I hesitated before writing this. I didn’t want to even engage with the silly idea that “there is no occupation.” Unfortunately, that idea is finding more and more traction in main stream forums.
The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) General Assembly (GA) is set to begin in a week. It will be taking place in West Jerusalem at the national convention center. It is a place that sits just a few minutes’ drive from the occupation.
The Forward has already reported on the fact that the GA will not have any discussion on the occupation despite it purporting to be the place that inspires and engages current and emerging Jewish leaders” in order to tackle “the most critical issues of the day”. The Forward explains that Jerry Silverman, President and CEO of the JFNA, emphasized the GA’s focus will be on “’dialogue’ and ‘questions,’ particularly from young Jews, with no holds barred”.
This may seem like a positive step for the established Jewish community, so often seen as deterring analysis and open dialogue. Unfortunately it's simply more of the same.
Apparently Silverman doesn't want the occupation included in the content of the GA, because he doesn't want to "get into the political arena", but as The Forward reports, the GA has already entered that arena. There is a long list of events on political issues from Israel advocacy in the Diaspora to the separation of Synagogue and State in Israel. One speaker at the GA will be Knesset Minister Naftali Bennett who has said thoughtful things such as “When you were still climbing trees… we had here a Jewish state” and “I will do everything in my power to make sure that they [the Palestinians] don’t get a state.” A wide array of Israeli politicians will be there.
So much for staying out of politics.
Not allowing dialogue about the occupation in organized Jewish spaces is an assault on intelligent debate, democratic ideals, and the overwhelming opinion of the international community. It is, at best, misguided. More accurately, it is a shortsighted approach that only serves to detach the organized Jewish community from the reality in Israel.
The push to not “use the word ‘occupation’”, as Silverman put it, goes far beyond the attempt to silence a dialogue that is already happening in Jewish communities the world over. The attempt to silence the word occupation is an attempt to shut out reality. It is a deeply political move and must be recognized as such.
Too often “our” organizations are allowed to define for us what is and isn’t political. Our willingness to be dictated to by so-called leaders must end here and now and we must stop accepting that politics could ever be out of bounds when talking about Israel and Jewish life in the world.
Like it or not, Israel sits at the center of the overarching Jewish discourse these days. The brutality done to Palestinians in the occupation eats away at the core of the people and project of Israel. So like it or not, the fact of the Israeli occupation matters and desperately needs to be addressed in the halls of Jewish communities. No amount of wishing or pretending will make the fact of the occupation untrue.
Wording matters in the realms of education, culture, and community, because language frames our understanding of our world. Some call the West Bank disputed territory, liberated, Judea and Samaria, under apartheid, or whatever other term – not all of which are mutually exclusive terms. It may be true that the West Bank is disputed land, but it is also occupied. For some who show up and immediately enjoy the privilege of immediate access to water, electricity and taxpayer funded, round the clock security by Israeli soldiers it may seem liberated, but it is an occupation.
There are some areas where other words could be more apt. You could, if you felt like it, argue that Gaza is under siege by Israel and Egypt and not occupied territory. After all, the neighboring states decide what goes in an out of Gaza, there are no settlers there anymore and the army only enters the strip on occasion. If you were so inclined, you could argue that Israel annexed the Golan Heights and even though basically no one else recognizes that annexation, it is a part of Israel because Israel says so.
You could even argue that East Jerusalem is not under occupation because Israel annexed it too, a move that is also unrecognized by basically everyone outside of Israel. If you did decide to argue that it is not occupied you would have to find a different word for the reality that a few hundred thousand Palestinians live there as second class citizens without many rights including the right to vote in national elections. What’s that word again?
All of the above arguments could, in some dimension, lead to interesting debates and fruitful meetings of minds. To some, the term ‘occupation’ describes the overall experience of Palestinians in relation to Israel. Some say it doesn’t say enough and some say it says too much. And despite any debate that may be going on around you right now the occupation is very real and very agreed upon as the term to use in the West Bank. It is complicated but it is occupation, and it is worth understanding why.
Debate is important, but the question of whether or not what is happening in the West Bank is occupation has been debated and is settled. It is.
There is extensive documentation of the legal process by which Israel codified the inner workings of the occupation. The International Committee of the Red Cross, internationally recognized as the keepers of international humanitarian law, calls it an occupation, and they also make it easy to avail yourself of the background of the 2004 Israeli supreme court ruling that it is, in fact, an occupation. And side note: The International Court of Justice agrees too.
The United Nations General Assembly as well as the Security Council also use that term in numerous resolutions. Even the President of the United States (Israel’s best friend) used the word a short time ago.
Any way you cut it the Palestinians of the West Bank are occupied, but did you read all this way and find yourself still wondering what is an occupation? It’s when a territory is under a hostile military’s control, but not officially taken over. Calling the occupation an occupation is not a judgment of Israeli policy. It is Israeli policy.
Of course, it isn’t that simple. As I learned the first time I took a tour with Breaking the Silence, Israelis who live and travel in the West Bank are not under occupation. They answer to Israeli law, even over the “Green Line”, but Palestinians in Areas B and C of the West Bank live under Israeli martial law and Palestinians in Area A basically do too any time Israel feels like it.
Martial law, the system of checkpoints and lack of freedom of movement, curfews, arrests, humiliation, home demolitions, assault and sometimes killing is clear and present throughout the West Bank. If you’re having trouble believing all of this I invite you to see for yourself in person.
A short while ago I was talking with a good friend and fellow member of the movement for justice and peace. I told him that it’s not the occupation itself that is pushing Diaspora youth away from Israel; it’s that they are lied to throughout their Jewish educational lives and then shocked when faced with what undoubtedly is a part of the reality here: Occupation, racism and violence. If the establishment Jewish organizations want no holds barred dialogue that engages young people, opening the floor to real talk on the occupation is only the first step.
Pretending that the occupation of Palestinians is not a fact on the ground here is, in fact, a lie. It is a lie that leads to shock and disgust when those who are lied to find out the truth. Instead of desperately searching for words that don’t describe reality here but may make one feel more comfortable, we should be telling the truth, using the internationally recognized words that we have, so we face the reality of the occupation and end it.