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May I Reduce My Travel Time Using West Bank Roads?

‘Doesn’t such an act grant legitimacy to the occupation? On the other hand, whichever route I take won’t alter reality’

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Ramat Rachel near Jerusalem, which abuts a highway that runs through the West Bank.
Ramat Rachel near Jerusalem, which abuts a highway that runs through the West Bank. Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

If you don't know how to behave in a certain situation, if you need friendly advice but you've already driven all your sane friends away or you've got the kind of embarrassing question that can only be asked anonymously, send an email to:

My answers will be generous and honest – but shouldn't be seen as a replacement for professional consultations. Obviously.

Dear Haaretz,

I live in the Sharon area north of Tel Aviv. I’m secular, leftist, and I oppose the occupation. My wife’s relatives live near Beit She’an to the northeast. Each year, traffic jams make the car trip to their home more difficult. At the end of August, a drive of 120 kilometers (75 miles) took two and a half hours, mainly spent in three exhausting bottlenecks.

On the eve of Rosh Hashanah we drove to see them again, and this time I decided to heed Waze and went through the West Bank. The journey took under an hour and a half and most of the roads were empty.

I’m wondering if it’s ethical to drive though occupied territory solely so that my trip will be less exhausting. Doesn’t such an act grant legitimacy to the occupation? On the other hand, whichever route I take won’t alter reality. What should I do?

Right Lane

Dear Right Lane,

This is the first question I’m responding to with my name attached to the story, so I’ve chosen a decidedly political subject so I can finally stand behind the truism: The settlement enterprise is immoral from its foundations to the rafters. One may surmise that you’re aware of this as well, and you’re only wondering if there are holiday-time discounts for Jews. After all, you’re a leftist, the roads are already paved, your time is limited, and you have lots of work to do.

Unfortunately, I don’t have good news for you. Your leftist intuition is well honed and you know that it’s not okay. And this isn’t only because it gives legitimacy to the occupation, a theoretical matter of sorts, but because its specific use of stolen resources and the exploitation of disproportionate rights in a regime that promotes segregation on an ethnic basis. (There’s a word for this in Afrikaans that’s considered bad form to say out loud.)

You may think that you’re driving on an asphalt road, but basically you’re traveling along the length of a crafty means of land expropriation, rights violations and embittering people’s lives in general. As noted in a 2004 B’Tselem report, “It is hard to find one road that Israel built in the West Bank that was not planned to serve and perpetuate the settlements.”

The West Bank’s roads are not wanting in their darker aspects. First, they were paved on land expropriated from Palestinians. As this breaches international law, Israel made the claim that the (civilian) roads serve military purposes, or that the roads were intended for the general population, including the Palestinians, whereas the reality is the absolute opposite.

Second, the roads in the West Bank weren’t only planned according to the needs of the settlers, but also as obstacles meant to restrict expansion of Palestinian towns and villages. In addition, these roads were intended to encourage the relocation of Israelis to settlements, as stated in the master plan for settlement in the early 1980s.

But hey, all that’s history, right? As you noted, the roads are already there, and driving on them will neither prolong nor end the occupation. But the use of stolen property to make things easier for yourself is a pretty dubious act, and traveling on these roads constitutes enjoyment derived from the privileges of the present-day ethnic segregation.

It’s no coincidence that these roads are so empty. One reason is that the passage of Palestinians is restricted by roadblocks and checkpoints deep in the West Bank, making it harder for them to get to work or school, or to receive medical care. Thus you enjoy empty roads on the way to a meal, while others aren’t allowed to use them for essential needs.

As opposed to taking a drive in the West Bank with the aim of opening your eyes and getting acquainted with the realities of the occupation, your objective is to shut your eyes as tightly as you can. Is such travel legitimate? I believe no, and in this instance you can refuse to take part in a slight injustice while paying a particularly low price.

Borrowing from Kant

Dear Haaretz,

I used to be religious, but I occasionally host religious relatives. My kitchen isn’t kosher, but my relatives trust that when they come I’ll make food in separate pots and pans or in disposable items, and that I’ll observe the laws of kashrut. My question is whether there’s an ethical problem of cutting corners in keeping kosher for them; for example, cooking in unkosher pots. As long as they don’t know, their conscience is clear, and in terms of divinity, the sin would be mine.

Apostate Baker

Dear Apostate Baker,

It’s not my place to know if there’s a God. But you’re coming to me as a secular arbiter of justice, to consider the matter distinctly from He who dwells in the heavens. So let’s examine the issue from this point of view, moral autonomy, under which people choose the principles with which they’ll comply, instead of these principles stemming from an external source such as God or the laws of the country. Moral autonomy is closely associated with 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant.

To Kant, moral will is by definition free will – a choice to adopt certain rules emanating from intellectual analysis. Therefore, moral autonomy requires us to respect others, because after all, they, like us, are free and rational creatures.

From here stems Kant’s formulation of the categorical moral imperative, to act in accordance with the dictum, “Act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law.” In other words, do unto others .....

The question, of course, is not if you’d be prepared for your relatives to serve you unkosher food, but if you’d be prepared for them to lie and cause you to eat something that went against your principles (you might be a vegetarian or scrupulous about a certain diet). It doesn’t matter the extent to which the beliefs or dietary preferences of others you find ridiculous; you can’t lie and take on others’ right to their free choices.

Lies in which the liar believes that he knows better than the recipients of the lie, and is only acting for their own good, are called paternalistic lies because they’re usually lies that parents tell their children. But in this case, we’re talking about adults, and when you hide information from them you grant yourself power at their expense and see yourself as smarter and more important.

This sort of paternalistic lie is more similar to deception of a minority by a hegemony that conceives of the minority as lesser beings, such as in populating a country’s outskirts by employing fraud and wielding power. It goes without saying that serving unkosher food fraudulently is less severe, but the patronizing logic is the same.

But I think the most troublesome thing is the harm done to your relatives and your relationship with them. First, even if they don’t know and even if God doesn’t exist, you’ll know you lied. Lies have this thing about them; in real time we don’t realize the weight they’ll place on our souls. Often it turns out that a lie told to loved ones forges deep lesions of guilt.

Second, you have no way of knowing that the lie won’t be found out. It’s hard to imagine the pain that such a discovery would cause your relatives, not to mention the sense of betrayal of their trust, which could destroy the relationship.

You left the religion and you don’t fear divine punishment. But the human responsibility not to harm one’s fellow man is no less significant, and the burden is on your shoulders to choose good – not out of fear of punishment, but out of compliance with an internal moral imperative.

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