“But from whom does it protect you,
this exaggerated defense?”
– Rilke, Contre qui, Rose?
Water cannons, skunk spray, stun grenades, tear gas, and live ammunition: these are the weapons used by the Israeli police to beat back and disperse demonstrations against the state, most recently during today’s protests against the Prawer-Begin Plan, which seeks to take tens of thousands of Bedouin away from their ancestral homes in the Negev to make way for national-religious settlements. Apathy, disdain, mockery, and silence: these are the weapons used by the average citizen against the protestors.
It is easy to understand the determination to get as far away as possible from the blood and rage that these demonstrations unleash on our landscape. They disfigure our democracy, and incapacitate the fragile sense of normality that we work so hard to maintain. They plant, front and centre, issues that run to the very core of the State of Israel and its founding, and that cause one’s heart to buckle when they are dwelt on for any length of time. It is discomfiting to see others continually risking their bodies and minds because they live under occupation or, if they are free, because they refuse to give in to the temptation to look away. So instead, we airily dismiss the demonstrators, their activism and, by extension, their causes. We are, with a luxury not granted to Palestinians, shrugging off the Occupation.
Victor Frankl, a Viennese Jew who survived Auschwitz, wrote in his memoirs that “[w]hen we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” This is an elegant way of saying that when it is impossible to dig our way out, we must dig our way in. Certainly, on an individual level, Frankl’s point not only rings true, but is essential. On a societal level, however, this sentiment permits the spread of the deadening, absorptive ambivalence that characterises Israel today. This is fertile ground for the emergent ‘status quo’, and as is becoming increasingly evident in demonstrations week after week, the less ‘we’ care, the more ‘they’ shoot, and the wider the range of targets becomes. The Bedouin are not alone in their persecution; rather, they make up part of the factory-line of dispossession and appropriation that includes every other ethnic minority in Israel. The Prawer-Begin Plan, which is essentially an ethnically-driven removal policy, is simply the latest aberration from a racist, separation-obsessed and paranoid government that we have sleep-walked our way into supporting, and the violent breaking-up of the ensuing protests just business as usual. How relevant still are the words of Dov Yermiya, an IDF lieutenant-colonel and veteran of 1948 and 1982 who decried “[t]his arrogant, cruel nation that dances at the edge of destruction.”
And yet, to recognise our reality is to excavate our identity, which can be agonising and destabilising. It forces us to acknowledge that the unacceptable is taking place, and to choose not to accept it. It requires personal vigilance and public dissidence, both of which prevent one from ever sitting entirely comfortably. It mandates the decision to put conscience above unconscious acquiescence, and our lives cannot be the same once that step has been taken.
So, we find ourselves at a fork in the road. We can turn the page, change the channel, roll our eyes, turn our backs. We can forget, suppress, join the amnesiac nation that loves building walls and knocking down houses in the race to construct a ghettoised nation-state of our very own. We can carry on berating the government for the economic inequality in Israel while avoiding a discussion on how much money is vomited at settlement-building. Or we can dare to examine ourselves, and stand alongside Israel’s voiceless rejects: the Palestinian, the asylum seeker, the immigrant, the conscientious objector, all those strangers in their own land. Even as they are seemingly trapped under another sky, we can choose not to forget about them.