I wasn’t really planning to write about “the occupation” because I maintain that the greater crimes committed by Israel happened in 1947-48, not 1967. There’s a reason we refer to ’67 as “Al Naksa,” the setback, whereas 1948 is “Al Nakba,” the catastrophe. But then a friend sent me a link to a Washington Post article on how “the occupation” had hurt Israeli democracy, and I had to respond.
In his article, offensively titled “How the Occupation Damaged Israel’s Democracy,” the author, Israeli historian Gershom Gorenberg, correctly points out that “Much has been written on how the occupation affects the Palestinians living under Israeli rule, how it constrains their freedom of movement, their political rights and their dreams,” before getting to his point, namely “To that, I’d like to add what’s less obvious: The occupation is what keeps Israel from being what it could be. It drags us down.”
Gorenberg explains how “the occupation,” which he likens to an addiction, is costing Israel untold amounts of money, that would be better used to alleviate Israel’s child poverty rate, reduce class size, and create academic jobs that would stem the brain drain. These ills, however, pale when compared to Gorenberg’ greatest concern: “The worst damage that the occupation does, though, may be to Israel’s democracy.”
Gorenberg ends his essay with a call to end the occupation, in order to save that ailing democracy. He doesn’t quite say this, but the suggestion is that, once Israel ends its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, everyone will live happily ever after.
Even with the qualifier with which he opens his essay (this isn’t about Palestine, it’s about Israel), I could not help but be furious as I grasped Gorenberg’s total erasure of Israel’s impact on Palestinians before the occupation. Indeed, one would get the impression from his essay that Israel was not occupying Palestinian land in 1948. Thus: “It all happened so unexpectedly 50 years ago: the crisis between Egypt and Israel, the war that began on June 5, 1967, and expanded from one front to three, the silence of the guns after just six days, and the cease-fire lines that marked Israel’s conquests of the West Bank, the Golan Heights, the Sinai and the Gaza Strip. Suddenly, Israel was occupying land beyond its sovereign territory and ruling over the people who lived there.” [My italics]
Suddenly? What had Israel been doing, since 1948, if not occupying over 70% of Palestine, imposing military rule over the Palestinian people within its (never acknowledged) borders, and determining the fate of the entire Palestinian people, within and outside of its “sovereign territory,” by denying the refugees it had created the Right of Return? What fictional narrative, what rewriting of history does Gorenberg, a historian, wish to engage in, as he negates that Israel was ruling over another people since 1948, and as he calls pre-‘67 Israel a democracy?
No country founded on genocide, with the explicit intent to privilege members of one perceived ethnic group while disenfranchising others, no country that imposes decades of military rule on some of its members, (those not of the right ethnic group), no country that violates the human rights of those deemed of the “wrong” ethnicity,” can be declared a democracy.
Gorenberg, of course, is not alone in focusing on the occupation as Israel’s downfall. Many people, mostly Israeli and American Jews, who are otherwise very critical of Israel, still view “the occupation” as a particularly horrific aberration, rather than, as Jonathan Ofir points out, the issue isn’t the occupation, it’s Zionism.
Ayelet Waldman, an Israeli ex-pat who is very critical of her country, and her partner Michael Chabon, have also just published a collection of essays by various writers about the occupation which they timed for release this week, on the 50th anniversary of Al Naksa. They speak of how they felt compelled to invite writers to witness for themselves the horror of Israel’s abuses in places like Hebron, Susya, or at various checkpoints. There is no mention of Bedouin villages like Al Araqib, in the Negev desert, which has been destroyed over 100 times, (113 as of last count) or the separate and unequal schooling and infrastructure services within Israel. At the end of an otherwise excellent interview in which they emphasize the importance of speaking out against Israel’s apartheid, with no fear of being called self-hating Jews, Waldman explains what she hopes the book will accomplish: “We want the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza to end, and we think that one of the ways that will happen is if the oppressive, racist government and the violent occupying force—and I include in that violent, occupying force all of the many settlers—are called to account by the world at large.”
In another interview, Waldman also focuses exclusively on the occupation, as she states: “If there were no occupation, I might be dancing a horah in the streets of Tel Aviv,” thus completely dismissing the fact that Tel Aviv is built partly on the ruins of Jaffa, “the bride of the sea,” which used to be the cultural capital of Palestine until it fell to Zionist troops in 1948.
I have absolutely no intention of making light of the occupation. When we speak of “the longest standing military occupation in modern history,” we must think of the many millions of absolutely innocent people, many of whom are the descendants of refugees, born and raised in refugee camps themselves. We must remind the world that the Gaza Strip, subjected to a genocidal siege for over ten years now, is still occupied, even after the removal of the settlers. We must think of the millions, literally, who have never known a brief moment of freedom and self-determination in their entire lives, if they are a day under 50 years of age. We must think of those who had to flee their homes five decades ago, rather than 70 years ago, and cannot return. This week, the commemoration of the Six-Day War that resulted in the fifty-year occupation, is a solemn moment to reflect on the magnitude of the dispossession of the Palestinian people, the multitude of daily indignities of life under occupation, the relentless violence of Israel’s military against a defenseless imprisoned people.
But we must understand, and emphasize, that this violence did not start in 1967, and that “ending the occupation” alone will not end it.