In Time for Yom Kippur: Two Words That Could Change the Way We Look at Israel

There is immense power in two simple words, especially at this time of Judgment, when we are commanded, each of us, to pry our eyes open and take a clear and uncompromising look at ourselves.

Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston
Graffiti reading 'Free Israel' in Hebron.
Graffiti reading 'Free Israel' in Hebron.Credit: Mairav Zonszein
Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston

Journalism is supposed to force your eyes open. And then your mind.

And, not that I'm comparing them, Yom Kippur is supposed to do the same.

This month, in time for Yom Kippur, my colleague Mairav Zonszein, who just published one of the year's most talked-about New York Times opinion pieces, "How Israel silences dissent," also posted a photograph to Facebook which I found to be no less groundbreaking, no less radical. I can't get it out of my mind. Nor, it seems to me, should I.

It's changed the way I see Israel. And for the better.

The photograph, which she took in Hebron last year, shows a message just two words in length, neatly stenciled in blue spray paint onto a wall:

FREE ISRAEL

There it is. A guiding principle. Right between the eyes.

It's unclear who put it there, or why. What is clear is that there is immense power in the simple words, especially at this time of Judgment, when we are commanded, each of us, to pry our eyes open and take a clear and uncompromising look at ourselves, at where we've blown it, at what we propose to do about it.

FREE ISRAEL

When you have terrible personal shortcomings, and I certainly do, there's a tendency to think that it's all too much, that nothing you do to improve things – even if you succeed – can be any more than a drop in the bucket.

It's easy enough to see Israel the same way – a lost cause.

But there's another way to look at it, in the form of a commandment on a dingy wall in the sad and segregated and bloodsoiled city of Hebron:

FREE ISRAEL

We have to choose. I have to choose. Every day, in the way I live my life here, as a citizen of Israel, I have to make a decision which flies in the face of every last thing the government tells us, signals us, drowns us into believing.

This is what that wall is telling me: As dark and broken and wounded as it is, Israel can be free. Things can change. They will. Things change no matter how hard we try to keep them from changing. And all of us, in the ways we choose to vote, protest, buy, volunteer, determine how that change is going to go.

Working to free your country is, after all, good citizenship.

Here's one hopeful sign: Over time, the lies our government tells, begin to sound more and more like lies.

As we're lied to on and on, about why decent health care and housing and education are less and less affordable and attainable, why war is inevitable and preferable to negotiations, why settlers and the ultra-rich are immune to the rule of law, why the occupation is not an occupation but must continue forever anyway, why Arabs and asylum seekers should be hounded, while Jewish religious fanatics should be promoted to command brigades – the lies ring flatter and flatter.

You get the feeling that even the government is tired of the lies it tells.

This morning, as our prime minister flew to New York to lie at the UN about Hamas being the same as the Islamic State, our foreign minister told an Israeli television correspondent that:

"He can't deliver the goods. The man's simply incapable of doing anything He's simply irrelevant." It turned out that the foreign minister was not talking about the prime minister. A natural error.

Later in a morning broadcast, Israel Channel 10 showed a clip of Benjamin Netanyahu, enraged enough to eat hot nails. Only this wasn't the UN. The clip was of a weekly meeting of Likud Knesset members in May 2003, and Netanyahu was listening to the Likud prime minister, Ariel Sharon, talk about Israel and the future of the West Bank:

"You cannot like the word, but what is happening is an occupation – holding 3.5 million Palestinians under occupation. I believe that is a terrible thing for Israel and for the Palestinians."

"It can't continue endlessly," Sharon said. "Do you want to stay forever in Jenin, in Nablus, in Ramallah, in Bethlehem? I don't think that's right."

Let's say Bibi's right. Let's say that peace is impossible and war and the West Bank are the best we can hope for. Let's say he has to be prime minister until hell freezes over, or at least until his Israel and hell are indistinguishable.

A couple things to work for, then. In a free Israel, if terrorism is punishable by demolishing the home of the suspected terrorist's family, let Israel demolish the family homes of all suspected terrorists, Jews and Arabs alike. Or, alternatively, stop the demolitions.

In a free Israel, if right-wing Jews protest, calling police Nazis, hurling stones, let the police respond with lethal fire, as they would with Arabs. Or, alternatively, after six decades, they could begin to use non-lethal methods of riot control on everyone.

One more thing, for starters. In a free Israel, let all Arabs have the vote. As in the Scottish example, let the Palestinians in the West Bank vote for secession, if they choose. If this isn't really an occupation, let the referendum begin.

FREE ISRAEL. The sooner the better.

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