A few years ago, Israeli author, journalist, and activist Nir Baram published an important article in Haaretz pointing out that the left cannot continue to argue against the occupation…without talking about the occupation. Deliberative rhetoric always depends upon successful expression of a relative benefit, i.e. that there is more to be gained from a particular policy than any other. So since Oslo, the dominant argument offered by the Israeli left has been that a two state solution is good for the Jews. We have been told that we will have a secure Jewish majority and the world will love us and we will become rich if we separate from the Palestinians.
I think it’s fair to say that this has failed as an appeal, even if at some future juncture it delivers on its promise. Too many Israelis once supportive or at least open to a negotiated settlement on the grounds of its advantages now believe themselves more secure in the status quo, at least for the time being. Weighing respective benefits and detriments, they believe it more beneficial to continue the occupation.
But even when they did, and for many of those who still do support two states, this rationale is also, in a sense, racist. It positions the Palestinians as a community as a problem for us, and argues that it is in our material interest to get rid of them as opposed to finding a way to live with them. Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, argues that we need to divorce the Palestinians and build an even bigger, more permanent wall to keep them at bay. What Baram argued, persuasively in my view, is that we must argue for ending the occupation because of the occupation. We shouldn’t use implicitly racist rationale to end it, we should argue for ending it because it’s racist and awful in a real material sense. As such, ending it is a moral good and to our unquestioned benefit. We have to focus more energy on why it’s materially intolerable for the occupied, and morally intolerable for us.
The difficulty here is in our representation of the occupation. Baram’s argument is irrelevant for the international left, which already focuses on what’s bad about the occupation instead of what is good for Israel. But the international left also misrepresents the occupation to a degree that it actually misrepresents it in kind, and in doing so demonizes Israel and Israelis whole cloth, alienating its most important constituency, i.e. those of us who vote in Israeli elections. Leftists describe the occupation as a huge modern Auschwitz and commonly refer to Israelis and Israel’s supporters as “Zionazis.” While parts of Gaza have indeed been decimated to resemble Dresden, this is overall simply not true and provokes a defensive response. What gets lost here is that arguing that something is not Auschwitz is not an argument for its tolerability. There are innumerable situations that are categorically morally intolerable but aren’t mass-murder factories. Arguing that something isn’t Auschwitz is an unconvincing moral endorsement, just like describing someone as ‘not Hitler’ is not a dating recommendation. Arguing that Palestinians are not being subjected to a genocidal program (their population increase seems to give the lie to this…well…pernicious lie) is not justification for their current situation under occupation.
On the other side, the right, which anoints itself “pro-Israel”, refuses to face the facts of how intolerable the occupation actually is, or engages in apologetics that place all of the blame for it on Palestinians and thus justifies it in the name of existential necessity and/or historical prerogative.
A corollary of the hyperbolic depiction of the occupation as latter-day Auschwitz is the intense demonization of all settlers. Settlers are not a homogeneous movement of racist storm troopers. And, truth be told, there are many people of good will among them, people who do not bear racist views of Palestinians, people who are even attentive to the plight of their neighbors and open to accommodations. And demonizing settlers whole cloth in the caricature image of hilltop youth, price tag thugs, and blood-thirsty, kahanist Dawabshe-murderers does not serve the goal of ending the occupation. We will need some percentage of them on board with whatever framework ends it.
So the trick is for the Israeli and Jewish left to find ways to represent the occupation as it is, as a morally intolerable situation that is in our interest, not first and foremost economically and materially, to end…without embracing the rhetoric and images of the international left that seem all too often tinged, unwittingly or intentionally, with anti-Semitic fantasy. We cannot apologize for it and we cannot diminish it, but nor can we participate in hyperbolic distortions that delegitimize our own history and identity. We have to represent it truthfully and compellingly and reject it according to the rationale of our own narratives, our own traditions, our own terms, and our own ethical aspirations for relations with the other national community whose identity is bound up with the land we love.
This article was contributed by guest writer Ori Weisberg. Ori is a teacher, writer, translator, editor, and musician. He holds a Ph.D. in English Renaissance Literature from the University of Michigan and lectures in a variety of Israeli academic institutions, including Hebrew University, The Kibbutzim College, and Shalem College. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and three children.