The 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War and the occupation that began then is upon us. And this anniversary is not being ignored by the mainstream media. In a host of feature articles and op-eds, we can read new revelations about Israeli plans to detonate a nuclear weapon during the war. Or we can hear from Israeli and Palestinian political figures that Israel’s victory in 1967 is a cause for celebration, or alternatively, something to mourn.
In this media conversation, however, there is a great deal of focus on blame. Who is to blame for the start of the war? Who is to blame for the failure of the Oslo peace process? And who is to blame for refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the other side?
Like many of you, I have strong feelings about these questions. But I also know that they can be red herrings that distract our attention from the very real work that those of us who care about Israel need to focus on. That work is about drawing attention to the very real threats to Israel’s democracy and moral fiber posed by the occupation.
Let me explain.
The New Israel Fund was established 38 years ago. Our role from the very beginning was to help Israeli society deal with the difficult challenges that it faced. And very often we found ourselves at the vanguard, fighting for progress on issues that many people in the Jewish community would rather not talk about. That was true in our early years when it came to funding Israel’s first rape crisis centers. It was true when it came to confronting discrimination against Mizrahim, against Ethiopian-Israelis, and against Palestinian citizens of Israel. It was true when we supported the Israeli civil rights attorneys who brought the illegal use of torture by Israeli security forces before Israel’s High Court of Justice — and won. It was true when we supported those Israelis who ended discrimination against women being forced to sit in the back of public buses. In each of these cases, there were those who urged us to be quiet, to stand down, and to avoid airing “dirty laundry.” But ignoring problems does not make them go away.
And so today, when we talk about the need to confront the occupation, I know that we are once again touching a nerve. I know that many of us have friends and family who would rather not hear about it. But I also know that we must draw attention to the occupation for the simple reason that the occupation undermines and threatens the Israel we love.
I know too that the term “occupation” can seem like a loaded word. I know that it sounds shrill to some of our friends. But I know of no better term to discuss Israel’s control over the lives of millions of Palestinians who are not citizens, who are subject to military (not civilian) courts, and who do not get to vote for the government that sets the rules that govern their lives. This term is not particularly controversial in Israel. It is a fact recognized by the Israeli legal system which has always said that the principles of the Fourth Geneva Convention apply to the occupied territories. And it is the term used explicitly by the Israeli High Court.
Some of you may remember, back in 2003, then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made headlines when he told Likud Knesset Members that “you may not like the word, but what’s happening is occupation.” Those were surprising words, back then, from a longtime hawk and the architect of the settlement enterprise. But, beyond the semantics, the real heart of the issue is what he said next:
“Holding 3.5-million Palestinians is a bad thing for Israel, for the Palestinians, and for the Israeli economy.”
Sharon didn’t elaborate. He didn’t have to. We know what he meant: It is not just the Palestinians — whose suffering is clear — that are hurt by the occupation. So too is the character of Israeli society.
We are witnessing an increase in police violence. We are seeing Israel’s democracy challenged as policies are advanced and laws passed that crack down on free speech, on the legitimacy of dissent, and on the legitimacy of the judiciary. And we are seeing more and more Israelis lose hope in the prospect that their country can ever make peace with its neighbors or be a light unto the nations.
For all of these reasons and more, the New Israel Fund community must come together today, as we have done countless times in the past, and support those Israelis who are working to realize the founding values of their country by striving for social justice and confronting the occupation. It won’t win us any popularity contests, but it is essential work for Israel’s future.
The need for us to focus on the occupation is all the greater because, at this moment, Israel is governed by politicians who downplay the dangers of the occupation or who openly advocate annexing the West Bank. These leaders are always trying to change the conversation, by taking jabs at peace activists and human rights defenders, or by pitting Israelis against one another, or by asking whether the Arabs are more to blame for the fact that the occupation started in the first place.
We can’t afford to take that bait. We must keep pointing to the occupation as a problem that needs to be addressed, because no problem as big and complicated as this one can be solved if it is swept under the rug. And if the occupation is not addressed, we will lose the Israel we love.