Occupation: Slowly Eating Away at the Jewish Soul — A Yom Kippur Reflection

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My uncle Sasha (may he rest in peace) spent the prime years of his youth in Auschwitz concentration camp. “Four years in paradise,” he used to say with exasperation, irony, and wisdom in his voice all at once.

For many survivors of the camps, understandably, even uttering a few words acknowledging the tremendous suffering they experienced during that time is next to impossible. The traumatic wounds buried deep within the subconscious are too painful to bear. Not for Sasha. His strength of character and the depth of his connection to humanity and the world would not let him be silent.

If my uncle could see firsthand how young Israeli soldiers are forced to carry out inhuman acts against innocent people, and how Palestinians living in the West Bank are denied fundamental human rights, I believe he would shudder in the depths of his soul. One thing is for sure: If Sasha saw the brutality of the Israeli military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza today, he would not stay silent either.

A Brutal Military Occupation for the Occupier and the Occupied

The Israeli army likes to make the claim that it is the most “moral” army in the world, but is it? Can an army ever be moral? Can a virgin ever be carnal? You can be one but not both. What’s worse, according to numerous testimonials by former IDF soldiers, the Israeli army exhibits some alarming traits in the field that remind us of inhuman and degrading treatment inflicted on others in the past:

  • Blindly following orders that cause immense pain and suffering to innocent people
  • Unfeeling and unflinching in the face of the tears and cries of mothers, children, and babies
  • Incapable of feeling the deep suffering of those affected by their actions
  • Viewing an entire people as “savages,” “animals,” or a “problem” needing to be solved

Sound eerily familiar? If you don’t believe it, here’s what a former IDF soldier had to say:

“Everyone accepted reality as if it were predestined. Human rights violations were common from the soldiers, and our orders were often ambiguous. If the soldier was a “nice guy” the Palestinians we were pursuing would return home unharmed, but if he was hateful or angry, civilians cars might get destroyed or innocent people might be blindfolded by the soldiers and left out in the middle of the desert.”  – Shai Eluk, Combatants for Peace

It is clear that victims of horrific crimes suffer, but is it possible that the perpetrators do so as well? When you trample on a person’s human dignity, cause trauma or distress (either physical or mental), or provoke another to suffer, the victim’s pain stays in your subconscious whether you acknowledge it or not.

The reality is that Israel’s young people are being forced to traumatize innocent people and deprive them of human dignity. The young soldiers demolish homes and sometimes whole villages, displacing families from their land. Snipers gun down peaceful protesters (including medics and children) in Gaza. The army regularly intimidates and arrests children; they raid families’ homes in the middle of the night, blindfold their sons, and drag them off to prison without any legal recourse or rights.

Sometimes a violent criminal realizes the full repercussions of their actions. In so doing, they remorse completely, and take full responsibility for what they did. Often, they will seek out the family of their victim, and beg forgiveness. The perpetrator knows that they will carry the pain of their victims in their hearts for the rest of their lives; and even if the victim’s family does forgive them, their souls will never be completely free of the hardship and suffering they caused their victims.

After their military service, the young Jewish officers go back to Israeli society damaged goods. The vast majority will never talk about the horrors or the lunacy of what they experienced and witnessed. Many of them will shut down emotionally for the rest of their lives. And Israeli society suffers as a result. A pointless occupation with no endgame in sight whose only goal seems to be to inflict daily punishment onto millions of innocent people.

“There is a common thought in Israeli society that Palestinian mothers care less about their children – and the proof is that Palestinian mothers send their children to commit suicide attacks. And yet Israeli mothers are willing to sacrifice their children in exactly the same way by sending their children into the army. The mindset is no different.” – Chen Alon, Combatants for Peace

This Madness Must End

You would have thought that after all the Jewish people have gone through, the destruction, decimation, and attempted annihilation, that we would know better. You would have thought with the creation of a Jewish homeland after more than 2,000 years of suffering, that we would be happy with our lot, content to live on the land legally granted to us, and not covet territory that does not belong to us.

However, it seems we have not learned history’s lessons, and our most dangerous threat could be coming from within. World Jewry, it seems, has never been more divided. There is a widening generational gap, a sharp divide between the ruling right-wing minority groups and (and their die-hard supporters in the Diaspora) and the prevailing winds of many Jews under the age of 50. And the chasm threatens to engulf all of world Jewry if we do not find a way out.

despair-manThe fact is that many millennial Jews have turned off of Israel. They are frustrated by the tortuous Israeli-Palestinian stalemate which is wreaking havoc on our community. Younger Jews are fed up with the older generation’s blind faith in the State of Israel that prevents them at all costs from looking from another perspective with a different set of lenses.

This lack of flexibility or open-mindedness manifests in various ways including:

  • an unwillingness to look at the suffering of innocent Palestinians
  • an inability or aversion to talking openly about Palestine at the dinner table or anywhere else
  • the irrational, knee-jerk, protective, flight or fight reaction that sets in whenever the Israeli government is even mildly criticized or their motives called into question
  • a complete inability to step into the shoes of Palestinians and see their reality and perspective, if even for a few seconds
  • seeing Palestinians or Arabs in general as “savages” or “animals”

In my own family (and I know I’m not alone), talking openly about the situation in the Occupied Palestinian territories is OFF limits. Heck, I can’t even say the word ‘Palestine’ in front of many of my relatives. What does that say about the state of our community?

fire-and-waterIt’s this kind of narrow-mindedness that is pitting Jew against Jew. Divide and conquer. And those who once tried to destroy us could not have done a better job of it if they tried, and I am sure they are smiling now at how Israel has become increasingly seen as a pariah state in the world. In good company with the likes of Libya, North Korea, and Sudan.

Yes, there is no peace agreement, mutual trust is at an all-time low, and the leadership of both sides has failed to break the impasse. However, it is no secret that the vast majority of Israelis and Palestinians want closure. They want to find a solution. But at the end of the day, Israel is occupying Palestinian land. And as an occupying military power, it is Israel’s responsibility to end its breach of international law. It is time to stop stealing Palestinian land and resources. The inhuman collective punishment of an entire people must cease.

There Is No Other Choice But Peace

Those who blindly defend Israel and blame Hamas for the failure of the peace process (and all the other ills in the world) miss a sobering fact. For Israel, there are three options:

  • You can have all the land
  • You can be a Jewish state
  • You can be a democratic state.

You can never have all three. You can only have two out of three, and the choice is ultimately in the hands of Israel. The two-state solution is the ONLY viable alternative. We can’t keep denying fundamental human rights to over six million people! And we can’t take over all the land and create one state, because Jews will then become a minority in their own nation.

So what to do?

We need to end this and end it soon.

A religious Jewish friend of mine once confided in me that what he really wants is the Temple. And he is not alone. We will never get the Temple by force, only through goodwill. The Israeli-Palestinian relationship has become like a marriage gone bad. But someone has to be the “grown-up” and find a way out. Israel as the occupying force with all the power has that ability and responsibility.

One of the primary Jewish principles is to act as a light onto all others. Can we really say that our actions toward the Palestinians are rooted in that spirit? In fact, they are the direct opposite, spreading darkness. Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement, is about asking forgiveness from those we have wronged and granting forgiveness to those who have hurt us. Do we not owe it to the memory of Uncle Sasha and all those like him who suffered oppression and genocide to offer an olive branch this fall and to demand that our leaders find a way to create a just and lasting peace?