A short while ago I talked with a friend who’s going to tour Israel. She was excited, she hadn’t been there in some 27 years.
“Are you going to go into Bethlehem?” I asked. What I really wanted to ask was whether the tour would include the Palestinian West Bank.
“We’re going everywhere,” she said happily, and mentioned how much she loved being in Israel, the people, the warmth, the lights.
I hung up, continued to walk with Aussie, and thought of what is happening in Israel, my country of birth.
The current government wants to undermine the independence of the judiciary, and specifically (though not exclusively) the Supreme Court, by passing a bill that would enable Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, to override the Court’s decision by a majority of just one vote.
Given Israel’s form of government, the membership in the Knesset usually reflects the Prime Minister’s coalition, unlike, say, in the US, where we could have a Democrat in the White House, a Democratic majority Senate, and a Republican majority House. In Israel right now, the Knesset reflects the right-wing coalition of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, leaving only the Supreme Court to block government actions and bills it disagrees with.
Not that the Israeli Supreme Court is any kind of radical court. It usually approves actions by the government and army, including land appropriations. It accepts the security mantra like most Israelis; only rarely has it taken decisions opposed to government measures in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. But those few times were too many for the right-wing bloc, including most ultra-orthodox Jews who also don’t care for the Court much (or for democratic values, for that matter), and they are pushing to undermine the Court’s power.
While many take to the streets in protest, almost all seem to agree on one thing: This has nothing to do with the Palestinians. This has nothing to do with what takes place in the West Bank. This is not a fight between left-wing Israelis, who want to reach a political agreement with the Palestinians, and right-wing Israelis, who want nothing of the kind.
One of our major newspapers, reporting that such large-scale demonstrations haven’t been seen since the negotiations with Palestinians in the 1990s, quoted the head of an Israeli policy think tank. She said that the disagreements in the 1990s were “’about the border of the state. This is much more serious: It’s about the character of the state.’”
I beg to differ. The relations between Israel and Palestine have everything to do not just with borders but with the very character of Israel. Always has.
In 1967, after Israel conquered the West Bank, a handful of people warned that the occupation of the West Bank would change Israel itself morally, ethically, and politically, including basic governing principles. Very few listened, but this is exactly what happened; the recent events around the Supreme Court are just another symptom of this trend.
Humans are able to compartmentalize bigly, as our ex-President liked to say, and people seem to think that they can have their democracy even as their government enforces a brutal occupation. They know what’s going on, but it’s not happening in their own cities and towns, it’s happening away (as if there is away). They believe it doesn’t affect them, they can go about their lives and proclaim happily that they live in the only democracy in the Middle East.
They have developed an incredible ability to live in denial of what is being done by their democratic country: new settlements and checkpoints that impede a free flow of Palestinians from one area to another. They’re in denial of the fact that they send their own children to serve in an army that enforces expropriations of land and water, and stands by when settlers set fire to olive groves and threaten inhabitants. They don’t seem to mind that this is what their children see and experience at the age of 18.
Many years ago, my sister and I drove to the Dead Sea in summer. On the way we encountered checkpoints where Israelis were just waved through while, in the adjoining lane, a mile of cars bearing Palestinian car plates, filled with families, were made to wait for hours in the heat while young soldiers looked them over slowly and leisurely, indifferent to the cries of children or the looks on the faces of elderly grandparents.
“We’ll pay a big price for this one day,” my sister commented.
I never forgot her words. This was long before suicide bombers, long before intifadas. But corruption had already begun.
The same people who spill onto the streets now didn’t do so when the government passed laws stigmatizing Israeli NGOs that focused on human rights. They didn’t spill onto the streets when the government designated half a dozen Palestinian NGOs as terrorist organizations. They don’t spill out onto the streets demanding that their human rights not come at the cost of the human rights of others. Nor do they spill out onto the streets in the face of warnings that Israel can’t possibly be both a democracy and an occupying power.
Over 40 years ago, before the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, I met two handsome, gracious brothers from that country on a skiing trip in Austria. They were terrific skiers, had come to Europe annually to ski in winter, and told me they belonged to a special military unit not formally recognized by the army that does all kinds of dirty work on the army’s behalf.
“You mean, like a paramilitary group?” I asked.
They laughed and shrugged. Yes, like a paramilitary group in a country that called itself a democracy. South Africa’s laws didn’t just victimize black Africans, they also undermined the country’s democratic laws for its own white citizens. The judicial branch adopted severe laws against white people who fought against apartheid (nothing like what it did to black fighters), the military was given broad license to go after anyone who fought against it (always labeled terrorists), and media publications against apartheid were banned. We’re talking about white Afrikaans, not the black Africans who suffered much, much worse.
Bernie used to say that the world is a mandala, and that whatever part of the mandala you leave out of your work will then sabotage your efforts. I believe this is what the Israelis are witnessing now, even as most don’t see it.
The white elephant in the room isn’t the Supreme Court or even Bibi Netanyahu, it is the continued settling of the West Bank, the systematic thievery, and denigrating treatment of its Palestinian citizens. Regardless of how this particular crisis will play out, you can’t have occupation and democracy, the system is self-corrupting. In the end, which will it be?
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