December 18, 2018

Perspectives on occupation: Lessons from Israeli society

The argument over Israel’s presence in the territories beyond the Green Line has recently come to focus almost exclusively on security issues, but there is literally no aspect of life in Israel that is not affected by its settlement policies. Indeed, the Jewish identity of Israel, and even the prospects for its continued existence, are called into question.

So, there is much to ponder in the pages of “The Impacts of Lasting Occupation: Lessons From Israeli Society” (Oxford, $99), a collection of essays edited by Daniel Bar-Tal and Izhak Schnell, both professors at Tel Aviv University. The book has been published simultaneously in English and Hebrew, and it comes at an especially awkward moment — even as Israel once again elects a government that envisions the occupation as a permanent condition.

I realize that “occupation” is a blunt and conclusionary word. Bar-Tal and Schnell acknowledge that “[m]any members of our Jewish society in Israel and abroad, and even some members of the international community, may reject our premise that the territories are occupied.” But the scholars who have contributed to the collection insist on calling it by its rightful name. The occupation “is analyzed harshly,” Michael Walzer explains in an illuminating foreword to the book. “[T]he writers are, all of them, enemies of the occupation.” Ultimately, the book is less concerned about the future threats of occupation than about how it already has distorted “every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life.”

“This occupation began, in my view, with a just war,” Walzer writes. “But the justice of the Six-Day War does not justify what came afterward. The decision to hold the territories that the Israeli army had seized during the war (which then included the Sinai, the Golan Heights, Gaza and the West Bank) might have been defensible if the land had simply been ‘held’ until Arab rejectionists were in place, as they eventually were, by Arab negotiators. But that is not what happened.”

What actually happened, according to “The Impacts of Lasting Occupation,” was a fundamental redefinition of the identity and destiny of the Jewish state. Thus, for example, Israeli leaders characterized the territories as “a peace card” in the aftermath of the Six-Day War, but Yigal Alon, then serving as minister of labor, issued an order that forbade the state survey office to publish official maps that depict the 1949 cease-fire lines. “This act, which accompanied the process of determining Israel’s secure borders along the River Jordan and across the Gaza Strip,” Schnell writes, “reveals a methodical attempt of the ruling powers to incorporate the new territory within the borders that annex the territories to the State of Israel.”

The whole debate, as the contributors show us, has grown only more acrimonious — and more consequential — because Jewish settlement in the territories is regarded as a matter of divine right by some Israelis and an existential security issue by others. Here, for example, is where the choice of language takes on profound political implications. “[O]ne of the conditions for creating support for the emerging solution of this conflict,” Tamir Magal, Neta Oren, Daniel Bar-Tal and Eran Halperin, write, “is convincing the Israeli leadership and the public that the West Bank is occupied and has been held for many years in violation of international laws and moral standards to which Israel claims to subscribe. …”

The contributors to the book — mostly Jews, but also some Arabs — are, like the editors, academic scholars, and their areas of expertise include psychology, linguistics, law, economics, political science, anthropology and geology. The text is often highly technical, but even if the lay reader finds some passages a bit challenging, those passages reward the reader with detailed information and in-depth analysis that are mostly missing from media coverage. Indeed, it is not too much to say that anyone who holds an opinion on the occupation, one way or the other, ought to read “The Impacts of Lasting Occupation,” to test his or her own opinions.

To their credit, the contributors call both Arabs and Jews to account on moral issues, too. “The consequences of the occupation, for both sides, are not only pragmatic but also moral,” Marcelo Dascal, a philosophy professor, writes. “[T]hey deepen and expand the animosities between the adversaries through their daily contact; they reinforce the most heinous features of the stereotypic perception of each other; and they reciprocally delegitimize their moral, intellectual and cultural values as human beings.”

The arguments of the men and women who contributed to this courageous book may be rejected by some readers, but their motives cannot be impugned. “We hope that the book will instigate a vivid, courageous and comprehensive debate over its premises,” the co-editors write. “Even though we recognized that the occupied people suffer more from the occupation than do the occupiers, we dedicate this book to all the Palestinian and Israeli children who suffer because of the occupation — they all deserve a better future.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal. His next book is “The Short, Strange Life of Herschel Grynszpan: A Boy Avenger, a Nazi Diplomat, and a Murder in Paris,” which will be published in 2013 under the Liveright imprint of W. W. Norton to coincide with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht. Kirsch can be reached at