Rabbi Aryeh Meir’s view of “The occupation and Israel’s human rights record” (in his March 2 op ed) is problematic—indeed, counterproductive.
Before analysis, though, I want to make it perfectly clear that I find Rabbi Meir’s concern for Palestinians and for Israelis, and more broadly, for Jewish values, noble and entirely admirable. Nothing I write here should be construed to be an attack on Rabbi Meir’s loyalty to the Jewish people or to the State of Israel. It is a testament to humanity to demonstrate his concern, and as much as I may disagree with Rabbi Meir’s political and moral analysis, I applaud his humanity (and strive to share it).
But disagree I do. Rabbi Meir bemoans the lack of Palestinian freedom on “their land.” Their land? When, exactly, did it become “their land?” A Palestinian individual’s title to a particular plot of land may well be entirely legal. But Rabbi Meir implies that the land in question belongs to the Palestinian people. As opposed to the Jewish people.
An argument could be made for that position. But an argument—to my mind, a far stronger argument—could be made for a Jewish national claim to that territory. We could, in fact, question whether the occupation is really an occupation at all. How, exactly, did this occupation begin, and how have things changed over the past 50 years that would justify ending it? The occupation began as a result of an act of military aggression by Jordan, Syria, and Egypt on territory that clearly did not belong to them—an act that confers no rights whatsoever on the aggressor. The occupation continues today because no peace treaty has been signed by the Palestinians, to whom Jordan and Egypt ceded territorial control. Which means that the current situation is not only about security, but also about legality.
This has two implications. The first is that by international law, Israel may not apply Israeli law to the non-citizen residents of the territory. Such application would, in fact, be illegal. Second, Israel, by law, may remain in those territories until hell freezes over if the technically belligerent enemy refuses to make peace. Which, after 50 years, after Madrid, Oslo, a couple of Camp Davids, etc. (not to mention several intifadas and mini-wars) they have not.
Rabbi Meir mentions a number of examples of the occupation’s negative impact on Palestinian lives. Fair enough, but unfairly oversimplified. Take checkpoints. Yes, it is true, much is done in the name of security. Inconvenient? To say the least. Humiliating? Often. But is there a real security-driven need for it? To ask the question is to answer it. Consider the fact that in the year before the separation barrier (typically unfairly characterized as “the wall”) went up, there were 457 Israelis murdered by terrorists. In 2009, the year after the fence was completed, there were nine.
Is there a better way to protect Israeli lives? Maybe. But two things are clear. The Israelis won’t end the occupation without finding that way. And it won’t happen without active participation on the part of the Palestinians.
Water is another example. Rabbi Meir writes that Palestinian access to “their own” water is severely limited. This is true. What’s also true is that because of Israel, the Palestinians have more water, better water, and more readily accessible water than they ever had or would otherwise have had. It’s also true that Israel supplies 80 percent more water to the Palestinians than it is obligated to do by the Oslo accords (53.3 million cubic meters/year, as opposed to the obligatory 31mcm/y). And it’s also true that the Israelis and the Palestinians (together with the Jordanians) just signed a deal to provide another 32 million cubic meters of water to the Palestinian Authority.
And it’s also true that by contrast with this wise and hopeful act of cooperation, the Palestinians have refused Israeli help in preventing cement residue from Palestinian factories from polluting water in the West Bank because such efforts would also help Jewish settlements.
You pays your money, and you takes your choice.
Does occupation mean that we have “brutishly taken over their [Palestinian] land?” No. Does it mean that the conditions in which the Palestinians live parallels qualitatively or quantitatively our Jewish experience of “the pain of losing freedom, property, and human dignity?” No. And, perhaps most important, does it mean that we can just wave our magic wands and “end the occupation?” No. That’s not how things work in the real world.
When Rabbi Meir writes that Palestinians cannot “participate in the political process that determines the future of this geographic area,” he is precisely wrong. The Palestinians have participated, and they have chosen leaders who are either explicitly genocidal or supporters of gruesome violence. In fact, by all indications, the majority of Palestinians would prefer leaders who are even more supportive of violence. Palestinian think-tank director Khalil Shikaki writes that young Palestinians between 18 and 22 “support violence, they oppose the two-state solution, and they don’t believe in the Palestinian leadership.” But not just the young: “In all groups, across all categories, a majority supports violence.”
It goes without saying (or should, at least) that there is much that is negative about the current situation. Michael Sfard is correct in pointing out that Israel, unlike many other occupying powers, is a democracy — the only democracy that is involved in an ongoing occupation. Of course we should be expected to care about the situation that thus arises far more than we care about immoral dictatorial regimes.
When, after all, have you seen an article in a Chinese newspaper lamenting the moral burden of the Chinese occupation of Tibet?
How about Russia in Georgia? Morocco in Western Sahara? Indonesia in East Timor? Etc. etc. etc. In most cases, these occupations are profoundly questionable, if not clearly illegal. They certainly stand in glaring contrast to Israel’s occupation of Judea and Samaria, for which it has both a serious title claim and a moral justification. This underscores the fact that the very expression “the occupation” is profoundly problematic. The? As if it is the one and only? As if it is somehow more significant than all the others? In fact, if “the” occupation is in any way unique, it is unique because of its morality, not its immorality.
If you don’t think so, ask the Tibetans.
Rabbi Meir and B’Tselem have it precisely backwards—ending the occupation is not the way forward to a future in which human rights, democracy, liberty, and equality are ensured to all people. Creating a future in which human rights, democracy, liberty, and equality are ensured to all people is the only way to end the occupation.
And we can’t do that by ourselves. To imagine that we can—to remove all sense of agency from the Palestinians and lay all responsibility on our Jewish shoulders—doesn’t enhance the chances for peace. It destroys them.
Robert L. Wolkoff has lectured and written internationally on Israel and Judaism. He is the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Tikvah in North Brunswick and is a JNF Rabbi for Israel.