“We Took It” – “We Never Left It” ( A shorter version of this appeared in The Jewish News 22/09/10)
In the gap between “we took it” and “we never left it” is a reality that Israelis and many Jews are either unable or unwilling to confront, echoing the “Ain Breira”- “No Choice” attitude in the years before Israel stepped into the limelight after June 1967. These phrases are shorthand definitions of Jewish history and the Jewish people’s relationship with Eretz – the Land. Part of that Land is regarded by both the international community and the Palestinians as territory illegally occupied by Israel.
The former, many believe, has nothing to tell us. We were the butt end of everyone else’s history, and suffered the consequences of it. Only our own moral code provided us the key to survival. With it were we able to rise above the exigencies of our endless ‘guesthood’, believing that we were the equals of the majorities amongst whom we lived, and aspiring to be better than them, should our oppression ever end. Herzl dreamed of removing us from the path of the eternally rushing train of anti-Semitism, and his successors set the bar with “a light unto the nations.” Whether that train has finally reached its terminus and we have crossed the bar are moot points.
Of the latter, the Palestinians, we have few if any positive or amicable thoughts. For some they are Amalek and deserve the fate of that tribe. For others their existence is conveniently hidden away by a separation fence that must have cost the citizens of Israel as much as the Bar-Lev line along the Suez canal.
“We took it” summarises how the West Bank was occupied. Whether unwittingly as Shlomo Gazit suggests in “Trapped Fools” (Frank Cass 2003) or accidentally in Gershom Gorenberg’s “The Accidental Empire” (Times Books 2006), is not moot but fact.
“We never left it,” reflects what has been in our hearts and souls. But the very code by which we have survived, reminds us of the reality behind that quintessence.
There are a couple of familiar signposts. The first is the Mitzvah we read in shul on Yom Kippur – “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” In one sermon our Rabbi reminded us of the inherent reciprocity in this Mitzvah and she went to the heart of it when describing it as the fulfilment of the highest of our values.
The second I stumbled across one Shabbat a few years ago. It is from the Soncino Humash notes for Exodus 22.20: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” We learn that the Talmud says the precept “to love, or not to oppress the stranger,” occurs 36 times in the Torah. The commentary concludes: “The reason for this constantly repeated exhortation is that those who have been downtrodden frequently, prove to be the worst oppressors when they acquire power over anyone.”
Israel has become the regional power. But there are limits to that power and for a people that has rightfully been greedy for freedom, accepting limits is hard indeed. We resent questions, especially when we know the answers. We cannot be told that the occupation is morally corrosive even if we know that it is. We pretend not to notice how we and it have become pejoratively synonymous abroad.
We have forgotten the “light unto the nations” message and the minority experience from which it was born. We seem intent on ignoring any limits, even those set by whatever or whoever we believe is our Jewish moral arbiter. The Mitzvot and exhortations are just a nuisance.
Those who insist on us having our cake and eating it too, who simultaneously seek to blur the green line and pretend the separation fence they built isn’t there, are in danger of creating a divide as destructive as between Judah and Israel. They undermine the moral values the state of Israel is supposed to represent and call into question whether Israel as an occupying power is capable of being the guiding spirit for the House of Israel.
We owe it to ourselves not just to extend the settlement freeze but to use it as a statement of our sincere desire for an end to occupation and for peace. Not doing so says the opposite of what we believe and what we want to be.
Paul Usiskin is an Israel-UK citizen, a former serving IDF officer in the West Bank and chair of Peace Now UK