It dawned on me recently that in Israel’s darker moments, from which there is increasingly little respite, the behaviour of its government and much of its society makes it near-impossible for me to be proud of who I am and where I’ve come from. On a purely selfish level (for it doesn’t come near to the abuses scattered about here on a daily basis), this is a transgression I cannot forgive. There is an unhealthy, distorted arrogance lying behind the Israeli government’s assumption and assertion that it acts in the name of all Jews worldwide; it brings to mind the scene at the end of Arthur Miller’s play ‘The Crucible’, in which John Proctor chooses the gallows over signing a false confession that he is in league with the devil. When asked why he will not sign to save his life, he cries: “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life. Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul, leave me my name!”
To reiterate, this is not to draw any kind of symmetry between the conditions Israel inflicts on its subjugated populations, and the despoiling of the name of the dominant group. Such a comparison would be obscene, and also impossible – I cannot approach an understanding of what it means to live under the daily, grinding prejudice, dispossession, obstruction and plain terror that Palestinians do (and my one sneak preview of such fear, when a few rockets came to Tel Aviv, makes me suspect that I would crumble). No; rather, this is an identification with the discomfited surprise that Eva Illouz expresses in her recent article for Haaretz, which is a startlingly profound analysis of the occupation and its gradual imposition of conditions of slavery on Palestinians. In her discussion of the calcification of a ‘situation normal’ in which sometimes-violent, sometimes-insidious oppression is now de rigueur – and unfailingly supported by Israel’s bastardised, labyrinthine, time-warp bureaucracy – Illouz posits the following:
“[When a people] which distinguished itself historically by its love of God, its love of texts and its love of morality… become[s] the manager of a vast enterprise of brutal military domination… the only interesting question about this is not how we got there (domination has its own internal incremental and implacable dynamic), but why so many Jews outside and inside of Israel are not more disturbed by this.”
“If indeed the settlers and their representatives in the Knesset have ‘mainstreamed’ views that are strangely reminiscent of those of slave owners, then this only begs further the question of why so many are unable or unwilling to grasp this.”
There are two separate, but related, points to be drawn from this. The immediate issue is one of incredulity: a bewilderment at the muteness of those in whose name such comprehensive human rights abuses take place. The irresponsibility involved in clamming up on the issue of Israel’s repeated violations of international law is immense, and the willingness to perpetuate such silence is as baffling as it is infuriating. This is not new, and has been more fully-explored elsewhere. The second point, however, genuinely breaks the skin of the Jewish body politic. Illouz externalises the complex internal dynamic of being at once wholeheartedly Jewish while rejecting how Judaism has been applied – and distorted – by the occupying mentality. There is, to my mind, a parallel despair that winds itself around liberal Jews in Israel and the Diaspora; under the rage forced by an unending stream of injustices (which should be felt by all people, irrespective of background or culture), there is another, quieter layer – an elegiac realisation of what has been sacrificed. It is an understanding which moves one to weep bitterly at all that has been torn up and thrown away.
What I have expressed here is a reductive response to an incisive, crystalline and (constructively) provocative article. It is a piece that needs to be read, digested, and acted upon (much like Illouz’s last piece for Haaretz). But there is one final challenge it seems to pose, which can also be detached and shared here. In the end, what can we truly lay claim to? What has this all been for? These are questions I cannot answer, not only because morally-speaking we currently have nothing, but also because in the cacophonous discord that characterises Jewish life in the twenty-first century, there is no longer even a ‘we’.