not only by a process of deliberate obfuscation, by hiding behind linguistic masks. The official rhetoric, for example, speaks of peace when it means occupation, of negotiations when it means capitulation. We are sucked into a seemingly endless process of initiatives, counterproposals, ten points, five points – all concerned with negotiation about who will negotiate about who will elect who will negotiate, and so on. The real point of this dreary charade is to stall endlessly for time and to distract attention from the relentless entrenchment of the occupation.
Whenever we dare to raise questions, we are told not to weaken Israel by criticizing it and not to do the work of the PLO. When we point out the immorality of the occupation, we are told that practices far worse exist elsewhere in the world, and that any other country would have ended the intifada a long time ago by much bloodier means. There is, of course, much truth in this. But those who make this argument never show the slightest interest in injustices elsewhere in the world unless they can be used to make Israel look good. Their sudden embrace of universalism smells very fishy. We have been constantly urged to regard Israel as a special country, as our country, but when we pay special attention to what is happening there, we are suddenly urged to pay more attention to the rest of the world. And worst of all is when the Holocaust and the suffering of our own people are invoked as a way of trumping the obviously lesser sufferings of the Palestinians.
A variant on the rhetoric of comparison is the argument from context. The occupation must be put in historical context, we are told: the refusal of the Arab states to accept Israel and their systematic exploitation and mistreatment of the Palestinians. Again, there is considerable truth here. But there are some things that are not permissible in any context. The argument from national security cannot be made to justify every instance of collective punishment, demolition of houses, and breaking of bones, especially when these policies have only fueled greater resistance. Will our great-grandchildren also be told that the historical context justifies the occupation?
Those who criticize are admonished to remain silent if they are not willing to move to Israel and put their own lives on the line. A compelling argument on the face of it, but one that quickly leads to absurdity. Who would argue that just because I have chosen not to live in the Soviet Union or Nicaragua I have forfeited my right to criticize their regimes? But more to the point, the consequences of this argument are profoundly anti-democratic; these right-wingers envision what used to be called democratic centralism, in which the citizens of Israel elect a government and all Jews around the world are expected to adhere to the party line. But we all remember the devastating consequences this policy had for the moral and political integrity of Communist parties around the world in the 1930s and ’40s. For all the differences, do we want to see the same process happen to Zionism? Aren’t Zionism and the Jewish people strengthened by free and open debate?
Those who wish to suppress debate are not more eager themselves to move to Israel: they devote themselves to urging the critics to make aliya. I am reminded here of the slogan from the Vietnam War: America – love it or leave it. The slogan of right-wing Jews is: Israel – love it or move to it. They are certainly eager to fight to the last Israeli. Moreover, they are not really leaving Israeli policy up to the Israelis. Their silence is a powerful form of consent to a policy with potentially disastrous consequences, and since they are willing to criticize the critics publicly – often in the most vicious and violent terms – they are not really silent. Israeli peace activist Hannan Hever puts it even more strongly: “If American Jews want to genuinely help this country that we all love, then they must regard all silence about the occupation and all support of the current Israeli regime as an attack on those of us who are fighting for a moral Israel.”
For the defenders of the occupation in this country, the buzzword for all discussions of the Middle East is “balance.” But by balance they do not mean the reasoned examination of the legitimate claims of both sides – that after all, is our position. Thus, the recent statement of American Catholic Bishops calling for a Palestinian homeland balanced by equal concern for Israel’s security was automatically denounced as “one-sided.” “Balance” is a code word for hearing only the Israeli government line. The voices of peace from both Israel and the Palestinian camp must be silenced.
This brings me to the most important component in the rhetoric of the occupation: the claim that there isn’t anyone to speak with. According to official rhetoric, any dialogue that attempts to find common ground with the Palestinians must be condemned as serving their nefarious purposes, as giving a forum to the enemy. They must be kept silent because whatever they say is really a clever trick aimed at destroying Israel. Even listening to their side of the story is regarded as tantamount to saying that Israel has no right to exist. In this zero-sum game, every gain for them must be a loss for us. But the claim that there is no one to talk to becomes ever more contorted as the evidence mounts that dialogue is exactly what the PLO is ready for. As Abba Eban has put it, Israel is only prepared to talk to Palestinians who won’t talk to Israel. And we are supposed to follow suit and to refuse any such contacts here. Instead of engaging the Palestinians in public dialogue, instead of listening to their story so that they might listen to ours, they must be denied any voice and kept silent. Again, out of sight, out of mind.
The day of reckoning with reality is fast approaching. Our role is to help create a space within the politics of this country for the possibility of a political settlement. We must defy the threats and intimidations and continue to speak the truth as we see it. We will defend Zionism as the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. We must stand ready to criticize the rejectionists, whether Israeli or Palestinian, and to encourage anyone who is committed to a genuine and realistic peace process. We must continue to meet with Palestinians in order to find common ground, but we must also stand our ground where we cannot agree. By our actions, we must give courage to the peace movement in Israel as it fights for survival. Above all, we must repeatedly expose the bankruptcy of the language of occupation and call to account those who are destroying democratic discourse both in the American Jewish community and in Israel.
David Biale is the Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor of History at the University of California, Davis. He has won the National Jewish Book Award three times.

3 thoughts on “Featured 30th Anniversary Article: "The Rhetoric of Occupation"

  1. Have you addressed at all the growing anti Semitism on university campuses around the country that have resulted in physical assaults? Have you addressed the problems of some university academics expressing denial of the Holocaust or passing blame of Jews for 911? Palestinian activism on campuses has taken on a tone hostile to Jews in general. Numerous Israeli speakers have been drowned out by cat calls, impacting on the freedom of speech. Open your eyes and recognize the problem and condemn it
    RE: The Palestinian -Israeli conflict
    If you are so interested in finding common ground and promoting dialogue, you have to address the needs and concerns of BOTH sides,. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict is not about oppressor and oppressed, its a over territory. The is a failure on both sides to realize the needs of others. Hamas and many on the PLO still hold on to dreams of wiping Israel off the map, juts lie right wig Israeli settlers wish to hold on to the dream of a greater Israel. If you want toe be productive on promoting peace, confront both sides, don’t juts demonize one and claim to take the moral high ground. Yu might also want to recognize the threats Israel faces from outside its borders, namely a very dangerous Hezbollah.

  2. i think this is an excellent article. Written in 1990, it is definitely still relevant. An updated version would certainly have more examples.
    Since the early 1990’s, I have been active in Middle East Peace Now, a Minnesota group that educates on middle east issues, with a focus on Palestinian rights. Our website is a gold mine of information.

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