Only True Israeli Patriots Can End Fifty Years of Occupation

Daniel Bar-Tal knows all about the Israeli siege mentality – he wrote the book on it. Now he wants to convince his countrymen to end the occupation, for their own sake – without dwelling on Palestinian rights.

Mira Sucharov.
Mira Sucharov
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An Israeli soldier at a West Bank checkpoint.
An Israeli soldier at a West Bank checkpoint. Credit: AFP
Mira Sucharov.
Mira Sucharov

One of the global giants in the field of political and educational psychology has recently retired from his post as a professor at Tel Aviv University's School of Education to, in his words, become a “full time peacenik.” I recently spoke to Daniel Bar-Tal about his attempt to end the occupation one email at a time.

Called “Save Israel; Stop the Occupation” (or SISO for short), Bar-Tal’s call to action demands that by June 5, 2017, the fiftieth anniversary of the occupation, the Israeli government either “accept the creation of an independent Palestinian state or extend equal rights to everyone living in the occupied territories until there is an agreed final resolution of the conflict.”

Bar-Tal speaks in terms of “dreams” and Herzl and Martin Luther King, Jr. and trying to elicit a shock to Israeli society. And while he talked to me about human rights abuses and Palestinians being “harassed by occupation,” his initiative is aimed at convincing Israelis that ending military rule over the West Bank is good for the country.

As a pioneer in the study of the “siege mentality” concept, Bar-Tal is no stranger to the difficulty of swaying attitudes. A siege mentality, which Bar-Tal defines in his scholarly work as the belief that “one's own society is surrounded by a hostile world,” leads groups to be highly distrustful of others. In Israel it’s a phenomenon that Bar-Tal has labeled the “Masada Syndrome.” Today he sees an “ethos of conflict” animating Israeli society.

Bar-Tal has spent his career enumerating Israeli fears and the historical memories that buttress them: anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, Arab state invasions, Palestinian terrorism. Sadly, this sort of siege mentality leads not to empathizing with others who similarly feel under siege, but to a hardening of positions. “Moral arguments,” he says, don’t work. “If you show you care about Palestinians, you’re called an Arab lover; you’re considered a traitor.”

What does work, he says, is convincing Israelis that the occupation has negative impacts on their own society. Hence the title of his growing movement: “Save Israel, Stop the Occupation.”

Bar-Tal draws a straight line between various political tensions we’ve seen in Israel over the last weeks and months — and the corrosive effect of the occupation.

He sees a tyranny of the majority —the current government — stifling the segment of Israeli society — “sometimes a big part, sometimes a big minority” — which objects to the status quo. The NGO bill snaking its way through the Knesset; calls to artists for self-censorship; the removal of Dorit Rabinyan’s book, “Borderlife,” from the Israeli curriculum; the undermining of critical thinking within the Israeli school system.

“In practice,” he says, the Israeli “education system cannot be open minded because it tries to indoctrinate a particular narrative and prevent a free exchange of ideas.” He has harsh words for the new civic studies textbook, which he has heard “teaches particularistic values of Judaism and nationalism and disregards to a large extent the principle of democracy, freedom, justice and rule of law.”

Bar-Tal was a co-leader of the widely-reported 2013 study which compared Israeli textbooks to Palestinian ones. The study found that mutual demonization was thankfully rare on both sides; though each side, not surprisingly, attempted to prop up its national narrative at the expense of the other. For that project, Bar-Tal said, government ministers attempted to publicly discredit him.

And while there is debate over whether Israel actually profits from the occupation – certainly part of the housing crisis is offset by more affordable real estate farther afield in the West Bank – Bar-Tal sees the occupation diverting funds from areas like health, welfare and education.

SISO has partnered with other Jewish organizations, including Hashomer Hatzair, Partners for Progressive Israel, the British-based Yachad and the European-based J Call. Ameinu says it’s supportive. Peace Now calls the initiative “blessed and important,” but is working on another project leading up to the fiftieth anniversary of occupation that “will step outside of the traditional ways of action,” according to Peace Now head Yariv Oppenheimer. J Street has not formally signed on to SISO since “we still feel that it is in early stages,” Yael Patir, J Street’s Israel director, told me.

And SISO has received the endorsement of Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman. “I spent the years of WWII in France,” Kahneman told me. “My moral revulsion to occupation is tied directly to these experiences."

SISO has a fledgling Facebook page, and still needs to get a website. There’s a long way to go to fulfilling the 13 strategic goals the initiative has set out — including organizing events, producing films, and garnering “millions of signatures” on a petition, never mind getting the Israeli government to agree to the ultimate goal. Still, Bar-Tal says he’s trying to “reach for the sky.” He would love to see a singer with global stature like “Sting or Bono” write a song in support of the initiative.

“Our point of departure is caring for Israel,” Bar-Tal says. “We are patriots; we love our country.”

Mira Sucharov is associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa. Follow her on Twitter: @sucharov

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